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Being a white guy at a protest is a cheat code

The cops won’t bother you, for one thing. Verge contributor Sarah Jeong interviews a thirtysomething white man who regularly attends protests to find out more.

Protesters hold their hands in the air during a Black Lives Matter protest in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center on July 20, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Monday night marked 54 days of protests in Portland following the death of George Floyd in police custody.
Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Sarah Jeong features editor who publishes award-winning stories about law, tech, and internet subcultures. A journalist trained as a lawyer, she has been writing about tech for 10 years.

For this piece, Verge contributor Sarah Jeong spoke to a 35-year-old white man who regularly attends protests in Portland, OR, to find out what it’s like there for him. Here’s his experience, in his own words. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m a 35-year-old, white, slightly balding man living in Portland, Oregon. I don’t know how to describe my body without sounding like an asshole, but basically: I’m an Iraq combat veteran with a posture that goes with my background. I stand up straight. My torso looks pretty solid. I kind of look like a cop, I guess. But without the belly. And I’m white. I’m very, very obviously white.

Starting in my early 30s, I started to notice that I was being treated differently in physical spaces. It has something to do with dad-dom. I’m not a dad, but I’m squarely in that demo, which is something that short-circuits people’s brains. So to be clear, the bubble I’m walking around in comes from two related but different sources. I read like a white dad, and I also read like — like a figure of authority. Someone who speaks the language of authority and knows how to wear it casually. I guess that’s just another way of saying that I look like a cop.

Early on in June, I started going to some of the protests here in Portland. One of them was a die-in on the Burnside Bridge that turned into a march on the Justice Center [a county building in the middle of downtown that includes courts and a detention center]. The fence had been erected at that point. The sacred fence.

A crowd of protesters gather around a newly-reinforced permitter fence outside the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 22, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.
Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

[Jeong: Many of the early protests in Portland became focused on a relatively flimsy fence erected in front of the Justice Center. When the fence was dismantled, the protests against the Portland police deescalated and were dying down. Then federal law enforcement showed up. The federal authorities have since erected their own, much sturdier fence, which has itself predictably become the target of ire.]

Police eventually dispersed the crowd. Police and riot vans were driving around, and scared people were running everywhere. As I left the area, the police tear-gassed the crowd repeatedly. I ended up walking through multiple clouds of tear gas alongside kids. Some of them looked too young to drive. They were crying and clawing at their eyes and saying they couldn’t breathe. That’s a sight that will haunt me for a long time.

I was chased with a large group down the street. Whenever people broke away from the large group, they were either chased down or successively corralled back in. At one point, I felt like the police weren’t paying attention to me, so I made a right turn when the crowd didn’t. Turns out they were paying attention because three or four officers absolutely turned and looked in my direction. But they just didn’t do anything about it. They turned around again and chased the rest of the crowd. I hadn’t seen them leave people alone like that before.

I didn’t really know what to do with myself after that. So I spent the rest of the night walking around taking pictures, which would get me relatively close to the police. They just never interacted with me — except once, when a riot van with 10 or more officers hanging off the sides drove by me. One of them looked at me, raised his riot visor, and said “Go home” in a polite tone of voice.

This was on a night where I had witnessed them shoving, beating, and violently arresting the people around me. I was just invisible to them.

I call it a “bubble” because a handful of people around me will sometimes benefit, too. When I was out on subsequent nights, the police would often bull rush us down the street. I’d position myself behind kids or people who are panicking and just walk slowly and calmly. The cops would put their batons to my back and just walk right there behind me. Off to my left and right, I’d see people getting shoved to the ground.

So I try to use the bubble for good. I feel like, if I occupy the police’s attention as someone who they have to treat respectfully, that is at least some length of time that they’re not turning much more brutal attention on other people.

I have conflicting feelings about the bubble. There’s a crass side of it where I feel powerful and invulnerable, and it’s exhilarating. But I also feel inadequate because I have this invulnerability, and there are all these people getting arrested around me, and they’re too far away for the bubble to protect them. It’s also just confusing to be treated so differently from the people around me. Look, it’s Portland — it’s pretty white out here. But the white people getting arrested tend not to be middle-aged men. And it’s not because we’re not out here protesting, too.

I believe that other men who look like me also experience this bubble. I don’t think they notice it as it’s happening. But we all notice when it shatters. With Captain Portland, we noticed that it failed him, and it left everyone shocked.

[Jeong: Christopher Thomas, a 52-year-old white Navy veteran, became famous when a video of police hitting him with a baton went viral online. He was dubbed “Captain Portland” because he stood unmoved and upright while police repeatedly struck him and maced him in the face. Thomas’ hand was broken in the encounter.]

More than a thousand protesters march past Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse as part of ongoing protests against racial injustice and police brutality on July 23, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. Thursday night marked 57 days of protests in Portland following the death of George Floyd in police custody.
Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The protests are a pretty extreme environment where the bubble becomes extra obvious. But I had already been noticing that people around me have been treating me more deferentially than they were just five years ago. A year ago, I was on the streetcar here in Portland. An elderly woman was standing, and two teenage kids were sitting down. And I just sort of looked at them pointedly and glanced at the woman. One of them looked startled, and then stood up and offered her his seat.

Whatever aura I emanate on the streetcar — it’s also what makes the police ignore me in a protest.

This is what comic books and science fiction and fantasy and all that geek shit have been warning us about — or warning me about — my whole life. This is a power, and powers are corrupting influences. It manifests in silly ways a lot of the time — like getting teens to give up their seat on the streetcar — but it manifests in serious situations, too.

And in some ways, it’s scary to have outsized influence over the people around me. To whatever degree I can, I want to use that to help people. But there are enough depictions of that influence being corrupting that I’ll spend the next 30, 40 years watching myself for an impulse to throw my weight around. The temptation to control others is always lurking.

I don’t really have a neat conclusion here or a call to action. What am I going to do, ask people to just be decent? All I know is what I’m going to do with myself and this power I didn’t ask for. I don’t know what my experience says about the world or society or how any of it has to change. I hope someone reads this and figures it out.