A few days ago on September 5, the Black Lives Matter protests in Portland reached a milestone, 100 days and nights of protests. Over 400 people attended a rally at Ventura Park to celebrate this event with speakers, musicians and poets, who urged us to keep up the struggle.
In the past few weeks, groups of hardcore protestors including Antifa and anarchists have been confronting the police at various precincts around the city. They number around 200-250, much less than the thousands who had previously protested at the courthouse to demand the removal of Trump’s federal thugs. In a nightly ritual of resistance, the protestors defy police orders to disperse. They respond with defiant “Fuck you” and taunts to “quit your jobs!” The police have attacked them, using tear gas, pepper spray, batons, rubber bullets and other munitions. Most times, the police have attacked them with little or no provocation.
This night was no different. As they were getting ready to leave the park around 9 PM, the police declared “an unlawful assembly” in a preemptive strike to prevent them from marching to the nearby police precinct. As usual, the protestors refused to obey their marching orders, and started moving down Stark Street.
A few blocks ahead, the police had cordoned off Stark Avenue and 113th Street. Suddenly, the night sky lit up with fireworks thrown by the protestors. It was a surreal and beautiful sight, and the sudden festive scene created a strange dissonance against the menacing riot cops, primed and ready to rambo. Then three molotov cocktails were thrown in the cops’ direction. This was the first time that has happened. None of the cops were harmed, but unfortunately, a man was injured when his pants caught on fire. Several protestors rushed to put out the fire, preventing any serious injury.
The police immediately declared a riot. The protestors at the frontline seemed ready for the police onslaught. They looked young, defiant and determined. All were dressed in black, holding up hand-made shields with the words “100 days, 100 nights” and “Abolish the cops” written on them. One young man with a megaphone urged them to “Stay together, stay tight! We do this every night!”
Then, like a well-choreographed ritual, the police fired rounds of tear gas and stun grenades at us. All hell broke loose, as everyone tried to run away from the charging cops, who were surprisingly fast. 59 protestors were arrested, the largest number on any single night. Most of them were charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor which the Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt had stated he would dismiss.
The next few days, social media were filled with comments by people condemning the use of molotov cocktails, which they believe will most likely escalate the situation, especially from the police who will use this to justify using even more violence on us. Many suspected that they had been thrown by undercover cops or agent provocateurs to malign the BLM protests.
The more strident criticism came from the corporate media and liberals. They have vociferously criticized the “violence”since the protests began after George Floyd was killed in late May. Their paradigm has always been to divide us into good vs. bad protestors. The good ones are the “peaceful” protestors who do what they’re told by the police and authorities, and ask for permits. The bad ones are uncontrollable, violent criminals who loot, riot, and clash with the police.
This narrative was recycled in an Oregonian editorial on Sept. 6, which announced that it was “time to stand down.” The editors accused certain unnamed “individuals” of coopting the BLM message with their “destructive acts” to “further their own agendas.” They made no mention of police violence. They dismissed the demands for the abolition of the police as “unproductive.” They explained that some of the police’s “fiercest critics acknowledge a fundamental need for the police to exist” and that families whose loved ones have been killed by the police are “desperate for police attention to their cases.” They concluded, “It shouldn’t be so hard to stand up for peace.” All we have to do is “stand down.” WTF? This jibberish coming from the mouths of privileged and pompous people is not surprising. It reveals a clear disconnect from the common folks and the BLM protestors out in the streets.
The protestors will not stop protesting against racism, police violence, injustice and inequality. They want to abolish the police. They see the police as the attack dogs of the power elites, the real masters that the cops serve and protect. They know that any significant rebellion that threatens the wealth, property and power of the ruling elites will be repressed with state-sanctioned violence from militarized cops, which no amount of “police reform” or defunding can change. As BLM organizer MacSmiff said at the rally, “We will go home when you go home….We will not stop. And you will be fired.”
The mostly white kids know that America was never a “great” country. It was founded on “stolen land and stolen labor.” They believe that “America is a Scam,” words scrawled outside the federal courthouse. They believe Black Lives Matter, but so do their own. They woke up to the reality that the American Dream is dead, or a lie, or both.. They believe they have “no future in a fascist regime,” as the Sex Pistols warned us decades ago. But what is alive and keeps them going is their resistance.
Some adults think the kids are insane. They are not. They are just trying to find a way out of a world gone mad after years of looting, destruction and terrorism run by mad men—sociopaths and psychopaths, bloated with insatiable greed and corruption, drunk on power and hubris. What is insane is asking and hoping that the very people responsible for creating all this bullshit mess in the first place are going to fix it. As David Graeber cautioned, “The system cannot save us; we have to save ourselves.”
The youth have come up with a new paradigm for upcoming protests on their social networks. “Be water, spread fire.” They know it’s time to rethink their strategies, to change, adapt and keep moving like water. That is a good thing. The counter narrative that BLM protests have been coopted by disorderly kids and “violent” agitators, perpetrated by the liberals and BLM critics, is gaining momentum, especially after the recent killing of a Patriot Prayer man by an alleged ANTIFA supporter. The deployment of molotov cocktails on Sept. 6, which harmed 1 or 2 people, has proven to be counterproductive. Narratives are useful because they are powerful. They can create or destroy support for popular movements or resistance, like BLM.
After 100 nights, the protestors are at a critical point. They will have to decide whether continuing their nightly protests against the police, which are now a predictable ritual, has become counterproductive. Ending police violence and racism are crucially important, but so is expanding the resistance against the endless wars of the American Empire, the hollowing out of hard-won social programs and benefits by neoliberal policies, the immiseration of workers stuck in shit jobs for shit pay, destruction of the earth, and the unrelenting class war perpetrated by the ruling elites against the rest of us.
One thing is clear for us all: to find effective ways to “spread fire”—the power of the people, armed with creativity and courage to imagine a different, better world and to fight for it, as David Graeber inspired us to do. In his words, “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”
All photos by Bette Lee.