A former NCC student and graphic designer hangs tough in the Portland protests
(PORTLAND, Ore.) Early in the morning of Aug. 13, a battalion of armored police advanced on Black Lives Matter protestors outside of the county courthouse in downtown Portland and ordered participants to vacate the area. In attempting to comply, a group offering medical aid to fellow protestors from their decommissioned DHL van prepared to leave. Before the road was clear of people and safe for the van to pull away, police charged. An officer drew a knife and punctured one of the van’s back tires. A member of the group, similarly armor-clad and wearing a face shield and respirator, raised his hands and positioned himself between the charging officers and the front tire to block police from further disabling the vehicle.
With the knife still drawn, the officer charged toward him. Not resisting, the armor-clad protestor was grabbed by two other officers and pushed to the front of the van. Police slammed him onto the hood and then threw him to the ground, tearing flesh from his wrists and elbows. As the protestor was attempting to kneel with his hands still in the air, another officer came from behind and rammed a baton into his back, sending him face first to the ground. Before police could pounce on him, members of his team rushed forward and dragged him to his feet and away from the police. Together the team ran to cover behind a building as police announced that the protest had been declared a riot.
Meanwhile, although the van was still in drive, police were trying to tear the driver from the vehicle, but she was held in by the seatbelt. The driver stopped the van and followed orders to exit. She was shoved several times in the process of escaping the army of police marching forward in formation.
Since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day, this has been a typical evening near the Justice Center in downtown Portland. The armored protestor at the center of this story is a graphic artist originally from the Lehigh Valley. He goes by the codename “Soda.” He has been protesting or with his group offering medical aid nearly every night since the justice for George Floyd and Black Lives Matter demonstrations began. To protect his identity, only his codename will be used in this article.
After the protestors and police left the area, Soda returned to the van to find that all four tires had been punctured. Driving on rims, he managed to pull the van into a parking space. Police had ordered a halt of all 24-hour towing unless it was in response to a police call. Soda spent the night awake in his van with police continually driving by blaring their sirens and shining spotlights on him while threatening to tow his van. Finally, at 10 a.m., someone in Soda’s organization was able to find a company to tow the van to a tire shop.
That night, the police had caused more than $1,000 in damage to the group’s van. By 3 p.m. the next day, Soda and his team were back on the road. By 6 p.m., they were back at the protest.
“I’m a graphic designer, how the f— did we end up here?”
In the early 2000s, Soda studied communications design at Northampton Community College. He and a few fellow NCC students formed an art collective with other aspiring artists from different parts of the country. Ambitious and ready to make their mark, the group of young artists agreed to set up shop together in a new city. They decided upon the Rose City—Portland, Oregon—a place they considered to be an up and coming center for the arts where their collective could take roots.
Now known to many as a progressive mecca in the United States, Portland sits in the northwest corner of what was founded as a whites-only state. Throughout the mid-1800s, Black people discovered to be living in Oregon could by law be subjected to lashings. In 1925, Oregon voters repealed the laws that prevented Black people from owning property or residing in the state. Racist language remained in Oregon’s constitution until voters opted for its removal in 2002. In that ballot measure, nearly 30% of the total, 352,027 votes were cast in favor of retaining discriminatory terms such as “free Negroes” and “mulattoes” in the state’s constitution.
Still predominantly white (77.1%, according to the 2019 census) and 5.8% Black, Portland is now in the national spotlight as an epicenter in the fight against systemic racism in the U.S.
Soda and many other Portland artists of all mediums have found themselves united in the self-expression of citizen involvement by directing the passion that fuels artistic creativity toward supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
As Soda learned soon after arriving in Portland, artists were not the only subculture behind Portland’s growing opposition to the oppressive systems that Oregon and the U.S. were founded upon.
A longtime football (soccer) fan, Soda was drawn to Providence Park, the home stadium of the Portland Timbers, a Major League Soccer team, the Portland Thorns of the National Women’s Soccer League and the Portland Timbers 2 of the United Soccer League. There, in Section 107, Soda became acquainted with the Timbers Army, which he described as a group of “rowdy individuals” who sat behind the goal to cheer on the home team at every game. In the soccer world, these collectives of devoted fans are known as supporters’ groups.
Behind the Timbers Army and the Rose City Riveters, the supporters’ group of the Portland Thorns, is the 107 Independent Supporters Trust or 107IST. Named after the seating section located in the north end of Providence Park, the 107IST is a non-profit, member-based organization with passion that extends beyond the stadium. The 107ISTs lend their support to charitable causes and social issues, promoting what one member called “radical inclusiveness” in their community.
Artistic expression is pronounced in many aspects of Portland’s milieu and with the Timbers Army, Soda found a home for merging art and activism. Bringing his artistic talent to the Timbers Army, Soda participates in the creation of large displays called tifo, giant banners presented at soccer games to show team spirit. The hand-painted tifo are created on 10,000 square-foot canvasses and feature images that employ wit and assorted film and pop culture references, including Bob Ross, Freddy Krueger and “Mars Attacks!” Soda and the Timbers Army are known for outdoing themselves with their tifo designs. In 2018, the Timbers Army were awarded Tifo of the Year for their Pennywise the Clown-themed tifo by MLSsoccer.com’s ExtraTime Radio show.
Soda also offers his eye for design to the Timbers Army’s non-profit clothing line, “No Pity Originals.” The words “No Pity” emblazon the hood of the group’s yellow delivery van that Soda was slammed into so hard the thud can be heard well above the volume of the under-siege crowd of protestors in video footage of the incident that exists on Twitter.
In the “No Pity” van, a contingent of Timbers Army members has rolled up every night since protests commenced. At first, they provided art supplies and tifo-making materials to protestors for painting signs while also distributing flyers and gathering data on behalf of Portland United Against Hate, a partnership of Portland-area non-profits. The data and flyers were for reporthatepdx.com, the partnership’s website for anonymously reporting hate and police violence.
But as protestors were met with increasingly hostile responses from authorities, the Timbers Army pivoted their involvement. Led by medics within their ranks, they began offering aid, converting their van into a rolling medical station.
“After the police became more violent and the feds got involved, we noticed that there was a need to stock our van with medical supplies,” Soda explained.
The Timbers Army is thousands strong, but the team representing the Army at the Black Lives Matter protests consists of between 12 and 15 people, including certified EMTs and military medics. Soda was assigned the task of administering saline spray to protesters who had been attacked with CS gas, a potent tear gas.
Soda said he has been attacked with CS gas more than 100 times. “Three times a night for 70 days,” he said. Usually, Soda wears a full face-shield respirator, but said he’s taken his mask off thinking he was at a safe distance but been hit by the lingering gas “like a ton of bricks.”
“It just hits you so fast,” Soda said, explaining how the intense burning sensation attacks all senses in an instant.
On one occasion, he experienced searing pain on his skin after being attacked with another “gnarly” unknown chemical shot at his group from an unmarked canister which has been sent to a lab for testing.
In July, tensions escalated when President Trump ordered deployment of federal agents to Portland. The agents were at first referred to as secret police in the media and on social networks because it was unclear who sent them or to what department or force they belonged. Later, it became known that the agents were employees of the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Crowd-control tactics used by the federal agents were quickly labeled “unconstitutional attacks” by the ACLU. Federal agents shot directly at protestors with munitions meant to be ricocheted toward targets. Many protestors were shot in the face and sustained gruesome injuries. Other protestors were abducted and dragged into unmarked “snatch vans,” as Soda called them, without probable cause and held without explanation.
In June, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the City of Portland and Portland law enforcement on behalf of journalists and legal observers targeted and injured by police. The ACLU sought an end to unconstitutional tactics and monetary damages for injuries. The U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon, Portland Division issued a temporary restraining order against the Portland police. The ACLU then motioned to include the federal agents as defendants in the case as well. In July, the ACLU filed a separate case naming four volunteer medics as plaintiffs against DHS and the U.S. Marshals Service. These and other ACLU cases are still pending before the courts.
Before the order was issued, the feds’ presence incensed protestors and demonstrations swelled in size bringing national media coverage to the nightly clashes in the streets. Groups of mothers, mostly middle-aged white women dressed in yellow and dubbed the “Wall of Moms,” stood defiantly, forming a human barricade to protect the protests’ most vulnerable participants—ethnic-minority groups. The Moms inspired the next group, the “Portland Dads,” to come out with their leaf blowers, a tactful cliché, using the blowers to disperse tear gas from the crowd.
Soda and his team treated many protestors’ injuries during the weeks that federal agents made the protests exceptionally violent, including those facial injuries caused by direct hits from CS gas canisters and pepper balls.
“With the level of training that these people have, these are not by accident, in my opinion,” Soda said. “They’re aiming for people’s heads.”
Soda supposed that the officers acted so viciously either out of panic, never having been deployed in situations such as that in Portland or simply for the purpose of fear-mongering, intending to injure participants severely to scare protestors from coming back.
He described an incident in which his team became the target of the federal agents’ inhumane fury.
“They were pushing and shooting gas, so we loaded most of our team up and as we were getting ready to extract from the area, we saw someone who had been hit laying in the middle of the street.”
With shields up, Soda and a partner protected the injured person from the fusillade of pepper balls and CS gas canisters as medics provided care. They used water filled parking cones to extinguish the gas canisters as the firing of more canisters continued.
Carrying the injured protestor, Soda and his team began to retreat. Still shielding themselves from the rain of pepper balls and canisters, they loaded the wounded protestor into the van. Soda’s partner ran behind the vehicle to make sure no one was still hiding behind it in preparation for departure from the urban warzone that the feds created.
“People know to go to it if they need help or hide behind it if munitions are flying,” said Soda, explaining that the “No Pity” van has become a reliable, visible refuge for protestors at the nightly demonstrations.
Federal agents took formation across the street, 27 feet away, Soda later measured. They continued to fire shots as Soda started pulling away slowly, cautious of lingering protestors. His partner ran beside the van with a leaf blower, preventing gas from permeating the vehicle. Once past the crowd, Soda’s partner ran to the side door. A teammate in the van took his hand and as he was being pulled in, the feds fired. The projectile passed between them, through the side door and into the windshield, shattering the glass, then the projectile ricocheted into the back of the van, hitting the floor and then a medic, luckily without enough force remaining to cause serious injury.
That projectile was later identified as a 40-mm baton round “designed to be direct fired” at “violent subjects,” according to NonLethal Technologies, an online distributor of munitions for law enforcement and military applications.
Note that despite the name of the aforementioned ammo dealer, these types of munitions, which come in a wide variety, are properly termed less-than lethal. However, their use has resulted in the deaths of several people.
Soda and the Timbers Army have been attacked with an assortment of such projectiles, including bullets made of solid resin and flashbang grenades.
“Those ones are particularly nasty,” said Soda, explaining that the device emits, as its name suggests, a preposterously loud bang and nine unbelievably bright flashes each lasting a few seconds. “Goodbye, eardrums,” he lamented.
On a few occasions, Soda was lucky to have earplugs in, but when he was not wearing ear protection, he described the experience as “Instant tinnitus, like the morning after a really loud concert.”
Other medical-aid vans have similarly been targeted and attacked by the federal officers, Soda said. He noted that he feels he has been targeted on a personal level as well. While driving his car home from protests, he was pulled over and ticketed for not using a turn signal on a road in which it was only possible to follow into the turn. This incident has not caused Soda to reconsider returning each night to stand up for what he believes, but strengthened his resolve to do so.
By day, Soda works as the creative director for a cannabis company, responsible for designing product labels and advertisements. Soda said his boss is supportive of the cause for which he is protesting, but, of course, he is still expected to complete work-related assignments while also protesting six nights a week. Soda generally spends his seventh night per week tuned into a two-way radio, waiting to hear if help is needed. When it is, he heeds the call.
While utilizing his artistic talent at his day job, the outlets in which Soda truly expresses himself are with the Timber’s Army, in both the “No Pity” clothing line and the support group’s highly regarded tifo.
This year, however, the MLS season was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. In place of the regular season, a bracket tournament was held in Florida from July to August. The tournament, dubbed the “MLS is Back tournament,” by the league and “The COVID Cup” by Soda and his friends, was won by the Portland Timbers.
Surely, the victory served as a welcome boost of morale for members of the Timbers Army on the frontlines of the protest and their fellow residents of the Rose City, but not in the same sense of the New Orleans Saints winning the Super-Bowl in the early years of recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
An unfair and inaccurate picture of the situation in Portland was painted by Trump, who has claimed on several occasions that Portland has been taken over by anarchists and that the city is burning. Soda called these claims “political theater.”
The Black Lives Matter protests have occurred almost exclusively in the same four-block radius of downtown Portland, between Madison and Salmon streets and 4th and 2nd avenues. For the most part, the rest of Portland’s 150-square-mile area is unaffected.
“The only people who are in danger are the protestors—from the feds and the Portland police bureau,” Soda insisted.
While several military veterans have made the news after standing up to the federal agents—one Navy vet was completely doused in tear gas—the majority of the protestors in Portland are not soldiers trained for combat against militarized forces. Many, like Soda, are artists, who naturally also responded to oppression artistically.
An elk statue, standing between the plazas in front of Portland’s U.S. District Court and Justice Center since 1900, was removed by the city for safe keeping after protestors lit a fire beneath it. In its place, artistic protestors erected a new elk, fashioned from sheet metal and rebar, with brass pipes bent into place forming its antlers. Instead of portraying the face as if the animal were alive, the elk stares forward with empty eye sockets in its metal skull, mouth agape showing off its teeth and snake-like tongue. Painted across its body are the words, “For those who have left us. For those still fighting.”
Before the protests escalated, Soda and his crew handed out protest posters featuring the work of local Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) artists, which were printed and distributed by Outlet, a local print shop offering their services gratis to the protest efforts.
The spray paint that was once used for the city’s many murals now covers the walls of the Justice Center, a situation that was used to excuse the excessive force of the federal agents. Removal of spray paint is possible and costs between $1 and $3 per square foot with an additional service charge of between $50 and $200, according to howmuchisit.org, an online consumer resource.
On the other hand, the lives unjustly taken by police which spurred the protests in Portland and across the country can never be recovered. While the spray-painted evidence of protest will eventually be washed from the courthouse, the spirit of the art, on which Soda and many other passionate residents of the Rose City thrive will not be so easily washed away. Like the Timbers Army when their team is down, the spirit remains indomitable. Based upon the continued nightly protests in Portland, it appears the army of moms and dads, artists and veterans will be chanting “Black Lives Matter” until the match is won.
The Timbers Army Fights Facism
The Timbers Army’s tifo often feature political themes. A tifo conceptualized by Soda, which referenced the ‘80s horror film, “Army of Darkness,” warned, “This machine kills fascists” across the blade of a chain saw.
In 2019, the Timbers Army went to war with Major League Soccer over an update to the league’s Fan Code of Conduct that prohibited political speech in stadiums. The prohibition extended to symbols, including the Iron Front symbol, three parallel arrows pointing southwest, also known as the Antifascist Circle. Formed in the 1930s in Europe by social democrats, trade unionists and liberals, the Iron Front organization led a resistance against the totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and Communism.
The Antifascist Circle was regularly seen in Providence Park but did not cause much of a stir until the emergence of negative media coverage of the Antifa movement, which also uses the Antifascist Circle, as the name indicates.
“The Iron Front symbol is a visible representation of the best values of the [Timbers Army] and the Riveters. It is a declaration that we will not tolerate hatred in this space that you have helped make so special for our clubs, our city and us supporters,” Timbers Army member Shane Mount-Rubenfeld, wrote in a letter to the Timber’s owner, insisting that he take a stand against the leagues ban of the symbol.
The Timbers Army, relentless in their opposition to the ban, joined forces with the supporters’ group of their rivals, the Seattle Sounders, during a match between the teams in August 2019. In solidarity, the supporters’ groups observed a 33-minute silence, in reference to the ban of the Iron Front symbol by the Nazis in 1933. In the following weeks, MLS conceded and lifted their ban. By September, Iron Front flags, although never absent even during the ban, were once again flown in Providence Park without the threat of suspension.