For 63 days, every possible attempt to derail a people’s movement in defense of Black lives has been made against protesters in Portland, Oregon. Every red-baiting, reactionary talking point has been deployed. On the ground, the Portland Police Bureau, the National Guard and three different types of federal paramilitary police have attempted to crush dissent. They claim it is about “law and order,” about protecting federal property from “violent anarchists.” Protesters see it for what it really is: repression. Repression of not only of 1st amendment right to peacefully assemble, but of the right of recourse against a racist government that does not serve the people, and finally, repression of a deepening movement.
The protests have ebbed and flowed. There have been internal disputes and setbacks, but the largest crowds ever appeared night after night in the days following the attack on Donavan Labella, shot in the face and permanently brain damaged by a federal rubber bullet. Contingents of protesters–mothers, fathers, veterans, healthcare and culinary workers, teachers, and more–have shown up en masse to join in the call to stop the war on Black America, and to assert the right to protest. To varying degrees, protesters arrive ready to defend themselves from impact munitions and CS gas, donning gear like goggles, helmets, gas masks, gloves, and carrying homemade shields and battery operated leaf blowers.
Some national media outlets have tried and failed to smear these largely non-Black groups of protesters as ‘privileged’ people co-opting a Black movement. Meanwhile in the streets, signs carried by white members of ‘the wall of moms’ read: “Wall of Moms is not the story. Black people dying is the story.” Another sign reads, “REST IN PEACE QUANICE/KILLED BY PDX POLICE,” referencing the 2017 killing of a 17-year old Black child named Quanice Hayes, whose killer still serves in the PPB. These small examples represent an attempt to build trust between an increasingly race-and-class conscious white population and the Black communities of Portland. Two months of protest cannot undo this state’s history (and present) of white supremacy, but this is a beginning.
Democracy in the streets
The people are learning, every night as they are teargassed, pepper sprayed, hit with impact munitions, run ragged through the streets of our own city, arrested and kidnapped by anonymous agents, that our rights in law are but a fleeting memory, and the only remedy is mass demonstration, mass organization and mass education. The message from the alt-right Trump administration and the neoliberal politicians down the chain of command is very clear: anyone who stands up for Black lives threatens the decaying order of racial capitalism, and is therefore subject to arrest and use of force. The brutality of the U.S. empire has come home, because now the greatest threat to its existence is right here. They tell protesters they are violent, they are rioting, they are “anarchist” conspirators, and that they deserve to be brutalized.
But the message is even clearer: “We will not be silenced.” Perhaps some in the crowd were once unaware of concepts like police and prison abolition, the school-to-prison pipeline aided by armed school resource officers (which the Mayor disbanded in June as a result of the protests), Black-Indigenous solidarity, the history of policing/slave patrols in the U.S., etc. But the democratized education happening in the streets every night (led mainly by Black people) is changing that.The people are learning that everyone’s liberation is connected, and without Black liberation, without the total abolition of the racist police state, the liberation of the working class will never unfold. People are learning the true definition of struggle until victory and what victory might look like.
Care, not cops
Sustained protest requires infrastructure and planning. Volunteers around the city have been stepping up from day one to donate supplies of all sorts. But cops and feds alike have pepper sprayed, destroyed, and stolen medical supplies and food donated to assist protesters and houseless people in the protest area. Grassroots groups like Riot Ribs, who cooked and fed hundreds of people through teargas and police raids, have been forced to disband due to threats of violence on their volunteers, theft of their property, and exposure of their personal information to police. An entity affectionately known as SnackVan (an anonymous individual in a BLM-decorated van carrying snacks, water, hot coffee and tea, medical supplies, music, and the occasional pizza) has been repeatedly arrested, towed, and damaged by police–this video shows PPB slashing the tires. Medics and press have also been targeted.
On July 29, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the end of negotiations with DHS and the impending removal of Federal paramilitaries. However, in the same hour, DHS acting Secretary Chad Wolf made a contrary announcement saying, “Federal law enforcement will remain in Portland until the violent activity toward our federal facilities ends. We are not removing any law enforcement while our facilities and law enforcement remain under attack.” Today it appears that a withdrawal agreement has been reached between the Governor and Vice President Mike Pence/DHS. Oregon State Police have been deployed to take the place of DHS troops. As of this writing, OSP have employed clean-up teams/graffiti removal services to sweep the parks and streets directly across from the Multnomah County Justice Center and the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse. It remains to be seen if DHS will actually withdraw, as protests continue downtown and across the city tonight. If they do withdraw, PPB (and OSP) will likely continue patterns of brutality they have used since the end of May.
It is worth noting that, aside from the refuse of 63 days of protests, the grass of the parks where protests have occurred is so saturated with teargas that even walking on it kicks up a ‘spicy’ dust that will make you cough and irritate your eyes. This is just one example of the lasting damage inflicted on the city by PPB and federal police. But the people of Portland are not deterred, not by teargas or rubber bullets or the murder and brutalization of our comrades in other cities. The situation is fluid and changing, and people in this predominantly white city continue to say BLACK LIVES MATTER.