A Portland ‘Sit-Down’ Can Rock Trump’s Boat

For the last five weekends, I and my dozen BLM sign-waving, curbside cohorts—mine now has an addenda (“Trump’s Latest Crime: Secret Police in PDX”)—do hour-long shifts on a traffic-heavy corner of Portland’s Holgate/Caesar Chavez Boulevards. We’re one of several groups dotting the city with our post located nearly five miles East from Trump’s notorious secret- police attack of “PDX.”

The covert arrival of President Trump’s private combat troops and deafening explosions of their munitions downtown are reflecting residential fury against him by passing drivers laying on horns in cars, trucks, and Tri-Met buses. They’re augmented by raised-fist gestures thrust through sunroofs and vigorous, supportive waves, two-fingered V’s, and thumbs-up gestures from passengers.

The nightly demonstrations by ordinary and peaceful Portlanders against police brutality to Blacks and, now, Trump’s stormtrooper bombardments and kidnappings have been ongoing for over 60 days. Thousands joined the mostly peaceful protesters after president Trump violated the presidential oath in June with an executive order  creating a federal-property “protection” force. “Why?” we veteran activists wondered. A gun-packing security detail already exists to guard the federal Justice Center, the center of downtown action.

For years, they have always trotted across the street for our non-violent environmental and political rallies, firmly ordering us elsewhere. And just as firmly, our leaders have reminded them we’re not on federal property, yet that’s exactly the spot the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment gives Americans the right of free speech and “peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Centuries of police violence against Blacks certainly constitutes grievances.

Before we could remind them that Trump and his retinue, Congress, the courts, and federal officers have sworn an oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the U.S. Constitution, they would stride briskly back to the Center’s protective walls. They knew only too well that the Trump Administration has discarded the oath, but that many Portlanders and organizations regularly exercise their Constitutional rights on public-policy issues in City Council chambers, meetings of county/regional commissions, and neighborhood associations.

They now also know that despite Trump’s characterization of the City of Roses as a Mecca of “anarchists and agitators”  who “hate our country ” are lies. That any hint of dissent anywhere no matter the issue, is designed to overthrow him and his regime—and destroy every police department in the country. Freedom of assembly was to be wiped out instantly by federal forces if mayors and governors weren’t up to the job. He ordered Attorney General William Barr , to declare the continuing nationwide demonstrations about Black Lives Matter and defunding police were criminal violence?

Gleefully, he targeted Portland to be the guinea pig for repressive measures, not New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles because of their monumental number of activists. Other Democratic strongholds on his itinerary were Albuquerque, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Oakland, and Philadelphia. Political writer Juan Cole  warned of the frightening results:

“The [Portland] exercise also has the advantage for Trump of entrenching a new form of secret police and of turning federal agents into instruments of his authoritarianism.”

Trump’s motives have been attributed chiefly to winning re-election and a lifetime presidency by playing a John Wayne macho role to stop the rapid defection of his voting base , disastrous poll numbers (Biden, 52%; Trump, 40% ),  and scaring suburban voters  about the Portland situation into supporting his re-election. Attacking Portland is now seen as a device to distract American voters from his criminal negligence of COVID’s deadly harvest (July 27: 4,225,687 cases; 146,546 deaths ).

Prior to the July 4th arrival of Trump’s combat troops, Portland reaction to Floyd’s May 25th murder was largely peaceful. The initial response was a candlelight vigil by Blacks in North Portland on May 29 and another , July 17, on the Justice Center steps led by a Black City Council member. Downtown, a Floyd demonstration did start peacefully, but around 11 p.m. a group of the non-peaceful raced in and out of the Center lobby and set a fire.

As firefighters extinguished the blaze and police arrived, a few in the crowd suddenly turned hostile either toward firefighters and police, or, surprisingly, to the peaceable. Police quickly responded with flash-bang grenades and tear-gas supposedly to disperse the demonstrators, turning them into a massive crowd of screaming, coughing, panicking—and the vengeful.

Meantime, four hours of vandalism and street fires were already underway, marked by store-window smashings and lootings—sacking Apple and other high-end stores. The alternative tabloid Willamette Week reported that: “The looters were masked, but they appeared young and predominately white.” Hardly George Floyd avengers. Its lead photograph showed a smoke-shop employee imploring a group to leave. The three he addressed were in black hoodies, one with a black mask.

The upshot was an 8pm curfew, and increasing public anger at police overreaction. A new Oregon law  and U.S. District Court’s temporary restraining order banned tear gas “except for threats to public safety.” In mid-June, the City Council voted 3-1 to deduct nearly $16 million  from the police FY2020 allocation of $245 million  and shift it to other programs. The holdout and her advocates wanted $50 million  shifted.

Now, we long-time Portland activists recognize provocateur handiwork when we see it. The Justice Center fire, even though small, was an eerie reminder of Berlin in 1933 when Hitler’s provocateurs set Germany’s parliament building (the Reichstag ) afire, making him dictator the next day.

In the massive peaceful rallies and marches against the Iraq invasion and others, including the Occupy movement, we were invariably infiltrated by sniggering young people representing the Black Bloc movement. The Bloc seemed to operate in every major city with a heavy Democratic registration. Their assigned mission seemed to be convincing the American public that our demonstrations were violent and subversive.

Knowing media coverage always focuses on the visual (“If it bleeds, it leads”), right after a rally or march, focus was on smashed store and car windows, fires in garbage cans and newspaper boxes and on streets. We always got blamed one way or another (“If you guys would knock off that stuff, this wouldn’t happen.”) The Bloc avoided union and environmental events, especially the anti-Trump Women’s March the day after his inauguration. These were boring, or risked union fists, or women’s confrontations (blows from picket signs and purses).

Black Bloc-ers in Portland seemed to be mostly young thrill-seekers and hoodlums delighted to be recruited by paid provocateurs and their paymasters. Dressed in gothic-black outfits, black hankies concealing faces, they had exceptional hit-run skills for property damage and starting fights. Once, two dozen marching behind some of us tried to turn our huge march off its route with shouts of “On to the freeway!” Behind them were riot cops with batons at the ready and paddy wagons that chased them, presumably, to I-5.

It got so bad that demonstration leaders finally designated two dozen uniformed (yellow vests) march-monitors to “ease” Bloc-ers from our ranks. Back in  2012, an exasperated political columnist Chris Hedges  called the Bloc, Occupy’s “cancer…. a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.”

Before Trump’s henchmen arrived to rekindle the dying embers of “unrest” in early July, the Council voted to bar any cooperation between police and Trump’s dragoons. Yet the Police Bureau welcomed, housed, and assisted their brother officers, knowing they all have qualified immunity from any criminal actions?

As Trump’s stormtroopers charged into the Center area, they seemed to believe they were to flatten another Fallujah. They hit protesters with barrages of crowd-control munitions and ferocious baton beatings. One burst of “impact munitions,” blew open a protester’s skull and hovered near death. Troops cruised streets in Enterprise rental vehicles  and randomly kidnapped people, hooded and petrified them so they would spread their tales of terror on social media, and to family, friends, work cohorts. The intent, of course, was to make public suppression easy in Portland—and all of Trump’s other targets.

My photographer/writer friend Mike Hastie dodged tear gas canisters, flash-bang grenades, pepperspray balls, and rubber bullets, to record the overwhelming firepower and violence of Trump’s troops. He emailed me:

“Since Trump called in the Feds, the turmoil and violence has escalated. We all know what Trump is doing: The Feds are baiting the demonstrators, and when they react to the [secret] police violence, Fox News is there to convince the American people that the demonstrators are the bad guys, and the police are the good guys…. The Feds and the [Fox] News want to shape public opinion that these violent protests are being committed by mobs of anarchists and thugs.[and] convince people all over the nation that the Federal Government is protecting us from violent dissent….The Feds don’t know this town so they think they can control the tens of thousands of activists who live in Portland….If there is more overwhelming violence against protesters, and more people get injured, or possibly killed, the call from social media will bring out 50,000 people to the streets….When you factor in COVID-19, and the extreme stress people are feeling from economic insecurity, the emotional cocktail is frightening.”

He was right. The attack backfired almost immediately.

Protesters started a counter-attack which for some reason focused on breaching the hastily built 10-foot, reinforced chain-linked fence ringing the Center. A pair were using an electric saw to cut it down. Instantly, Trump’s troops rushed from the Center to defend the fence only to be pelted with a shower of objects from “tight-knit groups,” he said. Others resorted to shouting taunts, chanting, ear-splitting music, and bared teeth and were met by a steadly stream of “tear gas and projectiles, along with flash-bang grenades.” Two Portland police officers told The Portland Tribune’s Nick Budick  privately that

“…a small, organized group of anarchist-identifying agitators have set more than a hundred fires downtown. This subgroup of protestors also is firing large fireworks and using slingshots to launch ball bearings, frozen water bottles and containers of urine and feces, all deliberate and repeated attempts to injure officers.”

Hastie’s prediction that thousands of ordinary Portlanders—especially activists’ parents—enraged by the actions of Trump’s cops, donned COVID masks and came downtown. To protect themselves, he reported many wore helmets and knee pads, carried gas masks, umbrellas, and plywood shields to ward off projectiles.

A “Wall of Moms ” separated Trump’s Praetorians from demonstrators under the credo of “protecting peaceful citizens’ right to protest.” A “PDX Dad Pod” armed with leaf blowers, showed up to push away tear gas clouds. Considering serious accidents caused by kicking away grenades and canisters—or picking them up to “return fire—hockey sticks have come into play. A tall, naked young woman  stepped from the protesters to stupefy a line of troops, daring them to suppress her. And for 10 minutes they held their fire as the “Naked Athena” performed seductive ballet-yoga poses  (standing, lying down, sitting legs open). She drew a few pepper balls near her feet after they awakened and retreated. But when Mayor Ted Wheeler attempted a Q & A with booing protesters asking where he’d been hiding all this time, they were all tear gassed.

Worse, these counter-attacks have now played into the hands of Trump’s advisers and puppetmasters. A reaction was what they wanted to be able to claim they were restoring order. Aside from knowing exhaustion and injuries eventually wear out the most intrepid of freedom fighters, they’ve assumed Trump will be able to perform as a tough-as-nails, law-and-order neoMussolini—and be re-elected. They count on Americans’ “forgetters” about this suppression “exercise” though 13 major polls reported Trump’s disapproval rating averaged 58%  by July 27.

Historically, violence has always escalated into counter-violence and massacres or Iraq’s ISIS would never have existed. Before the Portland standoff in results in deaths and ruinous expense to federal and local governments, it’s time for a major change in our tactics if redress for centuries of injustice to Blacks and police brutality is to be achieved and Constitutional rights preserved for all of us.

The tactic is an 8-10 p.m. Friday sit-down en masse (while observing social distancing and carrying backpacks of medical supplies) in the three public parks adjacent to the Justice Center. Defiant chants would be replaced by patriotic and rebellious songs interspersed with the 8:46 minutes  of silence for George Floyd’s death, and ending with a bell. Alumni of the non-violent Civil Rights movement can organize this action and continue it until the day before the election. As the lunch-counter sit-downs quickly spread to 13 states, so can this tactic in all the cities Trump has threatened.

It requires steely commitment, extraordinary bravery, and repressing instincts to retaliate. But where used, it has always instantly, clearly and visually separated the oppressed from the oppressors, the peaceful from the violent (troops, provocateurs, thrillseekers). The non-violence aspect should attract thousands of participants, including families. And like the “Naked Athena,” it should surprise and confuse Trump’s combat troops into holding their fire. Best of all, Trump will come across as a pistol-packing, fat bully attempting to overthrow a democratic republic.

To paraphrase the song “Sit-Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from a Broadway musical, the spectacle of a First Amendment sit-down guarantees a national and global audience. It should “rock (and capsize) Trump’s boat” by November. If a picture is worth a thousand words, newspaper photos of past sit-downs taught millions how to speak Truth to Power.

In this country, the first, and most famous, sit-downs involved the Firestone and GM strikes of 1936-37  in Ohio and Michigan. They were basically over pay cuts, work hours, layoffs, assembly-line speedups—and unionization. The first started on the night shift of January 29, 1936 in Firestone’s truck-tire department at its Akron Plant No. 1. Employees vigorously objected to the suspension without pay of a cohort responding to the company spy’s fist with a knock-out blow. They shut down the assembly line and locked themselves inside the plant. When a sympathetic sit-down loomed in Plant No. 2, Firestone officials quickly re-instated the employee with retroactive wages.

That action ignited February’s sit-downs over pay at nearby plants of B.F. Goodrich and Goodyear. Frightened by union recognition and pay demands, Goodrich owners settled February 9 after only two days. But Goodyear officials laid off 70 employees and dealt with protests from the remaining 137 employees by firing them all. The newly formed United Rubber Workers union rushed in to referee reactions. Goodyear officials hung tough for 33 days in one of Ohio’s worst winters, but mounting production losses forced owners to settle on March 21 by reinstating the fired and curtailing speedups. Result: Demands mostly met, subsequently leading to 52  more sit-down strikes in Akron up to January.

Those successes spread nearly 250 miles north  to 136,000 General Motors  autoworkers in its 17 plants, starting in its Flint, Michigan Fisher body factory. Demands were unionization and ending long hours, low pay, hearing losses, dangerous conditions, and unfair, instant firings. Fisher became the sit-downs’ poster child because instead of using traditional picket lines that could be penetrated by police, scabs, and delivery trucks, strikers locked down the plant and occupied it for 44 days.

The costs to GM were astronomical: 280,000 unbuilt vehicles because parts divisions were idled, terrible publicity and consumer boycotts—particularly after it shut off heat in -16ºF weather. So did newsreels showing women shivering on picket lines, families making food and water deliveries—and heavy pressure from President Franklin Roosevelt to settle. They did on February 11. Result: United Auto Worker recognition, many demands met, including a 5¢ raise.

That success triggered an unexpected sit-down strike 16 days later in Detroit. It was staged by 108 mostly young, low-paid (25¢ per hour) women sales clerks at one of F.W. Woolworth ’s chain of 2,000 dime stores in five countries. Demands ranged from unionizing and a 10¢ raise to 8-hour days and 50¢ meals at their famous lunch counters. They stunned millions of customers and newspaper readers which revealed the shocking low wages, long hours, and management’s rigid regimentation. Help came immediately from national union pickets, food and clothing from families, friends, loyal customers—and that bad publicity. New York’s Retail Clerks union threatened a boycott of every store in the state and the Hotel union warned a national boycott. Woolworth caved seven days later. Result: Sales clerks in all of Detroit’s Woolworth stores received most of the benefits demanded by its “working girls” which, years later, have progressed to equal-pay laws.

Meanwhile, employers around the country were apoplectic about the rise and defiance of the workingclass whose “cheeky” demands cut profits significantly. They were especially terrified about their dwindling power caused by unions . One labor historian  commented:

“The sit-down wave also provoked an intense public debate over whether it was morally right to occupy the capitalists’ property and about which set of rights is more important, human rights or property rights.”

Company owners fought back with table-pounding, media outcries and lawsuits charging that sit-downers were seizing property illegally. That argument was countered by historical-precedent defenses: American revolutionaries in 1773 dumping $1.1 million dollars of British-owned tea  (2020 values ) in Boston harbor, and the 1776 theft of Britain’s 13 colonies and other crown lands. Result: U.S. independence.

Without doubt, the most life-threatening sit-ins in this country were the Blacks’ 1960 civil-rights protests in general and, in particular, demands to integrate public places such as restaurants , libraries, hotels, beaches, movie theaters, and bus travel. A silent sit-down started on February 1, 1960 at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro NC. Four sit-down trained black college students were denied service and refused to leave. When they returned to sit next day, white customers and outsiders jostled, jeered, taunted, and pelted them with food. Using Gandhi’s non-violence and silence tactic, they refused to react.

Heavy national coverage awakened and outraged millions over segregation in public places. That sit-in spread to 55 cities in 13 states and inspired a host of demonstrations to ban discrimination of everything from public places and facilities to employment and university and public school admissions. Result: The Civil Rights Act ‘s enactment, July 2, 1964, and also the business world’s recognized that billions in profits would be earned from Black customers.

Outside of the U.S., India’s Mahatma Gandhi ’s inventive non-violent sit-downs were awakening the world of the downtrodden to seek seemingly impossible goals. From the 1920s on, his was wresting independence from Britain. His people suffered more than two centuries of British cultural and suppression—and massacres.

India had been occupied, exploited, humiliated, and controlled physically and economically by generations of English officials and colonial descendants. The country’s history of bloody and unsuccessful revolts taught Gandhi and his followers that a military revolt was not only impossible, but casualties and costs would be overwhelming. A deeply spiritual man in a deeply spiritual country, he concluded that non-violent non-cooperation (“satyagraha”), combined with sit-downs would sabotage the “gears” to British “machinery.” Add their ruinous expenses of conducting WWII while still trying to rule the unruly with hints of granting independence.

He knew photographs of the British Army’s efforts to break the sit-downs would make them look like sadistic brutes they were. And breaking the post-war promise of spreading democracy around the world—except for India—would brand Britain as a lying, hypocritic nation. The sit-downs intensified. Result: Independence on August 15, 1947.

Gandhi’s tactic spread around the world. It saved Prague  from slaughter in 1968 when 20 years of Soviet Union iron rule over Czechoslovakia began evaporating because of liberal reforms by First Secretary Alexander Dubcek. Moscow dispatched some 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops, backed up by 5,000 tanks, to discipline him and his defiant people.

With no army to speak of, Czech leaders quickly decided to use a Gandhian non-violent sit-down. It would present the invaders with a massive and powerful show of silent resistance that would plague the Soviet occupation. Thousands packed St. Wenceslas Square on August 20 just as the troops and tanks rolled into the city. Soldiers stopped pummeling the first sit-down rows out of exhaustion. Result: Though it took another 20 years for the Czechs to gain freedom, this sit-down spirit inspired and ultimately prevailed.

These classic examples of sit-downs absolutely confounded corporations,  political tyrants, and militarists because they were robbed of using the usual repressive tools of firings or firepower. Sit-downs worked.

And they’ll work in cities like Portland where Trump is threatening to send in 75,000  secret police to smash dissidents and the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee to Americans of free speech and to peaceably assemble to demand grievances be redressed.

Many renown political writers today are pointing out that governmental leaders—federal/state/municipal—are more afraid of losing donors in this election year than their constituents, as well as their oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Our only real power against the Trump regime, says CounterPunch’s Paul Street, is for millions of us to “take to the streets .” As he put it:

“We must fight this rogue fascist regime in the streets, the workplaces, the fields, the public assemblies, the local and federal plazas, the parks, the financial districts, in every public and private space that matters. But that must only be our dress rehearsal. We must then graduate to take on the entire, richly bipartisan social order that produced this rogue fascist shit-hole presidency in the first place.”

That being so, how about peaceful Portlanders packing the three parks near the Justice Center with sit-downers to inspire those in other cities to help rock and capsize the Trumpian boat this November?