Protesters carry painted riot shields during a march on July 25, 2020, in Oakland, California. Demonstrators in Oakland gathered to protest in solidarity with Portland protests. NATASHA MOUSTACHE / GETTY IMAGES
On July 25, Day 58 of the continuous Portland, Oregon, Black Lives Matter protests, thousands of protesters swarmed the Justice Center located in the city’s downtown area. This was a crushing number of people, and they were joined by solidarity marches in other cities. Protesters pushed up against a fence that was raised around the federal buildings and anchored in cement blocks in an attempt to stop demonstrators from getting into the building as they had during previous nights. The vast majority of the crowd were wearing helmets, goggles and gas masks or respirators in anticipation of the violence these federal officers have become famous for using. Some were holding up umbrellas or shields to block the MK-9 pepper spray that the officers had been using against the demonstrators.
The police began firing off teargas canisters into the crowd as protesters shot back fireworks and blew the gas back toward the building with industrial kitchen fans and leaf blowers. Eventually, at 1:15 am, federal officers, in conjunction with the Portland Police, rushed the crowds as protesters breached the fence, blanketing the area with teargas and firing impact munitions that sent hundreds of protesters scrambling through the street of downtown Portland. The violence against protesters only continued to escalate, but they were largely unmoved, regrouping after the attacks only to continue the protests that have drawn international attention.
Nearly two months have come and gone as the Portland protests continue night after night. Starting at the end of May in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the demonstrations have completely altered the city and have set in a permanent protest culture, and demonstrations regularly pop up at different places throughout the city. They eventually all descend on the federal Justice Center in downtown Portland, which is now boarded up like a fortress after nearly 60 days of sustained confrontations.
The Police Have Not Yet Been Defunded
Defunding the police has become the dominant demand from the broad confederations of organizations involved in the protests, and this has become explicit from groups like Rose City Justice, which emerged as a Black-led organization from these initial demonstrations. They are asking for Portland to defund the police department by $50 million each year and divert that to programs that can help the communities that need it.
“I think that Portland is unique in its openness to progressive ideas and I think once it was given the opportunity to open its eyes that people have maybe had the privilege to not face … I don’t think the government has given us any reason to stop getting out there,” says Devin Boss, a founding member of Rose City Justice. Instead of policing as a solution, organizers want to beef up resources for kids in crisis, for people with mental health issues, and to treat the problems that often result in a police call as issues that need social support to be addressed rather than a baton and a gun.
Instead of hearing the demand of $50 million, the city is offering much smaller cuts, closer to $15 million (which would eliminate 84 positions with the Portland Police Bureau) and the elimination of particularly unpopular units such as the Gun Violence Reduction Team (formerly the Gang Enforcement Team) and the Transit Division. These two proposals are still worlds apart for a community set on abolitionism as an ideological principle.
“I think that Portland is a beast of its own, a different type of beast — we have always been a type of peoples who have it in our heart and soul to sustain a movement like this. Also, I think that the cause is so worthy and just that there are so many organizations and individuals who have sprung up as a result just within the last 50 days,” says Nusheen Bakhtiar, another member of Rose City Justice. “They’re all strategizing and organizing and talking and trying to get as creative and powerful that we can, to spread the message and spread the voice. I also think it’s really hard to go away when you have innocent people shot in the face with rubber bullets and tear gas. It makes you want to keep getting out there, doesn’t it?”
The Police Are Openly Brutalizing People
The first few weeks of protest were handled with incredible violence by the Portland Police Bureau, which leveled crowd control munitions and tear gas at protests and journalists alike. This led to lawsuits and injunctions that changed the approach that the police were able to take, but when Donald Trump ordered federal agents into the city, the dynamic became even more hostile.
“It is simple: people are witnessing police brutality firsthand. With the government’s inaction against the coronavirus pandemic, people are [becoming] more aware of the failing system,” says Jeremy Smith, a member of the activist media collective DefendPDX. “I believe the people are starting to realize the joke we call our representative government and learning that it only benefits a select few. Our representatives are silent, and their inactions echo with each ‘non-lethal’ munition fired into a crowd. The people have had enough.”
The purpose of the officers is confusing to many; they move in and out of the space and offer little communication to protesters or press. Instead, they use crowd-control dispersal tools that are known to cause incredible injury. One protester, Donavan LaBella, was hit in the head by munition and ended up in critical condition with a skull fracture, his life permanently altered. Street medics, who are civilians trained to give emergency triage care at protests, are poised around the demonstrations, often having to drag injured people from what feels like a war zone.
“I believe that protesters participating in direct action downtown understand that their role is essential to the movement, even if the specific demands remain unclear. If demonstrations were ineffective in threatening state power, law enforcement wouldn’t respond with tear gas and rubber bullets,” says Gabby Albano, also of the DefendPDX collective. “People continue to fight because of police retaliation. It certainly speaks to the resiliency of the protesters and the gravity of this cause.”
Trump’s War on the Left
A standoff has now begun in Portland as Trump keeps what amounts to federal troops on the streets of the city against the wishes of local officials, maintaining a “law and order” message as he ramps up his campaign. For a party that is built on trumping up the message of “states’ rights,” the Trump administration has decided to forgo the authority of the state and impose something akin to military street authorities.
The officers, and right-wing journalists and politicians have argued that this is an ongoing violent riot, but the reality is that these protests have been largely peaceful. On the evening of July 17, there was no provocation that was visible, and on many nights, the excuse federal agents give for attacking the crowds are that people are throwing empty water bottles or insults at the police. On July 22, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who has been heavily denounced by protesters for his apparent unwillingness to stop the police, was hit by teargas and told reporters he saw no provocation and called the federal officers’ behavior “urban warfare.” On July 25, while protesters had increased their militancy and commitment to pushing back on barriers like the fence, these actions amounted to little more than loud protest tactics, yet were met by crushing force. The issue of “protester violence” is largely one of a right-wing construct, taking things like vandalism and defensive strategies and reframing them as aggression. The violence of the federal officers, ranging from sending protesters to the hospital to running “snatch and grab” operations on them without charge, feels like a false equivalency.
While “freedom of speech” is tossed around regularly as a rhetorical tactic, these protests should be a hallmark of the concept, and would be welcome if this was even close to being a functioning democracy. The federal officers stationed in Portland seem determined to treat them as an enemy army, a combination of fear and threat, but it is the federal authorities who are the outside occupying force. The approach is a “shock and awe” combination of military-style attacks whose only function appears to be to frighten the protesters into staying at home. This violates the most basic precepts of how law enforcement is supposed to deal with political demonstrations: their ostensible function is not to intimidate the demonstrators into ending their protected protest activity.
“Maybe there are people who won’t go out because of this intimidation tactic or are looking over their shoulder. The police’s ability to sow paranoia in activist circles is pretty well known. COINTELPRO doesn’t need to actually exist for them to use the specter to scare people,” says Juan Chavez, Northwest regional vice president of the National Lawyers Guild. “The same can be said of federal troopers; they only have to do it a few times to get the point across. That said, people aren’t going to back down, either.”
When a political mercenary like Trump is at the helm, the conventional rules of engagement are being torched. Black Lives Matter protests are vastly unpopular in Trump’s base, and right-wing social media is filled with reactionary demands to tamp down the protests with force. Trump’s decision to use a narrow executive order to keep militarized federal officers in Portland appears as a cynical campaign move, a show to his supporters that he can keep civil unrest under control. This weakens the autonomy of the state, the freedom of protesters to voice opposition without retaliation and the ability of the press to cover the biggest story of the year.
Now Trump is sending officers to Chicago and is promising more to be sent to other liberal cities, owning up to his promise to intervene on Democratic strongholds he has expressed displeasure in. This escalation has been seen by many as connected to the issue of police brutality and the far right usurpation of human rights that is in progress. This is likely the greatest reason why the demonstrations are growing again, because this has become a dire situation where the expansion of state power has to be confronted.
If this siege is allowed to continue in Portland, it will come at the cost of every political freedom that the residents depend on, and will be evidence that the president can use the Department of Homeland Security as a private “secret police” to make political attacks in advance of an election. Without any threat to “homeland security” from protests that rarely surpass a few hundred, this neglects the basic precepts that would justify the use of federal authorities. If Trump is going to treat federal law enforcement as a work-around for establishing veritable martial law in liberal cities he dislikes, then the civil liberties of dissenting voices in the U.S. have been torched.
The opposition filed in courts will likely come to a head in the coming days, but the problem is that these lawsuits still rely on the idea that the courts and the government are neutral. If Trump is using federal mandates to suppress speech and go around procedure, there is no guarantee a favorable ruling will have any profound effect for those being tear gassed on the ground. The only solution is for a movement around the country to stand in solidarity with those in Portland, and to use the same “people power” that Trump finds so threatening. He has armed troops patrolling a U.S. city and if we do not want this to become the standard, we are going to have to hit the streets ourselves. The solidarity actions are starting to pick up steam, and in the adjoining demonstration in Seattle on July 25, police declared a riot and dozens of arrests were made, matching the intensity that has marked Portland’s responses. A reflexive dynamic is emerging, as cities surge in militant street confrontations and Trump sends in federal officers to show that he can take control. This is a self-reinforcing cycle that will guarantee the protests continue to escalate. If anything pushes these protests to a radical direction, it will be the repeated assaults from officers dressed in military fatigues with their weapons of urban warfare. The only option for protesters is to put as much pressure as possible to end these occupations, and with the tensions raised they have the possibility of pushing political concerns with the deployment of federal agents and into the very idea of policing itself. This cauldron may be what is required for an abolitionist politic to take hold and make gains.
The only thing that will determine the course of this situation is whether the protests can continue and bring the situation to a head. The reality is that radical change is determined primarily by social movements, and the people have decided that they are going to stay in the streets rather than accept a new normal of Trump’s military occupation.