[In late June 2020 the Trump administration deployed federal troops to Portland, Oregon, claiming it needed to restore order to a city riven by chaos and violence. The deployment in fact led to a sharp increase in violence, overwhelmingly by the federal forces themselves, as well as the use of police tactics common in authoritarian states. The forces’ conduct produced increasingly widespread resistance, and they were eventually withdrawn in late July. Mouin Rabbani, editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Arun Gupta, an investigative reporter currently in Portland and who has been covering US social movement of the left and right for more than two decades, to get a sense of events as they unfolded on the ground and their broader political context and implications]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): Why did the Trump administration deploy federal forces to Portland? What political objectives or agenda was the White House seeking to fulfil?
Arun Gupta (AG): Trump’s deployment of federal militarized police to Portland, Oregon this summer is an example of American authoritarianism. It is one episode in a history of the state using federal force against Black-led political and social unrest, such as with the 1992 Rodney King riots, the urban uprisings after the 1968 assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and during the 1919 “Red Summer” marked by deadly white rampages in dozens of cities. At the same time, Trump’s actions were uniquely brazen and dangerous: he was using violent and unconstitutional state force to create a media spectacle.
The dispatch of militarized units to Portland began in late June when Trump issued an executive order to protect monuments, many of which honor racist historical figures, that were being torn down by Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) used that order, in which Trump ranted about violent “left-wing extremists,” to send federal law enforcement to four locations in advance of 4 July: Portland, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Gettysburg. The three cities were among the few places where protests were still regularly occurring after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May. (The inclusion of the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield in Pennsylvania was apparently triggered by a hoax calling for a flag burning there on Independence Day.)
Trump was less interested in protecting monuments than seeking political gain by stoking culture wars against the Black Lives Matter movement to rescue his flailing presidency. His motive was to spread chaos, not quell it. The episode is typical of how Trump accuses his opponents of exactly what he plans to do. Protests in Portland, for example, had dwindled to uneventful gatherings of less than a hundred people by the night before the federal deployment. It is important to note that sending federal forces to Portland and other locations was not a new idea: it was a redeployment of existing units. Trump had previously tried “to amplify strife in cities” with high-profile immigration raids. In early 2020 he ordered Border Patrol forces to sanctuary cities, according to The Washington Post. This included members of the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), which models its training on special forces. These units were apparently redeployed from sanctuary cities to the four locations under the codename “Operation Diligent Valor.” Their presence became widely known after video showed US Marshals shooting a peaceful protester in the head on 11 July, severely injuring him, and days later abducting protesters on the streets and stuffing them into unmarked vehicles.
One White House official said sending federal units “was about getting viral online content.” This is worth unpacking. Trump trolled his way to the presidency using social media, blatant racism, and bald-faced mendacity to create a spectacle that gamed the corporate media. The more outrageous Trump was, the more airtime the media gave him because it meant more eyeballs and more advertising dollars for them. This is the playbook Trump is using for his re-election campaign, but now he has the apparatus of the most powerful institution in history, the US government, to generate viral content. He has gone from encouraging violence by his supporters at his 2016 rallies to using federal forces to carry out violence against entire cities. The manufacturing of violent spectacle for its own end is fundamentally different than the authoritarianism of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, which reacted to unrest and then sought political gain rather than creating the unrest itself. Trump also deployed state violence for viral content in Washington, D.C., in early June. US Army helicopters used battlefield “show-of-force” tactics against peaceful protesters and the National Guard attacked other demonstrators in a widely-derided attempt by Trump to create a viral sensation by posing in front of a church with a Bible.
Just as sending federal forces to cities is not a new for Trump, neither is using violence for viral content: Trump is copying far-right provocateurs who have been doing this for years in Portland. Under Trump, Portland has become a stage where the far right commits violence against the left to use as a recruiting tool. This began in 2017 with Joey Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer, which overlaps with both neo-Nazi organizations and the Proud Boys, and has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Gibson said he wanted to goad leftists into fighting police and generate viral video content. He attempted this in cities such as Berkeley and Seattle as well, as have other violent right-wing groups in Charlottesville, Boston, Washington, D.C., Austin, New Orleans, and New York. But only in Portland has right-wing violence become a regular occurrence, including gangs of brawlers pummelling lone counter-protesters in the streets. During these rallies, which drew neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and neo-Confederates from across the country, Portland police would generally ignore violence and weaponry by the right and attack local counter-protesters, even when they were peaceful.
This double standard stems from Oregon’s legacy of white supremacy, decades of organized white nationalism in the region, and police complicity with the far right. According to Joseph Lowndes, professor of political science at the University of Oregon, “Politicians are reluctant to challenge racist policing for fear of being tarnished as anti-cop and losing support of white voters.” By 2019 Gibson was supplanted by another far-right provocateur, Andy Ngo. He uses deceptively-edited videos to portray Portland as consumed by left-wing violence, while Ngo himself has been repeatedly linked to far-right violence. His work is featured in Rupert Murdoch-owned media, such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, and Trump has exploited Ngo’s work as well in stoking sectarian culture wars.
These elements set the stage for Trump to send in federal law enforcement. Right-wing media had demonized Antifa as terrorists and Portland as its main bastion. Police there have been more violent after years of protests and have a history of shooting unarmed Black people. While only 5.8 percent of the population is Black, police are six times as likely to use force against Black citizens than white citizens. Once protests broke out, Portland police were so violent that two separate court orders were issued to stop them targeting journalists and legal observers with potentially lethal munitions, and to curtail their extensive use of tear gas. Legal observers repeatedly stated that the police use force indiscriminately.
In short, authoritarian policing in Portland enabled Trump’s reality-TV authoritarianism. When the federal forces arrived in Portland the reason there were still protesters on the streets was because of the violence by local police and the active protest culture in the city. The feds attacked peaceful protesters to generate the viral violence Trump craved. In Seattle and D.C., the protests had died down by July, depriving the federal forces of opportunities to clash with protesters for the cameras.
MR: How would you describe the conduct of these forces? Did they encounter opposition or cooperation from the local authorities, or a combination of responses?
AG: Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland, who serves as police commissioner, denied that police coordinated with the feds. There is substantial evidence, however, of close cooperation between the two forces. As I reported in The Intercept, the feds were in the Portland police command center during the protests. Numerous media outlets describe incidents in which the feds and local police violently cleared streets shoulder to shoulder, which I witnessed as well. City Councilwoman Jo Ann Hardesty, who was elected in 2018 on a platform of police reform, alleges the coordination was facilitated by the head of the local police union. She said, “We know that Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner met with DHS Secretary Chad Wolf. We know Portland Police are collaborating with this federal occupying force.”
The Portland police chief initially claimed no one he knew of from the bureau had met with Wolf when he came to town for a photo op. Even the head of the Independent Police Review, which is seen as a toothless oversight agency said, “It’s inevitable there’s some coordination. They can hear each other on the radio, they see each other on the street.” There is a widespread belief that the feds are doing what the Portland police were limited from doing, namely using “less-lethal munitions” and targeting media and legal observers. This term is misleading as the weapons can be deadly, though certainly not as devastating as bullets. I witnessed extensive use of kinetic munitions by federal forces (and was hit by some), such as hard-foam bullets, flash-bang grenades that burn “hotter than lava,” pepper balls that release caustic chemical agents, as well as many tear-gas canisters shot like missiles at the crowd. In addition, both feds and local police conducted “bull rushes” where they charge at demonstrators, hit them with batons, and beat them to the ground. Some protesters have had broken limbs, skull fractures, severe contusions, and had to be hospitalized as a result.
Mayor Wheeler is emblematic of politicians unwilling and unable to address lawless police conduct. In the words of a former member of his staff, “The mayor’s office is scared of the police.” But for Wheeler the federal forces also provided an opportunity for his own publicity stunt. After the federal violence became national news, protests exploded, with more than six thousand people showing up some nights. Wheeler joined one of the large protests at the federal courthouse in downtown where Trump’s forces were bunkered. The mayor was jeered by protesters non-stop and a bag of spent tear-gas canisters were dumped at his feet. He allowed himself to be tear-gassed by the feds, which earned him favorable national media. Local reporters noted, however, that he condemned the feds for what were “identical actions” by Portland police in “indiscriminately gas[sing] and assault[ing] nonviolent protesters for the past 55 days.”
MR: How would you characterize the demonstrators in Portland? How has their response developed since the deployment of federal forces, and what has been the attitude of the general population of the city?
AG: Even before the pandemic, organizing against state and far-right violence was opaque. Activists hide their identities and affiliations because of state repression and the threat of far-right extrajudicial violence. Now, with the pandemic and increased repression by the feds, who have much broader powers to prosecute and impose long prison sentences than local prosecutors, organizing is even more hidden. Nonetheless, I can offer insights based on an understanding of modern social movement history, Black-led activism, anti-fascist organizing, and the political landscape under Trump and in the Pacific Northwest.
The George Floyd protests should be seen in the context of spontaneous-style organizing over the last two decades. Urban politics from below from the mid-nineteenth century on were generally (but not exclusively) worker-centered struggles based in ethnic and national communities, and articulated through communist, socialist, and anarchist organizations as well as unions and other types of worker formations. After World War II, formalized strikes and bureaucratic trade unionism in the West became the norm and the second phase began, which is civil society-led mass protests that involve considerable organization, a defined leadership and base, and long-term planning. The seminal event was the 1963 March on Washington, which inspired new social organizing such as the antiwar, environmental, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and anti-nuke movements.
The end of the Cold War, which caused a crisis in the socialist left that it still has not recovered from, combined with the proliferation of new social identities, media, and digital technologies, opened the way for anarchist-led as well as decentralized and horizontalist upsurges. So where nearly all mass struggle in urban areas was once centered in the workplace or working-class neighborhoods, it by the mid-twentieth century had shifted to social identity-based organizing, and now in the current phase to shared political and emotional affinities reacting to political crises and collectively experienced trauma through the digital landscape.
The third phase kicks off with the Global Justice Movement in Seattle at the turn of the millennium (which itself was heavily influenced by the Zapatistas in Mexico). While the shutdown of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle in 1999 involved extensive planning, mass protests proliferated with decentralized and pop-up organizations fuelled by deep outrage to political events, such as the imminent invasion of Iraq that was opposed by tens of millions around the world on 15 February 2003. This spread to other groups, such as the “Day Without an Immigrant” walkouts of 2006 in response to draconian anti-immigrant policies, which is the closest the United States has ever come to a general strike; Occupy Wall Street in 2011, which began as little more than a series of calls and marketing for an occupation and was influenced by the Arab Spring and similar occupations in Europe; and then the emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2014 in the wake of the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. The phenomenon spread to the right with the rise of the Tea Party Movement in 2009 as a white backlash from below that was quickly backed by right-wing media, billionaires, and political figures. Occupy was a new phase, a disenchantment with large one-day protests as scripted and blandly performative. Continuous protests and occupations once more spread to and influenced new movements, including Black Lives Matter, the Standing Rock occupation in 2016 that united climate justice and indigenous activism, and the Occupy ICE movement in 2018 against the ethnic cleansing policies of the Trump administration. These historical forces are crucial to understanding the recent protests across the country and in Portland.
When George Floyd was killed, no one could have expected the national outburst because the police killing of a defenseless Black person on-camera was tragically familiar, as with Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Walter Scott, and others. It is easy to make sense of why movements strike a nerve in hindsight. The outrage was triggered by months of pandemic lockdown and the helplessness millions felt in confronting a president whose main policy tool is sadism, particularly toward Black and brown people. Trump’s demands to reopen the economy despite an African-American death rate from COVID-19 more than twice that of whites exposed his callousness toward systemic racism that is expressed in an accumulation of deadly disadvantages and burdens. The idea of “twin pandemics” of racism and COVID-19 powerfully linked the two crises in people’s minds and spurred mass action despite fears of becoming infected (which turned out to be negligible as long as nearly all protesters wore masks).
Protests erupted nationwide after a police station was burned down in Minneapolis days after Floyd’s killing. It punctured the aura that police are untouchable. Marches and protests were initially joined by opportunistic acts of arson, property destruction, and looting in many cities by various social groups including criminal gangs, white suburban youth, and Black and brown urban youth. This quickly gave way to protests by tens and hundreds of thousands of people demanding that police be abolished and public safety reimagined.
Since then, outlets such as the New York Times have described the thousands of protests involving more than ten million people as the largest movement in US history. The notion that numbers tell the story is indicative of America’s reductive technocratism that values quantification (and commodification) over the social relations at the heart of organizing. While the Black Lives Matter movement is powerful in some respects because it draws so widely from a deep pool of discontent and has called into question the central role of police in society, its spontaneous character is an impediment. The lack of a singular leadership nationally or even in any one city gives the movement resiliency as it means there is no one group that can be undermined, co-opted, or persecuted to end the protests. But it means there is a lack of strategy around how to articulate and institutionalize demands and often even when and where to protest. (“Abolish the police” may be a powerful slogan, but it does not indicate how, when, and through what means to implement it.) In this context, those able to leverage social media, and amplified by legacy media and robust personal networks, gain legitimacy for better and for worse. It’s a virtual form of organizing where social bonds are far more fleeting and organizations far less coherent than either worker movements a century ago or civil-society membership organizations following that.
In Portland, there are fluid and overlapping groupings of those confronting the police, which are drawn from the ranks of anti-fascists, queers, anarchists, and unaffiliated radicals, including many people of color; those advocating non-confrontational protests to push for police reform, which draw more from liberals and NGOs, including POC-led ones; and long-term organizers and a few allies in the political establishment working on enacting cuts to the police budget.
In the era of virtual organizing, new groups spring up and collapse quickly, as happened with one Black-led group named Rose City Justice (RCJ) that barely lasted a month. It was founded in early June, during organized protests that drew thousands, including a dramatic die-in on a bridge over the Willamette River that divides Portland into east and west sections. By the end of June RCJ had crumbled. According to organizers not affiliated with RCJ, the group wanted to avoid the nightly confrontations at the police headquarters and federal courthouse on the West side. With no clear strategy, crowds dwindled as marching for hours every night seemed pointless. The group imploded after other Black organizers claimed RCJ was sidelining “young Black girls” and Black queer women. There were also disputes over money, controversy over one founder being former military police, and accusations RCJ was too willing to talk to police rather than confront them. This virtual-organizing phenomenon has become so commonplace as to be a cliche. Individuals catapult into the spotlight using social media, found an organization, are profiled in legacy media as a “dynamic new voice of a generation,” and draw in crowds, but then founder or collapse because they ramped up too quickly to create a participatory decision-making process, or handle large amounts of money, or they have a troubled or problematic past that turns fickle public opinion against them as quickly as it swung in their favor.
This organizing is often social media platform specific, which is indicative of how the virtual landscape shapes politics and intersects with racial and gender dynamics. Rather than formal organizations, these groups are often little more than cohorts of individuals with a platform, and lack accountability other than visibility and popularity. The Black Youth Movement which criticized RCJ for its bias against queers and women, uses Instagram, whose audience skews significantly more female than male. The Pacific Northwest Youth Liberation Front, which could be considered venerable as it was founded in 2017, calls or promotes the nightly demonstrations against police in Portland. Its preferred medium is Twitter, which is the primary organizing and research site for anti-fascists. The organizers aren’t publicly known, but they have appeared on a podcast on the anti-fascist news site, It’s Going Down. These elements shaped a youth-led and youthful spontaneous movement nationwide rooted in Black Lives Matter and the Black freedom struggle, and influenced by anarchist street tactics and socialist politics.
In Portland, the movement is also shaped by a fractious, militant left political culture and a small Black population—there are only 38,000 African-American residents in the entire city, compared to 865,000 Black people alone in Brooklyn, New York. That means any popular movement in Portland (and some other cities as well) will be mostly white, but its political orientation and leadership are up for grabs. The movement is action oriented and has developed significant infrastructure during the anti-fascist organizing of the Trump years. For example, along with scores of street medics at larger demonstrations, there are two ambulance-style vehicles; extensive food, protective gear, and medical supplies distributed for free; bands, DJs, and drummers; and self-organized teams that provide security, direct traffic, and use everything from bicycles to trucks to thwart potential car-borne attacks that have become epidemic by the far right against BLM protesters around the country. Even before the recent uprising, anti-fascism had significant social support in Portland such as from small businesses and the Timber Army, the local soccer team’s main fan club. The politicization of sports culture is notable as it is far more common in MENA and European societies than in the United States. Core organizers come from the Black community; however, according to long-time activists one Black Lives Matter group in a leading position, Don’t Shoot PDX, has “authoritarian tendencies.”
Most militants are from groups rooted in the white working-class and college-educated left, such as Rose City Antifa, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), along with members of local unions, climate-justice groups, and unaffiliated activists. They can draw a thousand or more activists to large mobilizations, including many from throughout the region, which enables them to blunt the worst of police and far-right violence.
The protests in Portland have been deeply inspiring and infused with joy. Many participants say they have been moved to tears as thousands wave lit cell phones and chant “Black Lives Matter” in unison. Protesters courageously face violent police firing fusillades of weapons with gas masks, helmets, and plywood shields, unable to fight back for fear of long-term prison sentences. The public response after the federal forces arrived was extraordinary as well. It may be the first time in modern American history where the white middle class joined an uprising against the state. It was not just that thousands of people were coming out to protest, they were equipping themselves with the gear to resist police violence. There was the “Wall of Moms” in helmets and masks putting themselves on the front lines to bear the brunt of police violence. There were brigades of dads with leaf blowers so effective in blowing back the tear gas at the federal courthouse that DHS forces equipped themselves with leaf blowers. The breadth of support could be seen in the diversity of contingents, such as “Wall of Vets,” “Teachers against Tyrants,” “Lawyers for Black Lives,” “Chef Bloc,” individual unions, and contingents of doctors and nurses. In the past there would be widespread criticism of property damage committed by left-wing or anti-fascist protesters, but there has been little of that. That’s due to the fact the property damage is limited to police and federal facilities, and also because there is widespread support for resisting police violence whether federal or local.
But the unity tends to be in opposition. This is one of the primary obstacles to transforming virtual organizing into material gains. Take the Occupy ICE movement, for example, which began in Portland in June 2018. Many activists currently on the streets participated in the camp outside the main ICE facility in Portland. Occupiers peacefully blockading the facility led the Department of Homeland Security to withdraw all its personnel, shutting down the migrant jail and processing center. But within days the Occupy ICE camp was riven by infighting and paranoia that subsided only after DHS forces returned to the facility about a week later. Once occupiers lose a visible opponent, they tend to succumb to political and personality conflicts because they lack deep social bonds, shared experiences, and robust organization and political development to work through conflict in a productive manner. Similar infighting was endemic to Occupy Wall Street. Concentrating people in a space to live, govern, and do politics together, who don’t know each other, and are in constant danger of state violence creates enormous pressures. Additionally, the ability of individuals to come and go, and the lack of formal structure prevents organizational and political coherence. On top of that, the far-right violence and toxic call-out culture that emerged during Occupy Wall Street—the Portland left has become notorious for internecine social media warfare—has served to further amplify the infighting and paranoia.
Weeks after the federal forces Trump sent in were withdrawn in late July, protests have dwindled to as few as one hundred activists. Some of this was inevitable as Portland’s role as the leading edge of both Trump’s state and extra-legal violence and the resistance to it spurred the huge crowds. But the reason why the protests appear on the verge of petering out, as they also seemed to be in early July before the violence by federal forces, holds numerous crucial lessons for organizers as well as students of social movement history.
Foremost, there is an “anti-politics” to spontaneist activism, as Jacobin described with Occupy Wall Street. There is an aversion to “making demands on the political system, of acknowledging conflict and structuring our movement accordingly.” This explains the action-oriented nature of the movement where protests are still ongoing in many cities nearly three months later. Confronting police violence, while terrifying and thrilling, is a substitute for the more difficult work of systematic one-on-one organizing—creating relationships, transforming consciousness, engaging in social and ideological struggle that builds political power. It is simpler to mobilize people who already agree with you, accumulate gear, and debate tactics of shield walls and how to counter tear gas than it is to collectively decide how to build a campaign to slash police budgets and replace a deadly policing system with public safety that prioritizes the physical and mental health of society. But eschewing organizing results in a fractured landscape where groups rise and fall quickly, and authoritarians, opportunists, and criminal elements can move in. The Wall of Moms received glowing media coverage and inspired similar groups in other cities, but the Portland group collapsed within weeks and was accused of “anti-Blackness” in an Instagram post. In a comment retweeted more than eight thousand times, one academic compared the Wall of Moms to the neo-Nazi “fourteen words” slogan.
This extreme rhetoric is an outgrowth of an anti-politics that is epidemic on the left. Many leftists expect new activists to arrive fully formed with an understanding of history, particularly the African-American experience, political jargon, and the local struggle. In effect, it is expecting revolutionary change without a revolution. Consequently, when new activists inevitably make clumsy or offensive comments, organizers fail to act like organizers. They do not work to educate and transform them and keep them engaged in struggle. Instead the guilty are exiled and condemned as anti-Black, which does not distinguish them from the police, neo-Nazis, or Donald Trump. Being called a racist or white supremacist, amplified through social media, is a death sentence. This leaves activists with few options. Some join in social media shaming as they gain prestige and approval from self-appointed leaders, and many new activists go home in confusion and frustration. Others continue to protest but silence themselves. Seasoned organizers try to work around hyperbolic voices, but do not confront their power and dead-end strategies for fear of being marginalized. The movement does not grow. It shrinks. It also fragments and fossilizes as activists carve out spaces to work with allies but are unable to do mass base-building and political work to build a positive unity instead of a negative one. There is no advancement in strategy. This is not true of just Portland. It is the same story across the country.
In Portland, activists say decisions are made by “self-appointed leaders,” and individuals with large social media followings can decide the actions. The resulting lack of organization enables nefarious elements to move in. A food stand called Riot Ribs that dished out thousands of free meals to protesters was allegedly taken over by an individual trying to seize 330,000 dollars they raised in donations. One reporter says the individual took over the food operation at gunpoint and is affiliated with a group of “street kids” who attack people on the edges of protests near the federal courthouse. On 16 August, the kids allegedly attacked a transwoman, which snowballed into an assault on the drunk driver of a pickup truck. A self-appointed security guard for the protesters allegedly kicked the driver in his head, video of which was quickly broadcast by right-wing media to portray the Black Lives Matter movement as violent. Other activists claim the suspect is a “troublemaker” not really involved with the protests. But this violence can take root because the protests lack discipline, organization, and a strategy to control the space. The free-for-all also leads to episodes such as protesters setting fire to a local government building mostly used for social services, which sparked a backlash against the movement.
To top it off, violent far-right elements are inserting themselves into the chaotic protests, and violence is bleeding over in the city. In early August, a former Navy SEAL allegedly threw an improvised explosive device at protesters. Despite being identified within hours police have yet to arrest him. A week later, far-right figures held a rally and reportedly attacked BLM activists with mace, pellet guns, and fired a rifle at them, and another explosive device was thrown at left-wing protesters. The police claimed they were too overextended to respond despite the fact there were far-right individuals notorious for violence and the rally was a block from the police headquarters.
What is going on in Portland may be extreme, but it is not unique. Similar scenarios have played out in other cities, such as criminal violence seeping into the local BLM movement, as happened in Seattle and New York, or “warm police reception” for violent far-right militias and gangs from Philadelphia to Albuquerque. The movement in Portland shows the potential for radical mass protests, as well as the limits because of its own internal contradictions that leads to favoring action over organization, shaming over politics, and social media over strategy. But in the next few months the big danger is external factors, namely police and far-right violence unleashed by Trump. Trump will likely use violence if he decides to dispute the election given his numerous attempts and knee-jerk authoritarianism. If that happens then Portland will have been a dress rehearsal for the worst outbreak of violence on American soil in a century.