Updated: Jul 25
On Wednesday evening Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler stood with protesters in opposition to the federal occupying force dispatched to the city by our impeached president. He took questions and tried to engage in dialogue. For his efforts he was booed, jeered, and cursed by protesters and tear-gassed by federal paramilitaries encamped at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on SW Third Avenue. Assorted media reports had it that this demonstration, like most of the past two months, was largely peaceful, largely being a term of significance in this context because of course some blockheads threw garbage, set off fireworks, and started fires inside a fence around the courthouse (Griffin et al., Wheeler faces boos).
On Wednesday City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said that she believes fires are the work of the police bureau:
I want people to know that I do not believe there’s any protesters in Portland that are setting fires, that are creating crisis. I absolutely believe it’s police action, and they’re sending saboteurs and provocateurs into peaceful crowds so they justify their inhumane treatment of people who are standing up for their rights. (Bernstein, Hardesty slams Wheeler)
Even Hardesty, a hothead of long standing, soon recognized that this allegation for which she offered not a scintilla of evidence went too far and walked it back with an apology. Her frustration with a police bureau that resists attempts by city council to exercise control over it is understandable, but her irresponsible rhetoric further inflames an already volatile situation.
Under Portland's commission form of government, city council members are responsible for day-to-day oversight of city bureaus. The police bureau has traditionally been the bailiwick of the mayor, although there have been occasional exceptions. Last weekend Hardesty demanded via Twitter that Wheeler give her control of the police bureau. The mayor declined the invitation. It is difficult to imagine how putting Hardesty in charge of police could possibly go well. Commissioner Amanda Fritz voiced support for the mayor. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly declined to comment (Ellis, Wheeler Keeping Police Bureau).
Accounts from a range of sources that I find credible are in substantial agreement that the majority of protesters are peaceful and that there is a subset that go in for violence, destruction, and provocation of the police, to which the police blithely overreact, further alienating even individuals inclined to nonviolence. It should be noted that these clashes occur in only a few, small, discrete areas of the city. The narrative from the White House and right-wing media that Portland is under siege is false. My neighborhood is a short bus ride, a slightly longer walk, from the scene of the action downtown around the courthouse. I have had no reason to fear for my safety.
The best and most comprehensive account I have read comes from journalist Robert Evans, who has covered conflict in Iraq and Ukraine and reported on far-right extremist groups in the US (writing at Bellingcat). Evans describes a split within the protest movement between "more moderate liberal marchers, who sought to avoid conflict with the police while engaging in 'peaceful protest'" and more radical demonstrators. He does not downplay protester violence but is firm in assertion that "State and Federal law enforcement are at war with the people of Portland."
According to Evans, the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Youth Liberation Front is "probably the strongest consistent voice for Portland’s radical protest scene. On any given day, Portlanders could generally find some sort of peaceful rally or, if they choose, wind up in a skirmish with the PPB." The Youth Liberation Front proclaims itself "dedicated to direct action towards total liberation" (Rambo, Who is the PNW Youth Liberation Front). The YLF's Twitter page gives an idea of the degree of intellectual rigor at work here. Among the group's tweets:
What is this "defund at least 50%" shit, we're trying to abolish the police here.
If you see someone waving the American flag…burn it.
On the one hand Ted Wheeler getting tear gassed was a PR stunt for the state, but on the other hand it is really fun to see the little guy drown in the gas.
Unfortunately, Portland has a tradition of self-styled anarchists and nihilists of assorted flavors hijacking nonviolent demonstrations in the name of some incoherent and infantile agenda or other. The YLF fits right in.
I remain baffled and disheartened by the reluctance of public officials from city hall to the halls to Congress, and too many others, including activist groups with which I have been associated, to denounce or even so much as acknowledge the presence of individuals and loosely knit groups who see the protests as an opportunity to do battle with the state. As people like to say these days, silence is complicity. This silence only weakens the message about police misconduct and the authoritarian deployment of secret police and paramilitaries by the president. It does not make it stronger.
No one has a clue what an endgame might look like. The mayor strikes me a decent person dealt a miserable hand. On one side is a recalcitrant police bureau, on the other a fractious city council where Jo Ann Hardesty snipes openly and often at the mayor, Amanda Fritz seems to be eagerly awaiting the day she can step down from city council after opting not to run for reelection, and Chloe Eudaly is Chole Eudaly, a progressive ideologue with neither inclination nor talent for compromise, which is one reason I support Mingus Mapps in the run-off for her seat. The good hearts and intentions of the many protesters who put themselves on the line for principles and values on which the country was founded are subverted by small numbers with other, dubious agendas.
Then comes Trump, who has brought the city together after a fashion. It is commonplace but not accurate to label him a fascist. Fascism entails at least some low level of ideological content. Trump is a tinpot, authoritarian dictator whose agenda consists of self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment, and self-preservation. That there are no ideas behind it makes him and his latest escalation no less dangerous.
There comes a point where simply taking to the street in protest day after day, night after night yields diminishing returns. That point has long since been reached in Portland. For some it seems to have become an end in itself. Yet to back away now would be to yield to authoritarian policies that we cannot allow to be given so much as a whiff of legitimacy. This is the miserable hand we find ourselves holding.
Memo from the editorial desk
I have not been a part of these demonstrations. As someone who has participated in demonstrations throughout my life, I am uneasy about my decision to bear witness through this blog, Facebook posts, and personal communication instead of at the barricades. Maybe I should be there. COVID is one factor. The ongoing presence of a violent contingent whose actions undermine the protests is another. Every demonstration I have attended since the inauguration in 2017, and there have been quite a few, all in Portland, has been nonviolent, in no small part because the organizers made it clear that these were nonviolent demonstrations and took steps to ensure that they would be. I do not know what the stance of the organizers of the present demonstrations is, to the extent that there are organizers. It is by no means certain that calls for nonviolence would be heeded.
Maxine Bernstein, Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty slams Mayor Ted Wheeler, blames Portland police for fires being set during protests, The Oregonian/OregonLive,
Rebecca Ellis, Hardesty Calls On Portland Mayor To Hand Over Control Of Police Bureau, Oregon Public Broadcasting, July 18, 2020
Rebecca Ellis, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler Says He's Keeping Police Bureau, Oregon Public Broadcasting, July 20, 2020
Robert Evans, What You Need To Know About The Battle of Portland, Bellingcat, July 20, 2020
Anna Griffin, Dirk VanderHart, Rebecca Ellis, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler faces boos, calls to resign and tear gas, Oregon Public Broadcasting, July 23, 2020
Jo Ann Hardesty, Mayor @tedwheeler, I've had enough, Twitter, July 18, 2020
Chris McGreal, 'I wanted to take action': behind the 'Wall of Moms' protecting Portland's protesters, The Guardian, July 21, 2020
K. Rambo, Who is the PNW Youth Liberation Front at the center of recent Portland protests, The Oregonian/OregonLive, June 2, 2020