It was late Friday evening on May 29 when Tre Stewart and a friend stood at the top of a parking garage in downtown Eugene, trying to catch a glimpse of the crowd gathered several blocks away. From their vantage point, they could scarcely make out the chanting and protesting sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Stewart heard fireworks in the distance, straining to see where the light of a Roman candle was coming from. The parking garage was a few blocks away from The Drake Bar, where Stewart was the resident DJ. But the pandemic had closed the bars indefinitely, and Stewart hadn’t been able to perform as Stoggrd — his DJ name — in months. Instead, he was working at Albertsons.
“Right after COVID happened, and for a while, I was confused,” Stewart tells Eugene Weekly. “I have been Stoggrd the last few years. Now I’m Tre again. I thought, what the hell am I going to do?”
That’s when Stewart headed towards the crowd. Approaching the group of about 40 people gathered near 7th Avenue and Washington Street, Stewart opened up Facebook on his phone and started live streaming the demonstration.
Some of the protesters started a dumpster fire and the crowd grew, leading to the destruction and looting of nearby businesses. Thousands of people from around the community watched with bated breath as the events unfolded on Stewart’s live streamed video.
Nearly 60 days later, Stewart still goes out on the streets every night with a phone mount, a handful of portable chargers and a dedicated crew of people while he live streams the protests in Eugene, Springfield and Portland.
Stewart and his crew call themselves Boop Troop Eugene, and this is how they came together to document the Black Lives Matter movement in Oregon.
After the first night of protests, Stewart felt he had to keep attending and streaming them. He quickly became a well known figure among marchers. Stewart started suiting up with an old black police vest he once wore at a Halloween party as a DJ. He began carrying the mount for his phone as he streamed.
“Tre! Tre!” marchers would call over to him to ask him a question.
“What route are we taking today?”
“Do you have any gum?”
“I need a phone charger. Could I use yours for a moment?”
Smiling, he would devote his attention to each person who asked something of him, digging through one of the many pouches on his Mary Poppins-esque vest and providing what was asked for.
When the group was stopped or sitting, Stewart approached individuals, asking if they wanted some hand sanitizer. They cupped their hands as he squirted a few drops from the bottle sticking out of the vest’s gun holster.
“Boop!” He said each time he tapped the spout.
Later, Boop Troop member Dawna VanTryfle came up with the term “Boop Troop Eugene” as their name, as a way to immortalize Stewart’s iconic “boops.” Soon, journalists and other people from all over the world would pop in on Stewart’s live stream to monitor the events and ask questions about what was going on. Stewart says he does his best to answer but misses them as he streams.
Initially, he says, he was live streaming while chanting with the protesters and had even helped plan a few of the protests during the first week of June. But, as time went on, he realized that he needed to figure out how he wanted to be involved. He eventually became more neutral, focusing on becoming a journalist.
Stewart says he never thought about going into activism or journalism. He grew up in Lebanon, a small town about 45 minutes north of Eugene. Joking that he was one of seven people of color in town, Stewart says he didn’t encounter the kind of racism that people were protesting and chanting about in the Black Lives Matter movement, but he grew more frustrated with the police behavior he observed while covering protests.
“I didn’t go into it with the attitude of ‘fuck the police,’” Stewart says.
He moved to Eugene back in 2015 to be with his then-girlfriend and their newborn son. Music is Stewart’s lifelong passion, so he took the opportunity to dive into the local music scene, becoming the resident DJ at The Drake Bar. After he lost his job during the pandemic, he got the gig at Albertsons to help pay bills.
As he started covering the protests nightly, Stewart wasn’t sure what he was going to do about his job at the grocery store. People commented on his live stream and told him to call in sick. So Stewart decided to quit and focus his time on documenting the burgeoning civil rights movement.
But if he was going to dedicate his time to the protests every night, he would have to assemble a team.
Jumping into action
Night after night, the protests continued. Stewart developed a network of Boop Troop Eugene members who help document events, update the Boop Troop blog with happenings and written accounts of what was happening, and monitor the reach. One of Stewart’s most recent video clips of federal officers beating up protest medics in Portland got more than 800,000 views on Twitter.
When he goes out to live stream, Stewart says he has to dress differently depending on whether the protest is in Eugene or Portland. In Eugene he can dress more casual, but in Portland, he arrives equipped with a gas mask, a helmet, knee pads and elbow pads.
“If I’m in Eugene, I’ll carry snacks, hand sanitizer, fun stuff to hand out to the kids,” he says. “In Portland, I get prepped for battle.”
But Stewart isn’t alone. In addition to the 500 or 600 Boop Troop Eugene followers on the gamer chat app Discord, there are a handful of people who are active in the gang’s daily protest coverage and media output.
During protests, VanTryfle sits behind a computer, monitoring the Boop Troop Eugene members on the ground. VanTryfle says that as quadriplegic who is stuck in hospital rehab after a pre-COVID surgery, she couldn’t be out in the action.
She got involved by answering questions on Stewart’s live streams and became — by no official process — the moderator.
“Now I am involved in every department except on the ground,” VanTryfle says. “I’m involved in moderation, admin. I’m involved in the background team information, cyber security…”
That is how the rest of the group came together, says VanTryfle — also known as “Hot Wheelz” because of her wheelchair and her Discord chat name. People started doing tasks and the leaders came together cohesively.
VanTryfle carefully observes the protests and the chaos, reverse image searching a sketchy car or telling Stewart to go help another streamer. She says she took on the role with Boop Troop to do her part in making change happen.
“My involvement is behind the scenes, doing my best to be active here and get my health back. It’s taken a pretty full time role for me right now,” she says. “Our current system is broken and is not working for a majority of people.”
Stewart also relies on Ellen Klowden, the blogger and editor for Boop Troop Eugene, who writes summaries of protests, event updates and editorial pieces that cover racism on the Boop Troop blog.
Out in the field, several other streamers usually join Stewart in his live streams or take turns live streaming from other cities. Stewart says that Luke Schwelder and Jazmine Delilah often come with him, stationed at opposite ends of the crowd with walkie talkies.
Jay Brown, a peer support counselor and Black BLM leader from Coos Bay, streams protests in her town for Boop Troop and even drives up to Portland or Salem to pitch in when needed.
“I report the realness,” Brown says. “Every one of the streamers has a different style of working. Mine is getting the good stuff. It’s not one sided.”
Brown says the work has been extremely exhausting adding that she can manage just a few hours of sleep a day, in addition to her job and personal life.
“You kinda just get in this mindframe that you have to do it.”
Stewart has struggled with the time he spends at protests as well. In Eugene, he might stream for five hours straight. In Portland, he’s streamed for up to 10 hours, sometimes falling asleep on a bench in the middle of the chaos.
And every night that he goes out to document riots, he comes home exhausted. Though he doesn’t have a day job anymore, Stewart has to make time for his 3-year-old son, who he says doesn’t fully understand what is going on in the world, and his father’s role in it.
“It’s been tough to get time with my kid. It’s hard for me to explain to him what I’m doing and why.”
Stewart adds that his family in Lebanon doesn’t understand his role, either. He often has to prioritize speaking with Boop Troop members over family. He’s also missed family birthdays. And his mom is constantly worried.
While filming protests in Portland, Stewart has been hit with impact weapons and tear gas as officers do not make distinctions between protesters and journalists. On July 23, he was hit in the face with a bean bag round, but his respirator took most of the impact. Several days later, he had to go to the hospital after being hit in the testicle.
“All they see is clips of me getting hit or shot at. It’s taken a big chunk of my life with my family and personal health.”
Stewart says that some protesters are wary of his live streams, because being seen online can expose their identities. A few weeks ago, during a protest at the jail, some protesters asked Stewart to stop his live stream. He respected what they asked and signed off. But in other instances, especially in Portland, Stewart has been followed and chased for live streaming.
And the responsibility has taken a toll on Stewart’s mental health, too. He says that he has called a personal trainer to help him out because he had lost so much weight over the last couple of months. But Stewart says he knows that this is where he needs to be right now. Because he isn’t just live streaming, but helping people. He has broken up fights in Portland and helped people get away from the federal officers who have been grabbing protesters off the street and hauling them off in unmarked vans.
“I’ve been doing this so often that when bad shit happens, I’m not super panicked. I’m like, what can I do to help? People being abducted by the feds is super scary. I feel like it’s my job now, I’m not worried about it.”
As a documentarian of events, Stewart says he considers himself to be a part of the media, and those who disseminate information to the public without a professional affiliation are often dubbed “citizen journalists.”
“It’s definitely stuff I’ve grown to be passionate about,” he says. “Now I consider myself a journalist.”
Between two Oregon legal cases in 2008 and 2011, the shield protections for citizen journalists is unclear. In one case, a videographer was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union in his efforts to not comply with a grand jury subpoena, and the subpoena was dropped. In the 2011 case, the court ruled a prolific blogger did not have journalist protections in a lost defamation case.
Eugene police spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin said in an email that the topic of citizen journalists is “not a topic that the city has previously researched” and that the city is looking into the issue “in the event the rare circumstances arises again.”
When the battle is over
But as the dust settles in this battle in the war on systemic racism, what is next for Boop Troop Eugene, a group that now boasts an international reach?
Its members here say they will continue to document protests around the state as long as people are in the streets fighting against police brutality and injustice.
VanTryfle says the group is trying to incorporate and form an official business, and that as things calm down, the Boop Troop will continue to shed light on issues beyond Black Lives Matter. She says they won’t just cover the BLM movement but also other civil rights issues that might need to be addressed.
“We intend to have Boop Troop used for the betterment of the community,” VanTryfle says.
Stewart says the future of his live streamed protests depend on how the BLM movement progresses. He adds that what they are doing with Boop Troop isn’t like a job where people submit resumes.
“It’s a huge community spreading love and positivity,” Stewart says.
When the pandemic eases up, Stewart hopes to move back into being a DJ and performing music, at least part time. Although he misses that part of his life, Stewart says what he is doing now is more important.
“Me performing and making music is not as important as making sure people are being safe and protected,” he says. He adds that being a part of this movement has also given him ideas on how to create and DJ events for black people. Cowfish bar offered Stewart to come DJ on Sunday nights, and he thinks it would be a good way for Boop Troop members to rest and have fun after a week of covering protests.
Though the live streams could appear less frequently, the network of Boop Troop Eugene will still exist. Brown says that the group is kind of like a family even though they are all spread across Oregon.
“This is one of the tight-knit communities in the streamer world. We watch out for each other. They are in it, they are all about keeping everybody safe.”
This story has been updated.