August 4, 2020

The overwhelmingly white, anarchist activists who populate the ongoing protests in Portland, Oregon should not be underestimated for their strategic savvy. In seizing the mantle of “Black Lives Matter”, they’ve discovered a work-around to arrogate moral cover for whatever insurrectionary upheaval they would have been ideologically committed to fomenting anyway. The Left/liberal political and media class is deeply invested in preserving the untouchable sanctity of “BLM”. So by fusing themselves in the public mind with this ambiguously-defined protest movement, or even putting themselves at the vanguard, the anarchist whites insulate themselves from the type of scrutiny that might ordinarily be prompted by activists whose ultimate goal is the overthrow of the state — and who are happy to engage in what they call “a diversity of tactics” (up to and including violence) to achieve this.

It makes for a bizarre dynamic, as Democratic Party pundits and politicians routinely describe avowed insurrectionists as nothing more than benign “peaceful protesters”. And since the protests came to be arrayed against the federal forces dispatched to Portland by Donald Trump, more conventional elements of the Left/liberal “Resistance” have made common cause with these revolutionary anarchists who regard the very essence of the US political system — not just Trump — as innately fascist and “white supremacist”. On a recent evening, for instance, an older white couple in a pair of matching “Resistance”-branded T-shirts could be spotted in attendance among the radical activists, as well as a man sporting the slogan “Ridin’ with Biden”.

To characterise what’s gone on in Portland as a traditional “protest” is a misnomer, however. Pay a visit to the area around the Federal Courthouse in Downtown after midnight and you are greeted by brigades of black-clad “Antifa” foot soldiers — geared up in full body armour, complete with industrial-grade gas masks, shields and even customised radio systems. Being overwhelmingly white, they are strategic about public presentation: the speakers appointed to address the nightly “rallies” are almost exclusively black, as “amplifying black voices” to whom whites must dutifully “listen” is a central tenet of the Summer 2020 protest ethos.

If there is any foundational idea operative in Portland, it’s to keep a frenetic confrontation with the state going for as long as possible, so as to maximise the chances that an incendiary incident might occur and catalyse a larger insurrectionary uproar — similar to the killing of George Floyd in May, which sparked nationwide riots. One fateful tear gas canister fired into the temple of a “protester” could reverberate rapidly across the country; “Portland solidarity” actions have already sprouted up as far away as Richmond, Virginia. This is by design: a former occupant of the so-called “CHAZ,” the former anarchist commune that took over a portion of Seattle in June, told me a number of people who previously set up shop there had headed south to Portland.

As I milled around one night livestreaming on my phone, a “protester” wielding a heavy-duty shield emblazoned with the anarchist “A” symbol demanded that I cease recording. When I declined to obey this command, I was confronted by several additional “protesters” — all white, of course — one of whom snatched the phone out of my hands. It was only returned after I agreed to recite the phrase “Black Lives Matter” with sufficient vigour. This friendly fellow subsequently threatened to “fucking stomp me out,” and then ejected me from the protest zone — forcing me to run, not walk, away — as another associate hurled a projectile at me. Certainly not behaviour I’ve encountered at any other “protest”.

The pandemic is far from the minds of participants — in contrast with most working-class Americans. One night, I tried to put a question to Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, about the advisability of mass protest gatherings as Covid cases spike in the state of Oregon. Wheeler had ventured out in a show of support for the protesters, and was even permitted to address the rally, despite being widely loathed. “Fuck you, Ted Wheeler,” his detractors shouted, unimpressed by his pleading. Still determined to demonstrate his solidarity, however, he subjected himself to a choreographed tear-gassing from federal forces (a New York Times reporter was right next to him at the time, surely by sheer coincidence.)

“The most important thing right now is the Black Lives Matter movement,” Wheeler replied to me, at which protesters in the vicinity became enraged, accusing me of engaging in “white supremacy” and “silencing” blacks for posing a question they (the whites) deemed “inappropriate” to an elected official. “That is a premise that doesn’t concern this movement at all,” one protester said of the pandemic, as others demanded that I “get the fuck out of here”.

Wheeler’s fallacy is imagining that any incrementalist policy reforms will satisfy the ideological core of these protesters, whose goal is abolition of the country’s entire criminal justice apparatus in addition to general insurrection. But as expected, even getting tear-gassed wasn’t enough to placate Wheeler’s critics. The following day, Jo Ann Hardesty, a Portland City Commissioner, dismissed Wheeler as “a privileged white man”. (Having received a sizable helping of tear-gas myself, I can confirm that it was highly unpleasant.)

The source of the animosity toward Wheeler is the conduct of the municipal Portland police, which a number of residents (and even officers) find genuinely baffling. “We are probably one of the most progressive law enforcement agencies I’ve ever had the opportunity to be around,” one veteran Portland Police Bureau officer told me as he monitored the protest action from afar one night, semi-hidden in an unmarked vehicle parked on a side street, with the massive booms of the “mortar”-style fireworks being fired at the Federal Courthouse crackling in the background. “And it’s just sad to me that we’re getting shoved back into this stigma of these jackbooted thugs again. All the outreach we’ve done — all the gang outreach we’ve been a part of — it’s all been taken away from us.”

Indeed, take a look at the official Portland Police Twitter account and you will find a banner image of an officer happily wearing a LGBT Pride Flag-coloured facemask. A left-wing political activist in Portland who asked to remain nameless for fear of retribution attested to having a friend in the Bureau who is a black lesbian woman with several children. “She’s one of the most thoughtful, intelligent people that I know,” the activist said, “who went into becoming a police officer because she wanted to see more people like her on the force in her community.”

They added: “We have a lot of people running this protest who have never been outside of this Portland bubble. And the Portland bubble is very comfortable. They don’t understand what real suffering is like.”

That black lesbian woman would presumably be implicated in one of the chants that has become a staple of the protests: “A – C – A – B… ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS” — which is unlikely to be a notion dispelled by marginal policy changes of the kind politely suggested, for example, by Wheeler. Nor would the withdrawal of federal forces from the area satisfy their insurrectionist demands. When protesters chant “NO GOOD COPS IN A RACIST SYSTEM,” the “system” to which they are referring is the foundational system of governance of the United States — again, deemed inherently “fascist” and “white supremacist”, and therefore impossible to reform. As one sign wielded by a protester declared: “The Revolution will not come by asking or voting,” with the customary anarchist “A” symbol scrawled onto the cardboard. Other protest phrases visible around Portland include “Die Piggies” and “Dead Cops,” as well as calls for the assassination of Trump.

Outside the core of the Downtown protest zone, the same mass-produced “Black Lives Matter” posters which have become ubiquitous across so many other American metropolitan areas dot the front porches and storefront windows of Portland establishments. (It’s certainly more culturally fashionable than “Joe Biden 2020” insignia, although the electoral implications are roughly similar). But a trip around the city also reveals hand-made yard signs posing questions such as, “DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO END WHITE SUPREMACY?”

One potential answer to this question might be: “elect a black head of state,” as the overwhelmingly white Multnomah County, Oregon — home to Portland — did by a whopping 56-point margin in 2008 and 55-point in 2012. But a strange feature of this protest movement is that one would barely know Barack Obama, a black man elected president in a majority white nation, ever existed. Not that Obama’s mere election was supposed to have eradicated every last trace of racial inequities in the United States: of course it wasn’t. But you’d think it would at least inform popular conceptions of the role of race within the nation’s elite power structure. Instead, Obama seems to have been simply “erased” — the significance of his tenure not even worth mentioning. Are we to believe that a country so intractably defined by “white supremacy” — a totally uncontested truism among protesters and their media allies — nonetheless elected a black man not once, but twice? Apparently.

Like so many other cities across the US, much of Portland remains boarded up as a result of riots that initially broke out in early June after the George Floyd killing — compounded by decreased economic activity brought on by the pandemic. (Again, the virus is evidently not a “premise” of “concern” to protesters.) Even VooDoo Doughnut, a popular independent Portland shop featuring items like Vegan Maple Cream, was boarded up as of July 26, after one of its windows was smashed by “BLM protesters”, according to a security guard. “We had some threats,” he said. Overtly left-wing food carts — the mere existence of which is already something of a conundrum — also report being “damaged during the protests” and indefinitely closed.

While “The Feds” have reduced their visibility in recent days, that doesn’t mean the rancour will subside any time soon. Notwithstanding talk of a “peaceful transition,” one Department of Homeland Security agent told me: “There may be some unrealistic expectations. There’s never going to be a 100% withdrawal of federal officers from the federal building.” And one of the “voices” appointed to address a nightly rally last month explicitly likened Portland’s action to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s, which lasted for 381 days.

Apart from highlighting the elevated historical terms in which these protesters see themselves, it’s an indication that Feds or no Feds, the Portland anarchists have every incentive to keep the chaos going in perpetuity. And why wouldn’t they? Clearly, their strategy is paying off.