It took the killing of George Floyd to get Jane Ullman to finally pay attention to what the police were up to in America. But it was the sinister sight of federal agents in camouflage snatching demonstrators off the streets of Portland that got her out to protest.
The chief financial officer for tech startups in Oregon’s biggest city joined hundreds of other mothers dressed in yellow in a “Wall of Moms”, turning out each evening to stand as a human barricade between protesters and agents dispatched by Donald Trump to aggressively break up Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
Ullman, a mother of two, said it was her first demonstration in support of racial justice.
“As an upper-middle-class white woman in the whitest city in America, I couldn’t stand by any longer,” she said. “I’ve been doing a lot of self-educating since George Floyd. Reading and learning. The feds’ part in it pushed me over the top. I wanted to take action. But it was the ‘Wall of Moms’ that brought me out.”
Ullman was not alone. What began as a small symbolic act of defiance on Saturday grew into the principal demonstration two nights later, as thousands packed the streets and squares outside the county jail and federal courthouse in downtown Portland for one of the largest protests to date.
At the heart of it were hundreds of women dressed in yellow and singing “Hands up, please don’t shoot me” – evidence that not only has Trump’s dispatch of federal agents failed to stop the protests, it has reinvigorated them.
Video of unidentifiable federal officers, looking more like soldiers of an occupying army than police, beating and snatching protesters off the streets angered a 35-year-old mother of two, Bev Barnum, who posted a Facebook message on Saturday morning.
“As most of you have read and seen on the news,” she wrote, “protesters are being hurt (without cause). And as of late, protesters are being stripped of their rights by being placed in unmarked cars by unidentifiable law enforcement. We moms are often underestimated. But we’re stronger than we’re given credit for.”
Barnum called for a group to dress in white and form a protective line between police and demonstrators who Trump painted as anarchists.
“Let’s make it clear that we will protect protesters without the use of violence,” she said. “We will shine a light of the unjust narrative being thrown around.”
The first group of nearly 40 mothers lined up that evening, chanting: “Feds stay clear, moms are here.”
Their line offered little protection once the federal officers started firing teargas and flash-bangs and charging with batons. But they were back in larger numbers the following evening, this time wearing yellow and carrying sunflowers. By Monday, the Wall of Moms had become the main event as Ullman and hundreds of others decided this was the moment to make a stand.
Jennifer Bradly, a grandmother, hesitated to join the protests earlier.
“I’m not crazy about the feds sweeping people off the streets,” said the post office mailwoman wearing a “Union Proud” badge. “I’ve been active with Black Lives Matter but these demonstrations looked too violent to me until I saw the Wall of Moms. It’s a big group of like-minded people.”
Bradly said many of the women were brought out by Trump’s intervention but it was important to keep the focus on the demand for reform of the police, including in Portland where the force is under court oversight because of officers shooting homeless people.
“It feels like people are not going to give up. This time feels different,” she said, reflecting on how little policing changed after other killings before George Floyd. He died in Minneapolis on 25 May, after an office knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The Portland protests have occurred every night in the nearly two months since. After the initial surge, support waned, a few hundred turning out night after night. But outrage at Trump deploying federal agents, many untrained in policing, to end what he called anarchy, has reignited the protests.
Portland’s mayor and Oregon’s governor denounced the deployment of officers from the Department of Homeland Security, the US Marshals Service and the border patrol. The state attorney general is suing those agencies for “overstepping their powers and injuring or threatening peaceful protesters on the streets of downtown Portland”.
“Trump’s troops”, as some protesters call them, have greater leeway than local officers. A court barred the city police from using teargas but the federal officers are not bound by the order.
For Margaret van Vliet, a former Oregon state housing director who joined the Wall of Moms, it was all too much.
“I was at home thinking that I have to lift my voice,” she said. “So here I am.”