I. TRUMP TEST MARKETS A NEW PARAMILITARY
Portland has long been a test market, since its demographics and tastes mirror those of the United States writ large (aside from a notable lack of churchiness). The hipsters of TV shows Shrill and Portlandia are hee-larious but also represent just a tiny slice of recent transplants, people you’re unlikely to know if you have a full-time job, a house or a family.
Most people in the metro area live away from downtown, in quiet, tree-lined urban neighbourhoods of modest bungalows, or out in the suburbs which — not unlike Vancouver’s relationship to Surrey and Richmond — are immigrant enclaves ringing the wealthier inner city. Koreatown is in Beaverton, the best Latinx restaurants are in Hillsboro, and SE 82nd Avenue is the spine of pan-Asian Portland (mostly Vietnamese).
Out where most people live, the images on Fox News of “Portland under Siege” by “violent anarchists” are absurd. Birds chirp, COVID-shrivelled traffic flows easily, and people go about their lives. There isn’t much reason to go downtown unless you work there or have to go to court, honestly.
But the Trump Administration chose Portland as the test market for its new secret paramilitary police force PACT after a rocky soft launch in Washington, D.C. It’s safe to say that the “Protecting American Communities Task force” is meeting some consumer resistance in the Drizzle City, too.
Maybe more than a little, in fact. Activist (and data scientist) Emily Gorcenski of Charlottesville, VA offered a video game analogy on Twitter:
There aren’t enough Feds to do what is happening in Portland to every city across the US.— Emily of the State (@EmilyGorcenski) July 21, 2020
Portland is basically main tanking the Feds.
(Main tanks draw most of the fire, enabling team members to make progress away from that action.)
How did we get to this point, where Portland is the centre of demonstrations for Black Lives Matter and against the Trump administration? To explain: Trump’s Attorney General William Barr assembled a national paramilitary force under the president’s command in early June, built from the elite SWAT-like units of all the different federal agencies, from the Sky Marshalls who ride undercover on planes to the border patrol’s BORTAC assault teams (best known for recapturing/rescuing Cuban kidnapee Elian Gonzalez in 2000).
These elite troops dress in body armour, tactical gear and camouflage army fatigues with vague or missing insignia. They are in great shape and will outrun you even fully kitted out; no stereotypical doughnut munchers, these. It’s a frightening bunch, and while many discuss them as a diversionary tactic by Trump to change the narrative of an election he’s losing, I fear something far worse.
Trump is assembling something America has never had, a national police force with no independent leadership and no accountability, carrying out the president’s whims without concern for legality or professionalism. (J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was the closest to date, but despite his abuses, it was a force marked by professionalism.) PACT might be a diversion, or it might be a serious attempt at a secret police force designed to punish his political enemies, or suppress demonstration after he rigs or cancels elections in November and declares martial law. There’s as much evidence for the latter as the former.
For a variety of reasons, Portland has a combination of battle-tested activists and politically-supportive average citizens that are not in a mood to just watch this federal secret police take over their town, and the resistance is doing surprisingly well, thanks to police overreach and the efforts of a bunch of moms. More on them later.
The PACT police force was authorized under an executive order to protect “federal monuments, statues or property” which has been interpreted to mean “we’ll attack you if you protest anywhere near a federal building.”
The administration first intended to have PACT take down the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, as a high-profile show of force dominating the news before rolling out this effort nationally, but local police did the job before the feds could get there. So the focus shifted to nearby Portland, forever the mousy little sister to glamorous, worldly Seattle. A “rapid deployment force” of 114 PACT troops was dispatched to Portland.
II. HOW PORTLAND HONED ITS RESISTANCE
Portland has a long and storied history of leftist activism, though, dating back at least 30 years. After a series of disruptive demonstrations in the early 1990s, the staff of former president George H.W. Bush (the elder) nicknamed us “Little Beirut.”
In the late 1980s, southern California neo-Nazi Tom Metzger sent his son to organize racist skinhead gangs in Portland, with some success. In 1988, a small gang called “East Side White Pride” beat to death Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant student, for no reason other than his skin colour.
I tell you this because, while those racist skinheads were wiped out not long afterwards, the leftist punk rockers and others who fought them at the time form the core of Portland’s most intense anti-fascist activists to this day. They are battle-hardened veterans of street fighting with good reasons to stand their ground.
One of their mantras is “Be like water,” taken from the 2,500-year-old Chinese classic “Daodejing” (Tao Te Ching). It’s hard to smash water, and even if you do, it isn’t hurt much. Water slips through your fingers and flows around you. The hardcore activists dress all in black, like ninjas, and it’s not entirely a coincidence.
There is a counterintuitive narrative, repeated in a series of articles in places like the Atlantic, that emphasizes Oregon’s racist early history (which is certainly true) and tries to draw a through line straight to the modern day, tying in the racist skinheads of the 1980s with right-wing groups such as Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys who have marched in town in recent years.
The second half of this story is truthy at best, dependent on carefully worded statistics and facts. For example, the KKK was powerful in Oregon in the 1920s, that’s true. (My Catholic great-grandfather fought them in southern Oregon, both in court and on the streets.) But they were also powerful everywhere in the U.S., part of a huge but short-lived wave of popularity spurred by the wholly racist film Birth of a Nation, which president Woodrow Wilson showed in the White House. Portland’s racism wasn’t unique, then or now.
Portland is not northern Idaho, South Carolina or rural Indiana. The group Patriot Prayer that organized all those hate rallies in Portland is based just across the state border in Vancouver, Washington, and buses many of its fighters in from around the country — precisely because they know they’ll get a fight in Portland.
Any idea that the liberal façade of Portlandia hides a deep well of open, vicious racism is just not accurate, except for one place — the Portland Police Bureau. The PPB is that bad, with more than its share of unarmed Black youths killed, a militant union boss blocking any attempt at reform, a history of racist stunts by police officers and open sympathy for far-right fighting groups in their clashes with lefty counter-protesters.
That’s the other reason Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys march here — because they know the police have their back. Literally. When left and right clash, police face the anti-fascist demonstrators, looking for excuses to attack. One object thrown out of a crowd of 300, and out come the flash bangs and tear gas against everybody. Convicted brawler Tusitala “Tiny” Toese (of Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys) has a family member on the force, according to his pretrial release papers.
At an Aug. 4, 2018 Patriot Prayer rally, which I covered as a photographer, police separated the far-right groups (armed, with helmets and tactical armour) on one side of Naito Parkway and the left groups on the other. They allowed PP to move three blocks north through Waterfront Park, despite a stated ban on weapons there. When I pointed out the group’s plan to an officer, he said he had “orders from the top” to let them through.
The anti-fascist group of several hundred followed, filling a side street across the way. Police ordered them to disperse, reportedly because two police cars were parked on that street that they wanted access to, but the crowd stayed facing Patriot Prayer. With no other provocation, the police attacked. One projectile was fired into a protester’s thankfully helmeted head, still causing brain damage.
Afterwards, at a public “listening session,” I asked then-police chief Danielle Outlaw if she gave the order to let right-wing brawlers bring their weapons into the park. She refused to answer. But she did go on a right-wing talk show and taunted leftist demonstrators, using the analogy of an after-school fight, saying “You get mad because I kicked your butt. And then you go back, and you wail off and whine and complain because you thought when you left that you were going to come and be the victor. And that didn’t happen.”
III. THE CURRENT CLASH: ‘WHERE IS YOUR WHIMSY?’
So there’s a long history here, between a diehard, entrenched police force and diehard, entrenched activists. Maybe they send each other Christmas cards and ask about the kids, I don’t know, but they’ve been fighting long enough for that to happen. There have been lots of protests over a series of police killings of unarmed young people in Portland, for example Quanice Hayes, Kendra James and James Jahar Perez, all Black. Little has changed despite various commissions and reports. It’s lots of the same story: “Thought I saw a weapon, had to shoot a bunch of times. Turned out, no weapon.”
Like everywhere, the police killing of George Floyd hit a deep nerve and led to unusually large demonstrations, but the dynamic was similar to previous demonstrations. Large crowds of peaceful demonstrators staged some impressive actions, such as covering a central bridge across the Willamette River and lying down for eight minutes and 46 seconds. The smaller rowdier group smashed windows, and directed some water bottles, rocks and slingshots at officers; they replied with lots of flash bangs and CS gas and batons flying.
Portland’s demonstrators also have a goofy side that brings a welcome bit of whimsy to the tensest rallies. Groups like PopMobPDX hand out milkshakes and bring glittered up dancers on flatbed trucks to lighten the mood. On a good day, the festival aspect of a demonstration can emerge before the police batons come out.
The current series of demonstrations has its own positive energy groups. “Riot Ribs” is a pop-up restaurant that grills spareribs and meat substitutes, taking donations and handing out food for free. A snack van drove down from Seattle after the Capitol Hill Organized Protest closed. Medics roamed the streets, tending to the wounded. Volunteers such as “The Witches” (@BitchWitch20 on Twitter) have handed out tear gas wipes, bike helmets, umbrellas, goggles and gas masks for protection against police projectiles. One group blew soap bubbles, chanting at police “Where is your whimsy?”
As tends to happen, the nightly demonstrations were slowly losing steam as they headed into their second month. Crowds dwindled to a couple of hundred. And let’s be clear about one thing — while the PACT paramilitaries get all the attention here, Portland’s police were very bad before they showed up. The PPB shot pepper ball rounds and tear gas canisters indiscriminately — in the middle of a respiratory pandemic, mind you — syncopated by baton beatings.
Portland’s police began a strategy later amplified by the feds, building a fence around the city’s Justice Center and defining any contact with the “sacred fence” as justification for arrest or attack. They also started targeting clearly identified medics, journalists and legal observers from the National Lawyers Guild for arrest and beatings, leading to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. On Thursday, a judge ruled that has to stop, for two weeks at least.
Portland’s leading activist group, “Don’t Shoot PDX,” sued and won a partial injunction against tear gas, though police quickly figured out that they could declare a riot and use it anyway. (The Black-led activist group was founded in 2014 after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri.) The fledgling federal paramilitaries showed up over the Fourth of July weekend, though, and police abuse went from bad to worse. They weren’t subject to the court injunctions, for one thing, and brought in helicopters and surveillance planes.
The tear gas and “less lethal” bullets were redoubled, and a bizarrely theatrical device debuted — a tear gas censer on a long pole, swung by a paramilitary officer like a cross between a medieval mace and Catholic mass incense bearer from a Fellini film.
They built fences around both federal buildings, with the fence itself deemed federal “property,” so that any demonstrator who dismantled or even touched it was subject to attack.
Then a series of incidents began to stoke a backlash amplified by videos on social media. On July 11, a video shows protester Donovan LaBella kicking away a tear gas canister shot at his feet. He returned to the sidewalk, facing officers and raised a boom box over his head. PACT troops shot him in the face at close distance with impact munitions, fracturing his skull and causing brain damage.
The video went viral, leading local politicians to criticize the federal intervention. Five days later, two camouflaged paramilitaries seized a black-clad demonstrator off of the street — nowhere near the federal buildings that justify their presence — and dragged him into an unmarked van, while refusing to identify themselves to the National Lawyers Guild legal adviser demanding their name and justification.
Again, a video was circulated widely and press attention began to grow. The national press tuned into the story, alarmed by the “black-baggings” of demonstrators, and parachuted in their reporters.
The Customs and Border Protection service — operating as part of PACT — clearly felt the pressure, as they released a statement to justify the arrest and rendition. But they admitted they had the wrong person — “identified” apparently just by their black clothing — and the “mob forming” that they claimed made the abduction necessary was clearly absent on the video.
Around this time, PACT attacked the food trucks, smashing contents and slashing their tires. Riot Ribs’ staff was beaten (and had their own ribs broken). The Witches’ supplies were scattered. Be like water — all of these efforts are mobile and donation led. Each was back in business the next night, or maybe two.
Portland wasn’t able to establish an autonomous zone like Seattle did, but that became an advantage — there is no “there” there to attack. Everything flows out by dawn and flows back in come evening.
IV. THE MOMS, THE DADS AND THE SHIFT IN MOMENTUM
The tide really began to turn this past weekend. Saturday night, a hero emerged in the form of 53-year-old Navy vet (and former wrestler) Chris David. He approached the federal paramilitaries peacefully to ask how they could violate their constitutional oaths. In reply, one slammed his arms three times with a baton, full force, shattering the hand of David, who didn’t flinch. He looked like Sandor Clegane in Game of Thrones. Only after a second officer shot pepper spray directly into his eyes did the big man turn around and walk away, flipping the officers off with his broken hand and his good one.
Simultaneously, the Wall of Moms was formed. It happened quickly. On Friday, July 17, Bev Barnum, a 35-year-old suburban mother of two, told me she was lying in bed with her husband at 9:30 p.m., scrolling through their news feeds, when she saw the video of the paramilitaries dragging that demonstrator away in the unmarked van.
Barnum, who identifies as “MEXICAN!” rather than Mexican-American or Latinx “because it scares Trump more,” had never demonstrated before. This time though, she wasn’t satisfied with writing a letter to her senator or staging a fundraiser. She found “Don’t Shoot PDX” on Instagram and began networking with the older group’s leader, a local Black mom named Teressa Raiford. (Barnum calls Don’t Shoot PDΧ “the driving force” behind the Wall of Moms.)
Barnum posted a note on the Working Moms online group and by 5:45 p.m. Saturday, about 50 women in white shirts linked arms across a street, between the police and other demonstrators, and the energy of the whole movement was amplified.
The Wall of Moms is resolutely peaceful, with chants such as “Feds stay clear! Moms are here!” and signs ranging from the amusing (“I am SO disappointed in you”) to the heartbreaking (“His last words were Momma,” referring to George Floyd’s death). Did any of that, or their gender, stop the police from attacking?
Barnum told me “Holy cow! I thought the first night they weren’t going to do anything, but within a minute or two, flash bangs, bean bags [shot from guns] and tear gas.”
This is how you overcome force.— Ted Corcoran (Red T Raccoon) (@RedTRaccoon) July 21, 2020
This is true power.pic.twitter.com/AUFTroO9Vr
Undeterred, they came back Sunday in yellow shirts, about 200 moms, and the rest of the crowd swelled to about 1,000 singing “Hands Up! Please Don’t Shoot Me!” to the tune of a lullaby. Arguably, the most powerful word there is “please.” Monday night there were hundreds of moms and 1,500 to 2,000 demonstrators, revelling in a festival mood. By the time they returned Tuesday, the Wall of Moms was a worldwide news story and chapters were forming in cities across the U.S., especially the ones that Trump said he would expand PACT to (all liberal cities with large Black populations — Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Oakland and Detroit.)
One mom used a broom to sweep away tear gas cannisters, joining a man with a hockey stick. A bloc called “PDX Dad Pod” joined in (not that men are competitive), bringing a battalion of leaf blowers which proved very effective at redirecting the toxic gas — to the point where paramilitary officers complained.
Police have gotten defensive, boarding up the outside of the federal buildings and cutting in “murder holes,” small hatches they can open to allow the shooting of less lethal bullets or tear gas. In response, the rowdier protesters have taken to dismantling the outer chain link fence and zip-tying sections of it over the murder holes to hold them shut, protected by their ragtag armour of umbrellas, homemade shields and scraps of plywood.
Wednesday night, July 22, Portland’s dithering Mayor Ted Wheeler showed up with the protest. He got heckled and tear gassed, which he sagely noted was unpleasant. Yet 90 minutes later his police force declared a riot — to give themselves the power to tear gas some more, despite the injunction against it.
There’s a wild energy at the demonstrations now, elation at the success of the Wall of Moms (and leaf blower dads), nervy confidence by the extremists, and a vague sense that the resistance might actually be winning this battle. Or at least tanking the feds enough to stop them from imposing martial law nationwide.
Yet no one is naive. They know this president is sociopathic and desperate, heading for a loss that will open him up to criminal prosecution, and no one knows what the limit to his viciousness might be — or if there even is a limit.
In the meantime, Portland goes about inventing new methods of direct action in service of democracy. In so doing, we join a long history shared with our Cascadia cousins. Vancouver produced Greenpeace. Seattle triggered the $15 minimum wage movement across other cities. And here, lately, we’re melding hard-learned protest methods with a spirit of whimsy as we fight to prevent creeping fascism just south of your border, Canada. You’re welcome.
Read more: Rights + Justice