PORTLAND—“I’m going to do something, that I can tell you. Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these – Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country,” President Trump said Monday in Washington. “More federal law enforcement, that I can tell you. In Portland, they’ve done a fantastic job. They’ve been there three days and they really have done a fantastic job in a very short period of time. No problem! They grab them — a lot of people in jail.”
What’s happening in Portland—where the police had used wildly aggressive “crowd control tactics” against protesters, and reporters and passers-by to discourage protests about police violence and impunity even before federal officers acting independently of local authorities began indiscriminately attacking crowds with “less lethal” munitions including flash grenades and teargas—is coming soon to a city near you.
With the election looming, Trump is appealing to his base by again threatening to occupy American cities while creating a visible spectacle of suppressing leftist demonstrators: “There are anarchists, there are not protesters. There are people who hate our country and we’re not going to let it go forward.” So that’s the view from Washington; here’s what things have looked like on the ground in Portland:
Attacks on Protesters and Press
On the night of July 17th, protesters surrounded the Justice Center in Portland to hear speeches from civic leaders and a hip-hop concert in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The buildings were boarded up, covered with graffiti, the effect of 50 nights of protests that have made Portland a focal point for ongoing civil unrest. Before the concert had finished, a line of what looked like military troops, armed with crowd dispersal munitions, stacked up next to the buildings.
Without clear provocation or warning, they began firing “less lethal” munitions into the crowd before blanketing the entire area, several square city blocks, with CS gas. These noxious fumes often called “tear gas,” resulted in protesters collapsing, vomiting, and several needing support from on-site medics. The line of federal officers, acting under the control of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), then disappeared into the night, only to return again and again to charge at protesters.
This has become a nightly performance from the police as protesters continue their fight to “defund the police” amid the global uprising. Portland has a history of particularly aggressive protests, from being named “Little Beirut” by George H.W. Bush in the 1990s to the antifascist counter-demonstrations since 2016. The Portland Police Bureau was sanctioned and injunctions were put into place after their aggressive crowd control methods they used against this recent round of protests. The lawsuits that organizations like the ACLU filed helped tamp down the violence that the police were enacting nightly, until federal officers entered the fray.
On June 26th, Donald Trump put in an executive order to “protect monuments” that were being torn down around the country. Federal officers have now arrived in Portland and are using a blanket of force against protesters, indiscriminately firing munitions into the crowd and pushing back on reporters.
Eventually local officials, including Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, demanded the officers to leave. The problem is that they are here under federal orders and the state has little control over whether they stay or go. On July 16th video surfaced of federal officers, dressed in military fatigues, running “snatch and grab” operations where they swoop up protesters without explanation and shuttle them away in unmarked vans. This led to lawsuits against the federal government from both the Oregon Attorney General and the ACLU, demanding the ceasing of aggressive practices like unclear arrests.
“Defendants’ actions are undertaken with the intent of discouraging lawful protest and therefore constitute an illegal prior restraint on the First Amendment right of Oregonians to peacefully protest racial inequality,” says the petition filed by state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. While the federal officers still have authority over federal spaces, their conduct still raises serious constitutional concerns.
“We think we have a Constitution in this country and we are a country of laws and we plan to hold the trump administration and all the police in Portland accountable for the violations of our rights,” says Kelly Simon, the Interim Legal Direct at the Oregon ACLU, who says the treatment of protesters and the press raise serious civil rights issues. “Regardless of what legal authority any law enforcement agency is granted in this country, no police officer of any agency has the authority to grab somebody off the street without telling them why, take them without any process and without any suspicion or probable cause. That’s a blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment of our constitution.”
The tactic on the ground seems to be to overwhelm the crowds with force, sending a message that protests are too dangerous to attend or cover. One protester, Donovan LaBella, was hit in the head by munition and ended up in serious condition with a skull fracture, his life permanently altered.
“Undoubtedly, the Trump administration is probing how much they can abuse the constitution before [there] is pushback,” says Zakir Khan, the chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – Oregon, which has participated in the demonstrations. “I view this situation as a rain storm before a hailstorm to test the convictions of all Americans to fight for the constitution that they believe in. Everyone will have to play [a] role in this movement to preserve our freedoms.”
Why the Protests Are Continuing
On August 18th, the crowd was notably larger than the previous night as what started as a dance party in North Portland became several hundred protesters in front of the Portland Police Association by nightfall. The numbers on the ground were notably larger and more aggressive as some protesters used uprooted street signs as a battering ram to break into the police union’s office and set it on fire.
“The protests are continuing because there is still no action, there is still no accountability, only words and statements and breadcrumbs,” says Jacob Bureros, an organizer with the Direct Action Alliance, which is involved in the demonstrations.
The heavy handed response by authorities is helping to solidify the claims made by organizers, and demands to cut at least $50 million yearly from the police budget to divert to community programs. After police cleared the protesters at the union office, protesters amassed at the Justice Center to continue holding the space in defiance of police orders.
“Their ‘less than lethal force’ of action against peaceful protests just gets people riled up and makes them want to go back out there. These are the types of things that do not make people feel like their government is on their side,” says Devin Boss, a founding organizer of the organization Rose City Justice that has been involved in the protests. “They’re just showing that they are incapable of listening and that they have been conditioned to a point that the entire system needs to be rebuilt.”
There is no end in sight as protests continue to mount in one of the most contentious breakdowns possible between different levels of government. While protesters and reporters are seeing a catastrophic infringement on their rights, which could have long-term implication as Trump wields the authority of federal officers, it has also amplified the argument protesters are making that our current system of policing needs deep reforms. Now Trump is saying he is ordering federal officers to Chicago and possibly other cities, showing that Portland is likely a model for how federal officers can be deployed to liberal cities across the country.
“I think the Trump administration has made clear they intended to take this posture nationwide. These tactics,things like anonymous policing, shows of force, disappearing people through violent smash and grabs, are tactics we have seen this administration and our government use against black and brown and indigenous communities in an attempt to control and devalue human life,” Simon said on Sunday, before Trump’s threat to do just that.
“The message to me is clear that human life is not valued by our government right now.”