The mayor getting tear-gassed is the least of Portland's problems
In Portland, Oregon, protesters are sustaining the longest-running period of continued unrest the city has ever seen. Each night since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Portlanders have marched, chanted, and held their ground in calls for justice amid an onslaught of police violence, including the use of tear gas, flash bang devices, and rubber bullets. On Wednesday night, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) joined protesters in the streets, and his group was subsequently tear-gassed by federal officers. While some have pointed to this moment as an alarming display of aggression toward an elected official, the reality is that Wheeler merely briefly experienced what organizers, activists, and Portland residents have faced for the previous six weeks — much of which was seemingly condoned by Wheeler himself.
The scene itself was shocking: a sitting mayor tear-gassed during an evening protest, by federal agents who dropped into the city just last week as part of President Trump's supposed commitment of "law and order." But Wheeler hasn't exactly always been an ally to the movement. As he waded into the crowd Wednesday night to hear the demands of protesters, many booed Wheeler and called for his resignation. Local station Oregon Public Broadcasting reported, "Chants of 'Fuck Ted Wheeler' were interspersed all night with 'Black Lives Matter' cheers." After Wheeler left the protest, the Portland police declared a riot, which as OPB noted gave them the legal authority to use tear gas on the gathered crowd.
So what may have looked like a demonstration of solidarity by Wheeler from the outside felt to many protesters like a well-staged photo opportunity. Wheeler, who is also the city's police commissioner while serving as mayor, has sided with police — and condoned their violent tactics — for years. In 2018, Wheeler defended the Portland police force after officers killed a man, saying, "At any given moment in this city the police are being criticized for being heavy-handed and intervening too quickly ... or they're being criticized for being standoffish and not intervening quickly enough."
Wheeler had several confrontations with protesters Wednesday. One woman, per OPB, asked Wheeler if he'd finally shown up to a protest after nearly two months of them only because white moms had made national news for standing against police. "Ted, it’s only because the white moms are here that you’re here, right?" the woman reportedly asked. Wheeler denied that was the case.
For years, Wheeler has been an advocate for the police, and he lobbied for increasing the police budget for next fiscal year by $3 million. And even during a national uprising, Wheeler has defended the police's ability to use tear gas on protesters; only after a lawsuit was brought against the city in June did he concede that a moratorium on tear gas would reduce the harm Portlanders face at the hands of police. He maintained, however, that police should be able to deploy tear gas in some circumstances, such as when there are threats to what he called "life safety."
More recently, he's refused to cede his role as police commissioner — a position that allows him to dictate the day-to-day actions of the force. Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has repeatedly demanded that Wheeler hand over the position to her, but he has refused. Hardesty is a staunch advocate of defunding the police.