This is a long attempt to offer some insights into the question I keep getting: WTF is going on in Portland right now?
I assume I’m not alone in believing that the current wave of protest cannot be the end objective for this new movement. It’s likely the state will find ways to adapt to and absorb or demobilize this mode of movement activity. We should be looking for hints of new sites where a rebellious, no holds barred, cut the bullshit approach to social change, might emerge, settings where experiences of daily life also point to new collective subjects.
One can imagine workplaces populated by undocumented workers – workers who may once have seen a return to their home countries as a backup plan if things became unbearable here, but now see those countries economically and medically ravaged by COVID. Simultaneously, their workplaces and communities here face the same frightening prospects, alongside an increasingly hostile and authoritarian (though clumsy and contradictory) state apparatus, and a continuing economic slide downward with limited likelihood of any near to middling improvement.
The new directions which may emerge from this moment could be based in any number of social sectors: these undocumented communities (who here in Oregon are vastly over represented in both community and workplace COVID outbreaks); hospital workers facing their wages and staffing levels cut in the midst of a pandemic; or organically emerging community based ‘autonomous zones’ (in juxtaposition to attempts by leftists to construct them) in localities where elements of the state have either been forced out or collapsed inward due to budgetary collapse or bureaucratic incompetency.
All this to say that I don’t see what is happening in Portland as the center of importance in what is developing politically in the US right now. It appears, however, that events in Portland have momentarily seized the national stage, reflecting tensions and possible trajectories that are relevant elsewhere.
As of a week ago, prior to the arrival of agents from multiple Federal law enforcement authorities, local anger was focused on the police bureau and the liberal political class who nominally oversees them.
For the past twenty years, Portland’s divisions between the working poor and the political and economic elites have accelerated in parallel with other West Coast cities.
Portland’s historical geographically concentrated and tight-knit black community has been displaced and become disjointed. Predominantly white neighborhoods of workers are much more racially integrated, while our streets are now lined with squatter camps comprised of those economically displaced by developments which preceded the arrival of the plague. As it is elsewhere, COVID has only heightened and accelerated these developments. Though this movement is certainly about police violence and black lives, it’s clear the COVID has hastened the acceleration of contradictions and conflicts which are fueling the anger and fear that are driving people into the streets.
In recent history, Portland has been managed relatively successfully by a liberal/progressive coalition that has guaranteed a “diversity officer” in every city and county agency, and has assured that gender pronouns are asserted at every governmental, city council, and staff meeting. Meanwhile, the police continue to murder, and the city becomes increasingly unaffordable to working class people. This liberal/progressive civic bloc has been able to maintain a cohesive unity around policies directed by the alliance of agriculture, big tech, hospital systems, Nike, and real estate developers, who determine the range of acceptable political boundaries and policies.
The Political Class
Prior to the arrival of Federal agents on the scene, Portland’s political class had maintained a tenuous unity throughout the explosion of protests. In the past week, much of Portland’s political arrangement of the past twenty years seems to have been turned on its head.
Signs of the developing internal crisis emerged early, but prior to the Federal presence, they fell in line, despite the difficulties of doing so while confronted with a protest movement of this nature.
Joanne Hardesty is Portland’s only Black city councilwoman. She has longstanding ties to local organizing against police brutality and has not shied from principled but politically precarious stances against both the police bureau and the police union. After the first night of demonstrations in Portland set the City ‘Justice Center’ on fire, she willingly took the hit for Portland’s white liberal Mayor and declared a curfew against the demonstrations. Since the beginning of the rebellion, her decisions and positions have been at times surprisingly uncharacteristic.
She and the City Council continued to hesitantly stand beside the Mayor after almost two months of nightly police attacks on increasingly bold and militant demonstrations. As the Mayor issued mealy-mouthed statements denouncing “the violence that has gripped our city,” (notably unclear as to whose violence he was referring), he pledged to rein in police and work with police leadership to enact reform.
The Police Union contract was expiring, a moment in which Hardesty and the local leadership promising reforms had a rare opportunity which one might expect more astute political leaders would utilize as a chance to offer significant concessions to the streets. In a surprising move (given the political climate, the popularity of demands to move against the Police Union generally, and multiple City Council members who had campaigned against the Police Union for years), the Mayor and City Council united in granting a one-year extension of the contract without qualifications.
At the State level, the Governor banned teargas except when life was under threat, and the legislature committed to enacting state wide policing reforms. The day after the tear gas ban, the police declared a riot and gassed demonstrators.
The Police Rank and File
Following the opening act of the rebellion, the President of the Police Union (whose overwhelmingly white membership elected a black President a few years back) took to public radio, practically begging the public’s forgiveness and pledging to play a significant role in much needed police reforms. Three weeks ago (after their contract extension, but before the arrival of Federal agents), the Police Union publicly denounced the City Council and Mayor, declaring no confidence in their leadership, and blaming their inaction and restraint for the continuing unrest.
Members of the media, themselves victims of the same police violence as demonstrators, felt compelled to sue and even managed to establish an injunction ostensibly protecting their right to report on the demonstrations without threats from police. The continued violence and arrests against their own seemed to push them, at least momentarily, to a more critical approach to the dubious assertions of city leaders and police officials.
During the duration of the rebellion here, there had been two predominant protest factions. There were daily ‘peaceful’ demonstrations led by a shifting grouping of newly born organizations, which successfully rallied between one thousand to ten thousand people to march through the city on a daily basis. At times, these marches would end at or near the Justice Center, with some participants staying and merging into the more militant and nightly actions. The moderate factions were not clearly unified politically, and though some elements were not willing to denounce the militant faction, their tendency was heavily criticized in the streets by their willingness to meet privately with police and city officials and by distancing themselves from the militant actions downtown.
For two months, these nightly militant demonstrations played out with regularity, predictably ending in dramatic police violence. At their start, with the contribution of participants from the moderate marches, they could regularly draw between five hundred to one thousand people. These actions would be called by small groupings on twitter, although the groupings putting out the calls and orienting the demonstrations have not appeared to offer much more structure than a place and time to gather.
There are a number of significant activist groupings that are doing valuable work supporting the ongoing demonstrations with legal support, publicity, protest medics, and other forms of organizing. The actions downtown have appeared as an entirely organic phenomenon, absent significant organized influence of any left groupings. The composition of the downtown regulars over the past two months has been interracial, young, and by all appearances, entirely new to political activity. Interracial groups of teenagers and early 20-somethings who identify with hip-hop street culture appear alongside white hipsters and Burning Man devotees.
It’s an assumption, but I’m impressed that a significant segment of core militants may have only had their fantasies of a Bernie presidency dashed on the DNC’s shores.
The militant core appear organized in small informal affinity groups and have developed a significant tactical proficiency in their two months of street action. Some of these groupings have adopted black bloc characteristics, most in street clothes, but large numbers of them with defensive shields, masks, goggles and padding. They coordinate artfully in dousing tear gas canisters with traffic cones and water, fending off police attacks with fireworks and water bottles, and protecting the crowd with umbrellas and shields when the police charge and attack.
In the weeks before the arrival of Federal forces, the moderate groupings leading ‘peaceful’ demonstrations announced a moratorium on their daily marches. The nightly militant demonstrations continued to alternate between the Justice Center and the neighboring Federal Building. The Federal Building has been surrounded by shifting iterations of increasingly hardened fencing throughout the unrest. After nightly admonitions from police not to touch the fence, followed by regular attacks when violated, what is now known as the ‘sacred fence’ (even by some media sources) it is ritually torn down nightly and rebuilt daily. Occasional breaks from the ministrations at the sacred fence occur when supporters are directed to the Portland Police Union Headquarters in working class North Portland, or to neighborhood police precincts.
Whether at the downtown Justice Center or at police establishments in neighborhoods, these demonstrations maintained a consistent boldness and militancy, led by tactically smart small groupings, oriented around defending the crowd. Despite all of the tactical brilliance and small group organization, what is notable is the absence of any forces that appear to have a more strategic approach, either on the ground or in general, which might reflect a broader body coordinating collective reflection and assessment. Absent this, the Federal forces and local liberal establishment alike will adapt, find ways to absorb and deflect the power of the streets, and utilize the movement to forward their own agendas.
Prior to the arrival of Federal agents and police last week, the nightly demonstrations were declining in numbers. The number of deeply committed militants seemed to be on a downward trajectory – evidencing the substitution of increased militancy for mass participation, with all the risks of encapsulation and a descent into a scripted and potential costly conclusion.
In the days before the arrival of federal forces, the night operations would rally at best 300 people, and had largely descended into a predictable (but bold and courageous) standoff that would end with an overwhelming police response and multiple arrests, injuries, and gradually diminishing participation.
Enter Federal agents onto the scene. The political establishment (Mayor Wheeler in particular) has done everything it could to draw a distinction (and a distraction) between the Federal policing response and the local police. From the night of their arrival (July 13th), Portland police and Federal agents engaged in joint operations to clear streets with their traditional methods. The Mayor then declared local police were not coordinating with Federal agents. The newly critical local media quickly revealed that Federal officers were stationed in the local Police Command Center during demonstrations. The Mayor then claimed to expel them, and continued to insist there would be no coordination. The media continued to document joint action between local and Federal agents in the streets night after night.
Chad “CHAD” Wolff, the head of DHS (Department of Homeland Security), then came to town in a political stunt at Trump’s behest. The Mayor, City Council members, and the Chief of Police went to great pains to demonstrate that no local police or politicians had met with him. The press then revealed that, although the Chief of Police hadn’t met with Wolff, the head of the PPA (the Police Union) had done so. They were also unable to say for certain if other officers hadn’t made their own ‘independent’ decision to meet with him too.
Given the apparent ongoing coordination between local police and the Federal authorities, Portland City Councilwoman Joanne Hardesty broke her unified stand with the Mayor, denounced him, and demanded that he hand management of the police bureau over to her. When asked what she thought would happen should he agree to her demand, she asserted she expected mass resignations, and that she was fine with that.
Hardesty has also struggled to equate the popular support for the militancy of the demonstrations within the framework of acceptable protest. Though later forced to back down from her assertion, while on a public panel on the ongoing crisis in Portland (July 22nd), she insisted that the regular pattern of fires, fireworks, attacks on property, and other forms of bold disobedience by the crowd had all been the result of police provocateurs.
As an indication of the depth of disarray within the political elites in Portland, Ted Wheeler, who two months ago carried a glowing reputation as a model of liberal West Coast Trump ‘resistance’ leadership, now looks increasingly unelectable. A run-off vote for Mayor is currently underway. His only contender is a left progressive who by all measures challenges the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. After his opponent, Sara Iannarone, tweeted: “I Am Antifa”, local headlines read: “Is Portland Ready to Elect an Antifa Mayor?”
On its own, the realistic possibility of her election raises the continued question as to the consequences for radical politics when left populists preside over a spiraling crisis while the actual ability of elected authorities to succeed in meeting popular demands is severely constrained by material limitations. Iannarone has proposed radical and appealing solutions to the crises that COVID has escalated. How would her mayoral reign play out in a city where the political and economic elites actively sabotage her at every turn, public budgets are gutted due to collapsing tax revenues, small businesses continue to go under, and unemployment continues to swell?
The Governor has denounced the Federal presence and pushed the Oregon State Attorney to launch a criminal investigation into agents responsible for a spectacular assault on a protestor at the Federal building in the opening days of their presence. Two Oregon Senators have denounced the Federal presence, and County and City officials have made public pronouncements to the same effect. By all appearances, they have a shared relief in their sudden ability to position themselves against the Trump administration, hoping to be able to point public anger away from the inability or unwillingness of local authorities to rein in the police or quell the demonstrations. Central to this strategy will be the ability of Teargas Teddy and his allies to separate the ‘restrained’ actions of the Portland Police Bureau from those of ‘illegitimate’ Federal authorities. Can it work?
After weeks of diminishing numbers, increasing marginalization, but sustained militancy, the downtown demonstrations have swelled, and the ranks of the participants now indicate participation from broader sectors of society.
Larger political developments have played out locally in a way has allowed the militant sectors to regain momentum, but the events of the night of July 23rd indicate possible areas of underdevelopment within the movement which, if not overcome, could be outmaneuvered by the political establishment.
Who are the Militants, Where is the Left?
Since the arrival of Federal forces and the increasing local polarization around their presence, the militant core has swelled. Doctors now arrive downtown in their white coats alongside nurses in scrubs; a ‘Mom bloc’ (organized by a self identified white suburban mother who states she had previously not thought much about black oppression) has appeared nightly in helmets and goggles, locking arms on the front lines, and the nightly confrontation now easily sums between a thousand to multiple thousands of people. There is now a Dad bloc and a Veteran one too. In the late hours of the 23rd, a man in his 60s wandered through the protest, dressed like he had just finished cleaning his gutters. He had a leaf blower strapped to his back, was apparently alone, and was wearing no protective gear other than his COVID surgical mask. Each time the Federal officers attacked, he made his way to the front lines to blow back teargas.
What Happened the Night of July 23rd?
That night’s demonstration may offer some insight into the emerging strategy from our local establishment, but it’s not yet clear how likely it is to succeed.
For a good sense of the tone and tenor of the night’s events, right wing provocateur Andy Ngo’s twitter feed actually offers a decent perspective (as well as an entertaining fantasy of events and the specter of the left). I would encourage taking a look at it.
Just days prior, The Portland Tribune penned an editorial denouncing the Federal presence and declaring local leadership a failure in the face of the ongoing demonstrations. They urged the Chief of Police, the Mayor, and other officials to come down to the demonstrations, to take the stage, and listen to the crowd. With increasing criticism of his own handling of local events, and a need to better position himself electorally, on the 23rd of July, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced he would be joining the demonstration.
As the growing crowd gathered at the parks across from the Justice Center and Federal Building, Teargas Teddy appeared at the edge of the crowd. Accompanied by an entourage of what looked like plainclothes Blackwater operatives, he made his way to a stage that had been erected on the steps of the Portland Justice Center, in front of which the large crowd had gathered. There, he was greeted by representatives of one of the newer groupings that calls itself ‘Rose City Justice.’ Though it is not clear they are politically unified internally, they have positioned themselves as a moderate leadership. Led predominantly by 20 and 30 something black folks, this grouping has consistently met criticism from the core of the movement for their general collaboration with the State. Though they did play a role in the daytime ‘nonviolent’ protests, they have also not visibly been participants or offered clear support to the ongoing confrontations in the street.
Though the media narrative has pushed a division between this ‘black leadership’ and a privileged white crowd more willing to engage in risky actions on the front lines, anyone who has witnessed the brave militants in shields and full gear on the front line could not deny their interracial composition.
To the movement’s detriment, they have yet to find ways to effectively seize their rightful place in the public debate with a clear counter narrative that is articulated beyond their actions themselves, though Mayor Wheeler and The Oregonian do not seem as open to offering a stage and platform for the voices of these courageous fighters.
En route to the stage, the mayor was mobbed by angry crowd members, one of whom silently interrupted his path by dropping a sizeable bag of spent munitions at his feet, while what appeared to be representatives of this moderate grouping attempted to fend off the crowd.
The entirety of this NY Times reporter’s twitter feed captures very well the trajectory of the Mayor’s evening, and the extent of the hostility towards him from large swaths of the crowd…If there is one link worth watching from my report, it’s the footage of the mayor approaching the stage (the link is to video of Wheeler entering the crowd). The rest of the same page has more good footage from Ted’s time in the crowd.
As he took the stage, the crowd of well over a thousand people seemed split. After a series of speeches from the leaders of the moderate grouping hosting him, Mayor Ted took the microphone. As can be seen from the NY Times reporter’s twitter reporting, he couldn’t be heard over the booing, heckling, and jeering. His hosts intermittently took the microphone angrily, and at times even cursing and ordering the crowd to “shut up and respect the movement,” “respect the Mayor,” “respect who has the microphone”. The movement core who had held it down for nearly two months now were not having any of it, but one could also sense a significant discomfort within the newly participating segments of the crowd. With so many recently politicized white folks feeling sensitive to their “white fragility”, and aware that they should “support black leadership,” the crowd’s sentiments were divided between weak cheers and applause and loud raucous catcalls and booing. Its worth noting that many of the interracial crew of militants who have held the nightly ritual down had either not arrived or were already focused on the next door Federal building.
Before long, the crowd’s attention faltered, and it began to converge on the Federal Building. Ted and his mercenary security team joined the crowd, though as can be seen by the Times reporter’s twitter feed, he seemed to be having an uncomfortable evening, and he was receiving a cold reception from his newly found comrades surrounding him.
After months of the ritual of the sacred fence, the Feds had finally placed a stronger, welded, reinforced fencing wall around the Federal Building. The crowd took to the fence impotently, unable to pull it apart and advance on the building as it had on prior nights. Over time, a bonfire was built on the steps of the building from cardboard thrown over the fence. Fireworks and water bottles were lobbed at the building, and small groups of individuals began to sneak through a gap in the fence and advance on the doors. This eventually provoked the agents inside to emerge, lobbing rounds of teargas, firing pepper balls into the crowd, and grabbing and pulling anyone within reach back into their spider hole. This exchange went on for a few hours.
Despite spending much of the night fending off the angry crowd he had spent the past two months tear gassing and denouncing for violence, Ted Wheeler got his photo op. Twittering footage of himself sucking down teargas, he denounced the actions of the Federal agents, asserting that he witnessed nothing that would justify their actions.
What was noteworthy was the absence of a higher degree of coordination amongst the crowd. Though this fence was stronger than on previous nights, the demonstrators were unable to muster the level of planning and cooperation necessary to take advantage of their increased numbers and momentum. There was cheering and jubilation each time a large firework would fly over the fence against the doors. The crowd successfully fought the fence doors shut when Federal agents attempted to move outside of it. None of the crowd’s most rebellious and disobedient actions were contentious, but the fire inside the fence line was fed and stoked throughout the evening hours.
Through multiple volleys of teargas and pepper balls from behind the fence over the course of many hours, the crowd was stymied and unable to take the upper hand. The crowd would retreat, regroup and return to the fence, always with exceptional small group tactical defenses, but as the hours wore on and, there was no forward moving initiative from the demonstrators.
After his teary, coughing twitter photo-op, the mayor left.
As the volleys of teargas slowly wore down the crowd, numbers dwindled, and in the early morning hours, agents attacked and swept the downtown area.
Will His Strategy Succeed?
As can be seen by the NY Times journalist’s twitter footage, the Mayor’s night ended with his security entourage scuffling with protestors in the doorway of his luxury condo in the Pearl district.
Despite his denunciation of the Federal actions and his repeated declarations that local police would not be involved, soon after Wheeler departed downtown, the Portland Police bureau joined the Federal Protective Services loudspeaker pronouncements on their own Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD). It’s hard to know how to interpret this direct contradiction of the Mayor’s evening theatrics, but despite their threats, the local police also seemed wary of actually following through on them…”This is your eighth warning, this gathering has been declared a riot, if you do not leave, you may be subject to use of force and arrest…..this is your ninth warning….this is your tenth…) Transports of local riot police could be seen encircling the blocks around the crowd. And yes, they did count out over the loudspeaker how many unfulfilled threats they made throughout the evening.
Apparently, the police LRAD vehicle was also briefly attacked by the crowd while making its loud rounds.
It is questionable as to whether Ted Wheeler’s stunt worked. If it fails, it may be as much due to broader circumstances, as to the movement sensing and utilizing the opportunity to turn it against him. Sadly, the absence of an organized alternative representing the voices of the interracial crowd meant that much of the opportunity was largely missed at the fence that night. (Though one may argue the crowd’s actions speak louder than words, words accompanying those actions would probably help.) Of course, the obstacles to those warriors obtaining a platform for those words are immense – the tasks involved in maintaining the struggle at the fence and the hostility of official society to offering such a platform must be acknowledged as enormous, though hopefully not insurmountable.
Editors’ Note: As we are preparing this report for publication, Pete Little has added a short report on the activities of July 24th:
Looking at the NY Times reporter’s twitter feed is a pretty good representation of what happened the 24th…something different and bigger. Lots of nurses in scrubs, doctors in white coats, Veterans in a bloc on the front lines, thousands of people (I think), and none of the crowd objected to the fireworks, fires, attacks on the fence, or any of the more disobedient tendencies in the crowd.
And for those who read my previous report, scroll through the twitter feed–the crowd has already responded to the specifics of my criticism. There were organized groups feeding ropes from the fence into the crowd and using grinders on the fence in the midst of the chaos
Lots more odd, weird, frightening things happening on the ground. A black Trump supporter, who appeared to be an Andy Ngo type provocateur, was stabbed, ostensibly by a white protestor. Footage has emerged showing the provocateur sneaking up and throwing the accused in a half headlock, after noticing him following their crew. This seems to have coincided with a rash of attacks on solidarity demonstrations nationally by varied right wing elements. The provocateur stabbed in Portland was somehow able to almost immediately have a Federal medic at his side and got into an ambulance in the midst of an hour-long onslaught of tear gas, concussion grenades, and other munitions.
In the days of continued intransigence at the fence, the liberal establishment and their allies have managed to regain some of their prior unity. From such national authorities as The Washington Post to the local Oregonian, the fight at the fence has been declared an empty symbol, a provocation to the Federal authorities and local police alike, and a distraction from any movement for black lives.
Defying the sanctity of the fence is a costly ritual for the movement. The brutality and arrests will eventually take a toll, but for the moment, this appears to be more costly for the political establishment. Night after night the numbers grow, and the masses of participants have expanded to broader sectors of society.
We can’t assume that this will remain so for long.
The struggle at the fence and in the streets may manage to foster new political subjects ,either as participants themselves in finding a sense of collective power and possibility, or as witnesses in the larger society who begin to understand both the frailty of authority and the power in the collective action of resistance. The question that looms will be what happens when these new social agents learn to act in places that actually contest power, in arenas with the potential to seize territory and resources which directly benefit the lives of black working class people and the wider working class of which they are a part?
Could the coming wave of evictions, the disproportionate price tag paid for working by immigrant workers concentrated in dangerous COVID factories and packinghouses on both sides of the US border, or any other number of looming and continuing catastrophes be the triggers?