Portland Protests are normal given the impact of Covid-19
A major American city has been taken over by violent anarchists, according to the Trump administration and right-wing news. Portland, Ore., is “a city under siege,” the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, said last week. On Thursday, Wolf visited Portland to see for himself the “lawless destruction,” which is allegedly so dire as to warrant the deployment of federal forces, who have spent the last few weeks teargassing, beating, and temporarily kidnapping protesters. Fox News’s Sean Hannity decried “constant chaos”; Tucker Carlson claimed the whole city had been “destroyed by the mob.”
This would be alarming stuff, if it were true. Portland, where I live, has been the site of ongoing protests against police brutality and racism since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a 54-day stretch of activism as of this writing. Over the past two months, mostly peaceful demonstrators have filled bridges, parks, and Interstate 84, sometimes numbering in the thousands. In what is now a predictable pattern, each night a group converges near the Justice Center and Federal Courthouse downtown.
Usually small provocations—tossed water bottles or fireworks or a Granny Smith apple with a bite out of it—spark a wave of violence from law enforcement. Occasionally, there have been more overt acts of vandalism, particularly in the immediate wake of Floyd’s death, including broken windows and small fires. (For more detailed timelines of the protests in Portland from local reporters, read this and this.)
Mood in Portland is Jovial
But the city is hardly wracked by chaos. Outside of the few square blocks downtown that are marked by graffiti, boarded-up windows, and metal fencing, things feel normal—or rather, as normal as possible given the impact of Covid-19, which has had a far more disruptive effect than have the protests. The bulk of the “violence” cited by Wolf amounted to graffiti and other property damage. Meanwhile, his agents and other federal officers have seriously injured a number of protesters, including a Navy veteran who had his hand broken by federal officers after he tried talking to them.
The mood in the crowd downtown is often jovial—at least until law enforcement arrives—with people dancing and chanting and giving out vegan stew, barbecue, and donated bike helmets. On Friday night around 10:30 PM, shortly after federal forces started spraying tear gas, filling a city block with noxious fumes, a few families were strolling by shuttered storefronts just a few blocks away, apparently unaffected by the “siege.”
Federal agents showed up in Portland in early July, after Trump signed an executive order protecting statues and monuments from “criminal violence” during racial justice protests. In response, the Department of Homeland Security created a task force to “surge” resources. Ostensibly, federal forces are in Portland to protect federal property, including the courthouse. But their primary effect has been to escalate violence.
On July 11, a deputy with a tactical unit of the US Marshals Service shot a demonstrator named Donavan LaBella in the head with an impact munition, fracturing his skull. On July 16, reporters for Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that federal agents were grabbing people on the street and pulling them into unmarked cars.
“I am basically tossed into the van…. And I had my beanie pulled over my face so I couldn’t see and they held my hands over my head,” Mark Pettibone, one of the people detained, told OPB. While Pettibone had been at the demonstration that night, he was on his way home when he was whisked away. “I just happened to be wearing black on a sidewalk in downtown Portland at the time.” As The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein reported, the agency responsible for Pettibone’s detention was the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), a SWAT team-style unit officially charged with responding to terrorist threats.
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