Learn the story behind this iconic photo taken at a protest in Portland

  • Dave Killen @killendave Photovideo for  @Oregonian
    “She was incredibly vulnerable,” Killen said. “It would have been incredibly painful to be shot with any of those munitions with no clothes on.” Dave Killen @killendave Photovideo for @Oregonian
By Los Angeles Times, Dave Killen
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 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.

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.”

Before it was over, she struck ballet poses and reclined on the street. She also sat on the asphalt in a yoga-like position, 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.