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Donald Trump's Portland Rhetoric Doesn't Match Reality

The right-wing media portrays a city under siege — but the city's real siege is from the federal government.

Posted on July 21, 2020, at 1:48 p.m. ET

Man walks down the stairs of a house with the words "stop Trump" painted on it.
Noah Berger / AP Photo

A worker, who declined to give his name, leaves a Portland, Ore., home that features a "STOP TRUMP" sign on Monday, July 20, 2020.

During a Fox News interview on Sunday, President Donald Trump painted an alarming picture of anti–police brutality protests in Portland.

“You know, if you look at what’s gone on in Portland, those are anarchists, and we’ve taken a very tough stand,” he told Chris Wallace. “If we didn’t take a stand in Portland — you know we’ve arrested many of these leaders. If we didn’t take that stand, right now you would have a problem like you, you— they were going to lose Portland.”

Many people in Portland feel they are not living in the same city they see on TV or online. They said that outside the downtown core where nightly protests take place, it’s business as usual. It’s the actions of both the local police and then the Department of Homeland Security that trouble them, both of which have used tear gas and "less than lethal" weapons against protesters.

Across right-wing media, Portland has been portrayed as a city besieged by anarchist violence. A Friday morning segment on Fox News described the city as “plagued” by “violent clashes.” In a Facebook post that gathered over 50,000 likes, Breitbart called the protests “sustained Antifa violence.” On Wednesday, managing editor at right-wing website Human Events Ian Miles Cheong tweeted that protesters were “terrorists.”

“These are anarchists. These are not protesters,” Trump said Monday, echoing the claim of acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, who has called the protesters "violent anarchists.”

And while some protesters have written graffiti on buildings and briefly lit a fire inside the Portland Police Association building — which was quickly extinguished — the majority of the actions remain peaceful.

The protest crowds in Portland continue to grow in response to the arrival of the feds. There are probably about 2,000 people here right now in front of the Justice Center, with moms in yellow lined up in front, stretching across a whole block.

Twitter

Chelsea Unsbee, a Portland resident who has been following the protests closely but steered clear of the downtown for health reasons, told BuzzFeed News that characterizing the city as engulfed in violence was “bizarre.”

“If I wasn’t physically downtown, I wouldn’t know there was a protest happening,” she said.

Mathieu Lewis-Rolland, a freelance photographer and photojournalist, has been documenting the protests since they started. Lewis-Rolland began livestreaming his coverage on Facebook for his own safety, and on Sunday he walked around the city for his viewers to show how the protests were only located in about four blocks downtown.

News editor at Portland Mercury Alex Zielinski has also been covering the protests since the beginning. She told BuzzFeed News that before the DHS came to the city, attendance had been dwindling. Now, interest in attending protests has been reignited.

“It’s remarkable to hear the way Portland is being portrayed in national news right now,” she said.

Lewis-Rolland and the Portland Mercury have joined an ACLU lawsuit to block federal law enforcement from arresting or using physical force against journalists or legal observers.

Zielinski doesn’t live downtown, and were it not for the sounds of helicopters and munition, she wouldn’t know demonstrations were taking place. Although businesses downtown are boarded up, Zielinski said that happened before the protests, when coronavirus lockdowns started.

The characterization of Portland as a city “under siege” has become a joke to the residents. In one Twitter thread started by Oregonian reporter Eder Campuzano, people sent photos of the city looking peaceful.

@edercampuzano views of downtown from the south waterfront. dogs playing and people picnicking. yesterday we had a farmer’s market in the park. ain’t nothing “under siege”.

Twitter

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t violence in the four-block city center where protests are taking place, but most of it is not coming from the protesters, according to people who spoke to BuzzFeed News.

Lewis-Rolland said there’s a bonfire every night near two parks and there’s some graffiti, too. Some protesters have thrown water bottles or other objects at the police. But in response, authorities in riot or tactical gear have used tear gas and "less than lethal" weapons on crowds indiscriminately.

“It’s hard because it gets late enough and you think, Wow, the cops aren’t going to come out tonight, and the energy completely dies down, everyone’s looking like they’re sleepy,” he said. “And then all of a sudden, they’ll come out, and they’ll do their thing, and the cycle just continues. People are getting more and more mad.”

Mr. President: You are getting bad intel from your people if you think things have gone well here in Portland. The presence of your federal agents has made things significantly worse, including causing the greatest injuries so far. Thanks, but no thanks!

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The national attention has set off online harassment of local reporters, Zielinski said, and discussions with worried relatives who falsely believe the city is engulfed in violence.

“I have family members who live on the outskirts of Portland,” Unsbee said, “and they still believe the news more than what I’m saying.”

Portland's dilemma may soon reach other cities across the nation: Yesterday, Trump said he was looking to deploy more federal law enforcement to other cities across the country. “In Portland, they’ve done a fantastic job,” he said.

But in the Northwestern city, residents continue to be baffled.

“Regardless of which side of things you’re on, that shouldn’t change the reality of what happened,” Unsbee said.

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