An Injury to Portland Is an Injury to All

Hamilton Nolan August 4, 2020

Two protesters talk while sitting on concrete barriers in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse during a Black Lives Matter protest on August 2, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Tim­ing is every­thing. FEDS GO HOME,” read the more polite graf­fi­ti scrawled on Portland’s walls. FEDS GO HOME,” read the signs waved by pro­test­ers. FED’S GO HOME,” read the gram­mat­i­cal­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary t‑shirt I bought on a down­town street cor­ner. Last Thurs­day — the day I arrived in Port­land — the fed­er­al agents did, in fact, go home (or at least with­drew from down­town and end­ed their occu­pa­tion of the fed­er­al cour­t­house, which had been the pri­ma­ry tar­get of protests). Thus I was able to entire­ly miss the dra­mat­ic night­ly assaults of uniden­ti­fied troops in fatigues clear­ing city blocks with guns drawn. But with­out the flam­boy­ant vio­lence and bil­low­ing tear gas, it became eas­i­er to see that what is hap­pen­ing in Port­land was nev­er real­ly about the feds at all.

The Mark O. Hat­field Fed­er­al Cour­t­house may be a nor­mal-look­ing build­ing dur­ing nor­mal times, but now it has the appear­ance of a loom­ing tow­er of doom — an enor­mous, white, sealed-off, impen­e­tra­ble Death Star, appro­pri­ate for cen­ter stage in any film about fascism’s rise. After many weeks of night­ly protests in the park across the street, the gov­ern­ment had installed out­ward-fac­ing flood­lights on the façade, forc­ing you to shield your eyes to look at it, adding to its hos­tile vibe. It is no longer a func­tion­al build­ing so much as it is a sword wield­ed by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion as it des­per­ate­ly tries to assert its own strength. What the feds failed to reck­on with was the fact that the peo­ple of Port­land had much big­ger plans than just play­ing a bit part in the president’s glob­al search for any dis­trac­tions from his own inadequacies.

The city of Port­land is 77% white and less than 6% Black. Its affin­i­ty for the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment is heart­en­ing, because it rep­re­sents a con­scious act of sol­i­dar­i­ty that has pro­duced almost 70 straight days of protests, and has seen thou­sands of Port­landers endure bouts of vio­lent oppres­sion in order to make their point. At the same time, like many most­ly white and upscale cities, there is an ele­ment of absur­di­ty in the over­lap­ping parts of our cur­rent cul­tur­al moment. Every beer gar­den and juice bar sports BLACK LIVES MAT­TER” ban­ners, while peo­ple sleep on the side­walk out­side; the Louis Vuit­ton store has board­ed up its win­dows in fear of riots, and then paint­ed a Pow­er to the Peo­ple” mur­al over the boards; a local sou­venir shop has post­ed a sign alert­ing refugees that We Stand With You. You Are Safe Here,” as if Oskar Schindler had sud­den­ly start­ed a new life sell­ing Keep Port­land Weird!” t‑shirts. It can all be a bit much. But the effort is not some­thing to be mocked. It is, rather, a sign of just how deep the roots of this move­ment are reach­ing into the Amer­i­can psyche.

Port­land is not immune from our nation’s acute crises. Home­less peo­ple are every­where. Tents and sleep­ing bags line the city’s side­walks from Nob Hill to the banks of the Willamette Riv­er. It is a shock­ing human­i­tar­i­an dis­as­ter, famil­iar to any­one who has recent­ly walked the streets of San Fran­cis­co or New Orleans or Philadel­phia, and becom­ing inured to it is dan­ger­ous to the soul. The pan­dem­ic, which has shut­tered most stores and left urban cores emp­ty of busi­ness­peo­ple, shop­pers, and tourists, leaves the home­less as the last per­ma­nent res­i­dents of entire busi­ness dis­tricts. The unem­ploy­ment cri­sis and its sub­se­quent evic­tions will leave more peo­ple home­less. The bud­get cuts hit­ting the city and state gov­ern­ments that pro­vide hous­ing and ser­vices will leave more peo­ple home­less. And the human ten­den­cy to pull inwards and shut our doors in times of fear will cut off help and leave more peo­ple home­less as well. The streets of Port­land today are a pre­view of what is com­ing every­where, unless some­thing changes radically.

The pan­dem­ic, the unem­ploy­ment, the years of pover­ty and bro­ken gov­ern­ment and police vio­lence, George Floyd, Bre­on­na Tay­lor — these are the things that set off the protests every­where. The addi­tion of the armed fed­er­al stormtroop­ers into this mix was just the secret ingre­di­ent that pro­pelled Port­land to a sort of pin­na­cle of polit­i­cal chaos. By the time I arrived, so much tear gas had soaked into the dirt and trees and side­walks of Lowns­dale Square, the park across the cour­t­house, that just stand­ing in it made me start to cough, even though there was no tear gas fired that night. The protest vet­er­ans who had been out for weeks on end already seemed unaf­fect­ed, like peo­ple who grow up in a mill town and stop notic­ing the stink. The vio­lence was all fresh enough that most peo­ple came pre­pared: hard hats or bike hel­mets, along with res­pi­ra­tor masks and gog­gles, and a grab bag of body armor and home­made shields. The atmos­phere was tense, like a crowd that had just poured out of a con­cert venue where there were a bunch of fights. Nobody quite believed that the feds weren’t about to come rush­ing back at any moment. One young woman held a sign that best cap­tured the moment: Pulling out won’t stop peo­ple from coming.”

The entire cour­t­house had been fenced off in Riot Chic style, with high met­al grates sand­wiched between two heavy con­crete bar­ri­ers. Because of this dra­con­ian defen­sive maneu­ver, all of the graf­fi­ti that had been scrawled on the cour­t­house was still there, per­fect­ly pre­served, while the city of Port­land cleaned the graf­fi­ti off oth­er city build­ings each day. This was a fair demon­stra­tion of the wis­dom that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has dis­played in the city. The idea that all of this rig­ma­role need­ed to hap­pen to pro­tect fed­er­al prop­er­ty” is absurd. You could lob a dozen hand grenades at the impos­ing cement face of the cour­t­house and not come close to knock­ing it down. No amount of fire­works, hurled water bot­tles, and spray­paint could do any real dam­age. Every­thing that the aggres­sive fed­er­al agents did to the peo­ple of Port­land is a case study in how over­re­ac­tion can backfire.

The state police who took over for the fed­er­al agents last Thurs­day have pur­sued the rad­i­cal new tac­tic of stay­ing inside the build­ing all night, rather than attack­ing the crowd and fir­ing tear gas. Since the police have decid­ed not to attack any­one, there have not been any clash­es. Incred­i­ble how that works. It is rare to even spot an offi­cer at the cour­t­house any­more after dark, once the hun­dreds of peo­ple gath­er out front and begin the speech­es and chants each night. Occa­sion­al­ly a sin­gle offi­cer will ven­ture out on a ledge many sto­ries high to peek down at the crowd, and when­ev­er that hap­pens he is imme­di­ate­ly paint­ed with red and green laser point­ers, until he resem­bles a tacky Christ­mas decoration.

Of all of the overt demon­stra­tions of fas­cist ten­den­cies that this White House has made, the fed­er­al agents’ heavy-hand­ed pres­ence in Port­land was the longest-last­ing. Resist­ing it open­ly there­fore took on an added impor­tance for any insti­tu­tion claim­ing to offer a path to a pro­gres­sive future. For orga­nized labor, par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Port­land protests has been a mem­ber-dri­ven affair. At 9:30 p.m. on Sat­ur­day night, hun­dreds of peo­ple gath­ered at the Salmon Street Springs in the water­front park down­town to pre­pare to march over to the cour­t­house three blocks away. Amid the vet­er­ans in U.S. Army t‑shirts ready to form the Wall of Vets” and the moth­ers in yel­low t‑shirts ready to form the Wall of Moms” stood a knot of union mem­bers hud­dled around a young man in a blue hard­hat hold­ing a hand­writ­ten Union Mem­bers Here!” sign. This was the sec­ond of three week­ly Sol­i­dar­i­ty Wall” march­es, an effort to put union mem­bers on the front lines of the protests. The event was orga­nized not by a union or by the Cen­tral Labor Coun­cil, but by a reg­u­lar AFSCME mem­ber who was extreme­ly earnest about not want­i­ng to appear in any sto­ry, lest she be seen as dis­tract­ing from the BLM cause. About 50 union mem­bers turned out: many in green AFSCME shirts, but also teach­ers from the Ore­gon Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, mem­bers of the local Amal­ga­mat­ed Tran­sit Union car­ry­ing a ban­ner, and oth­ers from the Iron­work­ers, the Car­pen­ters, the Team­sters, SEIU, UFCW, OPEIU, grad stu­dents and more.

In a move that long­time union mem­bers will rec­og­nize, our march got going late because we first had to have a lengthy dis­cus­sion of rules and pro­ce­dures. (One of the rules was Don’t talk to media unless you are BIPOC [Black, Indige­nous, Peo­ple of Col­or],” which was unfor­tu­nate for me giv­en the pre­dom­i­nance of white peo­ple in the group.) But the event was just a stag­ing ground for the future. The orga­niz­er spoke of long-term orga­niz­ing with­in Portland’s unions to make racial jus­tice a pri­or­i­ty, and to end their affil­i­a­tions with police. The moti­va­tion, the orga­niz­er said, was just to make sure we’re on the right side of his­to­ry.” The fact that the entire union pres­ence at the protest was orga­nized by mem­bers rather than by union lead­ers spoke to the urgency of that need.

Our group final­ly marched to the cour­t­house, and stood up against the bar­ri­ers, and fol­lowed in the chants being led by the Black protest lead­ers up front. The whole thing embod­ied, in a sweet way, a cer­tain qual­i­ty that strong unions should offer to a broad­er social jus­tice move­ment: the will­ing­ness to sup­port with­out seiz­ing con­trol, to show up and offer sol­i­dar­i­ty with­out mak­ing demands. That is what the labor move­ment should pro­vide as a mat­ter of course. We still have a long way to go.

What’s hap­pened in Port­land in the past month is a pre­view of… some­thing. Either a peek over the edge of our down­ward descent into dystopia, or a ral­ly­ing point where the peo­ple of a city held the line and start­ed beat­ing back a cheap dictator’s crude stabs at con­trol. I don’t know which yet. Last week­end, the pro­test­ers pro­ject­ed FED GOONS OUT OF PDX” on the side of the fed­er­al cour­t­house, and their wish has (pro­vi­sion­al­ly) come true. But the fed goons weren’t ever the real sub­stance of the prob­lem. It’s all the oth­er stuff that’s still there. At one point, a speak­er with a bull­horn, drip­ping with sweat in the August heat, exhort­ed the crowd, which had already shown up for weeks and weeks, before and after the cam­eras and the sol­dier and the tear gas, and still came out to scream at the blank, face­less sym­bol of the police state’s power.

They ask how long the protest is gonna last,” he hollered. The protest is gonna last — forever!”

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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