For weeks, anti-racist protesters in Portland, Oregon, have faced off against legions of anonymous federal agents, outfitted for war in full camouflage. These ersatz soldiers have pulled pedestrians off the street and into unmarked vans; they have fractured bones with rubber bullets, and city leaders say their presence has only made a tense situation even more precarious. Ostensibly, the president dispatched officers to Portland to guard the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse, property of the U.S. government. In reality, he appears to be using the city as a testing ground for his proxy war on protesters. Every night, his secret police clash violently with civilians, who meet the government’s “less lethal” weapons — items like stun grenades and baton rounds, which lower but by no means eliminate the potential for fatalities — with household armor: trash-can lids repurposed as shields, leaf blowers to float tear gas back at the officers who threw it. Some carry fireworks and paint-filled balloons. But even without live ammunition, the situation, according to photographer JD Barnes, feels “as close to war as you can get without people dying.”
“The ground is covered in rubber balls and firing pins from the grenades,” Barnes said, “irradiated with CS gas and tear gas,” which linger long after protesters go home. “You can go [to the courthouse] the next day, when everything is calm, and if you don’t have on a mask — if you don’t have on goggles and things like that — you will start sneezing; you will start coughing. It’s in your throat. It’s in the trees. It’s everywhere.”
Barnes arrived in Portland on Thursday — incidentally, the same day a fresh wave of federal forces from the U.S. Marshals Service showed up. He stayed in the city for three days, documenting the scene outside the courthouse and the nearby Multnomah County Justice Center. “The first day was so unlike anything I had ever seen,” he said. “The sound of those pepper-ball rounds hitting the homemade shields and fences sounded awfully a lot like machine-gun fire.” Flashbang devices whined through the air as agents hurled them from grenade launchers. Smoke canisters flew into the crowd seemingly at random, one of which hit Barnes in the chest. “I turned around,” he recalled, and “it was a split second of seeing these sparks and realizing, That looks like it’s coming right at me.” It was surreal, he added, “because for a moment, you don’t know what it is! You don’t know what it is, and it hits you, and you’re really like, Am I going to die? Right here, in Portland, on the sidewalk, fleeing the Feds, covering a protest?”
“It’s the fallacy of ‘less than lethal’ rounds,” he emphasized. “It only takes one errant shot, one person who wasn’t prepared for that shot,” to do real harm — blind someone, break a skull, and, potentially, kill. Barnes does not feel the possibility is far off. “The only thing left is for someone to die in that place,” he said. “If that happens, then everything that we thought we knew will end.”
For many in the city, it already has. “You can’t go through this every single day and not be shaken to your core,” Barnes warned. “It’s not like [Portland] is a foreign country, and I just flew back home … It’s not like, Okay, I’m out of this. I can go back to regular life. There is no regular life.”
Below, see Barnes’s photos from a weekend of protests in Portland.