Leaders in Thursday night crowd called out violence, turned focus away from federal courthouse in Portland

“It’s not about that building! It’s not about bricks and mortars!” the man in the Black Lives Matter shirt and cap thundered into a megaphone late Thursday night as he stood in the middle of Southwest Third Avenue as speeches ended in front of the Justice Center in downtown.

As hundreds of people shifted to the front of the federal courthouse next door, he yelled: “It’s about souls!”

Identifying himself as Gary Floyd, he and a handful of other Black voices made a concerted effort to hold control of the crowd.

They worked to shift the focus away from the fence outside the courthouse and steer it toward the police accountability movement gripping the nation.

They succeeded on the first night of a deal struck between the federal government and Oregon’s governor to try to break the cycle of violence that has erupted nightly at the courthouse since early July as a smaller group of protesters and federal officers clash, often in a cloud of smoke from fires, fireworks, tear gas and pepper spray.

Oregon State Police troopers and Portland police officers are now handling public safety outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse. Gov. Kate Brown announced that the extra federal officers from a Border Patrol tactical group, U.S. Marshals Service etc. will start returning home.

Other than early in the evening before crowds arrived, there were no signs of any police officers – local, state or federal – on what was the 64th night of consecutive demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis.

At one point near midnight, a couple of dozen black-clad younger men and women arrived with shields, gas masks, hockey and lacrosse sticks.

Some people started to bang on or shake the fence, some tossed a couple of glass bottles over the fence and ignited fireworks.

Others in the throng balked. They steadfastly called out the agitation and shifted the focus away from unrest.

“All you who want to start something? Bring that (expletive) to another block!” Gary Floyd shouted into the megaphone in the middle of the gathering. Floyd said he’s from Louisiana and had been in Portland a week, coming here from Seattle.

“It’s all about peaceful protest!” he yelled.

People began chanting, “Peaceful protest!”

At different points through Thursday night and into early Friday, people debated what action should be taken as the doors to the federal courthouse remained shuttered and no officers were in sight.

Another man – Daniel Thomas, who lives in downtown Portland –grabbed a bullhorn and walked through the crowd.

“Attacking the federal building is not Black Lives Matter,” yelled Thomas, who has brought his electric guitar out on some nights to play near the Justice Center. “Attacking the federal building doesn’t make any sense. … This is not Black Lives Matter!

“You’re playing Trump’s hands,” he went on. “It’s going to hurt Blacks more than whites. … Attacking the federal building is the wrong approach.”

Someone who disagreed tried to drown out Thomas with her own megaphone, yelling: “Take to the streets and (expletive) the police!”

Another woman on a speaker, Maya Malika, demanded: “How do we get out of this mess? Revolution, nothing less!” Malika said she came from Los Angeles with others in the crowd as part of what they called the National Revolution Tour, whose website says it’s the “voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.”

Some tried to reason one-on-one with younger people, who expressed some frustration at what they dismissed as political babble coming from speakers.

Some in the group loudly argued with those who disagreed. One younger man in a black helmet headed toward the fence and was stopped by an older man wearing a Marine Corps T-shirt.

The veteran got in the younger man’s face and said nothing that had happened the last week or two had helped. The younger man said, “It brought attention.” The older man shot back, “Negative attention!”

Ashanti Hall of Portland took to the mic and directed his comments to police officers.

“Remember why you took your jobs in the first place … to every single officer who is a member of the police union, I want every single one of you to tell your union leadership we cannot hide our brothers who are doing wrong.”

Cheers erupted.

When one woman started banging a wooden board against the fence, her friend strode up to her and told her to cut it out. The woman at the fence dropped her board and walked away.

After midnight, when people set two fires further north on Southwest Third Avenue, others angrily confronted them and splashed water to put them out.

“I’m a mom. I’m your elder!” yelled one woman at a man who may have helped set the fire, telling him that he wasn’t helping.

On the megaphone, Floyd shouted: “The movement is not over there,” drawing people away from the fires and back to the assembly by Lownsdale Square in front of the courthouse.

As the night wore on, a hip-hop artist who goes by the name NO$HU did free-style rapping as a boom box blared.

“Black Lives Matter! Homey, let’s stand up and never give up,” he sang. “Love is the answer. Love is the key. That is all that really matters. Bringing peace, that is all we really need.”

Others danced and speeches continued.

Some who brought shields sat on the concrete barriers outside the fence around the courthouse, watching the rapper, listening to the speeches.

The crowd slowly thinned out.

No police officers appeared. No tear gas or riot-control stinger was fired. No riots or unlawful assembly declared.

— Maxine Bernstein

Email at mbernstein@oregonian.com; 503-221-8212

Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian

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