Armed activists seized three blocks of a residential neighborhood in north Portland. Here is what it was inside the camp.
8:56 p.m. December 8, North Mississippi Avenue and Skidmore Street
A group of guards guard the entrance to a barricaded stretch of road in north Portland. They are armed, masked and dressed in black – from their balaclavas to their boots to their bulletproof vests. It’s intimidating, but they also laugh with each other, which makes the barricade feel like it’s stepping into a nightclub. Can you come in or will the bouncer tell you to rush?
It’s actually a site of protest and siege: what the guards would later call the Red House Expulsion Defense, or RHED. It takes the form of a series of obstacles in the street that cut three blocks from car and pedestrian traffic. At the center of the blockades is the Kinney family home – known as the “Red House on the Mississippi” – the home of a black Afro-Native family for three generations.
The eviction defense was a remarkable escalation of militant tactics – the capture of a residential neighborhood by armed resistance to the justice system. On December 13, it seemed to have worked: The Kinney family raised enough money to buy back the house, and Mayor Ted Wheeler brokered a deal to remove the barricades.
For five nights, Portland’s attention was fixed on this intersection. It was fairly easy to walk through, but the armed guards dissuaded many. Every night there were between 100 and 200 people inside the campsite. We were two of them.
That night, the blockade is brand new. The Mississippi is blocked at its intersection with North Skidmore by high makeshift fences of lumber, furniture and junk. Further on, similar structures stand, suggesting fortifications for a tactical retreat. Czech hedgehogs (hard-to-walk six-armed metal poles) and spike strips (planks with nails running through them) are strewn on the asphalt to prevent vehicles destroying the barricades. There is more blockade to the east and west, one block on each side, with checkpoints at each entrance.
It looks like the border of a small nation. But a volunteer who passes by “Ranch” hopes people will see RHED in a hospitable light. “This place was founded on a spirit of hospitality and generosity,” he says.
5:38 a.m. December 9, North Albina Ave and Prescott St.
Expecting an early morning Portland Police raid, a small crowd begins to gather before dawn near an indoor barricade. Most of the activists are still sleeping, many on various mattresses near the barricades.
Some of the awakened activists brew coffee, surrounded by helmeted members of the Portland independent press, who have been covering the protests for months. A character in black approaches the press. “If you don’t want your camera broken, you should go,” he says.
Moments later, a water bottle flies over the barricade, slamming into a journalist’s backpack. Another bottle follows but is missing.
A groggy-looking quartet, also dressed in black, approach the press group. They start to explain the privacy rules they want the press to follow.
“No faces. No photos. No interviews. No interview requests,” one said.
“Uh, could you ask this guy to stop throwing us water bottles?” asks a reporter.
“Oh yeah, that shouldn’t happen,” the groggy volunteer said, motioning for another person to check. “We’re going to talk to him.
Behind the fences, piles of stones and glass bottles are ready, anticipating a sort of medieval war. There is also an onion.
“You can take a picture of that,” a less dogmatic activist said to a reporter lying on the road to take pictures. “But don’t post it on social media.”
3:12 a.m. on December 12, food truck in North Albina and Prescott
At the east entrance to RHED, a medic shows off a recently acquired gas heat lamp with wacky glee. Once it’s actually attached to a small propane tank, the lamp begins to glow with pleasant warmth. The temperature will drop to 34 degrees this morning.
The entrance, which looks like a middle ground between a checkpoint and an outdoor campground, contains semi-organized stacks of useful items. Aluminum foil boxes and paper plates are used in a nearby food cart called the Riot Kitchen. Its sign reads “Hot, vegan food for everyone (except the cops)”.
The truck mainly serves vegetarian and vegan food, but also cooks baby back ribs, following in the tradition of Riot Ribs, the donation barbecue stand associated with the downtown Justice Center protests this summer. The ribs are served in batches, in the morning and late at night “antifa hour”.
There is vegetable soup, Cajun rice and a really exceptional succotash. Hungry diners chat and grab bites, juggling flimsy paper plates. A Riot Kitchen staff member suggests that while all the dishes are perfectly good, the secret is to throw everything in the soup and eat it that way.
One block to the north, a group of lookouts stand guard in the cold, silhouetted in front of a small bonfire that they have lit in a cast iron hearth for warmth. One carries a gun and another carries a paintball gun.
“Just a chud that threw an egg tonight,” said one of them. “Not much else, but I’m sure they’ll be back.”
Since the start of the blockade, the occupants have been visited every evening by vehicles with hostile occupants. Incidents range from insults to throwing fireworks and other incendiary devices. Stalkers don’t get out of their cars – but activists assume they are right-wing counter-protesters, or “chuds.” The wee hours of the morning are nicknamed “chud o’clock”.
Suddenly there is a shout of “Get the cover! Get the cover! Get the cover!”
And they all disperse to their many hiding places and battle stations. But that turns out to be a false alarm. A gray sedan is idling innocently. “Does anyone know where Portland Avenue is?” asks the driver.
6:02 a.m. December 12, North Albina, Blandena Street
After a long night on call, the occupants enthusiastically line up to buy coffee at the nearby corner cafe, Albina Press.
The door opens. “Oh, thank you my God,” said a young man dressed in black. A friend replies, “Yeah, I’ve always been waiting to use the bathroom!”
A cafe worker sticks a rubber stopper under the front door to keep it open – to create airflow as a COVID precaution – then returns a moment later holding a cardboard box with 12 coffees in it. inside.
Throughout the week, various neighbors bought coffee for the activists. On one occasion an older man walked in and waved a little grandly to the people outside. “I want to buy a coffee tour for these good people,” he said.
If the closure of a major street in the city caused resentment in the neighborhood, it was not obvious. In fact, the neighbors seem to be supporting the movement: a few locals proudly pointed out pieces of wood they brought in to be used in the barricades. Another couple invited activists to go up to their balcony to take photos.
When asked, the coffee worker said that many people buy the coffee from the protesters. “It has happened several times,” he adds.
At dawn, the RHED looks like a wooded campground. Some are sleeping. Some are moving. There are over 30 tents, more if you count the waterproof awnings that popped up when it started to rain. Now there’s a covered street that keeps donations of clothing, food, and medical supplies dry – the interior of which looks like a street bazaar, but it’s all free.
A call goes up: “Mic check!” And the crowd responds: “Mic check!” As it did from the Occupy Portland camps ten years ago, the call and response signals an announcement.
“Yesterday we built some stairs!” said an organizer through a megaphone. “Today, let’s build a ramp to improve accessibility.”
They want everyone to be able to get to the top of the hill, where there is a large brick fireplace. “It’s a place for the people of BIPOC,” explains an entrance guard. “It is a place where the BIPOC can relax and finally be itself.”
The implication is that it takes several protective physical barricades and layers of guards – in the middle of a busy campsite which itself is under constant threat of raid by local law enforcement – to make people of color feel safe around a household.
6:56 p.m. December 13, North Albina in Prescott
If the RHED at dawn is like a campsite, at night it’s like a pantry. Donations fill the tents until activists say they can’t take any more. Stacks of bottled water and a large stack of wrapped toilet paper are stacked with the words “Stuff 2 go 2 homeseless camps” on top.
There is food at almost every entrance. Each checkpoint has a rain cover and improvised fire pits in metal drums. People sit in spray-painted camping chairs and sofas, sometimes talking about politics but also about breakups and TV shows. Almost everyone has a story of the physical injuries associated with the arrest at protests over the summer.
After dinner, RHED hosts a dance party on Albina where about twenty people dance with confidence and another 30 stand around and think about dancing. They dance according to the musical tastes of the artist and activist Creme Brulee: Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Kreayshawn.
The DJ set stops and local activist Ragina Rage – who has long been associated with Maison Rouge and says she has spent part of this year living in the small campground next door – addresses the crowd, reminding them all that if they are cold tonight they might want to think about what the people are who can’t go home. Rage celebrates the recent success of crowdfunding: over $ 300,000 to help the Kinney family buy their home at cost.
The next morning, the occupants will agree to dismantle the barricades.
“Even if we get this house back, there are so many other families,” Rage says. “The moratorium on evictions is almost over. There are so many other families. If they need help, we’ll be there. And you better introduce yourself.”