From Black Lives Matter to violent political theatre: how did we get here?

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For the past two months, Portland, Ore., has been a site of civil unrest as altercations between federal troops and protesters escalated to a storm of teargas, rubber bullets, fireworks and flash grenades. Protests allegedly started on a peaceful note with thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters comprised of health workers, military veterans, off-duty lawyers, nurses and a Wall of Moms, a link of mothers who barricaded protesters from federal troops, standing in solidarity against police brutality and systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death under Minneapolis police custody.


Antifa and anarchy in Portland?

The Trump administration blamed leftist radicals, The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ, an unstructured occupation-style protest group) and Antifa (a colloquial term for anti-fascists who have taken on an increasingly visible role since Donald Trump’s election in 2016) for driving the violence and vandalism during protests. Antifa is a decentralized, anti-fascist movement of far-left radicals who oppose what they believe are fascist, racist or otherwise right-wing extremists. They often resort to looting and violence, using makeshift weapons against the police and authority. 

However, there is no evidence of their presence at the Portland protests, since Antifa members are hard to distinguish from radical college students that are self-proclaimed anarchists. Trump nonetheless branded the Black Lives Matter protests as Antifa protests, calling protesters “thugs, anarchists and violent mobs.” He tweeted that the U.S will be designating Antifa as a terrorist organization, drawing immediate criticism from activists and Constitutional law experts alike. 

As the violence grew, Portland Police declared the protest a riot. Trump’s response to “anarchy” in Portland was to send camouflaged, non-insignia bearing and uniformed militarized federal troops, a decision that has raised concerns about accountability. He intended to crack down on the liberal, democratic state, which the local law enforcement of Portland had not requested.


Federal police stand guard on Salmon Street after pushing protesters away from the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on Tuesday in Portland, Ore. The federal police response to the ongoing protests against racial inequality has been criticized by city and state elected officials. Nathan Howard/Getty Images.

Trump’s justification was to protect federal statues and monuments from “criminal violence,” specifically the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, which had been a canvas for graffiti. The Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) (a SWAT team-style unit that responds to terrorist threats) was sent to Portland by Homeland Security alongside the National Guard and the U.S. Marshals Service.

"For Portland to find peace, Trump needs to pull unwanted federal agents out of our city immediately"

Senator Ron Wyden

This raises the question, what was President Trump’s rationale for sending in BORTAC? After all, it is not trained for crowd control and it operates outside constitutional constraints by using violence on protesters. The Department of Homeland Security, however, claimed that BORTAC agents are trained to quell prison riots, and are authorized to assist federal law enforcement anywhere in the U.S, including Portland.

BORTAC: agents of peace or agents of violence?

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, criticized the deployment of BORTAC: “These occupying forces are creating conflict, attacking peaceful protesters and making my hometown more dangerous. For Portland to find peace, Trump needs to pull unwanted federal agents out of our city immediately.”

On July 30, Trump finally  withdrew his troops, which did ease tensions in the city, with Oregon State Police taking over to protect the courthouse. In BORTAC’s absence, there had been no more tear gas, fires, nor arrests reported. 

Does this say anything about the blame game between protesters and federal troops about who instigated violence? Did the rioters only resort to violence when they found that the troops were antagonizing them? 

Many protesters said, yes, the federal troops did indeed escalate violence, often unprovoked.

Although the federal forces were sent to Portland to “restore order,” protesters said the federal troops used unprovoked aggressive force with no tactical plan. On the other hand, federal troops and Portland police officers defended their use of violence because the protesters were violent. 

Here are some of the acts committed by federal troops on protesters, members of the media and mothers alike: pulled people out of their cars and de-masked protesters to pepper spray directly in the eyes, broke the hand of a Navy veteran, shot an unarmed, peaceful protester in the head with an impact munition and fracturing his skull, drove a vehicle through a fence to charge at a protester, attacked medics giving first aid and with batons, and attacked medical tents to destroy supplies and local business owners tents providing food. The most contentious act was grabbing people off the streets and pulling them into unmarked vehicles for questioning. 

Federal troops also beat a reporter with a baton for filming an arrest, arrested a reporter, shot at media members trying to follow orders and move to safety and hit journalists with a baton as they were identifying themselves and holding credentials, to which the federal officer responded, “I don’t give a shit.

Protesters attempt to take down the fence surrounding the federal courthouse. Dave Killen/Reuters.

The protesters, on the other hand, were not entirely peaceful either. Here’s some of the things they did: set fire to several construction trailers nightly, pushed officers back inside the Justice Center, used power saws and crowbars to tear down a fence, blinded a federal agent with a pellet gun, hit a federal officer in the shoulder with a hammer, vandalized federal property with graffiti, and have thrown water balloons filled with oil-based paint, rocks, bottles, and fireworks.

Who’s deflecting responsibility?

Cat Brooks, a racial justice organizer and the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, said that the central debate among organizers is the tactics they should use. In her view, protesters cannot be blamed for responding forcefully when they are confronted with rubber bullets and pepper spray. 

UN human rights spokeswoman, Liz Throssell, urged America and its federal troops that they should dispense violence only when necessary, and within international standards. 

“It is very important that people are able to protest peacefully, that people aren’t subject to unnecessary, disproportionate or discriminatory use of force.”

Otherwise, she said, “any victims of unnecessary excessive use of force have the right to a transparent investigation.” 

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler also pushed for federal law enforcement to adhere to the same standards as Portland officers in using less-lethal weapons against protesters while acknowledging that violent protesters play a role in provoking police to use weapons on the crowd.

Portland City Commissioner, Jo Ann Hardesty, agrees with Mayor Wheeler that the presence of federal troops has “brought on an escalation of violence towards protesters — an extreme response to a movement challenging police violence.” 

Despite a national objection over their tactics, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said they would not back down and would not apologize for the excessive violence. In an official statement, DHS acting secretary Chad Wolf justified the violence against “peaceful” protesters, saying:

He’s not wrong, but he does not consider that federal troops committed violence against peaceful protesters, like the protester who got shot in the head.

Repercussions for violence

In recent weeks, more than a dozen protesters have been arrested for both major and minor cases, such as “failing to obey” authority. However, many of these arrests were made without probable cause: one analysis found that 95 percent of those apprehended by police and federal agents were Portland locals, the majority of which have no criminal record and were white, and college students averaging at 28 years of age. Their conditions prior to release barred them from engaging in protests as they await trials on federal misdemeanour charges.

The legalities of BORTAC and other federal troops’ actions are still in question. 

In Portland’s case, the troops abused basic civil liberties and human rights by abducting protesters into unmarked vehicles, failing to make formal arrests, neglecting to read the Miranda rights, and not announcing the reason for detainment. It turns out that they were not beholden to any since they are not “police,” according to the Cato Institute. Furthermore, DHS acting secretary Wolf has executive power to change the rules without having to go through Senate confirmation, allowing him and BORTAC to avoid legislative scrutiny. 

Civil-rights advocates said these violent acts from federal troops violate protesters’ right to free speech and right to free assembly, under the First Amendment of the U.S. Five people have filed civil lawsuits against federal officers for violently attacking them while they were peacefully protesting and accused them of acting unconstitutionally. 

The State of Oregon and the American Civil Liberties Union have also sued the Trump administration for “unlawful law enforcement in violation of the civil rights of Oregon citizens by seizing and detaining them without probable cause.” Four volunteer medics aiding protesters sued city police and the federal government for violating their constitutional rights as well.

Black Lives Matter: a message lost amidst the violence?

Caught in the crossfire, Black Lives Matter protesters said that the fighting between protesters and federal troops distracted from their demands for equitable reform and legislation. They felt that the violence overshadowed  the Black Lives Matter movement.

Black Lives Matter protesters and other members of the community have expressed their frustrations with the midnight provocateurs at the courthouse as well. 

Rachelle Dixon, the vice chair of the Multnomah County Democrats and an organizer in the Black community, said, “My life is not going to improve because you broke the glass at the Louis Vuitton store.” 

Dan Thomas, a protester who tried to stop others from lighting fires and shooting fireworks at the courthouse, told Guardian “attacking the federal building is not Black Lives Matter. Leave it alone. You’re playing into Trump’s hands.”

Pastor and NAACP Portland President E.D. Mondainé brings attention to the importance of centering the message on that Black lives matter.

“It’s [the violence] turning this spectacular moment of a revolution into a spectacle

E.D. Mondainé

He acknowledges the efforts of protesters who took part in the violence saying “…I want to thank you for showing up night after night to show the world that you are passionate about your brothers and sisters, my heart and my soul go out to you. However, stand behind us in a way that we desire you to stand behind us.”

Oregon Governor Kate Brown emphasizes that with all the violence going on, “We must centre the discussion on racial injustice, police accountability and the vision of the BLM movement in our move together…and bring racial equity to the forefront of our laws and policies.”

It’s not over… yet

Recently, President Trump said he will send law enforcement  as a federal crackdown on anti-racism protests in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, and California. He claimed  that the politicians in these cities are siding with “violent criminals” following the racial justice protests. If you haven’t noticed, these cities have Democratic mayors who opposed this decision and Trump, of course, is not a fan of liberal Democrats. Given that Portland mutinied against local authority, would these cities meet the same bloody fate? 

Notice that the U.S. elections are forthcoming. Is this all just an act of election-year political desperation? Is Trump just trying to paint Democratic cities as out of control as some twisted campaign strategy? Possibly. There’s no doubt that November will see a lot of policy demands if Democrats win elections. But what worrisome is the racial overtones of this “political theatre,” as Mayor Wheeler calls it.

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