Tensions rise inside and outside of Oregon’s Capitol

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — State police declared an unlawful assembly at Oregon’s Capitol building Monday as far-right protesters opposed to COVID-19 restrictions attempted to force their way in during a one-day special legislative session, with some demonstrators toting guns and others attacking authorities with bear spray.

Inside the Capitol, Lawmakers passed four bills Monday evening, which includes $800 million in relief to people struggling from the pandemic and wildfires, extending an eviction moratorium through June and allocating funds for renter and landlord relief.

“Make no mistake, if we do not pass this bill thousands of families will lose their homes in January and it will be on us,” Rep. Julie Fahey, a Democrat from Eugene, said to her colleagues.

The scene inside the Capitol was much different earlier in the day when a group of protestors forced their way in and used chemical agents and bear spray against officers. At least two people were arrested, police said.

Lawmakers, including Senate President Peter Courtney said the chemical agents lingered in the hallways, causing them to cough as they discussed bills.

Outside, protesters banged their fists against the doors chanting, “Let us in.” The state’s Capitol is closed to the public during the special session as part of a COVID-19 safety measure. However virtual testimony about the bills that were expected to be discussed by lawmakers Monday was allowed during Thursday and Saturday hearings.

Police blocked off streets surrounding the Capitol building, but as of noon people were shouting “Arrest Kate Brown,” referring to the Democratic governor, who has extended virus restrictions in the state.

One person climbed on top of a 20-foot (6-meter) tall relief sculpture next to the front steps of the building, and waved an American flag as people cheered.

Other protestors walked around with rifles slung across their bodies as state police, within armored vehicles, repeatedly announced that people must leave the area.

By 2 p.m., the crowd’s agitation heightened as people attempted to break glass doors leading into the Capitol building. Reporters from Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Statesman Journal posted videos on Twitter of them being assaulted by protestors.

House Speaker Tina Kotek described the violence and damage to the Capitol as “disconcerting and frightening.”

Sen. Courtney, who is Oregon’s longest-serving lawmaker, said Monday’s protests “shook” him.

“It was sad today,” Courtney said. “There was a lot of anger — real anger — a lot of meanness and a lot of open division, and I can’t find a way to stop it.”

Lawmakers are no stranger to protests, whether it is by members of the public or their own colleagues.

Last year a series of walkouts was held by Republican senators, blocking a school funding tax. They returned after Democrats scrapped bills on gun control and another that would have limited religious exemptions from vaccines.

A month later, Republicans again did not show up to the Capitol in order to stop a cap-and-trade bill designed to institute a carbon tax. During that time the governor sent state police to bring the absent Republican senators back to the Capitol, and in response some senators fled the state.

About 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of the Capitol, Portland has been the epicenter of Black Lives Matter protests — where police and protesters have clashed, as well as demonstrators from other political groups.

There were tense moments within the walls of the Capitol as well.

On the Senate floor Monday morning, Republican Sen. Dallas Heard stood before his colleagues accusing Democrats and Senate President Peter Courtney of joining Brown’s “campaign against the people and the children of God.”

The senator from Roseburg called the special session “illegitimate” as the public is not allowed inside and described it as an “unchecked assault” against people and their freedom.

He also decried the mask mandate.

“If you had not done such great evil to my people and had simply asked me to wear my mask, I would have,” Heard said. “But you commanded it and therefore I declare my right to protest against your false authority and remove my mask.”

Heard did speak with protesters outside and was absent from the rest of the special session.

The four bills that lawmakers passed Monday during the one-day special legislative session were an eviction moratorium that includes $200 million in relief for landlords and tenants, a restaurant relief package that includes a provision legalizing cocktails to-go, a bill that protects schools from some coronavirus-related lawsuits and a measure that will transfer $600 million in to the state’s emergency fund for COVID-19 and wildfire-response and recovery.

The bill that has dominated discussions among lawmakers for weeks and drove the immediate need for a special session is House Bill 4401, which focuses on evictions.

With the federal and state eviction moratorium set to expire at the end of the year, the issue has been pushed to the forefront.

For weeks, housing advocates have implored lawmakers to extend the moratorium, estimating that between 20,000 and 40,000 Oregon households could be at risk for eviction.

The bill extends the moratorium on residential evictions through June 2021. It also requires that tenants to submit a sworn statement that they’ve experienced financial hardship in order to be protected from eviction.

In addition, the bill allocates $150 million for a Landlord Compensation Fund to pay landlords back rent owed, however landlords must forgo 20% of past-due payments.

The third special session lasted a total of 10 hours.

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Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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