The man who just a couple of weeks ago was marching with demonstrators against the federal courthouse in his Oregon city, earning a tear-gassing for his effort, has done a complete about-face.
He now urges demonstrators to stay home and has ordered city police to do “whatever is necessary” to quash ongoing violence. That apparently includes the same tear gas he railed against when federal officers were using it.
He has even accused some rioters of attempted murder after they barricaded a police precinct and set fires outside it — the same tactics they were using on the federal courthouse just weeks ago.
The about-face has not gone unnoticed at the Department of Homeland Security, where acting Secretary Chad Wolf said it’s striking to see the mayor now saying “almost word for word” what Mr. Wolf was saying for weeks.
“It’s disappointing that it took him this long. It’s disappointing he wouldn’t make these comments when federal law enforcement officers were under attack night after night,” Mr. Wolf told The Washington Times in an interview.
The 57-year-old Democratic mayor pivoted late last week when the reality of events on the ground punctured his predictions about the protests and violence.
Throughout July, Mr. Wheeler blamed violence in the city’s downtown area on the presence of additional federal law enforcement officers protecting the U.S. courthouse. He said once those officers pulled back, the protests would simmer down.
The federal officers pulled back nearly two weeks ago under a deal Mr. Wolf reached with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat. The lead role for security outside the federal courthouse was handed over to state police. The area around the courthouse has since been “mostly peaceful,” police say, but the violence has shifted east, across the Willamette River, and is now aimed at city buildings and police.
It appears Mr. Wheeler, who as mayor also serves as police commissioner, got the symptom and the disease mixed up.
“The violence was there before, and the violence was certainly there now, and we’re not the target of it,” Mr. Wolf said.
In searching for explanations for Mr. Wheeler’s unsteady handling of the riots, his political situation seems a likely cause.
Running for reelection, he failed to cross the 50% mark in the city’s open primary in May, so he faces a runoff in November against Sarah Iannarone, who is staking out ground even further to the left than Mr. Wheeler is.
When Black Lives Matter protests began in late May, they quickly took on an anti-establishment tone in Portland. Many of the demonstrators would prefer that Mr. Wheeler not even make it to the election.
When he tried to march with the protesters outside the federal courthouse on July 22, he was met with chants of “Resign.”
During the chaos last week, he took to Twitter to cheer the city’s pro basketball team, the Trail Blazers. Replies were filled with similar calls to resign.
Others pointed out that his tweet’s particular choice of words — “Way to keep the fire blazing!” — seemed inopportune, given the protesters’ affinity for trying to ignite city buildings.
“The absolute last thing you should be doing is encouraging anyone to keep any fire blazing,” one follower said.
Mr. Wheeler tried to reset the narrative on the protests Thursday by calling an online press conference to denounce protesters he had met with just two weeks earlier.
He said those who tried to barricade a police precinct and start a fire had attempted murder. As mayor, he also holds the title of police commissioner, and he said he would authorized the city’s officers to “do whatever is necessary” to gain control.
In a stunning step for a city that takes its right to protest seriously, he told the crowds to stay home.
“If you do not view yourself as wanting to be associated with, or be part of the kind of criminal activity we saw last night, I would ask you not to show up,” he said. “And if you do show up, say something.”
Two elderly women tried to follow his advice that night by attempting to put out fires started by demonstrators. Both were confronted and jeered by black-clad demonstrators, and one woman was splattered with paint for her efforts.
Same tactics, different targets
Carl Abbott, professor emeritus at Portland State University, said Mr. Wheeler, with his criticism of the violence, is following in the footsteps of Black Lives Matter protesters, who are trying to separate their issues from the largely white group of demonstrators eager for confrontations with the police.
“After federal law enforcement withdrew from a public role, the more violent protesters downtown got tamped down by pushback from the BLM folks,” Mr. Abbott said. “I assume, but don’t know for certain, that this explains the shift toward other targets.”
The demonstrators are now using the same tactics on Portland police as they did on federal officers: green lasers directed at officers’ eyes, concrete and fist-sized rocks hurled at them, paint and other chemicals splashed onto them and commercial-grade fireworks launched at them.
The mayhem intensified Saturday night, police reports said.
At one point, demonstrators ripped down boards protecting the Portland Police Association building — a target of riots earlier in the week — and smashed through the door, where they lit a small fire on the floor.
The protesters kept feeding the fire with fuel until police managed to clear them out so the fire department could have access.
Rioters also erected a barricade in the streets using construction signs, picnic tables and whatever other metal they could find. They defended the barricades with rocks until officers pushed through.
Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, said in a letter to Mr. Wheeler last week that officers felt he tied their hands by insisting they wait until the violence escalated “almost to the point of no return” before intervening.
“I am disgusted that our city has come to this,” Mr. Turner wrote. “If it is acceptable for rioters to commit acts of violence against community members and to try and burn down occupied buildings, and if this conduct is allowed to continue, then Portland is lost.”
Protesters complain on Twitter that police are too heavy-handed when they do respond. They said police were bull-rushing groups on the edges of the violence but not directly involved.
This weekend, protesters complained that police slashed the tires on their snack van and posted video of an officer resisting giving out his business card when asked for his identity, as required by procedure.
Protesters took particular umbrage at an incident in which officers detained a woman and patted her down. When a freelance reporter told them to wait for a female officer per procedures, the officer responded, “How do you know I don’t identify as a female?”
Mr. Wheeler is struggling to find a bridge between both sides, and in his press conference tried to identify President Trump as a common enemy.
“Don’t think for a moment that if you are participating in this activity that you are not being a prop for the reelection campaign for Donald Trump, because you absolutely are,” he said in a press conference conducted online. “You are creating the b-roll film that will be used in ads nationally to help Donald Trump during his campaign. You don’t want to be part of that. They don’t show up.”
Mr. Wolf said that was telling.
“The mayor is looking at these incidents through a political lens, and I would say that’s very dangerous, particularly when you’re talking about people’s lives,” the secretary told The Times. “Law and order comes first in the country.”
Mr. Wheeler’s office declined to comment to The Times.
Mr. Trump has indeed used Portland in his campaign.
“Just like we saved the courthouse, we will save the United States of America,” Mr. Trump said during a press conference Friday at his golf club in New Jersey.
He renewed his offer to send in the National Guard if the governor requested it and said Mr. Wheeler has come around to his own way of thinking by saying the protesters were guilty of attempted murder.
“He’s come a long way when he made that statement,” the president said.