This past weekend a man was shot to death near the Justice Center in downtown Portland, where protests have been taking place every night for over three months. The deceased was a heavily-armed member of the far right. Another member of the far right was just arrested in the working class Portland suburb of Milwaukie. He was arrested for having fired into a crowd the day before with live ammunition, apparently, in a separate incident from the killing at the Justice Center.
For those of you who might just be tuning in here, I’ll try to set the stage.
Prior to Trump, prior to the pandemic, Portland was a city experiencing multiple crises, as with many other cities across the country, but perhaps more so. Between the last two censuses Portland lost more than half of its Black population due to gentrification, a phenomenon known to many as ethnic cleansing. During that time, Portland also achieved #1 status in the nation in terms of the numbers of Black people killed by the police, per capita. Portland also achieved the status as the most rent-burdened city in the country, as determined by the cost of rent relative to the average income of renters in the city. For many comfortable homeowners living in the hills of west of downtown and shopping in the malls of Beaverton, the reality that they were living in a city that was experiencing multiple acute crises may have passed them by. We live in a very divided city, in so many ways. Just take a day-long walk down Burnside Boulevard from the hills west of downtown to the desolate trailers in outer southeast, and you’ll get the picture of the class structure of this society.
Prior to Trump, prior to the pandemic, groups like Don’t Shoot PDX and a multiplicity of other networks focused on police brutality, institutional racism, gentrification and the unaffordability of housing for most Black and working class people were active on the streets, online, and in electoral politics. While the state government is dominated by the interests of big landlords, like the Democratic Party everywhere, in local government on the city and county levels, increasing numbers of solidly progressive people have been getting in, in the city council as well as among elected officials in the judicial branch, such as the District Attorney who just dropped the charges of so many protesters who have been arrested over the past months.
Long prior to Trump, Portland was a hotbed of conflict between fascists and antifascists, between militant believers in white supremacy and militant antiracists. As with cities like Minneapolis, there is a lot of history to this conflict. The streets of Portland, as with the streets of Minneapolis and other cities, were contested ground. Oregon was founded as a white homeland, and Portland was a national home to organized racism for a long time, until relatively recently, and the supporters of these groups have not all moved to Idaho.
The combination of Trump’s election and the social forces he continually strives to unleash, the pandemic, the growing numbers of blatantly racist police murders across the country, the economic crash, the apparent withdrawal of any more real help from the federal government, and the complete incompetence and/or captured-by-the-landlords nature of the state authorities in Oregon and elsewhere, have altogether created a massive powder keg. Add to that a tremendous increase in gun sales over the past several months across the country, very much including Oregon. Add to that wannabe vigilantes speaking at the Republican National Convention, and real vigilantes in Wisconsin being praised by the president, with the blood still fresh on the streets of Kenosha.
OK, stage-setting over.
It’s always been mythology that in the USA the First Amendment gives people the right to peacefully protest. It’s always been mythology that when people commit acts of civil disobedience, such as marching or sitting down in the street, that they will generally be gingerly carried off with one cop taking each limb, carrying the arrested to an awaiting vehicle, and carefully placing them inside it. It’s always been mythology that when there are two opposing groups of protesters, the police are there to act as a neutral party to keep them from hurting each other. Under certain circumstances, peaceful protests go off without a hitch, police escort marchers in the streets, and they keep protesters from killing each other, but there’s nothing predictable about any of these things going that way. In fact, most often, they don’t go like that at all, in Portland, or in most US cities.
And yes, most US cities are Democrat-run, as Trump is so fond of pointing out. There are reasons for that. Unfortunately, these Democrats, like their Republican counterparts, are largely also wealthy landowners, such as Mayor Ted Wheeler, and/or politicians paid off by corporations, incapable of doing anything more than mouthing progressive slogans while they screw the entire working class over and over again with their actual actions. And what is especially telling is that in these progressive hotbeds, the police forces are full of unaccountable human rights abusers and members of the far right, and most of each city’s budgets goes to them every year. And despite the fact that these police departments are constantly losing lawsuits brought against them by the citizens they kill and maim, their killer cops not only almost never go to prison, but they almost all keep their six-figure jobs as our armed protectors.
While it is mythology that there’s anything like a set of rules to adhere to for proper protesting etiquette, to avoid getting attacked by police or fascists, for example, or to get positive media coverage, or any media coverage at all, it is true that there are general tendencies in a given country at a given historical moment in terms of how things will go the vast majority of the time. And to the extent that it was generally the case that you didn’t used to have to worry about people shooting at each other with live ammunition at protest rallies in front of a federal courthouse in the center of a city in this country a few years ago, this expectation is increasingly not valid.
Whoever shot the heavily-armed member of the far right downtown, the context was that other members of the far right were spraying crowds with gunfire, a massacre of protesters had just been committed in Wisconsin by a member of the far right, and hundreds of beefy white people with big flags throughout downtown Portland were involved with vehicular assaults on pedestrians and other vehicles, and lots of people were spraying each other with bear mace, hitting, and kicking each other.
Although no one has been killed by a politically-motivated leftwinger or anarchist in the United States in decades to my knowledge, while members of the far right kill us regularly at this point, if it indeed is the case that this man was killed in the course of a conflict with a counterprotester, this really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Many people we might broadly define as antifascists embrace armed self-defense and do shooting practice regularly, from Anti-Racist Action to the John Brown Gun Club, and new groups like that seem to be forming daily, along with neighborhood associations forming for people to defend one another from the coming waves of evictions.
Knowing that the police are either unwilling or unable to effectively police events such as the Trump Cruise and ensuing urban combat that we saw last night, given that going downtown to protest, whether you’re protesting in a way that the authorities deem to be “peaceful” or “violent,” you are risking your life by being there.
That was the best gig, serenading the mayor, while occupying the entire block in front of his condo. https://t.co/VSS9lLtyY1
— David Rovics (@drovics) August 29, 2020
Of course, you’re also risking your life every time you cross a busy street, or ride your bicycle down one. And when you’re in a crowd of enthusiastic, community-minded protesters from all walks of life, of all ages, catching up with each other, playing music, shouting at the mayor, and taking over the streets, it’s easy to feel invincible. At least for me it is. It’s easy to rationalize away fear, and perhaps for some of us more than others, easy to feel like these bad things can’t possibly happen to me. But if they happen more and more often, people start to change their orientation.
Standing on the precipice we’re all standing on right now here in the USA, my mind delivers me historical parallels, as a sort of desperate measure, trying to make sense of it all. I’m not sure how relevant any of them are, but any of them might be. There are too many different factors that go into creating the future.
But at least in retrospect, some things seem clear. Retrospect is good like that. The massacres at Kent State and Jackson State, along with so many more killings by the authorities of Black radicals especially, in no small part gave rise to networks such as the short-lived Black Liberation Army and the Weathermen. Developments like these tend to reinforce the maxim that violence is made inevitable through the suppression of more peaceful means.
Similarly, in Northern Ireland there was a civil rights movement, that sought equality for the oppressed Catholic minority in the Occupied Six Counties. The movement was consciously modeled after the civil rights movement in the US. Like its counterpart in the US, it was met with tremendous violence, which ultimately took the forms of racist pogroms in 1969, the burning of hundreds of homes by anti-Catholic mobs, a massive propaganda campaign of fake news brought on by the authorities, vilifying the largely Catholic movement, and ultimately a massacre of movement organizers by British troops. All of these events of 1969 and 1970 ultimately led people to conclude that peaceful marches were not working if they would just end in massacres. And this understanding gave rise to the armed resistance movement that followed, which in turn gave rise to a conflict that took the lives of thousands of people over the following quarter century.
There are those examples of fires being fueled by the authorities. Then there are other examples, when governments with intelligent leaders who know they’re in a race against time act decisively. A somewhat random example that comes to mind is how at the end of the Second World War, after years of a terrible occupation that involved a famine and many thousands of deportations and executions, with many more shipped off to work as forced laborers, after the Netherlands was liberated by Allied forces from Canada, the US, Poland and elsewhere, but also in no small part including by Dutch resistance forces as well, the first thing the government did when it came back from exile was collect all the guns that were now all over the country. They were desperately concerned that after all these years of Nazi occupation, there could be terrible conflict in society between those who resisted in some form, and those who collaborated to one degree or another. If there were to be such conflicts, they wanted to make sure that they did not involve firearms.
My orientation is admittedly Eurocentric. I’ve spent most of my adult life somewhere between North America and Europe, and much less of it anywhere else in the world. One of the guests I interviewed for one of my livestream shows/podcasts recently, an Argentinian anarchist and professor at the University of Massachusetts, Graciela Monteagudo, says the fascist comparisons aren’t so relevant, that the divisions in US society and the incompetent, corrupt state ostensibly at the helm of it are much more like a typical kleptocratic banana republic than a well-oiled fascist fighting machine.
Either way, if there is a point at which we realize we are taking our lives in our hands by just going downtown and marching in the streets, this might be it. What comes next, I don’t know that anybody knows – I sure don’t. I only know a little, mostly selective tidbits about what has happened before. The time and place we’re in now is not like those other times and places, however. It’s new, and in so many ways, as they never tire of pointing out in the news, unprecedented.