A major American city has been taken over by violent anarchists, according to the Trump administration and right-wing news. Portland, Ore., is “a city under siege,” the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, said last week. On Thursday, Wolf visited Portland to see for himself the “lawless destruction,” which is allegedly so dire as to warrant the deployment of federal forces, who have spent the last few weeks teargassing, beating, and temporarily kidnapping protesters. Fox News’s Sean Hannity decried “constant chaos”; Tucker Carlson claimed the whole city had been “destroyed by the mob.”
This would be alarming stuff, if it were true. Portland, where I live, has been the site of ongoing protests against police brutality and racism since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a 54-day stretch of activism as of this writing. Over the past two months, mostly peaceful demonstrators have filled bridges, parks, and Interstate 84, sometimes numbering in the thousands. In what is now a predictable pattern, each night a group converges near the Justice Center and Federal Courthouse downtown. Usually small provocations—tossed water bottles or fireworks or a Granny Smith apple with a bite out of it—spark a wave of violence from law enforcement. Occasionally, there have been more overt acts of vandalism, particularly in the immediate wake of Floyd’s death, including broken windows and small fires. (For more detailed timelines of the protests in Portland from local reporters, read this and this.)
But the city is hardly wracked by chaos. Outside of the few square blocks downtown that are marked by graffiti, boarded-up windows, and metal fencing, things feel normal—or rather, as normal as possible given the impact of Covid-19, which has had a far more disruptive effect than have the protests. The bulk of the “violence” cited by Wolf amounted to graffiti and other property damage. Meanwhile, his agents and other federal officers have seriously injured a number of protesters, including a Navy veteran who had his hand broken by federal officers after he tried talking to them. The mood in the crowd downtown is often jovial—at least until law enforcement arrives—with people dancing and chanting and giving out vegan stew, barbecue, and donated bike helmets. On Friday night around 10:30 pm, shortly after federal forces started spraying tear gas, filling a city block with noxious fumes, a few families were strolling by shuttered storefronts just a few blocks away, apparently unaffected by the “siege.”
Federal agents showed up in Portland in early July, after Trump signed an executive order protecting statues and monuments from “criminal violence” during racial justice protests. In response, the Department of Homeland Security created a task force to “surge” resources. Ostensibly, federal forces are in Portland to protect federal property, including the courthouse. But their primary effect has been to escalate violence. On July 11, a deputy with a tactical unit of the US Marshals Service shot a demonstrator named Donavan LaBella in the head with an impact munition, fracturing his skull. On July 16, reporters for Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that federal agents were grabbing people on the street and pulling them into unmarked cars.
“I am basically tossed into the van…. And I had my beanie pulled over my face so I couldn’t see and they held my hands over my head,” Mark Pettibone, one of the people detained, told OPB. While Pettibone had been at the demonstration that night, he was on his way home when he was whisked away. “I just happened to be wearing black on a sidewalk in downtown Portland at the time.” As The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein reported, the agency responsible for Pettibone’s detention was the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), a SWAT team-style unit officially charged with responding to terrorist threats.
A number of lawsuits have been filed against the federal government for civil rights violations, and protests that had dwindled to a hundred people or so are now drawing thousands to downtown. “Things had been in fact kind of winding down…until the federal police force or whatever it is, I’m still not quite sure, came in and literally blew things up,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who joined the demonstrations over the weekend and on Tuesday night. “They’re responding with this horrific amount of force that is causing so much trauma and injury to what had been relatively minor acts of, at the very worst, vandalism of property.”
How did a city of 653,000 become the testing ground for what Trump has suggested will be broader interference in US cities—part of an election-year strategy to stoke fear and advance an authoritarian vision of “law and order”? The groundwork for federal intervention in Portland was laid long before this summer’s protests by right-wing groups and media, which turned the city into a bogeyman. While Oregon has a legacy of state-sanctioned racism and is still home to a disproportionately large number of hate groups, Portland has also long been the site of antifascist organizing and other left protest movements. (Demonstrations in Portland against George H.W. Bush between 1989 and 1991 were so notorious that a member of the administration dubbed the city “Little Beirut.”) Extreme groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have repeatedly targeted the city over the past few years, holding rallies that inevitably drew counterprotests and created media spectacles.
Demonstrations in Portland immediately following Trump’s election in 2016 were huge and, at times, explosive, with police deploying tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets in response. The following year, days after a white supremacist stabbed and killed two people on Portland’s light rail, the alt-right group Patriot Prayer held a “Trump Free Speech Rally” rally; police responded to by detaining hundreds of counterdemonstrators. Similar incidents occurred throughout 2017 and repeatedly in the years since, and conservative media eagerly latched onto a narrative of Portland as lawless anarchist enclave. National Review, for instance, devoted a cover in 2018 to a story by Kevin Williamson in which he described anti-fascist “goons and thugs” as being in effective control of Portland. In July 2019, clashes between the alt-right and counterdemonstrators drew attention from Trump (“Portland is being watched very closely… Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job,” he tweeted) and prompted Texas Senator Ted Cruz to call for federal prosecution—a premonition of what was to come.
“Portland’s drawn the fascination and ire of a lot of right-wing media personalities, fascist groups, neo-Nazi groups, and of course the president,” said attorney Juan Chavez, who directs the civil rights project at the Oregon Justice Resource Center and is involved in litigation against the city of Portland regarding treatment of protesters. “We’re a big enough city to matter but small enough to be a laboratory for a lot of these tactics. And exacerbating this is the way our city government has portrayed protesters in the past, and the way Portland police have portrayed protesters in the past and currently.”
City leaders have been sharply critical of the federal response, and have demanded that the Trump administration remove its officers. But Chavez and some activists say that the initial response to citywide protests by local politicians and police helped grease the skids for federal intervention. For weeks, Mayor Ted Wheeler, also serving as police commissioner, did little to restrict the police’s use of tear gas and impact munitions against protesters and journalists beyond issuing statements of concern and loose directives with unclear enforcement mechanisms. (A temporary restraining order issued by a federal judge and a new state law restricting tear gas use did eventually put pressure on the bureau to justify its uses of force.) Now, Portland police appear to be coordinating with federal officers to disperse crowds downtown. Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner met with Wolf during his visit to Portland, and in a press conference over the weekend parroted the claim that the city is “under siege by rioters.”
“Basically, you had thousands of people hitting the streets and getting met with tear gas, impact munitions, and harsh police tactics, and that really set the tone for where we were going,” said Chavez. “I think the city didn’t grasp what they were dealing with. There was an immediate political response, that while it came quickly it wasn’t adequate. And because of that, basically people did not feel like they had adequate civic feedback on their demands.”
While the city implemented some reforms this year—removing police from public schools, disbanding the controversial Gun Violence Reduction Team, and reallocating $15 million from the bureau’s budget—many activists wanted a deeper transformation. “They ignored us, they did not center victims or protesters, they did nothing to de-escalate, they did nothing to engage,” said Teressa Raiford, the founder and executive director of Don’t Shoot PDX, which has been organizing for police reform in Portland for years and in June filed a class-action lawsuit against the city for “indiscriminate” use of tear gas. “That is why Donald Trump took advantage of the situation. He knows exactly what’s happening here in Oregon. It’s a shame. It’s disgusting.”
Despite the public attention to the demonstrations and apparent public support for the Black Lives Matter movement, Raiford said that immediate safety issues for Black residents are still going unaddressed. On July 10, for instance, an 18-year-old named Shai-India Harris was shot and killed while walking down the street in southeast Portland. Police have not arrested anyone in her case.
It’s not clear how all of this will end. Appearing on Fox News on Monday, Wolf said that the DHS was “not going to back down.” Neither are the protesters. “The entire community, the entire city is on our side—everybody from nurses to teachers to children to parents to families that have lost their loved ones, great grandmas,” Raiford said. The most immediate questions concern the extent to which the violence will escalate. Longer term, Chavez wonders about the legal endgame. “Can and will the federal courts allow this type of federal invasion of a state? In a lot of ways I think we’re in uncharted constitutional territory,” he said. Even if the courts do act, it may not be fast enough to protect the people who will be out in the streets again tonight.