The End of Violence: 100 Days of Protest in Portland

Multnomah County Sheriff's Office protest, August 15, 2020. Photo: Daniel Vincent

On the night of September 5th, I tried to outflank the anti-police march in Portland, Oregon by heading directly to where I assumed it was headed. Over the past several weeks, the protests have moved from the federal Justice Center to satellite police stations, the local ICE depot, and the Portland Police Association office. I pulled up to the East Precinct, deep in a working-class area of the city, and rushed to put on my gear: a IIIA-rated helmet and bulletproof vest, which should be able to handle the “less lethal” munitions that the Oregon State Police use on the crowd nightly. I was early, so I had no reason to put on my gas mask and ballistic goggles since I assumed I was a good hour in advance of any teargas. I could hear the protest chants in the distance, and as I ran up the road to meet them I saw that I was already trailing behind the police, who were strapping on riot gear. The road was covered in flames from curb to curb, the result of petrol bombs tossed by the crowd towards the police, who were readying teargas canisters and securing masks. Another reporter had stumbled next to me, rubbing ice packs on his leg, which had just been covered in flaming gasoline.

The police then began firing a series of weapons, and shouting an indecipherable mess of insults at everyone: the protesters, the press, the people in the surrounding homes desperately trying to close their windows as teargas floated up from the street.

The violence was, well, expected, as the police fought a growing mass of people who threaten their very existence. This was day 100 in a literal siege on the city, one that had affected almost every commercial and residential neighborhood and has been marked by increased attacks by police, captured nightly by an army of reporters. Protesters, beaten and bloody, have been hit with toxic chemical weapons, often for little more than lighting trash fires and spray painting buildings. On the 5th, a few protestors had fired molotov cocktails back at the police, but this was a fraction of the arms deployed, nearly all by law enforcement. It felt to most of  the people in the streets like this was personal, that the police were fighting against an acknowledged enemy: the protesters that wanted to end their careers and reshape the city.

As protesters started a retreat some officers lined up in front of the police station behind me, ending any pathway to the demonstration location and blocking me from my car and gas mask.

Street Warfare

The protests in Portland have now been trumpeted by far-right media figures and politicians who want to bank their careers on white fears of “lawlessness.” Fox News plays images of the burning police union office on repeat, the Republican National Convention used rhetoric stolen from Apartheid South Africa to say that “they” were coming for the suburbs, and Trump is acting as though a renegade mob of outsiders is staging a coup on the city. Portland has now been designated an Anarchist Jurisdiction, a fabled land where lawless bands defy the very precepts of the nation, or simply where Trump wants an excuse for crushing austerity. One part of this is correct: the protests have lasted over a 100 days and have only escalated in dramatics. But it’s local and federal law enforcement who seem to be occupying the city by force, not the protesters who live and work here.

The escalation has come at the hands of the police, not the protesters, as the police hold all the cards. For a movement that is entirely responsive (it is against certain police behaviors), it is the police’s conduct that is continuing to propel reactive demonstrations. The protests erupted in Portland on May 29th in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Portland’s police have their own history of killing of black residents (Andre Gladen, Jason Washington, Kendra James, and so, so many others), and a historically fraught relationship with the city and the activists in it, so a riot erupted in its downtown area where the Louis Vuitton and Apple Store were looted and the Justice Center set on fire.

In the days that followed the police decided violence was their favored tactic as they brutalized protesters, press, and legal observers, leading to a rash of lawsuits from the ACLU and others. Injunctions were put in place and restrictions leveled, but then Trump sent in federal officers, none of whom had to abide by the new restrictions. This act took a protest movement that had started to dwindle and made it a crusade, and protestors’ numbers multiplied as federal officers spread into more areas of the city using impact munitions and CS gas. The violence of federal agents made the point that protesters had been there to argue: the police are an occupying force. Eventually, federal officers were removed, but only because the state’s Democratic leadership agreed to replace them with a massive force of state and local officers.eatings were ratched up, and the policing style was marked by less teargas and more elbow grease--that is, more physical beatings and assaults.

The police’s performance itself separates them from the population they are occupying. Given protesters' demands for police abolition--now being given a serious hearing in cities from Minneapolis to Seattle--it does not feel like an overreach to say the police are in the streets fighting for their own interests. It feels accurate to say that the police are inseparable from violence.

The Cop and the Vigilante

One of the best ways to understand the role of police in society is to analyze their connection to the far-right, including extra-judicial fascist, and white supremacist vigilante groups, which has been something of a constant throughout US history. This is especially true in Oregon, which has long been claimed by white supremacists as a “white utopia” (and was founded as such). Oregon was one of the centers of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and a hotbed of neo-Nazi skinheads in the 1980s and 1990s. When talking with anti-racist skinheads and members of Anti-Racist Action from the 1980s, anti-racists remember how Portland Police officers would stop to commend them on their work--until realizing they were the anti-racist kind of skinheads.

In a recent article in the American Prospect, Jonathan Knefel traced the history of police collaboration with (and sometimes co-membership in) fascist and far-right groups. Police officers were involved in far-right groups throughout the twentieth century, including the Silver Legion, the German-American Bund, the John Birch Society, and, especially, the KKK both of the 1920s and of the segregationist era. He argues that part of the police’s collaboration comes from a shared interest, where the “blue line” creates a barrier between officers and the community that they have been trained to see in terms of “counter-insurgency.”

Writes Knefel in the closing of his essay,

“Too many see the police simply as unwitting tools in the reproduction of white supremacy. They should instead be seen as their own political movement, as active agents in the maintenance of white supremacism. They are not bystanders; they are political actors pursuing their own interests. And they have chosen their allies.”

As Kristian Williams, the author of Our Enemies in Blue, told me,

“Right-wing politics are defined by a resistance to egalitarianism. The core function of the police is to preserve the existing system of social stratification. Therefore, within certain limits, there is an elective affinity between the police and right-wing paramilitaries. However, ‘elective’ is an important qualifier.  It isn't automatic, and sometimes the right threatens the stability of the system overall in ways that will put them at odds with the cops,” says Williams. “[The] police are sometimes willing to use the  right to repress the left, but never the other way around. That's because the left's whole raison d'etre is to expand equality, which just inherently conflicts with the core function of policing.”

Police violence has been a primary focus of antiracist protest movements because of its centrality to the militarization of anti-blackness in the US, and its collaborative nature with white vigilantism helped to develop a complete theory of antifascism that located the police as a fulcrum point for fascism in the United States. As Kathleen Cleaver wrote in September 1968 during her tenure as communications secretary of the Black Panther Party,

“The advent of fascism in the United States is most clearly visible in the suppression of the black liberation struggle in the nationwide politician imprisonment and assassination of black leaders, couples with the concentration of massive police power in the ghettos of the black community across the country…. The day when the state and its police power ceases to protect the community but in turn attacks the people of the community has arrived in this country. This is the first stage of building a total police state.”

As Vicky Osterweil, author of in In Defense of Looting, told me in an interview:

“One of the things that was true of American society up until 1960 was that antiblack oppression was for most of American history a mix of state and vigilante actors. The separation and the fact that the state has done most of [the racist violence] has been historically novel. So the return of white fascists in the street killing protesters, killing black people, executing people rioting in the streets, and getting explicit state support is, I think, shocking to a lot of people, but probably not to a lot of historians of white supremacy in America.” Osterweil points out that there is a dual strategy from law enforcement in the midst of this current uprising: to both blame the rioting on white supremacists, which intends to discredit it with parts of the Left, while also “explicitly letting white supremacists know that it is open season on protesters.”

We’ve seen exactly this in Portland. On August 22nd, the far-right street gang the Proud Boys were joined by III%ers and other militia members in front of the federal Justice Center in downtown Portland. This building had been the centerpiece of what was at the time was 85 days of uninterrupted protests.

The Proud Boys came to set the protesters straight and to show “antifa” (whatever they think that means) who was boss. They arrived with a cache of guns and lined the streets with shields, batons, and pipes in hand, ready to fight. And they did. They attacked protesters with swinging metal, spraying them with pepper spray and shooting frozen paintballs, even drawing sidearms and preparing to shoot. It was a brutal melee where several Black Lives Matter protesters had to be carried away, bones were broken, and the area was made a no-go zone.

When actual violence was rampant--when firearms were in play and lives were at risk--the police were nowhere to be seen. “While the activity in the group met the definition of a riot, PPB did not declare one because there were not adequate police resources available to address such a declaration,” said the police in a press release. “PPB members have been the focus of over 80 days of violent actions directed at the police, which is a major consideration for determining if police resources are necessary to interject between two groups with individuals who appear to be willingly engaging in physical confrontations for short durations.”

The alternations of police violence, its heavy use on one segment of the population while keeping it absent from another, has created a cauldron of fear. A far-right caravan careened through the streets of Portland, straying from police approved routes (without police interference) and into confrontation with Black Lives Matter protesters. They sprayed pepper spray and paintballs at the crowd, and one of them ended up killed as an antiracist protester fired his gun in what he claimed was self defense. Now these far-right groups, Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, are planning to return, citing vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as their inspiration.

Scholar of the far-right Roger Eatwell uses the concept of “cumulative extremism” to describe fascists and antifascists, which he says are in a locked battle of one upmanship that only further radicalizes each other. This is generally a poor way to describe antifascist protesters, who are responsive to the incredibly egregious white nationalist violence; but something parallel is taking place here. As the police and right-wing vigilantes ensure a “three-way fight” against the protesters, there is an escalation on all sides. In what feels like 1969 Belfast, Portland has the potential to explode, and the police seem unwilling to do anything to de-escalate a situation they started.

Whose Streets?

On the 5th, the police took action on protesters throughout the deep Eastside of Portland, a blue-collar neighborhood far from the craft salt stores and gastropubs of the inner city. These are residential streets, neighborhoods with families that had their homes surrounded by teargas. Out of one window a woman yelled that her kids were in bed and not wearing masks, and were crying and coughing as teargas streamed in through the open windows on this hot summer night. People screamed from their windows, “our babies sleep here, they don’t have masks.”

That’s how Kari Koch, a Portland resident who lived down the street from the demonstrations, noticed red and blue flashing lights in front of her house. Riot police had parked in front of her family’s home, and were wielding what looked like rifles. She went out and asked them to leave, saying she did not feel safe with them there.“Hey, you all need to leave you all are in front of our house. I don't appreciate this. I don't feel safe with you here with your guns,” she said to the police.

They began shouting back, telling her to go inside, and that this was their street. Another officer threatened to write down her address and make sure that police wouldn’t intervene in any future criminal incident at her home.

“[The comment about their street] stuck with me because of the very popular ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ chant. It was almost like mimicking that….and it very much was given in like a voice of a threat. Like we can do what we want. You live here, but we control the place and this is our street to do what we want,” said Koch, who was rattled enough by the incident to reach out to city officials and write an op-ed in the local paper. “They are totally unaccountable,” she went on. “No one can control them, and no one is controlling them.”

The crowd was charged by the police near a four-way intersection, and as the police tackled several screaming protesters for arrest, they were dropping their teargas canisters a few feet apart from one another. The only direction protesters and press could exist was through a wall of teargas, and when I pushed through it, without my gas mask, I collapsed and vomited as I was totally enveloped by the green cloud. A street medic pulled me away, washed out my eyes with a saline solution, and then went on to the next injured person, and the next.

The local police are “hands on” with the public in the most literal sense. They shove them to the ground, hit them with hand weapons, demean and debase them as they demand compliance. It feels personal because it is: no matter how local officers’ designation is, they still feel like an alien presence. Many officers are in fact not from Portland but from surrounding suburbs, a point that liberal reformers point to as a break in the chain of the supposedly accountable institution of “community policing,” which Alex Vitale calls a “mythic understanding of the history and nature of urban policing” in his seminal book The End of Policing.

The argument that got so many people out into the streets when federal officers had been ordered in was that the Trump Administration was “occupying” Portland by bringing in this confederation of Border Patrol, ICE officers, and other federal badge holders. These police were outsiders, they weren’t from here and supposedly unbeholden. But the reality was that when the federal officers were finally forced out, the violence continued and, in some cases, even escalated. These were now the Portland and Oregon State Police, and while most are not from the city proper, it is a stretch to say they are not “from here.” But, in a very real sense felt by huge parts of the city, they never will be. The reality is that it was never the federal officers that were occupying the space, it was all officers, it was policing as such.

The logic often goes that the police are simply “doing their job,” and it is the complicated needs of the society they are in that dictate its parameters. But this robs police entirely of their own agency and the autonomy that they actually have in enforcement. The police advocate for themselves regularly: through police unions, through associated trade and political organizations, in their use of collective action on the job and their ability to enforce (or not enforce) certain laws, and to use, or withhold, violence. They are not fully disconnected from systems of power, but they are their own class with their own interests.

And they know it. When a police union president speaks out, he does it with a thousand voices, choosing to raise an issue and present a collective perspective. When they bargain with the public institutions they are paid through, they show what the priorities of their membership are. The police have dealt with shrinking public budgets by focusing on “non-economic” line items, trading pay and benefits for impunity. The voice of police has been clear: they want a blank check to use violence when and how they see fit. That is what is in their interests.

So what are our interests?

The protesters in Portland are often depicted as separate from, or antagonistic to, the rest of the city. The Oregonian, the local legacy paper for the city, runs editorials suggesting that it is time for the protests to end because they have been “co-opted.” This is a common line, a liberal version of the old anticommunist trope of “outside agitators.” The movement is against police violence, with a particular focus on its attack on black lives, and the people at the Portland protest make up a representative demographic slice of the city. Portland is overwhelmingly white, but the protests are not, and there is a diversity of perspective. The weeks have narrowed it somewhat, with nightly police assaults crystalizing a confederation of demands into the loudest one: total abolition. The protesters have a common experience right now, which is being on the receiving end of police attacks. So, in a sense, they are their own constituency, they represent an experienced slice of people facing police violence. The people who came out into the streets, such as the famous “Wall of Moms” or the dads blowing back the teargas clouds with their leaf blower, were a part of this new identity of a shared experience. This is just a fraction of what communities of color have faced for generations, and it is also a lived experience that is building inside every single person blockading the roads.

Given the violent escalation of the police, this demographic slice of the city now sees that police abolition is in their interests.

If much of the larger nation-wide movement is now focused on measures of reform, accountability, and destabilization of entrenched forms of police power, this is now impossible in Portland because police violence itself has escalated the political stakes nightly, keeping them focused on abolition. There is no other consensus solution available.

Protests, particularly those experienced as some type of protracted street war, change the people in them, and this community is different now from when these demonstrations started. When someone takes direct action they change two things: the situation they are organizing against and themselves. We are racked by the coronavirus, kept inside and out of our jobs, the most destructive kind of loneliness. But the protesters found each other, and built a community out of a spiral of hope and utopian euphoria. Rage is not experienced in isolation when it coalesces around the idea that we can fight back and undermine the very conditions of the injustice. A new world is now possible, and they are building it through their concerted opposition and the relationships along the way. It’s a movement for police abolition, but it’s also about lost jobs and evicted families and scared communities and the lack of structural freedom. It is about us as people.

In the streets of Portland, and in cities like New York and Ferguson and Minneapolis, we see the police fighting for themselves. For their own material interests, for a vision of the world built in their own image, and a society where they will never be victims.

What would happen if we all fought for ourselves? We have to first allow ourselves to be victims, to acknowledge the experience of cruelty and injustice. This unveils a core mission of abolitionism: to stop the process of victimization altogether. To end the creation of survivors because there is no horror from which we have to heal. Fighting for abolition, and freedom, and equality cannot be an abstraction, something of neutral liberal values. Instead they are words placed on the kind of principles that are in the interest of working people, to build a life worth living outside the walls of prisons and funeral homes and dead-end jobs. To achieve this sort of post-harm, the cycle of hurt would have to be broken, which means tearing out a failed system by the roots and planting something new in its stead. The call from the police has always been to “end the violence,” and the protesters are in full agreement.

Portland is a city where a growing contingent say they are being occupied by a type of person, a representation of an institution remote to a beautiful way of living. The police feel separate from the rest of the city because the two sides are fighting for diametrically opposed goals: there is no compromise that could possibly suffice. The police are occupiers not because of where they come from, but because of who they are and what role they serve in the lives of Portland’s people. The only way to see that through is to refuse the trappings of survivorship, to simply celebrate our resilience , and to focus on ending our victimhood. This is not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because it is in the material interest of the vast majority of us. 

Shane Burley is the author of Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021) and Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has been featured in places like NBC News, Al Jazeera, The Baffler, In These Times, Roar Magazine, Bandcamp, Truthout, and Full Stop. You can follow him on Twitter at @Shane_Burley1.