An Injury to Portland Is an Injury to All –

The Mark O. Hat­field Fed­er­al Cour­t­house may be a nor­mal-look­ing build­ing dur­ing nor­mal times, but now it has the appear­ance of a loom­ing tow­er of doom — an enor­mous, white, sealed-off, impen­e­tra­ble Death Star, appro­pri­ate for cen­ter stage in any film about fascism’s rise. After many weeks of night­ly protests in the park across the street, the gov­ern­ment had installed out­ward-fac­ing flood­lights on the façade, forc­ing you to shield your eyes to look at it, adding to its hos­tile vibe. It is no longer a func­tion­al build­ing so much as it is a sword wield­ed by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion as it des­per­ate­ly tries to assert its own strength. What the feds failed to reck­on with was the fact that the peo­ple of Port­land had much big­ger plans than just play­ing a bit part in the president’s glob­al search for any dis­trac­tions from his own inadequacies.

The city of Port­land is 77% white and less than 6% Black. Its affin­i­ty for the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment is heart­en­ing, because it rep­re­sents a con­scious act of sol­i­dar­i­ty that has pro­duced almost 70 straight days of protests, and has seen thou­sands of Port­landers endure bouts of vio­lent oppres­sion in order to make their point. At the same time, like many most­ly white and upscale cities, there is an ele­ment of absur­di­ty in the over­lap­ping parts of our cur­rent cul­tur­al moment. Every beer gar­den and juice bar sports ​BLACK LIVES MAT­TER” ban­ners, while peo­ple sleep on the side­walk out­side; the Louis Vuit­ton store has board­ed up its win­dows in fear of riots, and then paint­ed a ​Pow­er to the Peo­ple” mur­al over the boards; a local sou­venir shop has post­ed a sign alert­ing refugees that ​We Stand With You. You Are Safe Here,” as if Oskar Schindler had sud­den­ly start­ed a new life sell­ing ​Keep Port­land Weird!” t‑shirts. It can all be a bit much. But the effort is not some­thing to be mocked. It is, rather, a sign of just how deep the roots of this move­ment are reach­ing into the Amer­i­can psyche.

Port­land is not immune from our nation’s acute crises. Home­less peo­ple are every­where. Tents and sleep­ing bags line the city’s side­walks from Nob Hill to the banks of the Willamette Riv­er. It is a shock­ing human­i­tar­i­an dis­as­ter, famil­iar to any­one who has recent­ly walked the streets of San Fran­cis­co or New Orleans or Philadel­phia, and becom­ing inured to it is dan­ger­ous to the soul. The pan­dem­ic, which has shut­tered most stores and left urban cores emp­ty of busi­ness­peo­ple, shop­pers, and tourists, leaves the home­less as the last per­ma­nent res­i­dents of entire busi­ness dis­tricts. The unem­ploy­ment cri­sis and its sub­se­quent evic­tions will leave more peo­ple home­less. The bud­get cuts hit­ting the city and state gov­ern­ments that pro­vide hous­ing and ser­vices will leave more peo­ple home­less. And the human ten­den­cy to pull inwards and shut our doors in times of fear will cut off help and leave more peo­ple home­less as well. The streets of Port­land today are a pre­view of what is com­ing every­where, unless some­thing changes radically.

The pan­dem­ic, the unem­ploy­ment, the years of pover­ty and bro­ken gov­ern­ment and police vio­lence, George Floyd, Bre­on­na Tay­lor — these are the things that set off the protests every­where. The addi­tion of the armed fed­er­al stormtroop­ers into this mix was just the secret ingre­di­ent that pro­pelled Port­land to a sort of pin­na­cle of polit­i­cal chaos. By the time I arrived, so much tear gas had soaked into the dirt and trees and side­walks of Lowns­dale Square, the park across the cour­t­house, that just stand­ing in it made me start to cough, even though there was no tear gas fired that night. The protest vet­er­ans who had been out for weeks on end already seemed unaf­fect­ed, like peo­ple who grow up in a mill town and stop notic­ing the stink. The vio­lence was all fresh enough that most peo­ple came pre­pared: hard hats or bike hel­mets, along with res­pi­ra­tor masks and gog­gles, and a grab bag of body armor and home­made shields. The atmos­phere was tense, like a crowd that had just poured out of a con­cert venue where there were a bunch of fights. Nobody quite believed that the feds weren’t about to come rush­ing back at any moment. One young woman held a sign that best cap­tured the moment: ​Pulling out won’t stop peo­ple from coming.”

The entire cour­t­house had been fenced off in Riot Chic style, with high met­al grates sand­wiched between two heavy con­crete bar­ri­ers. Because of this dra­con­ian defen­sive maneu­ver, all of the graf­fi­ti that had been scrawled on the cour­t­house was still there, per­fect­ly pre­served, while the city of Port­land cleaned the graf­fi­ti off oth­er city build­ings each day. This was a fair demon­stra­tion of the wis­dom that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has dis­played in the city. The idea that all of this rig­ma­role need­ed to hap­pen to ​pro­tect fed­er­al prop­er­ty” is absurd. You could lob a dozen hand grenades at the impos­ing cement face of the cour­t­house and not come close to knock­ing it down. No amount of fire­works, hurled water bot­tles, and spray­paint could do any real dam­age. Every­thing that the aggres­sive fed­er­al agents did to the peo­ple of Port­land is a case study in how over­re­ac­tion can backfire.

The state police who took over for the fed­er­al agents last Thurs­day have pur­sued the rad­i­cal new tac­tic of stay­ing inside the build­ing all night, rather than attack­ing the crowd and fir­ing tear gas. Since the police have decid­ed not to attack any­one, there have not been any clash­es. Incred­i­ble how that works. It is rare to even spot an offi­cer at the cour­t­house any­more after dark, once the hun­dreds of peo­ple gath­er out front and begin the speech­es and chants each night. Occa­sion­al­ly a sin­gle offi­cer will ven­ture out on a ledge many sto­ries high to peek down at the crowd, and when­ev­er that hap­pens he is imme­di­ate­ly paint­ed with red and green laser point­ers, until he resem­bles a tacky Christ­mas decoration.

Of all of the overt demon­stra­tions of fas­cist ten­den­cies that this White House has made, the fed­er­al agents’ heavy-hand­ed pres­ence in Port­land was the longest-last­ing. Resist­ing it open­ly there­fore took on an added impor­tance for any insti­tu­tion claim­ing to offer a path to a pro­gres­sive future. For orga­nized labor, par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Port­land protests has been a mem­ber-dri­ven affair. At 9:30 p.m. on Sat­ur­day night, hun­dreds of peo­ple gath­ered at the Salmon Street Springs in the water­front park down­town to pre­pare to march over to the cour­t­house three blocks away. Amid the vet­er­ans in U.S. Army t‑shirts ready to form the ​Wall of Vets” and the moth­ers in yel­low t‑shirts ready to form the ​Wall of Moms” stood a knot of union mem­bers hud­dled around a young man in a blue hard­hat hold­ing a hand­writ­ten ​Union Mem­bers Here!” sign. This was the sec­ond of three week­ly ​Sol­i­dar­i­ty Wall” march­es, an effort to put union mem­bers on the front lines of the protests. The event was orga­nized not by a union or by the Cen­tral Labor Coun­cil, but by a reg­u­lar AFSCME mem­ber who was extreme­ly earnest about not want­i­ng to appear in any sto­ry, lest she be seen as dis­tract­ing from the BLM cause. About 50 union mem­bers turned out: many in green AFSCME shirts, but also teach­ers from the Ore­gon Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, mem­bers of the local Amal­ga­mat­ed Tran­sit Union car­ry­ing a ban­ner, and oth­ers from the Iron­work­ers, the Car­pen­ters, the Team­sters, SEIU, UFCW, OPEIU, grad stu­dents and more.

In a move that long­time union mem­bers will rec­og­nize, our march got going late because we first had to have a lengthy dis­cus­sion of rules and pro­ce­dures. (One of the rules was ​Don’t talk to media unless you are BIPOC [Black, Indige­nous, Peo­ple of Col­or],” which was unfor­tu­nate for me giv­en the pre­dom­i­nance of white peo­ple in the group.) But the event was just a stag­ing ground for the future. The orga­niz­er spoke of long-term orga­niz­ing with­in Portland’s unions to make racial jus­tice a pri­or­i­ty, and to end their affil­i­a­tions with police. The moti­va­tion, the orga­niz­er said, was ​just to make sure we’re on the right side of his­to­ry.” The fact that the entire union pres­ence at the protest was orga­nized by mem­bers rather than by union lead­ers spoke to the urgency of that need.

Our group final­ly marched to the cour­t­house, and stood up against the bar­ri­ers, and fol­lowed in the chants being led by the Black protest lead­ers up front. The whole thing embod­ied, in a sweet way, a cer­tain qual­i­ty that strong unions should offer to a broad­er social jus­tice move­ment: the will­ing­ness to sup­port with­out seiz­ing con­trol, to show up and offer sol­i­dar­i­ty with­out mak­ing demands. That is what the labor move­ment should pro­vide as a mat­ter of course. We still have a long way to go.

What’s hap­pened in Port­land in the past month is a pre­view of… some­thing. Either a peek over the edge of our down­ward descent into dystopia, or a ral­ly­ing point where the peo­ple of a city held the line and start­ed beat­ing back a cheap dictator’s crude stabs at con­trol. I don’t know which yet. Last week­end, the pro­test­ers pro­ject­ed ​FED GOONS OUT OF PDX” on the side of the fed­er­al cour­t­house, and their wish has (pro­vi­sion­al­ly) come true. But the fed goons weren’t ever the real sub­stance of the prob­lem. It’s all the oth­er stuff that’s still there. At one point, a speak­er with a bull­horn, drip­ping with sweat in the August heat, exhort­ed the crowd, which had already shown up for weeks and weeks, before and after the cam­eras and the sol­dier and the tear gas, and still came out to scream at the blank, face­less sym­bol of the police state’s power.

They ask how long the protest is gonna last,” he hollered. ​The protest is gonna last — forever!”

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