On the Portland Beating: The Ubiquity of Phones is Arresting

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Portland, Oregon

It’s a weird position to find oneself in, a pacifist scanning video feeds for hours to detect “intentions of violence.” How is it that one can spend 12 hours—on and off—reading accounts of a violent confrontation on a street corner involving many chaotic actors and by the end of it know as little as you did at the beginning?

“The kicker will be speaking at the DNC convention this week.”

“If these thugs get their way, Biden will have us in Maoist work camps.”

“You need any more evidence to vote Republican this fall? TRUMP 2020.”

“Animals, right? And the local mayor and governor praise the so-called peaceful protestors when riots are going on like this. We need to remove all of these two-faced Democrats.”

“Black Lives Matter aren’t even human.”

“Another life that matters, kicking a man down from behind. Time to clean out the trash Full Metal Jacket style.”

The above quotes? Found online. They are from the comment sections under dozens of articles. The result of a street corner and how it has been spun.

Daily Mail: “As he lay bleeding and unconscious, shouts of ‘Black Lives Matter’ were heard.”

The New York Times: “Protesters punched and kicked a man to the ground in Portland.

New York Post: “BLM mob beat a white man unconscious after making him crash his truck.”

The Guardian: “A man appeared to have been punched and kicked unconscious by demonstrators just blocks away from a peaceful protest in Portland.”

Portland Mercury: “An organizer with Moms United states that the truck was spotted earlier in the evening driving ‘recklessly in circles’ around the peaceful demonstration at the Justice Center.”

This is a parable about the power of spin.

On the night of August 16th, something happened. What happened is hotly debated and will be for the rest of the week, until a new series of protest-related events come along to replace it.

Phone video shows a group of 5-10 young adults approaching a white truck with no front license plate. They are in front of the 7-11 in downtown Portland, a few blocks from the Justice Center, the nexus of protests for 80 days. The group shouts at the truck’s driver, a man in a blue shirt with a buzz-cut of hair. A middle-aged blonde woman is pushed away from the truck and tackled by two young women. We see the driver again, slamming his door shut. He guns the motor, and goes down the block—but at the last minute, right as he reaches a light, he seems possessed by a need to return. He puts the truck in reverse and a number of people who originally surrounded the truck run after it.

The video rapidly cuts to this: The truck is crashed on a curb. An area by the right headlight is smashed. The driver gets out, looking very dazed. He is pulled away from the truck by a man with a curly ponytail and a vest that says Security. Security has a baton in his hand; he’s lean and dancing around the driver, a boxer’s dance that speaks of testosterone and nerves so keyed up that they are shaping his hands into fists. He pushes the driver to the ground.

A circle of men surround the driver, who is now on his knees and appears to be in slow motion. The driver says, “I ain’t trying to hurt no one,” and asks if he can make a phone call. Security with a ponytail can’t hold back: He punches the driver, is restrained by others, escapes the restraints. He kicks the kneeling man in the head, a blow so severe that the driver has two head wounds: One from the kick, and one on the other side from impact with the street. After this, the driver is unconscious.

The men who circled the driver flee, leaving a woman wearing a medic’s cross and others—mostly women—to move the unconscious driver out of a traffic lane and call 911.

On the morning of August 17th, this cut of the video is shared widely. Over the course of the day I watch different edits, which show longer conversations taking place between the driver and the youth.

National and international news outlets pick up the story and call the group of aggressive young adults “Black Lives Matter protestors,” due to the singularly racist logic that some of them are Black. Representatives from Black Lives Matter condemn the violence. Dozens of local activists also condemn the attacks and stress: Those people aren’t with us.

What follows is convoluted. Random people show up on social media, implying that the truck was trying to run them over, content was edited out. An Oregon Live article quotes a bartender who says the driver was drinking across town, and that before heading downtown, he showed off a hatchet in his truck. Someone says a Crips bandanna is visible in the video. Several someones claim that the driver—who was hospitalized—died of his injury. (He has not and is already released.)

Many believe that in war and love it doesn’t matter what is true—what matters is impact, that someone is catalyzed for your team.

And during this time something tricky happens: Rather than the blurry and often confusing events in the video being the “news story”—the story becomes people trying to figure out the story.

The origin event is a garment: One size fits all. It is a symphony of noise made by a thousand interference patterns.

Bloggers dox the kicker as Marquise Love, whose social media lists him as a security guard, airport employee, and DJ. (As of this writing, police have confirmed Love as their prime suspect. His rap sheet includes domestic assault and theft.) In another discussion, people try to dox the driver, presenting a social media profile of a skinhead who wants to “shoot Antifa.” His face looks significantly different than the driver’s. People jump on the thread and say he’s not the man.

Pervading these online discussions is a vigilance that someone too emphatic about a point may be an agitator working for the other side. Who would benefit from antifascist activists picking a fight with the wrong man? Which faction, figment, or Trojan freak? Feds or underground? If a piece of information is too convenient to be true, it may be a trap.

As the internet explodes with accusations, people ask: Why would anyone on the left suggest the driver had violent motives?

Over the past three months, people who define as pro-Trump and anti-BLM have provocatively entered the space of local protests. Some have favored the militaristic aesthetic of camo and the open carry of firearms. Some have shot paintball guns. A Seattle driver swerved into a BLM march and fired shots. Prizing anonymity, “outside” vehicles don’t always have visible plates when entering a protest space.

Rumors about the driver keep flying: He was homeless and living in his car. A girlfriend says he is home and recovering. (He is identified as Adam Haner. His girlfriend is Tammie Martin.) Under shares of her announcement, readers tag right-wing pundits who need to pick up the story and make the driver a star: Fifteen minutes of fame for Trump 2020! But the plot thickens: Martin fills her Twitter with anti-Trump messages, making this a less than ideal couple to exploit as “victims of BLM militants.”

There is another detail which makes the driver’s presence ambiguous—it’s seen on the longer video edits:

A trans woman has a verbal conflict with the 7-11 crowd and takes what appears to be a barbecue lighter out of her backpack. Two women in the crowd punch her. A man runs away with her bag. She maces someone, is in tears. Haner approaches her and appeals to the 7-11 group to leave her alone. While watching this, I wonder how figures of the religious right would interpret the intervention of their potential new star?

The ubiquity of phones is arresting. Who is in control? There is chaos.

Some right-biased sites don’t report that the woman is trans. One alleges that known Black organizers are connected with this fight. Without apparent mockery, this site flaunts the term “trans victim”—in a bid to win a trans population to their side? As I sift through more sites, it bears repeating: Whether it’s QAnon or Twitter moms or Trump: The right’s claims read like Reality TV on acid: BLM protestors are alternately Satanic, murderous, or lacking in libido. The word “animal” is overused in a racially-charged way. I see Vancouver-based far-right Patriot Prayer sharing video of Haner and his Gofundme. They announce a “D-Day rally” at the Justice Center, during which they swear to “take back the city” and show the left “what we the people really means without cops around.”

I’m pretty sure that there will be cops—and there will be phones.

The ubiquity of phones is arresting. There’s a Seinfeld episode where the main characters are put in jail for filming a guy who witnesses his own car get stolen. As it’s the 90’s, far before the age of smartphones, they use an analog video camera. Tickled by the novelty of their position, they laugh at the victim’s fuller figure and suggest that the theft will help him lose weight. He pleads for help. They keep filming. An officer arrests them on the grounds that they’ve broken a “Good Samaritan” law. By filming rather than intervening in a violent situation, they are seen as being of low moral character.

In modern antifascist protests, cameras are seen in the opposite way—they’re viewed as ethical tools, which have captured in detail the unwarranted aggression of officers. They are instrumental in identifying rogue actors, of any affiliation—who escalate violence.

During the 7-11 altercation pedestrians stood at a distance, holding phones. Some avoided aiming lenses at faces, instead capturing a sequence of aggressive feet. There is something deeply surreal about listening a video streamer narrate chaos: “They’re spitting on her,” she says, while broadcasting feet.

The ubiquity of phones is arresting. Millions of us—across the planet—some of us every night—watch live streams of violent confrontations, then argue under them for sport. Even those of us who have no desire to engage in public conflict wage private wars with blurry video, trying to will it into a semblance of truth.

Have we all—in the age of Total Spin—been turned into members of a bizarre surveillance cult, isolated in our pandemic beds, scanning endless video feeds shared on Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook? Do we serve as tribunals of one to determine the guilt or innocence of complete strangers?

It’s the end of the week. News sites run wild with contradictory views on Haner: He says he was picked on because he was white. He says that he marched in a Black Lives Matter protest and he only wants “karma” to punish Love. People share screenshots from his (now private) Facebook page, including a post calling George Floyd a “felon” whose death has caused “riots.” He allegedly suggests following “rioters” home to get revenge. People share a screenshot of Love’s Snapchat, where he calls Haner a white supremacist. Love was looking for a fight—fired from his security job 4 months ago, he continued to wear a vest labeled Security.

The incidents on video have been debated to death, and I’ve been forced to examine bias—others and my own:

I’m a pacifist. In a fight with a feather, I’d lose. For years I’ve heard people joyously, raucously proclaim: “Punch a Nazi!” This phrase has a particular resonance in Portland, where Black, gay, and goth friends share war stories of being jumped by skinheads between the 70’s and 90’s. The skinhead presence never went away—they rebranded, got Instagram accounts. I yearn for a society that doesn’t arrive by punches—yet human nature persists in being brutal.

My bias for empathy brings me to watch a video and see a convergence of people who have deep emotional scars. I condemn their violence.

My bias for empathy brings me to look beyond a street corner and side with Black Lives Matter. I see a movement that seeks reparations for a violence enacted for several hundred years. It feels ethically cheap to laugh away demands for justice—as something that “people should just move on from,” yet this very cheapness is encouraged in our social discourse, from the White House—the top down.

How can one move on from something that never ended? How can one demand of a violent nation that it lay down its arms—with any measure of success?

Is this a parable? About the story of interpreting a story? Is this a parable that shows how easy it is to be spun? Is this a parable that shows the degree to which we willfully blur the boundaries between reality and spin because we believe, deep down, that our arguments will be lost if we don’t show allegiance to an absolute Us versus an absolute Them?

Jennifer Robin is the author of Death Confetti (Feral House), Earthquakes in Candyland (Fungasm Press), and Even Snowflakes Heal and You Can Download Skin (Ladybox Books). She also posts on Medium.