The Portland Van Abductions
In 2020, protests against police brutality were everywhere. So why did the federal government think the greatest threat to homeland security was in a midsize city known mostly for hipsters and passive aggression?
It was what had become a normal night for the summer of 2020 in Portland, Oregon. The city was now four months into the pandemic and two months into the ongoing protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
At this point, Mark and his friend Connor O’Shea — whom he knew from his job at Trader Joe’s — had made a habit of going regularly after work to protest at the Multnomah County Justice Center, a downtown building that houses a jail and the local district attorney’s office. It had been weeks — almost two months — of tear gas and flash-bangs. That was the new normal.
This evening had been violent, too. The city cops had shown up and made their usual show of force before retreating into the Justice Center. The feds had briefly popped out of the IRS building next door — possibly to arrest someone, it was never easy to tell in the chaos — but they had gone away quickly. This is what counted as a mostly quiet night.
Mark had gotten to know many of the other protesters, and the demonstrations themselves had come to be more than just an expression of conscience. The protests were a community, a physical space filled with people and crisscrossed with relationships; being at them sometimes involved getting tear gassed, and sometimes it involved hanging out and playing Frisbee.
But it was getting late, and the two friends were ready to turn in for the night. As they walked toward Connor’s car, a small cluster of protesters waved them over. “Did you hear? There are feds driving around picking people up in unmarked vans.”
Mark and Connor had already heard the rumors swirling around. But even in a summer where they had seen things they couldn’t believe, the idea of getting abducted still seemed unthinkable.
Then someone pointed down the street at a parked minivan. “Uh, excuse me,” they said. “Is that a fed?”
The group all turned to look. That was when a different van came roaring up to them from the other direction.
The doors slid open, and it only took a split second for Mark to process the men in camouflage and tactical gear before adrenaline kicked in. He and the rest of the group scattered in all directions.
Mark ran directly into traffic, almost getting hit by a Mustang that braked just in time. He had no time to react — he was sprinting as fast as he could. Who was chasing him? The men in military garb did not wear badges, insignia, or any identifying markers that Mark could see; the van was similarly unmarked. It was 2:30 in the morning, and Mark did not want to stop and find out.
His heart was pounding; the bile rising in his throat. He could hear footsteps behind him — he glanced over his shoulder and saw the man in camo fatigues hot on his heels. Mark tried to run faster, but he had never been athletic. An engine was revving somewhere nearby. When he turned the corner, there it was — the van — coming from the other direction. He was trapped.
Mark dropped to his knees and put his hands up. As they pulled him into the van, all he could say over and over again was, “Why?”
It’s not that Evelyn Bassi knows everyone in Portland; it’s just that sometimes it feels like she does.
“I’ve lived here my entire life,” says Evelyn, in an interview from her lawyer’s office in Chinatown, about twenty minutes’ walking distance from where she was snatched into a van. “I know so many people here in Portland that it’s literally hard for me to not throw a stone and hit somebody that I know. I could literally go downstairs right now and probably run into somebody I know.”
Maybe it’s her sociable nature, maybe it’s the many years she’s spent in the service industry working at different spots all over town. She was even a manager at novelty tourist trap Voodoo Doughnut before she started working as a cook elsewhere.
By the time the 2020 protests began, Evelyn was already having one of the worst years of her life. She had been working in the kitchen of an “awesome little vegan spot.” When the state began to shut down in response to the pandemic, she lost her job. Then, she lost her housing.
Before the pandemic, she had seen her son twice a week; now, she didn’t have a place for him to visit. It was a difficult and lonely time. Then the video of George Floyd’s murder shocked her conscience like it shocked millions of other Americans. For Evelyn — isolated, anxious, and missing her five-year-old — it had additional significance. Evelyn identifies as white, and her son is mixed race with Black heritage.
“Mentally I had been in lockdown for almost two months at that point,” Evelyn says. “And I was just, like, kind of losing my mind. And then all that happened, I lost my housing right as that was going on. So it was just like, ‘Okay, cool. I have nowhere to direct any of my energy. I might as well go back to my roots and go back to being on the streets and protesting.’”
She slept in her car and sometimes on friends’ couches. Some nights, Evelyn couldn’t make it out because she was trying to figure out where she was going to stay, but for the most part, she was out almost every night.
It was about one in the morning on July 15th when Evelyn first saw the van. She was with a friend — one of her countless former co-workers around town, whom she did not want to identify. Spooked, they began walking toward the waterfront, where there tended to be fewer people, if any.
It was clear the van was following them. The friend ran toward the waterfront, and Evelyn ran back toward the Multnomah County Justice Center, seeking safety in numbers.
This is where the viral video begins, in an uncannily desolate city intersection between the back of the federal courthouse and a Starbucks. The headlights of the van are a harsh note in the dim monotones of gray concrete and the brown particleboard that was often boarded up over windows in downtown buildings.
Two men, head-to-toe in camouflage, cross the street toward the camera. “What are you doing?” the person filming shouts and demands that the camouflaged men “use your words!”
The feds march up to Evelyn, who has her hands in the air and is backing up slowly, shaking her head and repeating, “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
They take her, put her hands behind her, and march her back across the street and into the waiting van.
The camera comes closer, and it’s clear that this is a civilian minivan — a gray Dodge Grand Caravan. There are no markings; it is the kind of car a dad rents on vacation and not so much the kind of vehicle that four men in tactical gear drive around in. “Oh, fuck,” someone says off camera, as if the incongruity of the van occurs to her at the same time it does to the viewer.
A few weeks earlier, President Donald Trump had issued Executive Order 13933, on “Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence.” It would be revoked less than a year later by President Joe Biden.
Today, it is a crystallization of what has since become standard Republican rhetoric. “Anarchists and left-wing extremists have sought to advance a fringe ideology that paints the United States of America as fundamentally unjust…” the executive order reads. Other objectionable ideologies include “Marxism,” which is defined as an ideology that calls “for the destruction of the United States system of government.” (This grammatically questionable phrasing is published verbatim in the Federal Register.)
EO 13933 explicitly names San Francisco and Boston as well as the cities of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Madison, Wisconsin. Seattle, Washington, seems to be implicitly mentioned in one paragraph that claims anarchists have “seized an area within one city where law and order gave way to anarchy” — a likely reference to the encampment known as the CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized Protest) or the CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone).
Portland does not make an appearance in Trump’s executive order, explicitly or implicitly. Over the coming months, the city would figure prominently in the histrionic screeds of the right-wing media. But at the start of the summer of 2020, Portland was, in one respect, the same as it had always been: severely overshadowed by Seattle.
As protests against police violence shook Seattle — as everywhere else — the police abandoned their East Precinct building. For a few weeks, a “police-free” zone flourished, a leaderless space where food, art, and even medical attention were doled out for free by volunteers. The festive atmosphere was maybe somewhat undercut by armed guards with AR-15s; anarchism is not necessarily nonviolent.
At its height, Seattle’s CHOP spanned six city blocks; Portland’s downtown protests stuck to an area of three park blocks. The CHOP became a city unto itself; Portland’s downtown occasionally blossomed into a small encampment, only to be brutally shut down shortly after. By late June, four people had been shot inside the CHOP, with two dead, while Portlanders were busy setting small fires inside garbage cans and playing Frisbee.
The simple fact was that Seattle was only a couple hours’ drive away. Whether you were a starry-eyed radical or a punk rock thrill-seeker, or some combination thereof, if you wanted to get in on the real action, you would head up to Seattle — a rule that had held true long before 2020.
All throughout the early summer, the president’s own Twitter remained focused on Seattle. Portland seems to make its first appearance on the national agenda in an internal Department of Homeland Security memo dated July 1st — five days after Trump signed EO 13933. The document, which contains talking points for the department’s public affairs officers, outlined how DHS intended to implement the executive order.
“In recent weeks rioters have defaced and torn down monuments and statues honoring some of the most important figures in our Nation’s storied history,” the memo reads, going on to enumerate a list of cities where monuments were torn down.
The very first bullet point cites statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in Portland. The next two bullets are examples from San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, DC — cities with significantly larger metropolitan footprints.
Portland’s high placement on the list suggests someone somewhere already had it out for the lesser Pacific Northwest city before shoehorning in a justification for “protecting federal monuments” — not least because neither statue is a federal monument.
The statue of Washington stood in front of the local German American Society; the statue of Jefferson was on the grounds of Jefferson High School. And both statues were over four miles away from the downtown federal buildings that were supposedly under siege on the other side of the Willamette River.
These statues were never central to Portland’s public life, but they did take up a lot of space on Twitter. On June 15th, The Daily Caller tweeted a clip of a crowd taking down the Jefferson statue that had been originally posted by a local TV reporter; it was reposted by Sean Hannity. A few days later, right-wing influencer Andy Ngo tweeted about the Washington statue, garnering over 10,000 retweets, including one from Laura Ingraham.
The justification for the federal invasion of Portland was always thin. Acts of vandalism at the local German American Society and a public high school in a minor metropolis do not constitute threats to homeland security.
Still, there is something to be said about the geography involved. The Multnomah County Justice Center is flanked on the north by a federal courthouse and on the south by an office building often referred to as “the IRS building.” (It houses multiple federal agencies.) The park blocks in front of these three buildings are where the protests gathered; the park block in front of the IRS building is federal property, but the other two belong to the city. When Portlanders convened to protest the city police, they would often — sometimes unknowingly — be on federal property.
Seattle’s CHOP did not have federal buildings next door. Federal buildings and a park block aren’t as rousing of a cause as statues are, but at least it’s any excuse at all. Two weeks after that DHS memo, men in camouflage snatched and grabbed Mark Pettibone and Evelyn Bassi off the streets of Portland.
Inside the van, Evelyn saw that they had removed the middle seats from the van. They seated her, cross-legged, on the floor. (“Not super safe,” she notes.)
There were four men in camouflage inside the van. As they drove around, they asked her questions — about her hair color, about a laser pointer that she didn’t own. They repeatedly misgendered her. (“Even though I was wearing a pin that said ‘she / her’ and a trans [flag] pin,” Evelyn says.)
In the moment, Evelyn had not seen the relatively small patches that read “POLICE” on the fronts of their camouflage. They looked like they were dressed to invade Iraq rather than a sidewalk crossing in front of Starbucks. Thoughts of her son were first and foremost in her mind. She didn’t know if she’d see him again.
After five or 10 minutes of turning and turning around — downtown Portland is lousy with one-way streets — they parked the car and had Evelyn put her hands on the roof of the van. One agent frisked her; one removed her black construction helmet.
“That’s not him,” an officer said. They showed Evelyn a grainy cellphone photo of someone they were apparently pursuing for committing “a federal offense,” based on their questioning, possibly for shining a laser pointer at a fed. Even with the bad resolution, Evelyn — who is a brunette — could see that the person in the photo was blond and wearing a gray skater helmet.
The agents let her go with a warning: “You know, bro, we have cameras everywhere.”
Mark was snatched later that night. The rumors that had been swirling around right before his own kidnapping may have come from the multiple people who had witnessed Evelyn’s abduction hours earlier.
It was dark inside the van, and he couldn’t see very well. The man next to him was holding Mark’s hands above his head and had pushed Mark’s beanie over his eyes. They were saying something to him while the radio was blaring in the background. He could gather that he had been detained by feds, but between trying to catch his breath and also not vomit everywhere, he was having trouble focusing on what was being said.
Mark wasn’t in the van for very long. When they took him out, he was finally able to move his hat back and saw that they were in a big garage with “militarized-looking vehicles,” a far cry from the rental minivan that he’d arrived in.
The feds walked him over to a garage wall and had him stand against it. They briefly conferred with each other as to whether they should seize his backpack now, before deciding they should first take pictures of him with all of his things: his bag, his beanie, his mask, his respirator. After taking a few photos from different angles, they led him to an elevator.
One of the feds struggled with the passcode on the elevator, cracking a joke about getting it right on the first try. There was something particularly strange, Mark thought, about how nonchalant they seemed about this whole affair when it was “one of the craziest experiences that I have ever gone through in my life.”
The elevator went up, and they came out into a hallway lit with fluorescent lights — so sterile and generic that it felt dreamlike. They dumped the contents of Mark’s backpack on the floor. One of them pointed out the inhaler — Mark has asthma — and took a note of it. They patted him down and took his belt, shoes, and socks. He was cuffed and shackled and placed in a cell.
An officer came to read him his rights. They asked if he would waive his rights in order to answer some questions. Mark, whose father is a lawyer, refused. When he said he wanted an attorney, the officer terminated the interview and walked away, leaving Mark alone with his thoughts.
They still hadn’t identified themselves, but at this point, Mark was sure they were feds. This wasn’t exactly amateur hour, and in any case, they were wearing pants similar to what he’d seen feds wear out in the street.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, I am arrested for God knows what, and you know, this is the federal government that’s arrested me. So I’m fucked. Even though there is nothing I should be worried about in terms of anything that I did in the streets. Um, but here I am, uh, in a cell by myself.’” He laughs, recounting the harrowing experience. “So yeah, I was trying very hard to keep my cool and to just take it as it came at this point.”
Time passed. Do I get a phone call? he wondered. What am I going to tell my parents? Then, Mark heard someone else being brought in and the sound of a cell opening. “Do you remember the number for the NLG?” Mark shouted down the hallway, referring to the National Lawyers Guild, an organization that provides legal assistance for protestors. The other detainee answered in the negative, so Mark — who had the hotline number memorized — blurted it out. The other detainee asked him to repeat it, and he said it again.
They chatted briefly, despite the fact that they couldn’t see each other. His fellow prisoner was mostly unhurt but had a “fucked-up” arm and wrist.
The officers returned to Mark’s cell to ask him if he needed his inhaler. They brought him his socks and his shoes, but since they left him cuffed and shackled, putting his shoes back on was a tricky operation. He waited a little longer — it felt like an hour, though without a watch or a clock, Mark couldn’t be sure — until someone came back to tell him that he was free to go.
The other detainee was being released at the same time, and they saw each other’s faces for the first time in the hallway outside. The other turned out to be a small, nondescript brunette, who, despite their short stature, was “much more, uh, bold in talking shit.” (Mark did not want to identify the person’s gender, concerned he may get their pronouns wrong.)
The feds — dressed in normal street clothes now except for camo pants — escorted the pair down the elevator and out again. “See, not all cops are bastards,” one of them said.
“Well, I’m a bastard,” the other one laughed.
The feds took off their shackles and cuffs and handed them back their belongings in trash bags. The corridor to the exit was pitch-black. Mark stopped to get on the ground and search through his trash bag to make sure everything was there: wallet, phone, keys. When he was done, a fed opened the exit door and dumped them back onto the street.
And there it was again: the muted browns and grays of downtown Portland at night, the warm summer air, the sound of a few protesters still chanting. There were people out on the street — but he didn’t recognize anyone.
How the hell am I getting home? Mark wondered.
He ended up calling a friend to beg for a ride home, using the nearest Chipotle as a convenient landmark. His friends had been waiting for him to call, it turned out. Connor, who had managed to evade capture by hiding in the bushes — (“lucky bastard,” Mark says) — had witnessed the abduction and had gotten the word out.
The video of Evelyn’s arrest went viral on social media; the account of Mark’s arrest first broke on Oregon Public Broadcasting and was rereported in the national news.
The men who took Mark and Evelyn did not identify themselves as federal law enforcement. There are no publicly known records of their arrest or detention. To this day, it’s unclear who took them — what agency they were from, let alone what their names were.
Two days after the fact, Customs and Border Protection issued a confusing statement justifying an arrest they had made. “CBP agents had information indicating the person in the video was suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property,” the statement said. “Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location. For everyone’s safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning.” The statement doesn’t match up at all with Mark’s arrest and only vaguely fits with the contours of Evelyn’s arrest.
Did Border Patrol take both Mark and Evelyn? On the other hand, Mark had been detained inside the federal courthouse — was the US Marshals Service involved? An inspector general report found that CBP, ICE, Homeland Security Investigations, the Secret Service, and the Federal Protective Service had all been involved in the federal response in Portland in an operation that cost over $12 million. It’s unclear who is specifically to blame for the vans. Over the coming days, the feds would only ever identify themselves as the Federal Protective Service — an organization under DHS that provides building security — over a loudspeaker, right before gassing the crowd.
Usually, building security doesn’t go around snatching people into vans.
As the news of the van abductions spread, the Portland protests would metastasize. The crowd had dwindled to under a hundred in early July; by July 20th, thousands had taken to the streets. The new protesters tended to be older and more staid than the ones they were joining. They didn’t necessarily believe in abolition or the defunding of the police, but they hated Trump with a passion, and more to the point, they were outraged about the vans.
The ranks of the feds swelled as well, with officers from different agencies being imported from out of town, bringing with them, it seemed, a staggering hoard of tear gas and pepper balls.
“The protests are feeding off their presence,” a former DHS official told The New York Times later that month, proving that there was at least one fed who recognized the obvious truth about the federal occupation. But cooler heads did not prevail.
The Wall of Moms showed up on July 18th — women who were overwhelmingly white and frequently from the suburbs. A smaller contingent of Dads showed up a few days later. The Wall of Vets followed on July 24th. The Moms wore yellow, the Dads wore orange, and the veterans wore white. The legal observers from the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild wore bright blue and toxic green, respectively; these intentional splashes of color cemented black as the default color of protest.
Both Evelyn and Mark stayed away from the protests for a few days, shaken by their ordeals. But they came back out in time to see the protests at their height, the downtown park blocks packed with newly furious Portlanders.
Night after night, the feds gassed the crowds, blanketing the park blocks with clouds of spicy fog and kicking off an arms race between them and the protesters. People started off with bandannas and paintball glasses before graduating to swim goggles and, finally, to respirators or full-face gas masks. Homemade shields proliferated. Protesters used umbrellas to deflect projectiles; an athletic few showed up with lacrosse sticks so they could catch gas canisters and hurl them right back. Some orange-clad Dads leaned into the stereotype and carried leaf blowers that blew tear gas right back at the feds.
It’s plausible that no city in America would have accepted the treatment that DHS was doling out; but at the same time, it was singularly foolish to try to beat Portlanders in games of spiteful masochism. The out-of-town feds, in particular, never seemed to grasp the depths of passive aggression the city was capable of. A handful of protesters began coming with trash pickers and cleaning the streets and grass while the others chanted, shouted, or threw things. During their brutal sweeps forward, the feds would ignore the trash picker protesters and walk past them, according to one of those protesters. The local police, on the other hand, understood perfectly well that they were being insulted, and brutalized the trash pickers just as hard as anyone else.
Local news stations that had previously carried alarmist stories about statue desecration and broken windows were now running stories about moms and veterans getting beaten and gassed. The federal invasion dragged out for longer than seemed possible but ended as all futile occupations must end: with ignominious retreat. On July 29th, Governor Kate Brown announced a “phased withdrawal” of federal forces.
The protests were far from over, but the focus returned to the local police and abolition — causes that did not sustain as widespread appeal as drumming the feds out of Portland. In short, the feds had done the exact opposite of quelling the protests, and their departure ended up being the most effective crowd control they ever tried.
In many ways, the feds’ sudden focus on Portland made no sense; in other ways, it seems all but inevitable. Starting in 2017, Portland had become the site of a long series of mass altercations between right-wing groups that regularly paraded in from out of town and their left-wing opposition. The former are often lumped under the term “alt-right,” the latter under “antifa” (a German shortening of the original organization’s unwieldy name, “Antifaschistische Aktion”).
These brawls were sometimes dubbed “rallies,” “protests,” or “counter-protests.” The right-wingers came wearing body armor and other tactical gear. The events broke out into fistfights and worse. Sometimes they were very silly, sometimes they were very dangerous, and often they were both. In 2018, right-wing combatants beat their anti-fascist opponents using flag poles; a few months later, the police said they discovered right-wing protesters with a cache of long guns in a downtown Portland parking garage. The next year, anti-fascists threw milkshakes at their adversaries, leading to rumors that the milkshakes were made with cement. By 2020, right-wingers began to attack “antifa” with pipe bombs and improvised explosives.
Before January 6th, 2021, it was often hard to explain to outsiders the exact mix of terror and farce that accompanied these clashes. But now, many of the ringleaders of these Portland incursions — Enrique Tarrio, Joe Biggs, and Ethan Nordean — have since been indicted for sedition in connection with the Capitol insurrection. Groups that terrorized Portland — Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters — have become household names. The weirdness of the Portland brawls belongs to the entire nation now.
Evelyn Bassi was part of the local anti-fascist reaction from the beginning. She had come out as trans in 2016, and the rise of Trump and the alt-right felt personal.
In May 2017, Jeremy Christian harassed two Black girls — one of them wearing hijab — on a Portland train. When bystanders intervened, he stabbed three men, killing two. Christian, it turned out, had been a participant in a right-wing “free speech rally” a month earlier, shouting slurs and making Sieg Heil salutes. After the murders, he was disavowed by right-wing organizers. Nevertheless, a little over a week later, the same groups descended on Portland yet again. The alt-right action was met with an anti-fascist reaction, which was, in turn, met with police suppression. Over 100 people were detained in the downtown park blocks in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center — the same park blocks that would eventually become the nexus of Portland’s 2020 infamy.
Evelyn was one of those people caught in the kettle. When the George Floyd protests erupted, she returned to the park blocks, sensing that the action would be there yet again.
There are meaningful differences between the local cops, the feds, and the Proud Boys. But after so many years in which these parties have upheld each other’s interests, the federal invasion of Portland seemed less like a bizarre fluke and more like an intentional Trumpist overture to his most violent constituents.
In the video where Evelyn is snatched off the streets and into the Dodge Grand Caravan, she is dressed in black, looking halfway like a Fox News fever dream. Her pronoun pins are on her beanie, which is under her construction helmet. Her graphic tee reads “GOD IS DEAD.” A large silver carabiner dangles from the strap of her messenger bag. If it weren’t for the construction helmet or the pandemic face mask, she’d look right at home at a grungy music venue or as an extra in Portlandia. The sight of federal officers in camouflage taking her away is ridiculous; at the same time, she is also the perfect encapsulation of everything the right wing hates, fears, and wishes to crush with force.
In his own way, Mark Pettibone, too, is a right-wing bogeyman. “I don’t know if I should even say this with what’s going on in the world right now,” says Mark ruefully. “But I took a critical race theory class at Reed, and that was a really impactful class on me.”
In the intervening years, “critical race theory” has come to mean many things — at its most expansive, it is a catchall for accurate American history pertaining to race and slavery — but Mark is referring to its most narrow meaning: a niche subset of legal scholarship beginning in the 1980s.
The class — which was run partly out of the legal studies department — began with reading Derrick Bell. Over the course of the semester, Mark read a good deal about American history and how racism functions in America. These were big, broad ideas about systemic harm that changed how he saw everything around him.
But these ideas were abstract, almost necessarily so. Watching George Floyd die while pressed under Derek Chauvin’s knee was seeing something — even if intermediated through a screen — that was “so much more real.”
Like millions of other Americans, Mark turned out for the protests. Police brutality in Minneapolis brought him out; the police brutality he witnessed on Portland’s streets kept him coming back. “If I hadn’t been radicalized at Reed College, I certainly had been by the time I had gone out into the street, as many times as I did, and seen the things that I saw.”
On many nights, his shift at Trader Joe’s would end at 10PM, and he would go from work to the protests. “I was glued to live feeds if I wasn’t out there,” Mark says. “I did feel a deep sense of guilt if something was happening and I wasn’t out on the street as well.”
The protests took over his thoughts and pervaded his day-to-day conversations with friends and family. He felt like he couldn’t relate to people who weren’t out there with him. The world had shrunk down to the size of the park blocks.
The van abduction is what burst the bubble. After OPB published the account of his abduction using his real name, strangers began to call Trader Joe’s; they called him and his parents and his brother; they sent him weird and unhinged messages on social media.
Mark had trouble sleeping. He was jumpy at the sight of vans and was descending into a rather understandable spiral of paranoia. “I have a picture here of a guy on a motorcycle that’s outside my house,” he says on the phone, while flipping through photos from this period in his life. He chuckles nervously, remembering exactly how freaked out he was.
He had become a magnet for creeps, but his arrest had also become a cause célèbre. He was interviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR; the ACLU of Oregon asked him to become a plaintiff in a lawsuit; Rep. Jamie Raskin invited him to speak at an Oversight Committee roundtable on the DHS’s overreach in Portland. All this attention felt important to him. And it certainly didn’t hurt that this kind of liberal institutional support had gotten his parents to ease up on their initial disapproval.
But it had also somehow spoiled something that he had held very dear. For months, the protests had become his entire world — the shared experience of police brutality intermingled with camaraderie and gentle moments of Frisbee in the park — and it was no longer a world he could feel a part of. Before the abduction, he says, “There was a sense of … I don’t know how to explain it. It was despair, but also joyful, and communal and spontaneous and heavy and light, all of these things. After what had happened to me, it was just the heavy.” His voice falters on the phone. He sounds wistful, almost grieving. “It wasn’t… it lost that… I guess… more… joyful experience? I don’t know. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
He went out to the protests twice more and then stopped. “I don’t think I had to let it affect me that way,” he says. But he was also tired — there had been about 50 days of protest before the feds grabbed him. The van abduction was just the final straw.
Mark offers multiple explanations fluidly, examining possible unconscious motives behind his own narrative. (This is perhaps the inevitable outcome of writing a master’s thesis on James Joyce.) “I maybe justified not going out there by telling myself that now my role was to sue Donald Trump and Chad Wolf and DHS.”
When the feds retreated, the right-wing extremists moved in, and the old brawls were back in force. But this time, the anti-fascists — battle-hardened and traumatized by the federal occupation — were tougher than the right-wing militias remembered. They brought their gas masks and helmets; they formed lines with their umbrellas; they dug their feet into the concrete and braced for impact like they had done for weeks on end.
The right-wing militants — armed with bear mace and batons and paintball guns, their faces wrapped in nylon printed with the American flag — could only imperfectly fill the gap left by the feds. But after a couple of preliminary clashes, they began to escalate their tactics. Some started bringing real guns to wave, aim, and even fire at their perceived enemies.
On August 8th, someone threw pipe bombs at left-wing protestors at Laurelhurst Park, a park in a residential area about three miles from downtown. A former Navy SEAL — who had recently been posting unhinged screeds about antifa — was identified as a “person of interest,” but no charges were brought.
On August 22nd, hundreds clashed in downtown Portland. Which side was the protest and which side was the counter-protest is an entirely academic question; either way, a swarm of out-of-towners clad in “Blue Lives Matter” shirts and carrying plywood shields painted with QAnon slogans descended on the city for a “Say No to Marxism in America” rally. There were Trumpists on motorbikes decked with Thin Blue Line flags; mirroring them was a parade of leftists on bicycles, looking like a slower and less organized Critical Mass.
They formed battle lines outside the Multnomah County Justice Center: the right-wingers in front of the building, the leftists in the park. A single lane of the street in between became a kind of DMZ, where combatants broke ranks to scream in each other’s faces.
Both sides chucked eggs and rocks and water bottles at each other. They sprayed Super Soakers and silly string; they shot paintballs and tossed smoke grenades.
The battle lines eventually collapsed into mayhem and an outright brawl. People screamed, threw punches, and kicked at their opponents when they were on the ground. And as though reenacting a sickly approximation of the federal invasion, right-wing militants sprayed bear mace indiscriminately, ochre brown clouds descending on the park blocks yet again. They gleefully swung baseball bats and batons. (One baton-wielder broke journalist Robert Evans’ hand.) Many had hammered nails through their plywood shields; at least one struck a leftist with it.
Then, over the loudspeaker, came an announcement from the Portland Police Bureau. Usually, the local cops turned on the loudspeaker to declare a riot right before moving in with tear gas. But this time, they were here to deliver a message that no one had ever heard before, one in which they declared that their “priorities remain the preservation of life and safety and the protection of everyone’s First Amendment right to speech and assembly.”
Evelyn was kneeling behind a line of shields when she saw the explosive roll by her feet. She turned her body to shield her friend. There was smoke, there was light, then a loud explosion that shook her bones — searing, excruciating pain.
The explosive tore through her clothes and burned the skin off the right side of her rib cage and the inside of her arm. Her friend was also hit on his arm, but Evelyn took the brunt of the blast. She went into shock almost immediately. Barely aware of the extent of her injuries, she retreated to safety, looking for a protest medic. She only found out how badly she had been hurt later when someone sent her a picture of her wounds. (Evelyn says the explosive seems to have been an airsoft grenade that had been modified — “airsoft grenades are not supposed to hurt that hard.”)
As others took care of Evelyn, the cluster of leftists remained mostly in formation. Explosions, smoke, screaming, abject terror — what else was new? They were fighting the same old war; their adversaries were just wearing shittier camo.
Because she had left the scene, Evelyn would miss out on seeing a firework — hurtling this time in the other direction, toward the right-wingers. It seemingly missed them, but the explosion still managed to break their lines and begin a stampede.
It was a total rout.
As the Trumpists scattered or pressed themselves against the Justice Center, a handful ran to the IRS building — one of the federal buildings that camouflaged troopers had shot, beaten, gassed, and arrested protesters for standing near. They sheltered in the awning in front of and amid armed and uniformed feds. They rinsed their eyes with their backs to the feds; they stood right in the middle of these armed men, looking completely at ease. At least one of the men who sheltered there was Alan Swinney, a self-proclaimed Proud Boy. He was openly carrying what appeared to be a knife and a handgun; he would later be sentenced to 10 years in prison, partly for his actions on that day.
When the Trumpists left, it was like a storm had passed. The sun was shining on the park blocks: for a brief moment, it was just a bunch of Portlanders hanging out in the park on a beautiful summer day. It would have been a great afternoon for a little bit of Frisbee.
Then an unlawful assembly was declared, and the Federal Protective Service cleared the park.
While Evelyn was still recovering, waiting for her skin graft, Patriot Prayer cruised through town again, wielding bear mace and paintball guns. In the ensuing clash, Michael Reinoehl — a man who openly identified as antifa and had a black fist tattoo on his neck — shot Aaron “Jay” Danielson dead on the street, four blocks away from the park blocks.
A manhunt across state lines ensued. Days later, Reinoehl was shot dead outside an apartment complex by a posse of deputized US marshals. A later audit showed that every member of the party had fired their weapons except for, it seemed, the actual US Marshal.
Meanwhile, in Portland, as Evelyn went in for surgery, smoke was darkening the sky. In the end, it was not the cops or the feds or the right-wing militias that would end the Portland protests. As wildfires swept Oregon, even the hotheads of Portland — who love trees almost as much as they hate windows — could agree it was irresponsible to throw fireworks at cops.
Most protesters just went home, but some turned their energy to providing aid for wildfire refugees. For these efforts, they were rewarded with viral right-wing rumors that antifa was starting forest fires. In the countryside, militia would set up armed checkpoints on the roads, determined to catch their enemies in the act.
The fire covered over a million acres, requiring the evacuation of tens of thousands of Oregonians. Seventeen people died. The flames crept within 20 miles of Portland. The air became barely breathable — strangely thick and spicy, to be accompanied by a brutal headache. The privileged ran their air purifiers to no avail, and the have-nots taped HEPA filters to box fans, also to no avail.
Over Portland, the sky turned a toxic orange color; blankets of brown-gray fog lapped at the windows — a cursed end to a cursed summer.
While in the throes of a media storm, Mark got a message from an unexpected quarter. His old friend Holly had heard his interview on NPR, and listening to his voice had made her realize she had feelings for him.
She came up to Portland to visit, and their relationship blossomed from there. By October, she convinced him to move back to Arizona with her. Mark didn’t want to leave Portland, but her arguments made sense. (Her job is based in Arizona; Mark could, and did, apply for a regional transfer.)
He had grown up in Arizona, but returning to it felt different, somehow. “The first thing I noticed was the amount of giant trucks with Blue Lives Matter or Trump flags,” Mark says. “Just stuff that, if you saw in Portland, it would be a big deal. You’d point it out to your group of friends, especially at a protest, like, ‘Welp, we gotta be on the lookout for potential violence.’”
He may have left Portland, but he hadn’t and maybe couldn’t leave the summer of 2020 behind. His new job as a union rep puts him in contact with people from all across the spectrum — he supports them regardless of political affiliation. But he always wonders whether they’ll search his name on Google and how they’re going to react when they find out he is “this Portland person who was detained by feds that Trump sent in.”
Back in Portland, restaurants are open for dining again. With the economy teetering, Evelyn is in and out of work, cooking in kitchens when she can. The summer of 2020 lingers with her, too. The hiss of the deep fryer reminds her of the IED that seared her skin. She thinks about what happened every time she drives past Second and Main — the intersection where she was taken. It’s been two years, and she still has trouble sleeping at night. She’s hypervigilant around others. She takes medication for her nightmares.
All around, Portlanders do their best to forget 2020. The rain has since washed away the remnants of tear gas into the Willamette. The particleboard has been pried away from the windows. The murals and graffiti are painted over. Businesses reopen; many shut down for good. Some people go back to their jobs; others move out of the city.
Evelyn isn’t going anywhere because her son is here — and even if it were an option, she wouldn’t want to leave. “It’s a gorgeous fucking city.” She likes the trees, the hiking, the robust public transit. She likes that the community is, in general, supportive of queer and trans rights. (Portland has the second-highest percentage of same-sex households in the US.) “I’ve got everything I need right here,” she says. (We ask Evelyn if she’s lived anywhere else; she hasn’t.)
She knows about Oregon’s history as a white supremacist state; she knows better than most how that legacy lingers outside of city limits. Still, didn’t the Moms and Dads rally in support after Evelyn was kidnapped? Didn’t the whole city rise up and fight when faced with historic federal overreach? And moreover, this midsize Pacific Northwest city — the butt of countless jokes about passive aggression, bad weather, and whiteness — had won.
Proudly, confidently, Evelyn says, “I’m Portland until I die.”