In Portland, a month-long anti-racism protest has transformed into a mainstream rebellion. More than five thousand people take to the streets some nights to fight Trump’s secret police. They say they are there to protest foremost in support of Black Lives Matter and against racist police violence. They are also protesting for basic First Amendment freedoms, such as the right to protest, under assault by the feds. To counter the state violence being used against them—tear gas, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets, and clubs, many come to the demonstrations outfitted with gas masks, helmets, body armor, and cameras. Some bring tools and equipment to turn the tables, like hockey sticks to send tear gas canisters back where they came from and bolt cutters to create openings in the metal fences erected to keep protestors away from the feds who are firing on them.
It would be overblown to call this a war—“there are less guns and no dead bodies here,” one war correspondent reporting from Portland says. But only the rhetoric of a “war zone” can describe what is happening around a besieged federal courthouse in downtown. On one side are 200 or more federal forces. This includes 114 members of BORTAC, a Border Patrol unit that models itself on the Navy Seals, sees opponents as “enemy combatants,” and is described as “the most violent and racist” agency in all of law enforcement. The forces were dispatched by Trump in late June as a ploy to generate “viral content” that he could exploit for campaign ads to motivate his base to rescue his flailing presidency.
Photo by author.
On the other side, led by Black Lives Matter organizers, are a variety of constituencies: "Momtifa"—mothers who link arms and form lines to protect protestors, the Wall of Vets, brigades of dads often armed with leaf blowers to blow back thick clouds of tear gas, Teachers against Tyranny, doctors, lawyers, and an army of youth. Around the courthouse, the front ranks work on dismantling the fence. Provisions of the First Amendment and images of pigs in police hats are projected across the 16-story building which is capped by outcropping with a semicircle walkway that makes it look like an enormous gun turret. Down below, commands are yelled out: "We need lasers up top," and a dozen green lights dance across windows to try to force away Department of Homeland Security spotters calling out targets. As people cut steel bolts securing the fence, a column of black-clad defenders push to the front with wood and plastic shields to protect their bodies while others lean over with umbrellas to block cameras. Someone had the idea to spray globs of insulation foam that turns solid across the steel fence at head and torso level to stop these secret police from firing munitions directly at people.
The militarized feds toss flash-bang grenades and tear-gas canisters over the fence. Kids with heat-resistant gloves toss them back. Fireworks begin to boom every few seconds under the concrete awning, lighting up the toxic gasses in primary colors. They illuminate a dozen secret police massed in the smoke where the nightly battles rage.
The fence comes down. Dozens crouch behind shields, grenades exploding. Leaf blowers funnel tear gas back at the cops. Reporters group together, hoping “PRESS” spelled out on their helmets and ballistic vests provide protection where the city won’t and the courts can’t. A DJ plays Ludacris’s “Move Bitch Get Out Da Way!” One person shimmies, undulating their arms. A woman crouches on the front edge of the park, one of the foolhardy brave protected only by a thin-blue surgical mask. She gags. Tears and snot glaze her face. No one pays her attention. She is young and fit enough to recover quickly.
Photo by author.
A voice at the front yells, “Medic!” Other medics circulate through the crowd, washing eyes and faces to relieve the chemical weapons and evacuating those more seriously hurt. The odors of tear gas, firework smoke, barbecue, and cleaning fluid mingle in the air. A dozen people are still lined up hoping to get a taste of ribs or chicken from a food tent in the park dishing out meals before the full assault is unleashed.
The feds start to fire projectiles that punch through the air, trailing sparks. A local filmmaker records one coming straight at him. It smashes the boom mic on his camera. He says if it wasn't for that, the munition would have hit him in the eye, blinding him or possibly killing him.
Those left in the front ranks all have respirators, gas masks, helmets, and are fully clothed on a warm summer night. The feds shoot munitions in an arc above head level. The projectiles go screaming into the crowd. People chant, "Feds go home." It’s a demand as simple and as unifying as Tahrir Square’s, “The people want the fall of the regime.”
I crouch by the side of an oak tree, hoping to stay safe as I post videos and descriptions on social media. OC pepper balls (oleoresin capsicum) hit the tree, stinging my hand a dozen times. Something slams into my shoulder like a hammer. I am hit.
I retreat. I walk backwards because I realize that keeping an eye on the munitions along with the NATO-compliant gas mask on my face will keep me safer than exposing my back. A block away a line of medics greet everyone by waving bottles of saline wash to treat tear gas exposure. A woman is rushed past by two friends, her eyes closed in agony, mouth open, limbs splaying like a rag doll.
Photo by author.
The feds intensify their attack. Explosions, smoke, and “pop-pop-pop” sounds of pepper-ball guns are on all sides. The retreat is chaotic but no one runs. People chant, “Stay together, stay tight, we do this every night.” Then the Portland police joins the fray in close coordination with the feds despite that the City Council banned them from cooperating. The Portland police, like many other law enforcement agencies, ignore civilian authority.
The attack goes much further than the few blocks more than what has become typical every night. After six blocks, a line of Portland cops bull-rush the crowd, beating and arresting anyone they catch. Videos show feds arresting people with little protection in thick clouds of tear gas. A day later a video shows a protester being held down in a thick cloud of tear gas and protection ripped from their face.
I leave, jumpy about cops prowling to scoop up stragglers. At home, after stripping off tear-gas doused clothing and trying to wash the chemical weapons off my body, I watch videos of a few dozen people filtering back to the courthouse for another confrontation.
Thousands of Portlanders are openly rebelling against the government. It cuts across classes, from homeless youth and drifters to lawyers, nurses, and architects to line cooks, teachers, and teamsters. There is little criticism about the mix of tactics that includes lobbing water bottles or fireworks at the feds. When peaceful protesters are being shot in the head, reporters are being shot in the face and head by an invading force, everyone shrugs off or cheers a few return punches. At the same, the resistance is overwhelmingly nonviolent.
Photo by author.
People from other states are coming to Portland to participate in the protests. There is a sense that Trump's fascistic moves need to be defeated by a mass outpouring. The crowd is extraordinarily courageous. It also lacks discipline and strategy.
It has been evident since Trump took office more than three years ago that his strategy was to divide society against itself and bring the “war on terror” home. His administration is creating enemies and terrorizing them with military force. It began in Portland and similar shows of force are reportedly going to be meted on Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee.
Although a growing majority of citizens want Trump to be defeated in the upcoming election, those participating in the Portland protests are not talking about November. The political struggle is in the streets and it is happening now. On the national level, the politics surrounding the election are intensely fraught. Will mail-in ballots will be permitted and will all votes be counted? Will the tally add up to Trump being defeated, and will he accept those results and leave office? For those on the front lines of the massive fierce nonviolent resistance, seeing what the feds are doing today makes those hopes for a free and fair election seem wishful.
People are protesting because waiting is not an option.