Protest in Portland in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. June, 2020. Photo: Diego G Diaz /

The feds have left, but the battle for Portland continues

  • August 11, 2020

People & Protest

The retreat of federal officers from Portland was a victory, but the continued violence of local police shows that the problem is the entire model of policing.

Protests at the federal Justice Center in downtown Portland have become a nightly ritual, but protesters have also been expanding their reach across the city. Demonstrations at various precinct offices and the Portland Police Association, the police union, have drawn crowds of hundreds. In recent days, the demonstrations focused on these “satellite offices,” mainly because now that the federal officers have left, people’s attention turned back to the local police.

On both August 6 and 7, the East Precinct, near the edges of the city proper, were overwhelmed by protesters. In what has become a daily ritual, the police ordered the dispersal of a protest whose only objectionable behavior was relegated to vandalism, loud noises and trash can fires. The police then blanketed the residential area with teargas and “impact munitions.”

They chased protesters through the streets, shoving them to the ground and using metal batons in a spectacle that almost has the appearance of a military occupation. The police signaled their intentions on Twitter, stating that the call to march to the precinct “will not go unanswered,” intimating that the protesters would be met by force.

Over the weekend, the protest tactics continued to escalate. A three block line on the busy Lombard Street was barricaded by a combination of food trucks and burning dumpsters. The Portland Police Association office was boarded-up like a fortress after protesters had broken into the building and set it ablaze at an earlier demonstration, yet it took little more than an hour for protesters to tear down the barriers and torch the inside again.

The police arrived quickly, firing teargas and projectiles, almost immediately hitting people marked as reporters. One demonstrator had a flash grenade explode between their legs, and had to be dragged into a house by a street medic. As the police pushed protesters down an adjacent road and into residential areas, the protesters quickly built new flaming barricades, facing continuous assaults from dozens of riot police.

While for the last few weeks, the focus of the media and the public has been on the presence and conduct of the federal officers in Portland, the extremely violent means by which local police have attempted to subdue the protests after the feds left highlights what activists have been saying for years: the issue is not certain police forces being more violent and abusive than others, the problem is the entire model of policing itself.

Battle for Portland

The protests in Portland began shortly after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They started with explosive riots on May 29, with protesters looting stores, breaking into the Justice Center and setting it on fire. But in the days that followed, while growing in size they became slightly more moderate in tone and focused on practical solutions to “defund” the police. The Portland Police applied their infamous heavy handed approach, blanketing the streets with teargas every night and using dangerous crowd control tactics.

Many journalists who were caught in the midst of this faced injuries or arrest as the police stated that reporters would have to follow nightly dispersal orders as well. These police tactics eventually brought a series of lawsuits from the ACLU and others, putting injunctions in place on their behavior. And that is when the federal officers arrived. A confederation of agencies, including Border Patrol, were ordered in through an executive order from Donald Trump to protect federal buildings and deployed their officers against the wishes of state authorities.

Their behavior has since become notorious: kidnapping protesters by snatching them off the streets and dragging them into unmarked vans and applying excessive violence while attacking the protests, seriously injuring many. But rather than deterring the protesters, it only drew larger crowds, growing the numbers of the demonstrations and bringing in high profile contingents, like the “wall of moms” that would stand in between the protesters and the police.

The anger around the deployment and behavior of federal officers was palpable, with Democratic politicians coming out in performative shows of solidarity. This pressure likely worked and eventually Oregon Governor Kate Brown negotiated a removal of the officers with the White House, saying that the local police could handle it. Articles and think pieces came out saying that the protests had returned to peaceful demonstrations in the absence of the federal officers, all of which missed a key factor: the local police were still here.

Now, as the protests push into day 75, the fundamental issue that has driven the protests from the start is being exposed by the way in which the Portland police is responding to the protests. Long before the federal officers arrived, the Portland police had been known for their brutal and violent treatment of left-leaning protesters, from recent antifascist demonstrations to the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown.

“The Portland Police have made it their goal to suppress, demoralize, wear out and harm protesters and press. It appears that the police’s only solution against our anti-police-brutality message is more brutality,” says Jeremy Smith, a member of the Defend PDX collective, who says he has been targeted by the Portland Police for what he thinks is his journalism work.

Each night of protests follows a similar pattern, starting off with speeches, marches and chants by the protesters and the police eventually intervening to disperse the crowds, which is when the police are at their most violent. The protests are technically illegal in that they occupy public spaces, like roads, intersections, highways etc.

Law enforcement’s argument has consistently been that the protesters are engaged in violence, which they take to mean throwing water bottles, vandalizing property, setting trash fires and generally behaving as a nuisance. The police, in response, attack the crowds with CS gas and a brutal combination of impact munitions and their clubs.

This has created a question of scale, where comparisons between the supposed “violence” from the protesters and violence from the police put the two in different leagues entirely.

With the federal officers, injuries were very common, including among the press, because of the widespread use of munitions, often fired directly into the crowds. This type of violence was impersonal, and so went the accusation that it was the presence of federal officers uniquely that was resulting in the excessive violence. The Portland Police are using fewer munitions, but officers are charging directly into the crowds more often, with insults from officers being caught on camera as they bludgeon fleeing protesters. For many protesters, the local officers have made it personal.

Zippy Lomax is an independent journalist who has been documenting the protests since the beginning, often live streaming on social media. She is part of a growing scene of young journalists who are coming out without institutional backing or money and just doing the work of documenting the historic protests on their own. Like many of them, she is brandished with the word “PRESS” all over her helmet, clothes and tactical vest.

On August 1, Zippy was at the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office in Southeast Portland covering the breakaway march there. When the police, ordered the dispersal of an entirely non-violent protest and charged the crowd, Zippy tried to disperse in her car. Police then slashed her tires and bashed out the window of her car as she was telling them she was a reporter.

“What’s messed up is I had several encounters with the feds and they were actually polite to me and if I was compliant they left me alone. I would never think I would say this, but the feds were better,” said Lomax. “I do think [the Portland Police] are targeting the press.”

This perspective has become common for protesters and independent reporters on the ground, who feel that the approach by the police has been to demoralize the protesters through aggressive treatment, including those intent on documenting police violence.

“A large part of [the Portland Police’s] abuse has been intimidation tactics: the police maintain their power through fear and their monopoly on violence is threatened when people overcome enough of that fear to stand up to them. From what we’ve seen at every protest, it is clear the Portland Police understand this,” says the Pacific Northwest Youth Liberation Front (PNWYLF), a radical youth organization that has been involved in organizing some of the more militant protests and who spoke to me through encryption and as a collective voice.

PNWYLF has been a favorite “boogeyman” in recent weeks, both for right-wing commentators and for the police’s communications department who screenshots and reposts their activity on Twitter.

“The feds consistently fired an enormous amount of tear gas and similar chemical weapons each night downtown, while the Portland Police have more frequently charged protesters with batons,” says the PNWYLF.

As they continue their assaults on protesters, legal observers and the press, there is a question of the legality of how the police is handling the situation. While injunctions were put into place and the public condemned police behavior, very little is actually done about it.

“You have to know that for a lot of these cops it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. That’s what we are seeing in the streets right now with the use of impact munitions,” says Juan Chavez of the National Lawyers Guild. “I think the federal weapons that were deployed, were deployed seemingly more indiscriminately and they were more impactful and harmful…all of that felt like a breaking of the norm.”

“Maybe that’s why it grabbed so much attention and condemnation from our local officials,” Chavez adds. “But I have been watching PPB and the other agencies they work with brutalize people for years, and that playbook has never changed. And now, what we are seeing since May 29 has been some of the most vicious police conduct in this city.”

Police Are the Recruiters

Part of what happens in social movements is that, over time, the weight of the heated protest collapses into some amount of moderation. More conservative voices arrive, compromises are made, policy directives are clarified, and a movement that started with a revolutionary outlook acquires a more reformist one.

For that process to take place, however, a certain stasis is required, but the nightly barrage of teargas has only accelerated, not slowed down, the movement. As a result, a radical movement to defund the police, which had been softening to a focus on reducing police budgets so money could be siphoned off for social programs, has instead hardened and remained on the streets demanding total abolition.

This has been surprising for many who thought that the removal by federal officers would have been a final victory for the demonstrators, but they misunderstood a key issue. This protest was not about federal police, or a unique situation of policing. It was about the very concept of the police as an institution, which many protesters no longer believe can be viable, even with progressive interventions. The excessive use of force by the police during the protests helped solidify this position in the minds of a broad section of the city and the nightly assaults have only kept protesters in the streets and radical solutions on the table.

“Night after night of police brutality against protesters has definitely inspired people to keep coming out each night, and has galvanized the much broader community against the police’s attempts at repression,” says the PNWYLF. “Right now, it’s hard to see a clear end to the current protests. Every night, it seems, the police do another dozen things that are worthy of protesting [against], and Portland has been a town of protests for years. The last 70 days have trained thousands of Portlanders on exactly how to resist police violence, and the police have unwittingly created the force to be reckoned with.”

The presence of the federal officers was generally viewed as an “occupation,” ordered by an unpopular president and staying despite objections from the entire state. Now, the language of occupation is still being used by protesters, not because the police are from out of town, but because the Portland Police also behave like an occupying force. Local politicians promised that the return of local police would be the return to normalcy, but this claim exposed the very heart of the problem: the ”normal” way of policing in Portland was already extremely violent.

As protests continue to rage on, escalating in attitude and tactics, and the police are likewise fed up with a city that seems intent on rejecting them, a stalemate has emerged. With the hyperbolic rhetoric about Black Lives Matter and “antifa” (though that label does not accurately apply to these demonstrations) doing the rounds in the right-wing press, the police likely see the protesters as occupiers as well, complete with “terrorist” motives.

“I think they believe the lies about BLM and antifascists, and they are convinced that they are holding back the barbarians and the gates,” says Chavez, of the National Lawyers Guild. “It’s part ideological, too. That’s why I think we’re seeing something of a cold war, in a way. There’s been this strange arms race between protesters and [the Portland Police], and they are locked in. There’s no reason for the protesters to back down. [The Portland Police] could back down…but they won’t, because they are afraid of looking weak in the face of criticism and protest.”

The road ahead for the protesters is a hard one, mostly because they are committed to demanding the impossible. The protests are not simply about police violence, or the broken state of Portland’s department, but instead the implicit inequality, white supremacy and both the structural and direct violence that many think is at the heart of the very idea of policing.

“We continue to see the indiscriminate use of crowd control munitions and the targeting of specific legal observer…We see Black women leading marches every night and receiving constant brutal treatment. The police are more interested in protecting their own union hall than they are [in protecting the city’s] residents,” says Standard Schaefer, an activist who has been joining the nightly protests and stood back as police charged through barricades on August 9.

“Nothing changes on their side, except that they are more tired, antsy and edgy,” Schaefer adds. “They’ve decided the remedy for an uprising against police brutality is more beatings and gassing. More night sticks. They are willing to chase people into residential areas to [secure a] win, even as it annoys and endangers local residents. And everything they do seems only to fuel the uprising. There is no end in sight. As long as the cops keep escalating, the uprising looks certain to continue.”

A Total Delegitimization

The Portland Police feel alien from the community of Portland, a feeling that is almost certainly mutual. While the police are ostensibly from the area — or at least nearby — the streets of Portland are not treated like home, the protesters not treated like disagreeable neighbors. With the police not interested to get any kind of approval from the community they are policing, a dialectic of resistance has created a committed opposition that only has the capacity to inflate.

The demand of the movement is not just reform or about the specifics of one department or the other, but that the notion of policing and its structures have to be severed to bring some amount of peace.

While the protests will likely continue, it is unclear what leverage either side actually has on the other. The police violence has only drawn more people into the streets and increased sympathy for the protests, and the police have now gone too far to back down.

Instead, the nightly protests will likely dissolve into the general culture of distrust and rebellion that is becoming more and more the underlying dynamic of Portland and other cities around the country. This is part of the long process of delegitimization of police as an institution, spearheaded by the Portland Police as the symbol for the coercive inequality of the legal system.

The escalation from the city’s residents will not just be in the next few days, but will continue to play out over the next decade as a new generation has decided that policing is unsalvageable.

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