Words and photos by an Onward Woman contributor who wishes to remain anonymous so as to keep the focus on #blklivesmatter.
This is about my experience participating in the Wall of Moms for Black Lives Matter in Portland, Oregon. A few family members asked me about it, so I typed up my thoughts and shared them. There’s been a lot of misinformation in the media, so I wanted to share a first-hand account.
After driving two hours, I arrived in Portland at about 7:30 PM on Saturday night. It looked so different from how it had been on my birthday just four months earlier. There was barely anybody on the streets and many of the businesses had been boarded up. Also, there were about twice as many tents. I have previously traveled alone in Portland, many times. But this just felt weird.
I felt better when I spotted a woman wearing yellow on her way to the meetup spot, Salmon Street Fountain. At the fountain, there was a memorial for many of the black lives that had been lost to police violence.
I agree with the Black Lives Matter movement, but I have felt like there was little I personally could contribute. I vote and I give money to political campaigns that support reform. But I also live in a very white town in a very white state. I do not know the answers, I do not feel I have enough knowledge to know what should be done. But I know something needs to change. And being part of a wall of moms was something I could do.
I arrived at the fountain at about 8:30 PM. It was somewhat bizarre hearing moms casually talk about best home-made remedies to counteract tear gas and pepper spray. The tone was the same as if they were exchanging recipes. They handed out wipes in ziplock bags as well as bottled water. I brought my yellow shirt, but I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to put it on or not. There wasn’t any formal check-in that I could see.
As I looked around, I was inspired by the age range of people that showed up. Some in their 70’s. There was even a ‘Grandpas against Trump’ group. I didn’t bring a poster but I was given one to hold as we marched.
A little after 9 PM we marched and chanted as we made our way to the courthouse. I put on my yellow shirt at this time, but the Moms were only a small part of the group that marched. There were also a bunch of educators that wore red shirts. But most people didn’t wear any shirts that identified them as part of a group within BLM.
We stayed at the courthouse for a little while with the other protesters, then the Moms all headed back to the fountain to regroup. Some of them went to the Marriott Hotel to protest – the hotel was where the feds were rumored to be staying.
Around 10:15 PM or so, we walked back to the courthouse and put on our protective gear. One mom was passing out ear protection, and others were passing around sharpies to write a lawyer’s number on our forearms.
About 10:50, the main outdoor lights of the courthouse were turned off. A bunch of very large men in tactical gear wearing rifles marched out. I don’t know really anything about firearms; I can’t tell what is considered a live vs. ‘less than lethal’ round. It was extremely intimidating.
At this point, I noticed the other moms wearing their backpacks in front of their bodies, -in anticipation of getting shot. Also, they asked for all the moms to check in with there phones (I assumed it was a call to check in on Facebook). You could tell by the body language of the Feds that they were just waiting to get this show going. With my arms linked with the other moms’, I stood about 12 feet in front of a large man with a gun. There was only a flimsy fence between us.
The crowd shouted for them to go away. ‘Feds go home!’ And it felt like less than five minutes went by before I heard gunfire. Early on, one of the mom’s got hurt when she was shot in the face, but luckily she was wearing goggles. Protesters started throwing something that looked like smoke bombs over the fence. I think they were the tear gas canisters or pepper bombs that were thrown at the protesters first – they were throwing them back. Then, a few of the protesters started lighting fireworks – big ones that would normally go off in the sky. Sometimes the fireworks made it over the fence and to the empty space behind the feds, but sometimes they would go off in the crowd and sparks would fly near my feet.
I don’t scare easily. I am usually comfortable traveling alone, and even when bad things happen, I usually get out of them okay. I can’t remember the last time I felt afraid. But here? I was terrified. It was a deep bodily fear that I could be irreparably damaged. It was a horrible realization that these large faceless men would not hesitate to hurt me.
I have never feared men in uniforms before, and that is a luxury so many people don’t have. There were no names or numbers that identified the Feds as individuals. There would be absolutely no accountability for their actions tonight.
As I learned later, these men were not soldiers. They were not persons who had taken a vow to protect the US constitution. These were highly-paid military contractors. A taxpayer-funded militia placed there to intimidate and suppress peaceful protestors.
I was shaking as I held the arms of the other moms. I think their arms were shaking too, but I couldn’t say for sure. As things escalated, a ‘wall of vets’ came to stand in front of us. The man who stood in front of me was at least a head taller than I was. I only saw his back, never his face.
After a few minutes, Leaf Blower-man soon stood in front of me to blow the smoke away, but soon there was just too much. I heard the other moms start heavily coughing, then the next thing I knew I was being dragged backward.
My respirator and goggles were preventing me from feeling the effects of the smoke. But as the moms fell back, the movement of walking broke the goggle’s seal around my eyes. About 50 feet away from the courthouse my eyes started to sting, then they started to water and burn.
We were on the other side of the park when I let go of the other mom’s arm. At this point, it finally sunk in that we had been gassed. I know it should have been obvious, but part of me was in denial. My nose started to run profusely, but I didn’t want to take off the respirator in a large dense crowd of coughing people. It was hard to see with my burning eyes, but I walked another two blocks before I swapped the now gross respirator for my cloth mask.
As I walked away from the courthouse, I saw many helpers. People who were trying to make a clear path for injured people, or giving aid to those with bad reactions to the gas. Although my eyes still stung, my natural tears were flowing and flushing the chemical out of my eye. I had some milk that I had brought with me for my eyes, but I didn’t need to use it.
I boarded the MAX a little before midnight. There were two other yellow-shirted moms on the train. One was 70. Both had plans to come back.
It was both a terrifying and empowering experience. At this one moment in time, I got to see the best and the worst in people. I got to stand in line with amazing mamas who were just as scared as I was. We were there because voices needed to be heard, even if they weren’t our voices. Most of us were white, and perhaps we used our privilege as a shield. But it gave us something we COULD do. Social change requires all manner of actors. Some can talk at a podium, some can organize marches, some can donate to campaigns, some can talk or write to challenge people’s viewpoints and attack the status quo.
I’m not a confrontational person by nature. I am soft-spoken and I often struggle for my voice to carry. But just being a piece of the wall of moms, even just for the night, has given me hope. My eyes still hurt today, but I’m glad I went.
As terrifying as it was, I would do it again.