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A Forum on Protest

Protest is as Portlandish as rain, coffee, cannabis entrepreneurs, and homeless encampments. For a time after the November election we enjoyed the protest du jour. Our fair city may not be the most diverse in terms of ethnicity and race. Activism is another story. Portland activists run the gamut from liberal do-gooders to libertarians, mild-mannered tree huggers, radical environmentalists, anti-vaxxers, anti-flouridists, balaclava'd anarchists, sovereign citizens who regularly mustered outside the federal courthouse in support of the Bundyistas during the Malheur occupation trials, and beyond.

I recently attended a forum on protest presented by City Club of Portland's Government & Public Policy Committee. A panel of "guest experts" was tasked to address whether protests, individual or public, can influence American public policy and if they do, what are the conditions for success in realizing their objectives. My line since November 8 has been that there will be more than a few occasions in the coming years when protest will be in order in response to actions of the Trump regime. What form will these protests take? How might they be something more than grandiose posturing and futile gesture? What can be done to make them effective vehicles for advancing the cause? Do repeated protests, going out into the streets again and again, reach a point of diminishing returns? How can energy, enthusiasm, and sense of camaraderie generated by protest movements be channeled into other forms of civic engagement? These questions drew me to the City Club event. Maybe I could get a sense of the pulse of the community and my place in it.

Full disclosure: I became a member of City Club in October 2016 and attended the December meeting of the Government & Public Policy Committee where this event was proposed. Committee members struck me as solid individuals dedicated to City Club's mission "to inform its members and the community in public matters and to arouse in them a realization of the obligations of citizenship." I decided against further involvement because planning events is not where I want to devote my efforts. I have at times been pulled into event planning in various work roles. As we used to say in the sixties, I don't get off on it.

For people who rightly feel dispossessed, powerless, voiceless, shut out of a political process dominated by wealthy individuals and interests, taking to the streets in protest can seem the only avenue open to them, the only way to take a stand and make themselves heard on racism and police violence against people of color, the plight of the homeless, gender inequality, transgender rights, immigrant grants, tenant rights, the Dakota pipeline, matters of war and peace, and pretty much any and all things Trump. Protest movements are not restricted to progressive causes, as the Tea Party and last year's armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge demonstrate. Right and left, conservative, reactionary, and progressive alike, are convinced that the system is blind to injustices inflicted on them and deaf to their pleas.

The event took place at the Lucky Labrador Beer Hall on NW Quimby on a Saturday afternoon. It was well organized and smoothly run. Among other things the affair began and ended more or less on schedule, which racks up points on my scorecard. My eyeball appraisal of the audience registered a cross-section of mostly white, liberal, middle-class Portland with a more or less equal distribution of male and female. The breakdown on sexual preference and gender identity would be anybody's guess. Two of the five speakers were black, the remainder white. Three were female. Nothing in audience response to speaker remarks or in the Q&A session at the end indicated the presence of anyone unlikely to self-identify as liberal or progressive.

Panel members were articulate and thoughtful. They were united in their conviction that protest is a legitimate and effective means to advance causes to which they are deeply committed. The audience needed no convincing. A mild case for nonviolence was made on grounds of effectiveness. Even the two speakers who forthrightly declared themselves proponents of nonviolence, one a disciple of Gandhi, displayed a reluctance to criticize those who are more accepting of violence as a tactic or the almost inevitable consequence of the justified rage felt by powerless victims of oppression, systemic racism, and other injustices, and anyway almost always the fault of the police. Not that anyone advocated violence. There was though a readiness to rationalize violence when it does break out that does not sit well.

A minor digression. Violence has sometimes played a part in struggles for freedom, human rights, worker rights, equal justice, and so on down the line. There may be circumstances in some countries, under some regimes, where nonviolent protest is tantamount to suicide. Students young, righteous, and full of piss and vinegar, disaffected intellectuals, and café revolutionaries are prone to romanticize violence and be a tad naïve about its prospects for advancing their cause and bringing about a desirable outcome.

The women's march on January 21 was taken up with a kind of trendy dismissiveness to which no dissent was evident on the panel or in the audience. Speakers noted the obvious point that some police officers wore pink pussyhats and posed for photos with women of white, middle-class, liberal persuasion instead of greeting them in body armor as surely would have happened had the demonstrators been predominantly people of color. This observation came along with a presumption common in certain strains of liberal and progressive discourse, to wit, the women's march was somehow less authentic than edgier demonstrations where people of color and the issues that concern them are at the forefront.

That said, criticism that the response of the authorities to the women's march was quite different from what it has been for many other demonstrations over the past few years is well taken up to a point, the point being that it cuts both ways. Just as a militarized police presence contributes to an atmosphere of confrontation, so too does an aggressive, hostile posture by protesters, however understandable it may be in some contexts.

What responsibility do protest organizers have and what steps should they take to de-escalate tense situations and rein in protesters when emotion gets the better of them? What is to be done about individuals and groups whose agendas call for violence and vandalism? What is the role and responsibility of protest participants? Should they cooperate with the authorities when loose cannons run amok? Should protesters be held to account for their conduct just as police should be held to account? The discussion touched on these questions tangentially, noting that organizers can plan in advance how they will respond to de-escalate tense situations. That is as far as the discussion went.

A panelist asked perhaps rhetorically if property destruction is really violence. I think most of us would distinguish between property damage and use of physical force with the aim to injure people, but we would not deem it legitimate to use that distinction to excuse property destruction on the grounds that it is not really violence. The efficacy of protest rests in considerable part on its claim to moral authority, the rightness and justness of the cause. Protest cedes some of that moral high ground the instant it takes a turn to violence and vandalism. Moreover, violence and vandalism give opponents a weapon that can be used to drive a wedge between protesters and people they must persuade of the rightness of their cause if they are to broaden their movement.

Conclusions? A path forward? I do not have much. "Engagement" and "resistance" are buzzwords of the day. What they come to in concrete terms remains ill-defined. Many of us have spoken of finding common ground with at least some of those who voted for Donald Trump in November. We have to try to talk to one another. I am as convinced of this as I am dubious about what might gained from it. As important, and as problematic, is the matter of finding common ground among those of us who style ourselves progressives or women and men of the left.

A short survey passed out as the Q&A drew to a close asked me to rate on a scale of 1=Very Little to 5=A Great Deal how much the event helped inform my opinion on the topic, exposed me to diverse perspectives, and connected me to my community. My responses were at the lower end of the scale across the board. This is more a reflection of my idiosyncratic take on things than commentary on the forum, which was provocative and worthwhile. I am glad I attended even though I walked away from the Lucky Lab feeling as much an outsider, a party of one, as ever. A community of kindred spirits is much to hope for. To feel part of a great movement would be a luxury. Uneasy ad hoc alliances are more in the way of things. I go on.

Panel of "Guest Experts"

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