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The Nightmare in Portland

Twenty years of a “war on terror” and centuries of elite fear of popular revolt led to the nightmare that played out on Portland’s streets. And your town could be next.

Federal officers form a police line in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in the early hours of July 30 in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard / Getty Images)

The clashes between authorities and protesters that have taken place in downtown Portland for more than sixty days have been described as authoritarian, dystopian, fascistic. And they are all of these things.

Yet at times, one can’t help but feel a sense of absurdity, too.

In front of the heavy steel fence that separates the nightly throng of angry Portlanders from the courthouse authorities, I’m standing in a crowd of hundreds, a mix of genders and ages, many of them the moms, dads, and even grandparents who became the front lines of the city’s civil disobedience campaign, kitted out in bike helmets, face coverings, and — for the lucky and well-prepared —  gas masks. At best, they’re armed with a makeshift shield or leaf-blower; there’s a chance they have an umbrella, picket sign, or a laser; most likely, they’re empty-handed.

After an hour of nothing but standing, chanting, and occasional fence-banging, a phalanx of heavily armed and armored officers abruptly crab-walks out of the courthouse entrance to a chorus of boos, guns–≠ drawn and barking instructions as if poised to re-enact the bin Laden raid. They fire through the fence and into the crowd, spraying the protesters with stinging pepper shot, before instantly retreating backwards into the courthouse, not to be seen for at least another hour.

The exercise was, presumably, a success. But what exactly was the point? And are the federal authorities using the protests to train for war? Or have they been using war to train for the protests?

The Scene in Portland

For weeks, this was the state of things in Portland, where federal police — the motley band of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and other Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents sent by Trump to quell what his campaign calls “absolute mayhem” in the city — have play-acted scenes of urban warfare against an enemy that’s more Home Depot shopper than ISIS recruit. The absurdity isn’t lost on protesters, who between shouts of righteous anger pelt authorities with mocking derision, whether chants to quit their jobs, or signs imploring them to not “shoot grandma” and insisting they are minimally endowed.

And yet as absurd as it can seem in moments, Portland has been the site of what sometimes seems like unprecedented state repression the past few weeks, even after nearly three months of brazen law enforcement violence against the press and protesters. At least thirty journalists have been attacked, a Navy veteran had his hand broken for nothing more than standing around, an unarmed protester had his skull fractured, just to name a few, all more often than not amid billowing clouds of gas fired indiscriminately into protesting crowds.

The reports and images that make their way out of the city scarcely seem to resemble the United States, let alone the liberal bastion that was not long ago more synonymous with craft beer than tear gas. Protesters choke on chemical agents multiple times a night, sometimes multiple times a week. Reporters mill about decked out almost as heavily in armor as the authorities themselves, the word “press” emblazoned in massive letters all over their bodies lest they be attacked by government forces — not that it’s stopped them. Federal forces drive around and snatch “suspects” off the streets, shoving them into unmarked vans and draping hoods over their faces.

These scenes are in fact the logical culmination of the “war on terror,” combined with decades of elite fear of mass revolt. And without radical steps, in a few years’ time they could become completely unexceptional.

Bringing It All Back Home

As foreign as they might seem, these accounts are far from alien to the United States of 2020. What’s new is who they’re targeting.

Political commentators have long connected the US government’s foreign adventures to the militarization of police back home, something we’ve typically seen in the kinds of tactics, mindset, and high-grade military equipment that have been adopted by law enforcement domestically. But the federal response in Portland and other cities seems to signal a new, ominous front in this trend.

Camo-clad police abducting civilians is new to American streets, but it’s old news for those foreigners unlucky enough to end up on the wrong side of the bipartisan policy of “extraordinary rendition” — aka kidnapping and torture — from which even European boulevards weren’t safe. Protesters spied on by hovering drones are beginning to get a taste of the “hell on earth,” as one journalist described it, that Pakistani farmers and others live under thanks to the equally bipartisan drone program.

Americans at least needn’t worry they’ll be blown to smithereens by the thing — not yet, anyway. If they do, they can thank Barack Obama, who four years into his drastic expansion of drone warfare asserted the power to bomb citizens on US soil, something he helpfully clarified he personally had “no intention of doing.”

There’s also something of the “war” coming home in Trump’s rejection of Portland officials’ demands that federal forces leave the city. Little wonder that many protesters view them as a foreign occupying force — same as the citizens of the dozens of countries that have seen US aircraft and troops deployed on their soil without their asking.

This boomeranging “war on terror” is intimately wrapped up in the entity that is the DHS, the nearly nineteen-year-old federal agency now supplying the shock troops for Trump’s war on protesters, and which stands as a symbol of the total reorganization of national priorities that took place following the September 11 attacks. Its creation was originally recommended by a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission all the way back in February 2001, which warned that within twenty-five years — that is, 2026 — terrorists would attack the United States with chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons.

Six years out from that deadline, the department has yet to foil such a fantastical plot. Instead, it’s the DHS that is rapidly gaining a reputation for terrorizing American cities, an image that, together with Trump’s general abuse of his powers, is already forcing a rethinking by national security Democrats. Just last week, former Colorado senator Gary Hart penned an op-ed calling for a Church Committee–style inquiry into the president’s immense and secret national emergency powers. Meanwhile, declaring that “DHS was a mistake,” former California senator Barbara Boxer has called for a restructuring of the department she once voted to create.

“I never thought that the Department of Homeland Security would be used against our own people,” she wrote. “I never envisioned a dictatorial president, a tyrannical president, a desperate president. I was myopic.”

Boxer’s public atonement is an indictment of the liberal political leadership that remains in place nearly two decades later: a liberal US senator who had served nineteen years in Congress and lived through Watergate and Iran-Contra really couldn’t imagine a political leader bent on abusing the office of the presidency someday taking power?

But it’s also a rewriting of history. By the time the DHS came up for a vote in November 2002 — itself the product of a partisan fight, as then-president George W. Bush had initially simply bypassed Congress to establish the office by fiat — there was more than an inkling that the president was using the moment of crisis to assert dangerous new powers. Less than two weeks before Boxer and other Democrats cast their votes, the public had learned about the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness program that aimed to scoop up and analyze every square inch of Americans’ digital footprints, engendering such an outcry that it was, at least officially, ultimately shelved. Before that, Bush had made headlines with an array of radical actions, including detention without charge and the torture of multiple citizens, and rounding up and confining hundreds of undocumented immigrants for months in “extremely harsh conditions.”

Nevertheless, the bill creating the DHS cleared the Senate 90-9, dragging along a host of right-wing amendments attached by Republicans, including ones protecting pharmaceutical companies from impending lawsuits, expanding governments’ ability to pull up Americans’ Internet and email records, and stripping unionized federal employees of workplace protections. Having earlier threatened to hold up the bill if it failed to extend unemployment insurance for 820,000 people that was set to run out by the end of the year, Democrats gave up and voted for it anyway. Congress then adjourned for the year.

It didn’t take long for the DHS to demonstrate how easily it could be abused by unscrupulous politicians. Six months after its creation, at the request of Texas Republican state legislators, the DHS tracked down fifty of their Democratic colleagues who had absconded to an unknown location to deprive the state’s GOP majority of quorum and kill a particularly extreme gerrymandering effort. Everyone from the New York Times to Joe Lieberman declared it an outrageous abuse of power for partisan ends.

Already by the middle of 2003, the DHS had begun expanding its power and reach into American life, principally by targeting immigrants. It made all the wrong headlines: announcing a blanket policy of detaining asylum seekers, holding a non-citizen, without bail, who was convicted of breaking and entering a tool shed and shoplifting, setting a precedent that endangered all other non-citizens, including permanent residents. The following year, the DHS investigated and interrogated thousands of Muslim immigrants just before that year’s election, and detained and interrogated Muslim citizens returning from a religious conference in Toronto.

By the end of the decade, the agency had moved on to investigating and keeping tabs on peaceful political groups, including environmentalists, abortion rights campaigners, and peace activists, before turning to protest movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Water Protectors of Standing Rock under Barack Obama’s presidency.

These trends had super-accelerated under Trump, even before the events in Portland. DHS agencies have become alarmingly aggressive, targeting immigration activists, conducting mass raids in workplaces and courthouses, engaging in ethically dubious arrest tactics, and increasingly targeting US citizens with darker skin tones or who weren’t speaking English. Its agencies have also become more explicitly partisan, and started surveilling anti-Trump protests and keeping a list of journalists, activists, and attorneys to put through extra screening. Meanwhile, the former acting director of ICE has called for putting politicians who resist the agency in prison.

It culminated in a video released by CBP last year amid the longest government shutdown in US history, showing armored-up agents carrying out a “large scale civil unrest readiness exercise” set to foreboding music. Considered strange and unsettling at the time, the events of the last few weeks suggest its critics were entirely justified in their alarm.

“This Is Actually a Love Thing”

“It hadn’t felt like a police state until now,” says Pam, who has called the city home for forty years. She and her friends are just a few of the many older residents who make up part of the growing crowd in front of the Justice Center this Wednesday evening. While they’d previously gone to neighborhood events sparked by George Floyd’s death, it was Trump’s deployment of federal police that pushed them to come downtown, despite the risk of coronavirus.

“What he’s doing is fascism,” she says.

By all accounts, it’s this federal presence that breathed new life into the Portland protests, escalating an already tense conflict between residents and authorities, and turning the demonstrations into nightly acts of rebellion against state violence — or, as many in the crowd see it, fascism.

The sense that this moment is different, more dangerous, is likewise what’s brought seventy-one-year-old Pat to tonight’s protest, carrying a “Republican against brownshirting” sign. A lifelong Portlander, Pat’s seen many large demonstrations in the city, for civil rights and against the Vietnam War among them. But nothing compares to this in size and scale.

“This is more perilous,” he says. “We have a federal leader wanting to use federal police as thugs.”

Sally and Terry, both in their early sixties, have never seen anything in the city on this scale either. They’ve been coming from the beginning, around once a week. Tonight, their oldest granddaughter, twenty-one, is dog-sitting for them so they could come. Worried about contracting coronavirus, she’s afraid to attend.

“The protests were calming down,” says Sally. “Then they sent the feds in. The first person they kidnapped, it was game on.”

Sally describes herself as a union Democrat who liked Obama. Terry, who carries a placard made from an old Gore-Lieberman sign and wears a yellow hard-hat plastered with union stickers, calls himself a “hardcore contrarian independent,” who doesn’t know what either side stand for. Both liked Elizabeth Warren in this year’s election. They, too, have been on the receiving end of federal violence — the other night, Sally was tear-gassed in the street while holding her hands up, as she stood next to a one-legged Vietnam veteran.

Like many Portlanders, they want people in the rest of the country to know the city is not the war zone Trump and the media portray it as, and that the protests are far from the orgies of anarchic violence the administration and Republicans keep insisting they are.

“This is actually a love thing,” says Sally.

Indeed, while many Americans might associate Portland’s protests with images of faceless, black-clad antifa itching for conflict, the mood on the ground is decidedly more kind and gentle. Protesters give each other extra masks and shields. Mutual aid group Riot Ribs, its tents and grills a mainstay of Lownsdale Square opposite the courthouse, gives out food and drink to those attending. Bump into someone as you walk through the packed block of streets and you’re likely to hear an earnest “Sorry,” a courtesy you’d be hard-pressed to get even at a music festival.

And as much as Trump’s authoritarian response has given the nightly gatherings extra urgency, Portland’s protests are still fundamentally about the same thing they were about when they began: the murder of black Americans by law enforcement. Their presence floats ever-present through the protests, particularly that of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose names appear on signs, in protest chants, on the graffiti scrawled all over the federal courthouse and surrounding monuments.

While some have tried to pit the crowd of mostly white protesters against the cause of racial justice — at 77 percent white, Portland is one of the least racially diverse cities in the country — it’s an attitude disconnected from the atmosphere of solidarity on the ground. As protesters mill about, an African-American protest leader speaks in front of the Justice Center. “We are all one race,” he says between chants of “black lives matter.” “There’s only one race — the human race.”

Itchy Trigga, a rapper and protest leader, moved to Portland from Mississippi more than fifteen years ago, and is “very familiar” with the impetus for the protests, having experienced police brutality and everyday racism in both places. While others draw a firm line between the actions of the feds and those of local cops, he sees little difference.

“The Portland police was coming with the same types of brutality,” he says. “The only difference is there are more feds.”

Looking out at the crowd, however, he strikes a hopeful note, heartened by the multicultural crowd out in force. He notes that earlier protests over the countless police murders of people of color garnered the same violent police response — just not the same community outcry.

“They’ve been exposed,” he says of the largely white protesters.

Others see the protests as part of an even broader struggle. “V” is thirty-one and immunocompromised, and has, until now, only taken part in some neighborhood vigils because of her condition. Of Mexican and Honduran descent, she’s come down not just to assert her constitutional rights and protest police brutality, but in solidarity with the immigrant communities so often the target of the DHS agents occupying her city.

“I can’t go home and raise my child to think this is okay,” she says. “Resisting myself now will hopefully bring something better for my child.”

Later, a hospital chaplain giving medical aid to protesters tells me the crowd seems more frustrated tonight after the violence of the last few.

“But even before the feds got here, the police were gassing us every night,” she says after washing the chemicals from a protester’s eyes.

This is the night Portland mayor and police commissioner Ted Wheeler will finally come down to the Justice Center to address an overwhelmingly hostile crowd that has spent much of the evening cursing his name. Protest leaders take turns berating Wheeler and urging the crowd to let him speak. Wheeler tells those assembled that police are too often the first responders, and that he wants to take money out of the city’s police bureau and invest it elsewhere.

“We have just made history yet again,” a protest leader announces to the crowd. “We did not go to Ted Wheeler. Ted Wheeler came to us.”

But the mayor’s words don’t seem to mollify many of those assembled. As he weaves his way through the angry crowd, a protester climbs up and takes the mic. Saying that he’s been attending since day one, he accuses the speakers of working with the mayor, urges the crowd not to trust Wheeler, and urges them to stay focused on defunding the police. The atmosphere remains charged. As speaker after speaker continues to say their piece, Wheeler is on the street encircled by Portlanders making policy demands, while a contingent of protesters shake and jump the metal fence surrounding the now heavily graffitied courthouse, lighting fireworks and setting a couple of garbage bags on fire.

Eventually, someone succeeds in opening the fence door. Before long, faceless armored police are out, filling the streets with gas, sending protesters scattering and choking. It later turns out Wheeler is among them.

Fear of a Just Planet

The United States is a country shaped at least as much by elite fear of popular revolt as by the democratic values proclaimed in its founding documents. Fear of a slave uprising led the Southern elite to construct a system of racist terror, including the slave patrols that some historians see as the historical precedent of modern American policing. Likewise, the FBI, known for its more-than-century-long hostility to radical movements, has its origins in the work of the Pinkerton detective agency, for which sabotage and suppression of labor movements was its bread and butter.

But in many ways, the scenes in Portland and other US cities can be more immediately traced to the postwar period, when Cold War paranoia led government officials and the growing national security state to hatch plans to put down what they feared was an inevitable insurrectionary uprising. That, too, meant importing the repressive measures that US forces had once reserved only for foreign enemies. As former assistant to the FBI director William C. Sullivan told the Church Committee about COINTELPRO: “We have used [these techniques] against Soviet agents. . . . [The same methods were] brought home against any organization against which we were targeted.”

From 1939 until the late 1970s, the FBI kept a list of possibly subversive foreigners and citizens, and planned to round up more than twelve thousand of them should war break out. Starting from the 1950s, the Pentagon poured millions into research on left-wing insurgencies, trying to learn from the overthrow of right-wing governments abroad in order to head such a thing off at home. The funding produced texts like these, analyzing cases of insurgency and revolutionary warfare and which counterinsurgency tactics worked best.

This elite paranoia was only inflamed as the decade ticked over into the 1960s, and a plethora of largely nonviolent but militant social movements sprung up, from civil rights for black and Native Americans, to women’s liberation and an antiwar movement that occupied the country’s capital and marched to the Pentagon. On top of that was the spree of unorganized rioting that erupted in various cities throughout the decade, anger born of economic despair and police violence.

These uprisings were traumatic for those in power. “Certainly hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans — mostly under thirty — are determined to destroy our society,” warned a 1970 paper produced for then-President Richard Nixon. To justify its illegal domestic surveillance program, the Army insisted “it needed such information in the late 1960s to enable it to prepare for situations in which it was called upon to put down civil disturbances.” When protesters besieged Washington in 1971 to bring the government to a halt over Vietnam, Nixon’s chief of staff called it “potentially a real threat,” and the day ended with what remain the largest mass arrests in US history, with over 7,000 detained.

The twin historical fears of the US elite — rebellion by the country’s non-white underclass, and government overthrow by left-wing radicals — crystallized in response to the decade’s urban rioting in cities like Watts and Detroit. Just as both Democratic and Republican officials today blame protests against police brutality on “outside agitators” and Russian social media bots, so both liberal and conservative politicians in the 1960s blamed urban riots on “outside agitators” and “Communists.” The United States was “rapidly approaching a state of anarchy,” warned the GOP. One conservative Democrat pointed to “a rapid increase in the number of civil disorders, sit-ins, unruly protest marches, disorderly demonstrations” to make the case that “we are no longer a nation of laws.”

Pentagon experts warned that “underground black organizations” could be planning “widespread campaigns of violence.” One military-commissioned paper on urban riots cautioned in 1969 that such civil disorders “may be a preliminary” to “insurrection and rebellion.” “It should be remembered,” the report stated,

that the violence in the cities is an adjunct of a larger social movement within the country. The growth of rightist and leftist extremist groups on ideological as well as racial grounds indicates the breadth of the movement.

The period of post-Watergate reform turned out to be only a brief respite from this elite paranoia, thanks to the election of racist, hard-right former California governor Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Prior to the election, Reagan was arguably best known for his brutal putdown of Berkeley free speech protesters (“If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with”), leaving one dead and more than a dozen hospitalized, including a shattered leg, punctured lung, and one protester who nearly died when a sheriff’s deputy fired buckshot from a shotgun and into his gut.

Upon becoming president, Reagan appointed the man behind that violence — former California National Guard chief Louis Giuffrida, who had kept tabs on protesters and drew up lists of “militant negroes” to be rounded up in emergencies — to be his emergency czar. Giuffrida formed part of what the chief counsel of the Senate Iran-Contra committee would later call a “secret-government-within-a-government” that, among other things, resumed planning for a future insurrection. Giuffrida compiled his own list of tens of thousands of citizens he considered security threats, while Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who served with Giuffrida on Reagan’s newly created Emergency Mobilization Preparedness Board, drew up secret plans for martial law in case of crises like internal rebellion or national opposition to US military intervention. Both actions spurred alarmed internal protest from other key Reagan officials.

While those specific Reagan-era initiatives may have been suspended, it’s clear the mindset that spurred their creation never went away. US government agencies hold multiple overlapping watchlists on domestic threats, and the FBI continues to view law-abiding Muslims and black civil rights activists (or “black identity extremists,” in the bureau’s parlance) as threats in waiting. Long before Portland, law enforcement agencies demonstrated, at places like Ferguson and Standing Rock, that they’d meet nonviolent protest with near-military force. A 2018 Pentagon war game envisioned the US military by 2025 taking on a rebellion by Gen Z, scarred by September 11 and economic collapse, and buried in debt.

It’s little wonder, then, that in this environment, the DHS is ripe for abuse by authoritarian leaders. It’s the country’s largest law enforcement agency, but lacks the oversight and accountability measures to match its size. What’s more, in his final year in Congress, former Republican senator Tom Coburn warned the DHS was “not successfully executing any of its five main missions,” and that many of its programs were “ineffective and should be reconsidered.” That included not just its counterterrorism work, which, he wrote, is “yielding little value,” but cybersecurity and disaster relief.

Instead, with its agents loyal to Trump, versed in keeping tabs on protest, and a tendency to increasingly target dissenters and Americans of color ever more often, the DHS has ended up the ideal vessel to serve as something like the president’s own private army.

Keep Portland Weird

It’s Saturday, the two-month anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. This time, several different groups of protesters numbering in the thousands are converging at the Justice Center, for a protest that feels more festive than volatile. That includes not just the moms and dads who stand night after night between protesters and authorities, but veterans and teachers too, who have come out in force tonight. For one teacher, the struggle to get federal authorities out of her city is no different to she and her colleagues speaking out against the government’s plans for school re-opening.

“It’s the government against the people again,” she says. “We’re told what to do without having our voices heard.”

For long stretches, nothing happens, the massive crowd waiting patiently for a confrontation, periodically coming to life at the sight of a faceless officer emerging from the courthouse doorway. Between the occasional skirmish — the authorities come out, fire off tear gas, both groups retreat, and the protesters return, ready to go all over again — they kill time by chanting and lobbing fireworks over the metal fence, with a particularly well-aimed one detonating a couple of hundred feet up in midair, at the courthouse terrace from which officers have been surveilling the crowd.

It’s not until after 1 AM that things descend into chaos, as a group at the front wraps chains around the fence and succeeds in yanking it down. Protesters beat a retreat as those on the street are engulfed in tear gas, some of it floating into Lownsdale Square, some fired directly in by the police. “This is the federal protective service,” announces a voice free of irony, as people flee the scene coughing and retching. A tear gas canister whizzes overhead and drops on the street. Protesters scramble to contain the escaping gas in a traffic cone as others form a protective line with their shields.

The small group of protesters properly equipped — shields, helmets, gas masks — forms a barricade where the fence once was, but they can only hold out for so long. The street is now a sea of pale smoke and umbrellas, as explosions crash and leaf-blowers whirr futilely. There are suddenly dozens of federal police, lit by a pale blue light, seemingly from out of nowhere, advancing. The massive crowd desperately heads west in a crush to escape the gas that’s now everywhere. Within minutes, federal police seem to be in every direction. A phalanx of protesters vainly holds the line, repelling a volley of tear gas canisters with their shields, before finally retreating. This was, after all, never a real fight.

Nightly scenes like these, in a country where national identity is saturated in the language of freedom and resistance to government tyranny, appear to have now finally generated the pressure for federal authorities to withdraw from the city. But there’s no guarantee the replacement of federal with state police will end the protests. It is, after all, police brutality at the local level that sparked and fueled the protests for more than a month, and the protesters still have reforms they want to see.

Whatever happens next, Portland is far from the first American city to see the military’s counterinsurgency tactics brought back home, nor will it be the last. The moment of crisis we’re living through won’t simply end if Joe Biden becomes president, and the series of other crises on the horizon all but ensure mass unrest will be with us for a while. Given this, and as long as the instruments of state repression created and left in place by president after president remain untouched, Portland could simply be a preview of what will one day be ordinary.

Maybe it already is. The night before federal forces announced their withdrawal from the city, a video went viral: in New York, in broad daylight, what appear to be plainclothes police officers jump out of an unmarked van, snatch a teenage girl off the street, and drive away. The NYPD later explains she had damaged some security cameras.