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Fear and Loathing in Portlandia

Tom Henderson

Back in the 1990s, members of President George H.W. Bush's administration gave Portland, Oregon, the nickname "Little Beirut" because of all the protestors who showed up whenever he hit town.

By then, the Rent-a-Riot folks, aka Anarchist Skateboarders, had become a running joke among reporters, not only in the latte and soy milk stronghold of Portland, but in places like San Francisco and Berkeley.

Nobody’s laughing now.

With protesters in yellow t-shirts calling themselves Wall of Moms and their male counterparts wielding leaf blowers to disperse tear gas, it’s pretty obvious that the Trump administration's crackdown has little to do with the protests themselves. In the last several weeks, federal police without badges or insignia have been snatching protesters from the streets of Portland and forcing them into unmarked vehicles, and, as far as anyone knows, releasing them without any charges.

Whether the administration is ginning up an American version of secret police, looking for B roll for Trump campaign ads, or hedging their bets and waiting to see how far they can take this unmarked cop car business simply isn’t clear yet.

What is clear is that the city that inspired the TV satire Portlandia, home of vintage cassette tapes, DIY, organic everything, and stratospheric real estate prices, is a dry run for something.

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Trying to figure out what's really happening usually lands you with a whole lot of cognitive dissonance. Most days, you could be forgiven for thinking there's a summer festival going on across from the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse in downtown Portland. Visitors can buy "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts and other merch from a tent on the plaza or sample a plate of Portland's increasingly famous "Riot Ribs.”

Had your time machine plunked down in the plaza from 2019, you might not notice much of a difference at first. A third or so of the people are wearing masks, but that could be chalked up to a particularly vicious allergy season. The courthouse is boarded up and sprayed with graffiti, but there are strip malls in the suburbs that owe the same debt to Jean Paul Basquiat’s rough drafts of history.

At night, though, it’s different. These are the scenes America sees on social media and the news, or glimpses in photographs destined for icon status. Arson and vandalism, tear gas, unidentified protesters, some of whom may be agents provocateurs, and federal law enforcement officers in unmarked rental vans. It is a dark landscape of tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.

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The protests started in late May, and they were not without violence, or at least vandalism. Windows were broken. Garbage bags were set on fire. Nothing Portland hadn’t seen before, although these incidents, perhaps, might have been on a larger scale. In court files, officials charge that protesters have caused $50,000 in damage to federal buildings, including tearing down security cameras and breaking glass doors, according to Thomas Fuller of The New York Times.

If anything truly marked these protests as different, it was the cause drawing residents to the streets. Portland protests have usually been about war or environmental issues, rather than race. Oregon is three-quarters white, a dramatic contrast to neighboring California, where whites make up only 37 percent of the population.

And Portland is the whitest of the white: of the 35 U.S. cities with populations over 500,000, Portland has the highest proportion of non-Latino whites; 71 percent, according to census data.

One protester cracked wise to a reporter, saying “there are more Black Lives Matter signs in Portland and Black people.”

Portland’s racial makeup isn’t a fluke. Oregon once had some of the nation’s harshest white supremacy laws. As the New York Times recently reported, a 19th-century lash law called for whipping any Black person found in the state. In the early 20th century, the Oregon legislature was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan.

While the city has changed, the average black family’s income is half that of white residents and police shootings are disproportionate to the population. While the city's current liberalism is real, structural inequality persists, exacerbated by gentrification.

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Predators and Prey

As the protests kept skateboarding along, becoming the country’s longest continuous demonstrations, most of Portland went about its business, as much as anyone is doing in these Covid days.

Then, in late June, the unmarked police vehicles arrived. So did the tear gas. And the tough special forces guys grabbing protesters, pushing them into vehicles, and holding them without charges. Politico reports that 114 federal officers had arrived to protect U.S. government buildings, as part of a mission called "Operation Diligent Valor."

Whether valor was required to arrest skateboard anarchists and their suburban moms and dads armed with leaf blowers and using pool noodles as shields may be questionable, but the officers were undoubtedly diligent.

Protesters, and even some bystanders, reported being shoved by unidentified agents into unmarked vans. Over the past few days, there have been 42 arrests. One of them was 29-year-old Mark Pettibone of Portland, who told the Washington Post he was shoved into a van July 22.

"I was terrified,” Pettibone told the Post. "It seemed like it was out of a horror/sci-fi, like a Philip K. Dick novel. It was like being preyed upon."

Pettibone said he was taken a holding cell in the federal courthouse and asked if he wanted to waive his Miranda rights, the right remain silent and to legal representation. He refused, he told the Post, and he was released.

Pettibone’s experience is echoed by others, but it's next to impossible to know in such a chaotic environment if everyone has been released.

"People are being literally scooped off the street into unmarked vans, rental cars,” Portland mayor Ted Wheeler told CNN on Sunday. "Apparently, they are being denied probable cause, and they're denied due process. They don't even know who's pulling them into the vans.”

There are "dozens if not hundreds of federal troops descending upon our city, and what they're doing is they are sharply escalating the situation," the mayor added. "Their presence here is actually leading to more violence and more vandalism."

Oregon officials are taking action. U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams of the District of Oregon has requested a federal investigation, and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department of Homeland Security. In the meantime, the administration is reportedly planning to send its special forces to more American cities. 

Who Was That Masked Man?

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Nation magazine correspondent Ken Klippenstein tried to find out exactly who the federal officers are, and how they get the authority to crack down on protesters. An internal memo Klippenstein obtained describes a special task force created by the Department of Homeland Security to implement President Trump’s Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence.

Dated July 1, the memo is titled “Public Affairs Guidance: CBP Support to Protect Federal Facilities and Property” and marked “For Official Use Only.” It creates the Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT), tasked not only to assess civil unrest but also to “surge” resources to protect against it.

Overseen by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was created in the wake of 9/11 with a mission to combat terrorism, the task force includes the Federal Protective Service, the U.S. Marshal's Special Operations Group, and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC).

The Border Patrol’s equivalent to Special Forces, BORTAC's brief has extending beyond U.S. boundaries; BORTAC officers have been sent to train police in places like Honduras, where the U.S. has historically propped up right-wing regimes.

As Pettibone described, demonstrators caught up in sweeps are taken to what one reporter called "nondescript" locations and released without charges.

In the Nation, Klippenstein reported that a spokesman confirmed that Customs and Border Patrol agents were responsible for Pettibone’s arrest, pointing to authority under the Protecting American Communities Task Force memo. He noted that while other federal officers are required to wear insignia identifying their agency, this is not required of agents from The Department of Homeland Security.

Portland local Chad Lingley made the connection the to authoritarian crackdowns by right-wing regimes in Argentina and Chile, where in the 1980s, thousands of people simply vanished in an act of fascist prestidigitation.

With the help of some friends, Lingley mounted billboards on a truck that he’s driving around Portland. "Dear Department of Homeland Security, great job protecting buildings instead of the Constitution," reads one of them. "Enjoy your new life in Argentina."

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Lingley wasn’t the only one noting the similarity of Trump’s crackdown to the tactics used by Latin American dictators. Hundreds of Portland women are linking arms to defy authority, calling themselves The Wall of Moms. This is a direct tribute to the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo, silent witnesses who gathered for 29 years in front of Argentina’s presidential palace to demand that the government account for their sons and daughters who had been “disappeared” by the Argentine government during the U.S.-backed “Dirty War” of the 1970s.

State-sponsored terrorism by Argentina’s military junta was thought to be responsible for 30,000 deaths and decades later, many of its leaders are in prison for crimes against humanity and genocide. Certainly a few unmarked cars and riot cops aren't equivalent. Are they?

Soy Milk or Rice Dream With Your Latte?

If you listened to Donald Trump, you might think that the Portland streets were as perilous as Argentina or Beirut or Afghanistan. Trump has traveled to only one of those places, so when he was reaching for a rationale on July 20, he said that Black Lives Matter protests in Portland have made it "worse than Afghanistan."

In reality, day-to-day life in Portland remains largely unchanged. The protests are largely confined to about three blocks around the courthouse.

"You can't even tell from a block away that there's something odd going on," said Clarence Keating, who regularly attends protests to join the Wall of Moms.

"Portland looks and feels like any other American city in July 2020, right down to the crowds of unmasked idiots stuffing into downtown bars every night," wrote Daniel Pickens-Jones, who has been posting dispatches on Facebook.

"There has been no disruption to daily life because of the protests," he added. "Until Friday, July 17, the protests drew about 100 nightly die-hards to the Justice Center, with occasional marches and rallies on or from the east side. People are now back out on the streets because of the escalation of violence from the state: the secret police kidnappings, the introduction of new battlefield weapons."

As Pickens-Jones noted, until Trump sent his tactical units to Portland, concerns over coronavirus— Oregon averages at least 250 new cases per day— had led to many protesters forsaking downtown for lockdown. Now there are between one and two thousand people on the streets every night. Increasingly, there is a sense that they are protesting more than black lives.

Portland was just a warm-up on an easy victim, said one activist. "He wanted to make it his first example of weaponizing law enforcement on a larger scale," Kim Schmidt told the local newspaper Street Roots.

This week, federal law enforcement was weaponized against Portland mayor Ted Wheeler, who was tear-gassed. Protesters dubbed him "Tear Gas Ted," noting that the mayor's bravura performance amped up national media coverage.

The real question is whether the Trump administration can send in armed police over the protest of Democratic mayors and governors. The president has announced plans for similar actions in Chicago and Albuquerque ("Operation Legend") using ATF, DEA, and FBI agents. The administration is sending Border Patrol agents to Seattle. Mayor Andrew Cuomo blasted Trump for threatening to send his tactical forces to New York.

What do these places have in common? They vote blue. The real fear among elected officials is the prospect of federal strike forces interfering with the November election.

"This is a democracy, not a dictatorship," Oregon Gov. Kate Brown. "We cannot have secret police abducting people in unmarked vehicles. I can't believe I have to say that to the president of the United States."

"Here in America, you don't send secret forces into the street," Merkley said.

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Keeping Portland Weird. And White.

But is this still America? Is this still Portland? The city of Voodoo Doughnuts and the Unipiper, a roving unicyclist sporting a kilt and a Darth Vader mask while playing the bagpipes ? Where locals sport bumper stickers beseeching everyone to "Keep Portland Weird?"

The answer to the first is maybe. The second? Yes. Even in these days of tear gas and flash bangs, the Portland protesters are resolutely groovy, and most are middle-class and white. The protesters who have garnered the most press coverage are Christopher David, a 53-year-old white Navy veteran dubbed "Captain Portland" after being roughed up Trump's federales, and an anonymous white woman known as "Naked Athena" who confronted lines of police wearing nothing but a COVID-19 mask.

E.D. Mondainé, the president of the Portland NAACP, worries that the predominantly white protests turn outrage to theatrics. In a July 23 op-ed in the Washington Post, Mondainé said he didn't necessarily see an ally in Naked Athena.

"I see something else, a beneficiary of white privilege dancing vainly on a stage that was originally created to raise up the voices of my oppressed brothers and sisters," he wrote. "In this, she is not alone. As the demonstrations continue every night in Portland, many people with their own agendas are co-opting and distracting attention from what should be our central concern: the Black Lives Matter movement."

Mondainé was equally disparaging about the Wall of Moms, the women who nightly lock arms to protect protesters from police and federal agents.

"The Wall of Moms…might ease the consciences of white, affluent women who have previously been silent in the face of black oppression, but it’s fair to ask: Are they really furthering the cause of justice, or is this another example of white co-optation?"

Yet many black protesters viewed the white protesters as essential to their safety and to the eventual success of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Julianne Jackson, a Black activist from Salem, Oregon, works with a group of young activists who are bringing the moms food and other provisions.

"I really didn't even know I had allies," she said. "Speaking out on these issues would have made my life really uncomfortable. People of color are really seeing some hope in their communities. It's also great that racists are being outed left and right."

It is worth noting that Naked Athena follows a tradition of protest by nude women, particularly in Africa. The most famous was a march led by Kenya's Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai. In 1992, Maathai was among a group of women who stripped naked in downtown Nairobi to protest police torture.

The police had beaten them to disperse their demonstration and, as she later said, the women "resorted to something they knew traditionally would act on the men. . . . They stripped to show their nakedness to their sons. It is a curse to see your mother naked."

“Naked protests in Africa have historically been symbolic forms of collective protest, generally by the poorest and most marginalised women in society,” says Aili Mari Tripp, Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison told Nangayi Guyson in African Arguments. “Women have used these forms of protest throughout history and in many parts of the world, but especially in Africa.”

According to Tripp, naked protests on the continent stretch back to the pre-colonial era when they were used “to shame abusive men into behaving.” If Trump's ascendancy was a counterrevolution against feminism, American women now seem to be aiming for a counter-counter-revolution.

What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did with words this week on the floor of the House of Representatives, shaming Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL) for his abusive remarks on the Capitol steps, Naked Athena did on the streets of Portland. In a stunning display of fearlessness, she walked straight into a line of police shooting pepper balls at her feet, sidestepping a protester trying to shield her .

Retired journalist Anne Abercrombie said that Trump has changed the nature of the protest. "More than racial equality hangs in the balance now," she said. "This has become a fight over the future over the United States itself. Are we democratic republic or a dictatorship where peaceful protesters can be beaten up and rounded up? Yes, we should be fighting racism. Sometimes, however, we don't pick our battles. Our battles pick us."

Meanwhile, Trump has announced plans to take his show on the road to Chicago and Albuquerque. Minneapolis, where the protests originated, could be next.

Tracie Fenske, a paralegal in Minneapolis, told Street Roots she has already seen ominous signs. "I fear their presence is already in the Twin Cities," she said. "I saw a car on the highway this past Saturday with 'Police' printed on the side. Local police vehicles always list the name of their city, never just 'Police.' I got a quick glimpse of the license plate and saw the word 'federal' on it but could not read the rest. The driver was wearing camouflage."

While Portland's street protests may be galvanizing a generation of young voters, they are undoubtedly providing valuable footage to Fox News. As former Portland NAACP head Mondainé wrote in the Post, the best way to thwart Trump, ultimately, might be to change the rules of the game on him, just as he did with protesters.

"I am not suggesting retreat," he wrote. "Instead, I am proposing that we take the cause of Black Lives Matter into those places where tear gas and rubber bullets and federal agents cannot find us, and where there is less risk of spectacle distracting from our true aims."

Mondainé urged activists to do old school politicking, joining school boards, running for city councils, testifying in legislative hearing rooms and working for change inside (rather than outside) courthouses.

"That is where we will finally dismantle the gears of the brutal, racist machine that has been terrorizing black Americans and hollowing out the moral character of this nation since its inception," he wrote.

But with a growing sense that America is at a crossroads, many feel that anything less than urgent action fails to meet the moment. On the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC Friday night, Yale historian Timothy Snyder counseled that peaceful protests are essential to fending off America's slide into authoritarianism. "If you're not protesting now, this would be a good time to start," said Snyder, author of "On Tyranny."

But what kind of protest? While sober middle-aged folks like 52-year-old history professor Maureen Healy has been among those injured by rubber bullets, a new generation of skateboarding anarchists calling themselves the Youth Liberation Front are doing their bit to raise the stakes on the protest side. The Youth Liberation Front is the most recent incarnation of a harder-edged activism that's popped up before: the Earth Liberation Front, thought to be responsible for blowing up mink farms and a resort in endangered species habitat, and, in the Pacific Northwest, "black bloc" vandalism that marked the 1999 protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. So far, the self-styled radicals don't seem all that different from the moms and dads, just a little rowdier.

"We are a bunch of teenagers armed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and yerba mate — we can take a 5 a.m. raid and be back on our feet a few hours later … we’ll be back again and again until every prison is reduced to ashes and every wall to rubble,” read one of the group's tweets.

In Portland, a city where a deep history of racism has been supplanted by an equally fierce commitment to making a better world, mayor Ted Wheeler knows that protesters, whether moms and dads or yerba mate-fueled teenagers, are unlikely to blink first.

“President Trump needs to focus on coronavirus and get his troops out of the city,” Wheeler said. “My biggest fear is that somebody’s going to die. I want them to leave. This is going to come to a city near you if we don’t stop it.”

Tom Henderson has been a newspaper reporter and editor in Oregon and Idaho for the past 40 years. He is the former president of the Society of Professional Journalists in those states and has won more than 100 national and regional awards for his work. He lives in Beaverton, a suburb of Portland.

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The Shadow Zone

Why You Need to Pay Attention to Trump's Use of the Border Patrol's Special Ops

Tim Snyder ("On Tyranny") made the point that BORTAC and DHS troops in Portland are the most recent example of an authoritarian strategy that has been used successfully for thousands of years. The leader spends lots of energy and money on border-protection troops, because these soldiers operate in a twilight zone of lawlessness, where the job is to keep alien people out of the country at any cost. Once they understand their job, the leader brings them into the interior to quash dissent, because no other troops will have comparable experience with dehumanizing the enemy. Historians have long regarded this last move as the signal that the final transition to authoritarianism has begun. There's no reason to believe that this moment, as unfolding right now in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, is any different. Consider well. We will have to act.

Ted Mooney, author "The Same River Twice"

Get the memo with the Nation's investigative reporter.

Yes, It's Happening Here, Says Yale Historian

Riot Music, dj'd by Brian Cullman.

Riot ::: Basement Five

Orere Elijigbo ::: The Lijadu Sisters

Anger ::: Marvin Gaye

Gimme Shelter ::: Rolling Stones

Elijah ::: Sarkodie

You’re Under Arrest ::: Serge Gainsbourg

Riot On The Sunset Strip ::: The Standells

Inner City Blues ::: Marvin Gaye

Gimme Shelter ::: Angelique Kidjo featuring Diane Reeves