PORTLAND — In this city’s Black Lives Matter movement, Mason Lake would appear to have formidable credentials. He is an accomplished videographer who has chronicled key movements of the federal crackdowns against federal courthouse protesters and filed a lawsuit against the Portland police after being struck by a projectile May 31 that caused him to lose feeling in his arm.
That résumé did not stop him from being labeled an informant in an online campaign to discredit him that he said led to more than 100 threats of violence and death over social media and his cellphone.
Then came the physical attacks.
Early last Friday as he took video of a protest, someone yelled “snitch” and punched him in the head eight to 10 times in an assault captured by another videographer. Fortunately, he was wearing a helmet and the blows didn’t cause much harm.
Undaunted, he returned the next evening to the protests in front of the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse. After midnight, near the Riot Ribs station that has been offering free food, he was attacked by several men in black hoodies. He said one of them grabbed him from behind in a chokehold. He was taken down to the ground and beaten.
“My memory gets shaky. When I came to, there was a medic in my face saying I need an ambulance,” Lake said. “Everything said about me was lies. I never worked with the police and willingly supplied video to them. I am an ally of the Black Lives movement.”
The assault comes at a time when others trying to video, photograph and report on the protests in Seattle are facing increased hostility from some participants, as well as social media accusations of acting as law enforcement informants.
In Portland, Lake’s experience reflects an uglier side to the protest movement that — after 60 days — has unfolded into a kind of choreographed spectacle as protesters send fireworks slamming up against the federal courthouse and try to tear down fencing that has frequently surrounded it.
This inevitably triggers a powerful federal response that includes, night after night, staggering amounts of tear gas and dangerous less-than-lethal projectiles that have seriously wounded protesters, including some sent to the hospital in recent days with serious head, neck and other injuries. The protesters’ numbers have varied. Crowds dwindled in the weeks prior to President Donald Trump’s sending in federal reinforcements, then surged into the thousands as federal conduct triggered a backlash, and on Monday — after huge Friday and Saturday turnouts — declined sharply.
Trump is expected to send more federal law enforcement agents to Portland this week, according to The Washington Post and Oregon Public Broadcasting. Meanwhile, the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, has called for cease-fire talks.
Through these tumultuous nights, there are plenty of courageous, photogenic acts by veterans, fathers and mothers standing up to the federal agents clad in paramilitary garb.
Yet a shared contempt for the Trump administration is not enough to bring harmony to all the disparate forces that have come together in the streets and parks of Portland. Among some Black people, including those who pride themselves on being militant opponents of police brutality, there is anger and frustration about a movement where some anarchists, many of whom are white and dressed in black and masked to avoid being identified, push an agenda that includes arson and vandalism in an uprising they see as the best hope for launching a sweeping restructuring of America’s capitalist society.
There also is an ongoing debate over tactics.
If the focus is to get the “feds to go home,” a chant repeated each night, what is the best way to achieve that goal? Do you try to tear down the courthouse fence each night and provoke a disproportionate response from the federal forces, or — as some advocate — do you stand back from the courthouse and try to rob the Trump administration of the pretext for being in Portland?
“We are trying to do peaceful protest … but they are not going to leave it alone,” said Roy Meadows, a 59-year old Black man who describes himself as “temporarily homeless” and who has attended some of the nightly protests.
Meadows also rejects the notion that Portland has become the center of the Black Lives protests. Instead, he sees the focus shifting in a different direction as militants grab the world’s attention in fighting deep into the night what they view as a fascist regime.
“It’s not about Black Lives Matter; quit saying that. That is a bad joke,” Meadows said.
Unruly protest camp scenes
Meadows spoke early Monday afternoon, as a fierce heat wave caused temperatures to soar at Lownsdale Square, a tree-shaded city park that in recent weeks has been transformed into a kind of nerve center for the protests targeting the courthouse, which sits just to the east. There’s a smorgasbord of free grilled meats. Other booths offer energy bars and other types of supplies for protesters.
Early in the day, the park, which now has more than 15 tents, is relatively quiet. But this has sometimes drawn a volatile mix of people including activists, homeless people and others attracted to the protest scene.
Late Sunday afternoon, a woman was seen running away from a man who tackled her and began to pummel her. People pulled the man away, but he was still able to throw more punches at her head as she walked back across the square and angrily stalked off into the city.
Other problems surfaced on Monday as Riot Ribs, the group that had been serving free food, announced via Twitter that it was dissolving.
“We have someone who is trying to profit off of our movement who continues to volunteer in the park, pretending he’s involved with Riot Ribs.” Another tweet said, “things are not safe right now,” and asked “all volunteers to leave the park.”
Lavatory sanitation, amid the coronavirus pandemic, has been another trouble spot.
The public men’s bathroom on Saturday evening emitted a horrible stench, each toilet bowl jammed to the brim with feces. On Monday, city parks workers gave it a remarkably thorough cleaning. Their labor got high praise from Meadows, who hoped that it would not be trashed soon again.
Other crews are engaged in the Sisyphean task of removing graffiti.
Next to the courthouse, Dan Freeland, owner of Hydropower Wash, was finishing up another day of removing graffiti from the Multnomah County Justice Center. He uses an $80-a-gallon, citrus-based compound to clean brick and stone, then follows up with a power washing. He says the daily cost for his labor and supplies ranges from $1,000 on a mild graffiti day to more than $2,000, in a job that has been ongoing for weeks.
“Just yesterday [Sunday], I had to work 12 hours and use at least 15 gallons of product,” Freeland said.
Even as that work unfolded, a daytime protester already was painting yellow-lettered graffiti on concrete barriers in front of the federal courthouse.
She calls herself Luna, a Black activist and mother of a 7-year-old daughter.
She has frequently been in the streets to protest against the police and right wing groups such as the Proud Boys, who have come to Portland to brawl in recent years past. She has intense dedication to the current protests. At 5:30 a.m. last Saturday, Luna — who declined to give her full name — gathered empty tear gas canisters and projectile casings near the courthouse as part of an effort by activists to investigate the kinds of munitions deployed by federal agents.
Luna says she has been harassed by white activists, some affiliated with the Youth Liberation Front, who feel her approach, which calls for big changes but not burning things down, is not sufficiently militant.
Luna said she followed the Youth Liberation Front actions for some two years, and even fed some of these activists doughnuts during a protest at Mayor Wheeler’s house. That has failed to sustain their support for her and some other Black activists.
“I have seen them out here getting into it with Black folks. And it’s like, ‘This is not your movement. You’re down here to support me. Don’t try to and silence what I have to say,’ ” Luna said.
“We can’t abolish everything right away. We cannot, like, that’s going to take time. It’s going to take work.”
Luna says an intense social-media campaign against her began earlier this month after she raised her profile by speaking at a federal courthouse rally and protest.
“I’m still dealing with the aftermath,” Luna said. “People on Twitter really had me feeling like I was ready to commit suicide. That’s how bad the bullying was.”
Healing from an attack
Since late May, Lake, the videographer, has been a regular at the Portland protests.
He wields a high quality Canon video camera to record what’s happening. He does not offer livestreams that could be monitored by law enforcement.
He captured one video of federal officers in an unmarked van picking up a protester. Another viral video showed Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents attacking a protester in mid-July, garnering some 2 million views, according to Lake.
The effort to discredit Lake began after the ICE agents video gained so much attention. Lake is unsure whether the campaign to accuse him of being an informant started from someone on the right seeking to undermine his work, or someone on the left.
Lake, 32, who makes a living from freelance photography, received an avalanche of threatening messages accusing him of cooperating with law enforcement. This was a scary, painful time for a man who has embraced the national wave of protests after George Floyd’s killing as a key moment for change in this nation, and has sought to chronicle this part of history in Portland.
In the hospital, Lake said he was interviewed by police about the attack. He didn’t give them detailed information or press charges.
“I didn’t want to work with the police. It would just damn me more,” Lake said. “I would like us to show this is something we can settle ourselves.”
Lake is healing from two black eyes, and has taken time off from the protests. He is unsure when he will return.