by Amie Zimmerman
“What am I driving at? At this idea: that no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.” ~ Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism
I consider myself an optimist. A skeptical, or perhaps reluctant, one but an optimist nonetheless. I want to believe that when we speak out, when we resist, it makes a difference.
Briefly, it is important to understand some basic points about Portland, Oregon, where I have lived for twenty-five years. We are a vastly majority white city. Sundown laws, redlining, and white utopian exclusionary practices have maintained a culture of violence toward Black, Indigenous, and Brown people in Oregon since before the state was established. In accordance, our police have been notoriously brutal with vulnerable populations.
[One recent example of police culture here: In 2009, James Chasse, houseless and mentally ill, was suspected of urinating in public downtown. The police, including officer Chris Humphreys, began to arrest him, beating him so badly in the process that he died of broken ribs and blunt force chest trauma in the police vehicle on the way to the hospital. Chris Humphreys was put on paid leave pending investigation. The Portland police union called for a demonstration and thousands of PPB and supporters marched with matching t-shirts in a show of solidarity against the Humphreys investigation into Chasse’s death. He eventually was cleared and three years later shot a 12-year-old girl with bean bag rounds at a public transit station during a scuffle between her and a transit officer. Humphreys left the PPB amid controversy and moved back to his home county in eastern Oregon where he was elected sheriff and ultimately became – get this – the mental health crisis liaison for law enforcement. This is just one officer’s story. There are, of course, many.]
Portland, white as it is, also has enough of a history of liberal political resistance to have been nicknamed “Little Beirut” by George H.W. Bush while encountering protestors here in the 1990s. Over the past decades, organizations like Don’t Shoot, Portland (led by mayoral candidate Teressa Raiford) have gained significant public support in demanding police accountability. Obviously, in this quick and dirty recap, I am not attempting a comprehensive history of Portland’s racism and resistance. But (while it appears sudden, given the enormous groundswell) protest culture, mutual aid, and organizing have been imperfectly but passionately evolving in Portland for years.
Which brings us to the current events. After the death of George Floyd in May 2020, Portland was part of a national uprising in response to police brutality and specifically the death of Black people at the hands of police. Organizers and protesters began gathering at different locations around Portland and hosting speakers, music, dance parties, marches, and demonstrations in front of schools, businesses, police precincts, civic buildings, and jails. Events started all hours of the day, often lasting into the early morning and drawing hundreds to many thousands of demonstrators. Mutual aid tents sprang up everywhere, vans and cars parked along routes to offer protestors food, water, hand sanitizer, and masks. Street medics circulated, caring for the injured. Over time, it became clear that some protestors were interested in more “peaceful” demonstrations and others were ready for direct confrontation. With little variance, all called for the focus on Black lives, which remained the center of the movement from day one, naming police accountability (or defunding/abolishment depending) as the demand. Here is a fairly comprehensive timeline on the demonstrations through mid-July.
The protestors who chose direct confrontation with Portland Police Bureau were always met with a predictable series of warnings and subsequent violence. Cops would show up in full riot gear. Eventually, usually by 10pm, the Long Range Acoustic Device (used as both sound wave weapon and loudspeaker) would announce that protestors were getting aggressive and should stop what they were doing – shaking the fence, throwing water bottles, or whatever else PPB was framing as violent. The series of warnings would continue, both on LRAD and Twitter, telling protestors that threatening/violent protest behavior would result in the PPB being forced to disperse the crowd and use munitions to do so, including tear gas, mace, flash bangs, and rubber bullets. Over and over footage was posted to social media and local news outlets showing the level of escalation and retaliation falling squarely on PPB’s shoulders, and demanding Mayor Ted Wheeler resign due to the clearly hostile police response.
On Ted Wheeler: the Mayor is part of our elected City Council. Each member of the council has a set of responsibilities, including being Commissioner of a certain civic branch. Although the Mayor is not always the Police Commissioner, Wheeler happens to be in charge of PPB. Alongside calls for defunding, we have continuously demanded that Wheeler step into full responsibility for his police force, accountability he has notoriously dodged. In response to nightly tear gassing of protestors, organizers acquired a temporary restraining order against the PPB using tear gas. The language of the restraining order contained a loophole (see the Bellingcat article) allowing use of gas in case of life-threatening circumstances. Since riots are deemed life-threatening, PPB used the LRAD and Twitter to escalate their warnings to the point of declaring riots regularly to justify use of tear gas and other crowd-control munitions. This obvious skirting of the intent of the TRO led to more outcry. Throughout, Wheeler remained silent. The general sense was that he and the rest of neo-liberal/conservative Portland were content to allow the brutal response because downtown was in danger. Mainstream media continued to promote images that showed smashed glass, fires, and boarded up windows, although after the first week of protests widespread property damage had not been occurring. (Many businesses downtown remained boarded up due to Covid-19 closures and reduced business hours/services, and many allowed murals on their external facades.) The hyperbole of the “affected area” is shocking if you look at this graphic:
At some point we drew the ire of the federal administration. Our ongoing protest, it seems, provided them with an opportunity to experiment with the nationalization of our police force.
The main confrontation and occupation happened within 3 to 4 square blocks of downtown Portland, from SW Salmon St to SW Madison St and between SW 2nd Ave and SW 4th Ave. Two buildings, the Justice Center (local police headquarters and jail) and the federal courthouse, are situated on two adjacent blocks across from several blocks of urban park, known as the Park Blocks. The particular park directly across from the Justice Center is Lownsdale Square, where a small community grew. Several affinity groups and protest blocs set up temporary tents for mutual aid, including one featuring free food 24 hours per day provided by a group calling themselves Riot Ribs, as well as a fully stocked medic tent. The federal task force, nightly, would tear gas the entire park in their attempts to clear the area and often would go into the tents, opening the medical supplies and drenching them with pepper spray, slashing open water bottle reserves, and allowing tents to burn when they caught fire from flashbangs and tear gas canisters. Several times, Riot Ribs had their entire food supply, coolers, and grills opened and soaked in pepper spray and tear gas, rendering it all unusable. Community support for the medics, Riot Ribs, the Snack Van, etc, was astounding, though, with donations on the ground often being more than could be used and financial support totaling over 300K before they shut down their donation apps.
Many protestors have been watching other uprisings, such as in Hong Kong, and patterned tactical improvisation on Hong Kong ingenuity. Portland’s response to the 120 federal mercenaries was unilateral refusal. Moms and Dads formed blocs, as did Veterans, Lawyers, and Teachers. (See the photo above of the Wall of Moms.) Portland ran out of gas masks and leaf blowers. Regular folks (read: white, middle-class folks) were now getting gassed alongside the long-time Black organizers who have been on the front lines for decades. In an awe-inspiring show of solidarity, tens of thousands of Portland residents showed up to be tear-gassed and beaten and arrested, while shouting Black Lives Matter and Feds Get Out. Each night, the areas around the Justice Center and Federal Courthouse, including the Park Blocks across the street, were filled with dramatic displays of resistance along the fences put up to keep the protests off the steps of the buildings. Eventually Ted Wheeler saw he had no choice but to begin the PR spin we witnessed play out in national media.
In a monumentally ironic turn, Wheeler began to speak out against the federal presence, saying they were responsible for violating our constitutional rights through such violent tactics. The kidnapping of protestors in unmarked vans had sparked media interest and Wheeler played into this, portraying Portland as a victim of federal brutality. Local journalists and activists immediately began writing to counter Wheeler’s ridiculous stance as hypocritical, attempting to draw attention to the 50 days of protests, beatings, tear gas, rubber bullets, and arrests prior to the federal occupation, but to no avail. Wheeler was painted as a liberal savior, standing up for his city in the face of Trumpian fascism, while we all rolled our eyes as far back as they could roll. Wheeler had even been locally nicknamed “Tear Gas Teddy” during week two of the protests. One night, Wheeler stood in the front line at the fence around the Justice Center and was gassed along with everyone else, emoting about how aghast he was that tear gas was so indiscriminate.
It is possible Trump did not expect the whole of Portland to rise up against his federal task force occupation. (And to be fair, there are plenty of people here in full support of Trump, the PPB, and whatever tactics might be used. The comments sections of nearly every article and tweet are filled with gleeful recommendations that police switch to live ammunition, that protestors should simply be killed instead.) But I do believe that a more subtle shift in the execution of martial authority was actually accomplished without making headlines for doing so.
In a desperate attempt to negotiate what became known as a “cease-fire,” Oregon Governor Kate Brown participated in a summit with Vice President Mike Pence which ended with a phased withdrawal of federal troops. People seem relieved and many celebrated this as a return to the normalcy of pre-federal-occupation.
This is where the layered nature of the transgression is revealed, though. First, there was no normal. Saying the feds caused the problem performs an erasure on original demands from Black Lives Matter activists for Portland Police Bureau accountability, painting the problem as solved once the feds leave. In shifting the focus to the federal occupation, the local concerns around PPB’s role in the shooting deaths of so many Black Portlanders seems assuaged. Using a bait-and-switch, the “threat” has been removed in many (liberal/white) Portland minds. Any response less escalated and brutal than storm-trooper level tactics began to seem like a tolerable exchange. Second, the feds had not actually left. Approximately 100 of the original 120 officers still remained, although the nature of their business here had been remanded to operations within the federal courthouse instead of outside the building. These troops are accountable to only the Department of Homeland Security and could resume their activity whenever activated. And third, Governor Brown agreed to assuming the regulation of protecting the federal courthouse and surrounding property through her own Oregon State Police. Approximately 100 state troopers were brought in from around Oregon to fill the vacuum the federal task force created.
In forcing the federal occupation, Trump carved out space for the DHS task force. By capitulating to Pence’s demands, Governor Brown had agreed to a vastly increased, militarized police presence in the heart of Portland. We now housed 100 feds and 100 OSP troopers: 200 more officers occupying Portland than were here before. That neo-liberal Portland sees this as a triumph is extremely disturbing. Brown acted as if she was still the head of her police force moving forward when, according to the terms of the cease-fire, Brown had relinquished her position of authority to DHS and the federal administration, which agreed to withdraw their nightly presence only if Brown controlled the protests. This meant that DHS can, at any time, choose to activate those 100 agents who can then act in tandem with the 100 OSP troopers already stationed here.
The boundary of acceptable militarized police presence was moved in July and Brown had agreed to hold the line on behalf of the feds. She had effectively become the hand of federal oppression.
Which leads to what has happened since. The first two nights after federal withdrawal of visible presence, many of the protestors took time to recuperate. The “peaceful” protestors stepped in and bickered about what should or should not be happening. There was no police presence of note. However, once protestors began actions in front of police precincts over the weekend of July 31st, Portland Police Bureau came roaring back. With less warning than usual, they declared protestor presence illegal, using riot language to kettle and bull rush protestors. Unmasking and pepper spraying them in the face, pulling them off bicycles, beating them, filming them, forcing them to run through unlit neighborhoods. There is a ton of footage on twitter from journalists noting the level of cruelty as people are thrown to the ground, not arrested, simply sprayed and beaten before being forced back up to march.
Most of the Portland press corps began suing PPB in regard to arrests, destruction of equipment, and suppression of press rights. The PPB retaliated with a destructive spree directed at press and protestors alike – slashing press/protestor tires, smashing press car windows, pulling people out of cars, arresting and/or attempting to arrest journalists. Whatever relief Portland residents were hoping for did not materialize and – shocking – Mayor Wheeler is again silent about the level of police violence the protestors are experiencing nightly.
PPB has long had a habit of removing badges and names from police uniforms and replacing them with number patches – the length of the numbers so long they are impossible to memorize or get fully on film. As we see more footage of anonymized police, in battle gear indistinguishable from soldiers and mercenaries, holding automatic guns with silencers as they menace First Amendment protestors, it does not seem like a leap to consider a nationalized police force.
What we are witnessing in Portland is a national/federal fascist mobilization against us pretty normal folks. I am a hairstylist and a mom. I grow tomatoes and write poems. Never in a million years would I have considered myself a threat or enemy of the state. But I guess maybe I am. Maybe we are.
NOTE: This background piece ends the first of August. Since subsequent developments have continued, Zimmerman is considering an additional essay covering the Battle of Portland from that time until after the coming election.