PORTLAND, Ore. — She emerged as an apparition from clouds of tear gas as federal agents fired pepper balls at angry protesters in the early Saturday darkness.
A woman wearing nothing but a black face mask and a stocking cap strode toward a dozen heavily armed agents attired in camouflage fatigues, lined up across a downtown Portland street. The agents, dispatched by the Trump administration over vociferous objections of state and city officials, are part of a force that has fired projectiles at and detained activists protesting nightly since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police May 25.
Numerous photos and videos posted on Twitter show the unidentified woman as she halted in the middle of the street at about 1:45 a.m. She stood calmly, a surreal image of human vulnerability in the face of an overpowering force that has been criticized nationally by civil rights advocates.
The agents, in gas masks and helmets, continued firing pepper balls in a staccato “pop, pop, pop” heard on video, aiming low at the asphalt, where puffs of smoke mingled with clouds of gas. At one point, a fellow protester, clothed, carrying a homemade shield, darted in front of the woman, angling to protect her.
But the woman sidestepped him. He jumped out of the way, perhaps realizing that he made them both a target.
Before it was over, she struck ballet poses and reclined on the street. She also sat on the asphalt in a yogalike stance, facing officers, before they left.
Portland has long been loved, or mocked, for its streak of earnest but quirky organic earthiness, as portrayed in the “Portlandia” television comedy series. Sometimes the envelope-pushing forms of expression involve nudity.
A Portland tavern owner, Bud Clark, gained fame during the 1980s before his election as mayor via a popular “expose yourself to art” poster showing him in a raincoat discreetly flashing a bronze nude sculpture.
Courts have held that appearing nude in Portland is a protected form of political expression, superseding bans on public indecency.
In 2008, a Multnomah County judge cleared a nude bicyclist of indecent exposure charges, saying cycling naked had become a “well established tradition” in Portland as a form of “symbolic protest.” Four years later, a man was acquitted of similar charges by a judge who interpreted his stripping naked at Portland International Airport as a legitimate form of protest against Transportation Security Administration procedures.
The woman making her statement Saturday was altogether uninhibited, at one point standing on one leg and raising her arms in an arc-type motion.
As she struck ballet poses, a patrol car arrived and a dozen officers in blue uniforms replaced the line of agents, whom officials described as having been targeted by protesters throwing rocks, bottles and pieces of metal. She sat in the street facing them, legs spread in the headlights’ glare.
Later she rolled on her back in a graceful pose, then stood again. The second group of officers, who may have been either Portland police or federal agents, also left.
In all, the woman’s appearance lasted about 15 minutes. News photographers said she slipped away, uninjured, into the crowd.
Images of her on social media harked back to previous iconic — but clothed — images juxtaposing force and vulnerability, such as the 1967 photo of a Vietnam War protester who faced a line of U.S. troops and placed a carnation into the barrel of a soldier’s rifle. In an ultimate act of defiance broadcast worldwide, a man stood in front of a column of tanks leaving Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989, a day after the Chinese military had suppressed protests by force.
Nudity has also served as a form of protest since at least to the 11th century, when legend holds that Lady Godiva rode naked, veiled only by her long hair, on a horse through Coventry, England, to protest oppressive taxation.
On Twitter, sympathetic commentators were quick to conclude that “Naked Athena,” as they dubbed the Portland protester, caused the officers to turn tail. But the reason for their departure is not clear from a review of multiple images. Federal officials and police did not comment on the woman.
Others on Twitter said the performance, by a white woman, distracted from protests of injustices faced by Black people.
The right-wing Nationalist Review website gave the incident its own spin, stating: “Antifa psychopath loses her mind, strips naked to ‘protest’ Portland police.”
In Washington on Sunday, House Democrats continued to voice alarm at the Trump administration’s dispatching of federal agents to crack down on protesters in Portland, expressing concerns that it could be a precursor to similar crackdowns in cities across the nation. A Homeland Security official has said the tactics could well be applied in other cities in the months before the presidential election.
In a letter to the inspectors general of the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, leading Democrats called for the watchdogs to investigate the conduct of the federal agents, whose presence was again termed unwelcome Sunday by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“This is a matter of utmost urgency,” wrote House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.; and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney; D-N.Y.
Later Sunday, the Oregonian newspaper of Portland posted an account of the mysterious woman’s appearance on its website, OregonLive, quoting one of its photographers, Dave Killen. He said that he didn’t hear the woman utter a word as pepper balls nicked the asphalt beside her and protesters yelled at officers.
“She was incredibly vulnerable,” Killen said. “It would have been incredibly painful to be shot with any of those munitions with no clothes on.”