Protesters fill the streets during a protest on Monday, June 1. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Skip Miller, Salem’s deputy police chief, climbed into an unmarked police car with three lieutenants from the Salem Police Department for the drive up to Portland.
That Saturday morning, colleagues at the Portland Police Bureau had asked for help. Another night of protests was expected that Saturday night, outstripping the police force’s ability to keep control in Oregon’s most populous city.
The night before, vandals had broken into the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland, setting a small fire, apparently unconcerned they were being taped tearing up ground floor offices.
The Portland briefing was at 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 30 and by then there was chatter on social media about an event planned locally. Miller told Portland police at the briefing officers would stay back in Salem unless the event didn’t pan out at the Capitol.
Two hours later, Miller and his team were back in Salem. Police commanders also faced requests from Eugene police to help with their own riotous demonstrations.
But word spread that Salem would have its own troubles that night and the police force was on its own as other agencies went to Portland to assist there.
The account of what happened in downtown Salem over the next three nights is taken from an internal police review and interviews. They show a police force facing unprecedented dangers – and a late-night choice to use tear gas for the first time ever on a Salem crowd.
That Saturday afternoon, police dispatchers were already fielding calls from citizens worried about reports of a protest in Salem with looting and arson. Police also heard an armed militia would be in town again, a worrisome development.
Concerns about a clash between protesters and the militia group prompted the protest organizer, not identified by city officials, to try canceling the Capitol demonstration. But it was too late.
Roughly an hour after Miller had returned to town, protesters gathered at the Capitol. A half dozen blocks away, outside the Glamour Salon, armed civilians stood sentry, their weapons and ammunition clearly visible after the salon owner put out a call to arms on Facebook that afternoon.
City Manager Steve Powers worked with other city officials to craft an order declaring a city curfew. The order would prohibit travel on any public street, sidewalk or public place so officers could invoke it if things turned violent. Powers held off issuing the order.
Around 9 p.m., protesters marched from the Capitol and walked laps around downtown, taking them past the armed civilians outside the salon. Police didn’t interfere, but noticed the tensions increasing between the two groups with each pass.
By 9:30 p.m. the crowd had grown to several hundred people who were marching through Salem’s downtown streets while business owners stood guard outside their storefronts to protect them from looting.
After more than an hour of marching, the event organizer wanted to head back to the Capitol but made a wrong turn. Police waited as the crowd made an about face and started walking back toward the state building.
When most of the protesters returned to the Capitol around 11 p.m., an organizer declared the event over.
Volunteers work to remove graffiti on a monument at the Capitol on Sunday, May 31. Protesters tagged the monuments and several locations at the Capitol during a demonstration in Salem on Saturday, May 30. (Joel Zack/Special to Salem Reporter)
That’s when the situation deteriorated. People started spraying graffiti on the marble statues at the front of the Capitol building. A crowd of 100 people started moving west on Court Street, back to downtown. Concerned about possible looting and vandalism, police commanded the crowd by loudspeaker to disperse, blocking Court Street at the intersection of Northeast Winter Street to stop their progress.
People in the crowd responded by hurling water bottles, bricks, rocks, glass and explosive devices at officers. Police repeatedly directed the crowd to leave immediately.
When those orders weren’t heeded over 10 minutes, Miller okayed the use of tear gas for the first time in the Salem Police Department’s history. The deputy chief worried that an officer be hurt by a person throwing a rock at them in the dark. He also requested Police Chief Jerry Moore enact the curfew.
Police said they had never seen a crowd act so hostile – throwing bricks – toward police in Salem.
A small portion of the protesters started to move west again along Court Street as the militia group was watching from the sidewalk next to the Marion County Courthouse. To head off a confrontation, police on the street divided into two squads, one to handle the militia group and the other to remain with protesters.
Elements of the protesters and the militia still managed to make contact, with fights ending only after officers used munitions like flashbangs to break up the altercation. Police then got reports of possible looting at Salem Center, two blocks away. By the time officers got there, vandals had left after breaking glass doors and crowds formed on both Liberty and Chemeketa streets.
Some in the crowd continued throwing rocks and fireworks at officers as they tried to push them off Chemeketa Street. Police elected not to make arrests since there weren’t enough officers available. The city’s SWAT team was activated as a backup and more of the remaining protesters started leaving the area.
Adding to the chaos was a collision between two cars at the intersection of Northeast High and Court streets. As angry protesters gathered at the scene, one-fourth of the officers on duty reacted to the scene to maintain control while another squad focused on dispersing the remaining crowd that was moving toward Glamour Salon.
Over the coming hours, the remaining protesters faded away and by 3 a.m., the downtown streets were largely empty.
Within hours, police learned of another planned protest in Salem, this one set for 10 p.m., considered an unusual time for a public demonstration.
This time, police had no idea who was organizing the event and Miller elected to keep Salem police away to avoid inflaming the situation. He was also concerned those who had worked until just before dawn would likely be exhausted as they returned to work for another night of protest patrol.
Days later, Miller would second guess himself about that decision. In the past, police have handed out stickers after protests, not tear gas, and nothing indicated the protest would again turn violent.
Around 9 p.m., about 300 protesters marched from the Capitol and stationed themselves on the Marion Street Bridge, stopping traffic for a brief period before returning to the Capitol.
At the Capitol, some demonstrators handed out gas masks and started marching back toward the Center Street Bridge. Police thought the crowd was going to try to block the bridge again, so they formed a line at Liberty and Center streets, telling the protesters they were violating the city curfew and they had to leave.
For the second night, protesters responded by throwing mortar fireworks, rocks, bottles, bricks and large nails. It didn’t take long for police to respond. Three minutes after protesters started throwing objects, around 10 p.m., Miller authorized the use of tear gas.
Through a loudspeaker, officers continued telling protesters, who were putting on riot gear and gas masks, to leave.
Protesters surrounded a car driving on Court Street and jumped onto the hood. When police drove in with patrol cars to help the driver, the crowd scattered. Some tossed nails onto downtown streets, and police later had to replace or repair 19 tires on police vehicles.
This time, arrests were made – 14 in all. By about 1 a.m. Monday, the event was over.
Taking lessons from the previous two nights, Salem police took a different approach for yet another protest set for Monday night. This time, police located and coordinated efforts with protesters. Instead of blocking the path of protesters to downtown, police blocked intersections so marchers could proceed. At the new police station, police commanders joined protesters in lighting candles for a vigil.
A splinter group stayed on after the event ended. Just after 11 p.m. a group of about 75 people blocked the road at Center and Capitol streets. Police told tell the crowd the leave and people started throwing rocks and water bottles at officers.
This time, flashbangs instead of tear gas were used to bring the confrontation to an end. Nine people were arrested.
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Have a story tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.