The first flash-bang grenade went off around 11:10 p.m. in Portland, Ore., a thunderous clap that echoed off the high walls of the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse. within minutes, a rowdy protest against racism and police violence had turned into a chaotic scene of screaming civilians, shouting police officers, whizzing plastic stun munitions and cascades of gas grenades arcing through the night. As the civilians fell back under stinging clouds of gas, volunteer medics dumped entire bottles of water over their heads.
Trying to see who exactly was launching this battle, I poked my head around the corner of the courthouse and came face to face with the force that is rocking Portland and drawing the attention of the nation: a dozen federal police officers in green camouflage, their faces, names and unit insignia obscured, firing crowd-control weapons and beating their way through a group of young male protestors.
These men, identified by the Department of Homeland Security as members of a U.S. Marshalls Special Operations Group, and a Border Patrol Tactical Unit, have been trained in antiterrorism tactics, and deploy in Portland with the sniper rifles and full battle rattle of an invading army. When not emerging on most nights to drive back protestors (including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who was gassed Wednesday night), they have been filmed roving the downtown area in unmarked rental vans, leaping out to snatch individual protestors away for questioning.
The new tactics were previewed in Washington, D.C., last month, during the violent clearance of Lafayette Square by a mixed force of federal officers, and have now been deployed to Portland, a liberal enclave that has become an emblem for the chaotic challenge to power and authority in American cities.
The battle of Portland is rooted in President Trump’s executive order to protect “federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property.” It broadly targeted “anarchists and left-wing extremists.” Both are present in Portland.
But the protests are numerically dominated by young BLM activists and contingents like the Wall of Moms, which began last Saturday night with about 100 mothers forming a human barrier between BLM protesters and police. By Tuesday night the “Mom Wall” had grown to almost a thousand women dressed in yellow and clutching sunflowers beneath their helmets and goggles.
A group of middle-aged men (known as the DadTifa) has also appeared, using leaf blowers to whisk tear gas back toward the police who fired it. (“There’s a lot of Hong Kong tactics,” one participant told me.) And some of the response seems purely Portland. In a city where strip clubs outnumber churches, a few young women have been labeled “Athenas” for daring to confront the heavily armed troops stark naked.
The core of the protests remains an active Black Lives Matter contingent focused on ending police violence against minorities, but in the whitest major city in America, the crowds are distinguished by a mixture of performative anger, food-cart culture and signs trolling armed federal officers (“You Should Be Ashamed, Love, Mom”).
Walking through the Portland protests in recent nights, I was reminded less of a violent revolution than of Occupy Wall Street, which filled New York’s Zuccotti Park with debate, criticism of the government and demands for economic justice. Amid nightly street battles, which include destructive actions by protestors, there has also been a flowering of that civic engagement, with volunteer medics, tents set up to provide free food and clothing, and even art therapy for stressed-out Antifa. The demonstrators generally wear masks against the coronavirus or against tear gas, but rarely both. Social distancing ends with the first blast of a gas gun.
I’ve been a foreign correspondent for two decades and am used to paramilitary police and citizens battling it out — but that was in the streets of troubled countries like Brazil or Venezuela, not in my hometown. I have been documenting how repressive regimes around the world work — for my newsletter, the Authoritarianism Project — but I never expected to bring that story home.
Secret policemen stuffing prisoners into unmarked cars was a hallmark of the murderous Argentine junta in the 1970s, although they used Ford Falcons rather than Chrysler minivans. And Brazil’s aggressive riot police spent the 1980s suppressing demonstrations only to end up as hated symbols of an antidemocratic era.
There are no allegations of torture or lethal kidnapping against U.S. police and the DHS claims the legal authority to detain people with “reasonable suspicion.” But it doesn’t always look that way when teams of unidentified men, working in silence, shove prisoners into cars and drive away.
That’s “kidnapping of our citizens,” said Rev. Tara Wilkins of the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance. But acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has said that “potential“ threats are the only justification he needs to deploy federal troops here or elsewhere.
Wolf dismissed pleas from Mayor Wheeler and Gov. Kate Brown to send the troops home. Portland’s own police officers, who have developed a high tolerance for the city’s circus-like dramas, are supporting the federals but must wonder what it will be like when they leave, and we all have to go back to living together.
Two years ago, right-wing groups including the Proud Boys engaged in roving street brawls in Portland with opponents from groups like Rose City Antifa and so-called black bloc protestors with a violent streak. Even then, the clowns and musicians outnumbered violent anarchists on the left, but both of the rallies that I attended quickly degenerated into fist fights and beatings with a few protestors on both sides going as far as using brass knuckles, clubs and electric shock devices.
Portland police largely stayed out of sight then, but those rallies were mere appetizers compared to the large-scale battles in recent nights that have pitted the city’s riot squad and a little over 100 DHS troops against thousands of mostly nonviolent protesters.
The sudden street clearance operation I witnessed on Tuesday night — in which I was tear-gassed worse than any previous experience in Bolivia or Beirut — appears to have been triggered when activists set a trash fire against the stone walls of the federal courthouse. The small fire was no threat to Portland, and when DHS produced a timeline of “rampant long-lasting violence” to justify its deployment, the list was mostly acts of graffiti.
Wolf, who came to oversee the deployment, posted photos of “what I saw in Portland” that showed graffiti and boarded-up windows. He told Fox News the city was “under siege.”
In reality, the protests occupy an area of just two to four square blocks, with little effect on the rest of Portland, already a ghost town due to Oregon’s strict lockdown procedures against COVID-19. Black Lives Matter and antiracism protests were already routine in the city, and traffic flowed normally just a block from the teargassing I witnessed. Even as protests surged toward the front of the federal courthouse, I found the street behind it completely empty.
It’s worth comparing the treatment of protestors in Portland with those in other cities. In Lansing, Mich., antilockdown protestors carried rifles into the state capitol and menaced legislators in session, without any police response at all. Militia groups, freelance gunmen and Bikers for Trump have threatened BLM protestors everywhere from Bethel, Ohio, to Spokane, Wash. Police departments rarely do anything unless shots are fired, a deference not extended to the Mom Wall, where I saw federal agents beat unarmed women in bicycle helmets just for refusing to move.
Credit: Yahoo News