Editor's Note: On Monday, July 27, organizers of Riot Ribs disbanded, claiming that a volunteer had hijacked the operation and forcefully expelled them from Lownsdale Park. The story is developing. Read their statement here.
In recent weeks, Lownsdale Square in downtown Portland has become a stage for nightly protests with a predictable scene: Impassioned chanting crowds spilling into the streets, loud explosions from flashbangs, and plumes of smoke from tear gas. During the day, too, smoke billows from the square, but for a different reason: a pop-up restaurant called Riot Ribs that serves free food around the clock to anyone who approaches.
Started by a coalition of people who say they wanted to support the Black Lives Matter movement through food, the makeshift kitchen includes a handful of pop-up tents, rows of plastic tables, a wall of coolers, and plastic bins overflowing with buns, bags of chips, snack bars, and various canned goods.
“Everything you see is donated,” says a grill master who goes by the name Legend. Those who volunteer at Riot Ribs asked that we use nicknames or first names and that we not show faces in photographs for fear of retribution by authorities. Wearing a black bulletproof vest and a wide-brimmed cloth hat, Legend shifts between brushing grates, stoking coals, and seasoning a full rack of ribs.
A constant presence for the past three weeks of an eight-week long string of demonstrations, Riot Ribs is the most visible and steadfast symbol of solidarity among protesters in the midst of an ongoing fight to end police brutality and white supremacy. Run by an all-volunteer staff, the mutual aid kitchen serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner to hundreds of people every day. At any given point, 20 people are on hand to perform various jobs: sorting donated food, chopping vegetables, flipping burgers, and serving heaping plates of food to a line of people.
Though the scene looks chaotic, with people weaving around a four-foot tall mountain of charcoal and between multiple rows of stacked cases of water bottles, Riot Ribs operates as smoothly as a well-run restaurant.
Staffing the 24-hour kitchen and keeping items stocked is a feat made possible by an outpouring of support. At any given moment, someone approaches the kitchen volunteering to help. On Thursday, a woman came by by to offer free acupuncture services. Dozens of people stopped by with armfuls of donations, including latex gloves, tubs of potato salad, jugs of barbecue sauce, and cash to sustain the endeavor.
Tyler, one of Riot Ribs’ organizers, says he sees the support as a clear message: “It’s time.”
“Black people are getting shot in the street every fucking day. We’re just over it,” he says. “People are so responsive right now. There’s always support, but this is just beyond.”
Kacie Eikenbary, a 35-year-old from Portland, donated a box of muffins and pastries. She says she read about Riot Ribs and was moved by the fact organizers don’t discriminate on who gets a free meal, feeding protesters and houseless people alike.
“They’ve been feeding people all day, every day, even outside of the protests,” she says. “It gives you energy, quite literally, to keep going. It helps build community and camaraderie and it brings people together, which is what we need most right now.”
The kitchen serves a rotating menu, concocting dishes from whatever turns up. In addition to traditional barbecue fare, they’ve served up tacos and try to keep a regular stock of vegetarian favorites such as Beyond Meat and veggie hot dogs.
As Legend flips his perfectly charred ribs, a passerby quips, “Bro, don’t you want to get that tear gas marinade?”
“It’s coming—3 a.m. special,” he said.
The joke isn’t far from the truth. Riot Ribs’s presence in Lownsdale Square puts them in close proximity to the Multnomah County Justice Center and the Mark O. Hatfield US Courthouse, where police and protesters have continued to clash even after the square was officially closed by the city on July 16. The group has been tear gassed so many times that volunteers say they know the drill: close the grills, cover the food, and keep your gas mask where you can find it.
At 8 a.m. on Thursday, Riot Ribs put out a desperate call on Twitter: “All of our grills were purposely pepper sprayed on the inside last night. We need new grills.” By 5 p.m. the same day, they had accumulated more than 16 donated grills, nearly all of which were fired up, sizzling with hotdogs, burgers and, of course, ribs.
“When people don’t know what to do, where to put their energy, there’s always food,” says Lil Dyl, one of the people manning a bank of grills.
Lil Dyl is from Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by an officer who knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. The footage reignited racial tension and sparked a new round of protests across the country. This week marks the eighth straight week of Portland demonstrations.
Lil Dyl says he participated in the protests in Minnesota before traveling to the Northwest, where he was invited by a friend to grill at the Portland protests. He says he loves people and cooking, two reasons that have kept him showing up to grill every day for the past three weeks. Wednesday night’s mayhem still has Lil Dyl shaking on Thursday morning. He holds out a 5-inch-long plastic slug that he says whizzed by his head, hitting his left ear and knocking out his gauge. Despite the scary ordeal, he returned to work.
“I’m just trying to make sure everyone has a good cooked meal,” Lil Dyl says.
It’s one of many run-ins the kitchen has had with authorities. Riot Ribs has had volunteers arrested, food confiscated, and equipment damaged. Following Wednesday evening’s encounter, Riot Ribs told their Twitter followers: “Everyone needs to know that they’re targeting us. They slashed our cases of water bottles; broke one tent only (one of our cooks); broke open our snacks and sprayed them with tear gas as well.”
But in the wake of each setback, they’ve managed to re-open the free-meal restaurant.
“This is our constitutional right to hold our government accountable,” Tyler says. “It’s why I’m out here. I love seeing humans feel sovereign, feel empowered.”