The Portland, Oregon, protests are a block party at the end of the world. Lownsdale Square Park, a treed, grassy downtown plaza flanked by courthouses, is showing signs of wear after hosting continuous protests for the past two months. The lawn has been tread to dust, and tear gas and pepper spray cling to it. People start coughing as soon as they arrive. Everyone is wearing a face mask and often goggles and a helmet too. As the sun set last Friday night, protesters milled around trying to find their friends while snacking on barbecued “riot ribs,” protein bars, and high-end jerky. They projected a giant image of George Floyd across the boarded up windows of the Multnomah County Justice Center and danced laser pointers across the buildings where unwelcome federal agents were holed up. They waved cheeky signs: “Go Home Because I Said So! Love, Mom.”
Volunteers scattered through the crowds giving out hand sanitizer, water, and ear plugs, but they barely muffled the pounding drum circle, the snatches of hip hop from speakers wending their way through the crowd on peoples’ shoulders, and thousands chanting “Black lives matter!” and “Feds go home!” By 11 pm, those sounds were joined by the firecrackers that protesters lobbed toward the courthouse, the hissing tear gas canisters law enforcement agents fired back, and rhythmic metal shrieks as protesters in DIY riot gear tried to topple the steel fence dividing them. The projection of Floyd was replaced by a slogan: “THE FENCE IS A LIE.” By Sunday, the protesters had succeeded, dragging the barricade to the ground with chains while the crowd, under a hail of rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas, cheered.
Protests in Portland following the killing of Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police in May, had dwindled to maybe 100 peaceful demonstrators per night before President Trump sent federal agents to the city, ostensibly to protect US government property. Portland and Oregon officials, all the way up to Governor Kate Brown, have criticized the deployment as an unwelcome, unnecessary overreach. Portlanders are enraged by what they see as an occupation of their city and a step toward fascism, particularly after the officers, who are not trained in crowd control, began detaining people without clear cause. Protest attendance—and violence—has increased exponentially since their arrival during the Fourth of July weekend, and not just in Portland. As Rose City’s protests wear on and Trump promises to send a “surge” of law enforcement officers to other Democrat-run cities like New York and Chicago, people across the country have begun protesting in solidarity.
Trump and his backers assert that the deployments are necessary to curb unrest in cities that have become anarchic war zones. You’d be hard-pressed to prove that’s true in Portland if you bothered to look anywhere but Lownsdale Square at midnight. (The only disruptive anarchists in my neighborhood are the crows in my garden.) If any widespread, persistent Portland protest war zone does exist, it isn’t in physical space at all. It’s online.
Anything that happens during a Portland protest happens in front of at least one camera and will end up on the internet. The crowd is full of smartphones. Men in press helmets climb up streetlights with expensive rigs to get a better view. People at the protest pulled up livestreams to see what was happening at the front of the crowd, squinting to see if the Feds had left their fortress yet. The federal agents watched those livestreams too. Ergo, anything that happens at a Portland protest is meme fodder and a chance for good or bad online PR.
Criticism of Portland’s protesters hinges on denouncing them as militant anarchists, communists, and “antifa terrorists” destroying their own city, so actual Portland protesters are careful to label themselves clearly and sympathetically. Lawyers march together in suits, holding signs that say things like “Free My Clients.” School teachers and health care workers huddle together in color-coordinated clumps. Most virally, Portland has made sacrificial lambs of its sacred cows: moms, grannies, dads, nurses, and veterans form human walls between peaceful protesters and federal agents. The tactic has won continuous media and social media attention, largely because for many people the only socially acceptable response to a video of a federal agent shoving, pepper spraying, and tear gassing a mom or a veteran is to say, “How could you?” That, and to share.
President Trump, however, is not one of those people. “The ‘protesters’ are actually anarchists who hate our Country,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “The line of innocent ‘mothers’ were a scam.” To be clear, the moms are no scam. Within the heaving crowds, they’re legends. “It’s the moms,” said a young woman near me, her voice soft and full of wonder as she watched a string of yellow-shirted women link hands in front of the steel fence and quickly moved to stand behind them. To deny the moms is pointless, so most detractors don’t try.
Pro-Trump, pro-Feds social media focuses on a different set of images guaranteed to come out of the Portland protests: shadowy figures with shields and hockey sticks running through clouds of tear gas, black-clad hordes pressing at the fence, graffiti and detritus-strewn streets, all of which is taken as proof positive of violent anarcho-communism. They indict media outlets for downplaying violence. Some outlets, like Breitbart, have begun pushing the notion that even Democrats (OK, mostly Lanny Davis and Joe Scarborough) have turned against the protests. They tally injuries to law enforcement officers, including those made by the roving laser pointers, which US Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott calls “assault” on Twitter. “Yeah, okay, we’ll wait until that precious communist is done hurling explosives at police officers and then we’ll say ‘sorry’ for violating their ‘human rights,’” tweeted conservative commentator Wayne Dupree. For many on this side of the battle for the protests’ global reputation, law enforcement seems to be as sacrosanct as moms are for their opposition, second only to Black Trump supporters, one of whom, Drew Duncomb, was stabbed at a protest in the wee hours of Sunday morning. The culprit, according to Duncomb, was an “antifa pedophile,” a phrase so loaded and unprovable that its only purpose is virality.
The aggression is real, which is why right-wing netizens can lambast lawmakers like US representative Jerry Nadler of New York for saying that antifa violence is a myth. Which it is, because the violence is not antifa, but that kind of nuance isn’t exactly social-media friendly. By 11 pm on Friday, the crowd directly in front of the fence had changed. No more casual milling. No more munching ribs. It grew younger, whiter, more male. They carried hockey sticks, batons, and shields, but nothing to suggest they were antifascists. The tear gas didn’t start until after they started throwing firecrackers. Thousands of people began retreating away from the fence, away from the gas, but they stayed. Standing among them made the back of my neck prickle.
By midnight, I was a block away from the fence, where the tear gas clouds diffused into a fog and the protest still retained some of its apocalyptic block party atmosphere. People screamed for medics as they dragged protesters who had gotten a prolonged faceful of gas away from the front, gagging. People were organized. People were kind. People were calm. People were helpful. The gas kept coming. “This feels like something that will never end,” a protester named Eliza said. “Everyone thinks they’re right.”
I watched the crowd surge forward and back like waves as the gas cleared and billowed out again. A Black woman stormed down the street yelling, “If Black lives matter, go home! If Black lives matter, go home! If Black lives matter, go home!” As she ducked into a storefront, we made eye contact, and her glare was so full of disdain and frustration that it pinned me where I stood. On the ground and online, the Portland protests weren’t about George Floyd or police brutality anymore. They might be about the police state, but mostly they’re about dominance.
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