“It’s got to stop now,” he declared.
But the Democratic mayor, 57, has also long been the target of Portland protesters infuriated by the city police’s own use of tear gas, which was persistent until a federal judge ordered the city to use it only when there was a safety issue. As Wheeler went through the crowds on Wednesday, some threw objects in his direction, and others called for his resignation, chanting, “Tear Gas Teddy.”
After a large wave of tear gas sent Wheeler away from the scene, some protesters mocked him, asking how it felt. Wheeler said that joining the protesters at the front of the line was just one way he was going to try to rid the city of the federal tactical teams.
“A lot of these people hate my guts,” Wheeler said, looking around at the crowd.
But he said they were unified in wanting federal officers gone.
The mayor has called for federal agents to leave the city after they arrived to subdue the city’s long-running unrest. Dressed in camouflage and tactical gear and unleashing tear gas, federal officers have clashed violently with protesters and pulled some people into unmarked vans in what Governor Kate Brown called “a blatant abuse of power”.
Some protesters called the mayor’s arrival at the protest scene a photo op. Sean Smith, who has been at the protests for weeks, said Wheeler, who also serves as police commissioner, needs to take more action to control his Police Department and align with protesters.
“He should probably be out here every night,” Smith said.
By early Thursday, with protesters still outside both the federal courthouse and the county justice centre across the street, federal officers continued deploying tear gas and the Portland Police Bureau repeatedly warned that city officers might also use it.
The demonstrations, fuelled by a wide array of grievances, including against police brutality, have rocked Portland for 55 consecutive nights, persisting even as other protests have waned in many other parts of the country since the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
The city has become a target of President Donald Trump, who has embraced a law-and-order message in his re-election campaign. While federal officers were deployed to Portland to purportedly quell unrest and protect federal property, their arrival has only galvanised the movement, with the numbers of protesters each night swelling into the thousands.
On Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, protesters gathered around a temporary fence that federal officers had erected during the day. They shot fireworks at the building, and some breached the fence. Federal officers, wearing camouflage and tactical gear, emerged to fire tear gas and less-lethal munitions, and to arrest those who breached the fence.
While the Trump administration has labelled the protesters “violent anarchists,” Wheeler decided to go into the crowd on Wednesday night for what he deemed a “listening session,” and even after people were following and cursing him, he ended up spending three hours there.
At times he was jeered, such as when he told the crowd that he would not promise to abolish the Police Department. Other times, he drew cheers, such as when he demanded that the federal government “stop occupying our city”.
“If they launch the tear gas against you, they are launching the tear gas against me,” Wheeler said.
The New York Times