The Portland Protests: What This Teenager Learned

What a 16-Year-Old Learned in Three Months of Portland Protests


PORTLAND, Ore. — Last summer, it seemed like everyone in Portland was turning 15. Daria Allen’s neighborhood buzzed with a steady hum of quinceañeras and parties. She joined a dance team, and signed up for extra dance classes at a local studio.

As she turned 16 over the fall, she was ready to get her driver’s license, but that brought on a nagging new worry: What if she were out driving and got stopped by the police? This year’s deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, both African-Americans who were killed by the police, turned it into a constant loop of anxiety: What if the police came to her home and shot her grandmother? What if she had children and then saw one die in a traffic stop?

So Ms. Allen’s summer is different this year. She has not had time for dance classes. She is instead one of the many protesters who have rallied nightly in downtown Portland, mounting one of the longest-running cries for racial justice since Mr. Floyd’s death on May 25.

Next week, she will start her junior year of high school. The main thing she is worried about is how her class schedule will conflict with protests.

“For me, being a young Black woman, I’m just focused on my life. That’s really why I’m out here,” she said. “I am just a Black girl trying to live.”

Ms. Allen grew up in the Pacific Northwest and recently moved to her grandmother’s home on the north side of Portland, where she could have her own bedroom and the privacy from her mother and siblings that she craved. She had been one of only a few Black students at her elementary and middle schools, but her high school was more diverse — she no longer felt like she stuck out.

It was in late May that she was scrolling through Instagram and saw a video of Mr. Floyd lying in the street, a white police officer’s knee digging into his neck. She watched it again.

“I just remember crying,” Ms. Allen said. “Especially when he called out for his mom, that made me so sad.”

She saw news footage of protests over Mr. Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. Then she found a livestream online that showed a protest in downtown Portland. She needed to go see for herself.

In early June, Ms. Allen joined the protests for the first time, jumping into a march that snaked downtown from Revolution Hall, a music venue on the east side of the city. Seeing people singing and joining in the march made her feel happy.

After her summer job at a local zoo evaporated in the financial fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Allen started attending protests almost every night. Maybe, she thought, the demonstrations would spur changes in policing that would keep her family and her friends safe. But there was a deeper feeling, a sense that she belonged there.

“I don’t even feel like I have to,” Ms. Allen said. “I just do have to.”

Her family was worried, but on the other hand understood that something important was happening, for all of them, on Portland’s streets.

“This is the only way she can make change at 16 and I get that,” said Aneesah Rasheed, a relative who has sometimes accompanied Ms. Allen to protests. “In two years, Daria’s going to be old enough to vote. She’s learning about people, learning about politics, how to organize, how to start a movement.”

The first night that Ms. Allen was tear-gassed, the feeling reminded her of the sting she felt when she let shampoo wash into her eyes. The crowd faced off against a line of police officers and she yelled at them, furious and teary. More gas erupted and she ran. It seared into her throat and she coughed until she thought she might vomit.

After that, she decided she needed to be better prepared, so she began an online appeal in mid-July to raise money to buy earplugs, a respirator mask and goggles.

When she posted a link to the fund-raiser in a neighborhood Facebook group, a woman confronted her. Ms. Allen was destroying the city, she said. Ms. Allen fired back, arguing that the police were polluting the city with tear gas. The argument ended with the woman sending her a direct message, which Ms. Allen has saved in her inbox, just to remind herself of the mentality she is fighting against.

“If I see you on the street, you will be the next Black person hanging from a tree,” the woman wrote.

Other neighbors were more supportive, and Ms. Allen ended up with about $300 to buy supplies. She got the mask and the goggles, but the helmet she bought did not quite fit. She went without one until another protester gave her a hard hat.

Her family eventually followed her into the movement. Sometimes, her aunts took her to marches. Her grandmother watched livestreams of the protests on Twitter to check on her. Even her 12-year-old brother tagged along at a few protests.

“I’m very scared,” Laura Vanderlyn, her grandmother, said. “No matter what, she feels she has to be out there. Daria is a very, very passionate girl about everything.”

In the crowds that swarm nightly around downtown Portland, there are many things to fear: projectiles, aggressive protesters, low-flying fireworks, riot police and counterprotesters who sometimes try to antagonize the crowd. Over the weekend, one of the counterprotesters was shot to death.

Ms. Allen tries to avoid most of the dangers. She constantly skims through Instagram and Snapchat, watching videos of the protest to stay informed about what is happening in other parts of the crowd. It is not important to her to be at the front line of confrontations with the police.

One of the few chants she consistently recites is “Black lives matter.” It annoys her that the phrase has become a subject of controversy, often met with the diminishing response “All lives matter.”

“When they have the breast cancer runs, you don’t see people out there yelling, ‘What about lung cancer?’” she said. “Just because I’m talking about what’s happening to me doesn’t mean I don’t care about what’s happening with you. Why do I have to constantly remind these people that I matter?”

In July, President Trump dispatched federal agents to Portland in an effort to subdue the protests. But their presence raised tensions in the city even further, and new groups joined the demonstrations: moms in yellow T-shirts, nurses in scrubs and cooks in grimy chef’s whites.

One night, after the mayor called on the federal officers to leave, Ms. Allen had to go home and admit to her grandmother that she had been hit by one of the agents as they cleared a street.

“I told her I wasn’t going to get hurt,” Ms. Allen said.

She had noticed a woman standing in the street as the agents swept through, and called for her to get out of their way. She hesitated, waiting for the woman to respond, and an agent struck her hip with a baton, leaving a purple welt.

“As soon as she came in, she told me she didn’t want me to worry but that the police had struck her and she was really, really sorry that she got that close,” Ms. Vanderlyn said. “Her first reaction was to apologize.”

The encounter left Ms. Allen feeling depressed. “It makes you feel kind of empty sometimes when you see people getting beat up on the street by police and you have to run,” she said.

Now that guns have been drawn by protesters and those who have tried to disrupt the demonstrations, Ms. Allen has been feeling even more uneasy. At first, she figured it was not much different than the police carrying guns, but then she decided it was.

“It is scary because you never know,” she said. “The police have their weapons on them where you can see them. These people, you don’t know what they have.”

One night she met up with one of the friends she has made at the protests, a young woman who goes by the nickname Moon.

Together, they stood staring up at the federal courthouse in Portland, flinching as fireworks lobbed by the protesters detonated above them. Ms. Allen sent videos to a few friends on Snapchat. Then the inevitable cloud of tear gas ballooned around them.

“Your eyes hurt?” Ms. Allen asked.

Moon nodded, wincing behind her goggles.

“Let’s go,” Ms. Allen replied. She kept stopping to give eyewash to people as they retreated, instructing them to tip their heads back and rinse their eyes.

A block away, they settled onto a sidewalk to compare notes. Ms. Allen furiously refreshed an Instagram account that labeled the protesters as “rioters” and “antifa.” It irritated her that her months of peaceful protest were being dismissed based on the actions of other people. It felt like no one was listening.

It was time to go back out. Ms. Allen saw federal agents sprinting up the street, and she started to run. But she remembered what she had learned — walking was safer — and she forced herself to slow down.

The agents rushed into a crowd of people, pushing them back.

“I’m scared,” Ms. Allen said, her voice rising. Still, she turned and went back toward the agents, phone in hand in case she needed to start recording.

The flashes of light and smoke sometimes seemed to her more like stadium effects for a big concert than the sound and fury of a popular revolt. “Doesn’t this seem like a movie? Doesn’t this seem surreal?” she said.

Another evening, Ms. Allen sat on the sidewalk across the street from the county justice center. A man led the crowd in a series of chants. “Say his name!” the man shouted into his microphone.

“George Floyd,” the crowd responded.

The voluminous pink wig that Ms. Allen has taken to wearing during the protests to help her friends locate her in the crowds came tumbling out from beneath her white hard hat. She thumbed through her phone, reviewing photos of recent protests and screenshots of the threat she had received on Facebook so she could show some of her friends.

“Are we tired?” the man thundered.

“Hell no,” the protesters shouted back.

But Ms. Allen did feel exhausted. Months of nonstop demonstrations, with little sleep, were taking a toll.

“I understand what they’re trying to say, that we’ll never get tired of fighting for what’s right,” she said. “But it’s tiring. I am tired.”

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Allen and other protesters faced off against a caravan of supporters of President Trump that had converged in Portland. During the confrontations, Ms. Allen was sprayed with mace by one of the counterprotesters.

“That was worse than tear gas,” she said.

Other protesters came rushing over, helping her rinse the spray off her face and skin. “That’s why I love being out there,” she said. “Because even though not everyone who is with the movement is always right or we always agree, I know everybody is going to have my back.”



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