Wall of Moms, Portland, 24 July. Photo: Tony / cropped from original / CC BY 2.0, licence and original image linked at bottom of article Wall of Moms, Portland, 24 July. Photo: Tony / cropped from original / CC BY 2.0, licence and original image linked at bottom of article

The Black Lives Matter uprising in Portland isn’t backing down in the face of violence from Trump’s troops, reports Sean Ledwith

Over one hundred years ago, Jack London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel described a fascist oligarchy crushing dissent in a future USA. News reports from the Oregon state capital of Portland over the last few weeks have resembled a movie version of London’s grim vision. Trump has cast aside the already thin protective layer of the US Constitution and authorised paramilitary forces into the city to crush Black Lives Matters protesters.

Scenes of civilian demonstrators  being randomly picked up off the street and thrown into the back of militarised federal vehicles by camouflaged and unidentified soldiers are more usually associated with the activities of the US state overseas than in the homeland itself. Peaceful protesters in Portland are getting a toxic dose of the counter-insurgency hardware and tactics more frequently witnessed on the streets of Baghdad, Mosul or Kabul.

War on Terror comes home

Sonic bombs, rubber bullets and pepper balls are among the brutal measures being deployed by special forces that more usually spend their time patrolling the US borders or supressing resistance groups across Central Asia and the Middle East. The increasingly dangerous streets of the Oregon state capital can now be added to a list of other US cities, including Ferguson and Minneapolis, where the War on Terror has come home.

Trump’s heavy-handed response to the protests, however, has triggered a courageous and creative reaction form the BLM activists on the ground that has now inspired similar upsurges across the US and threatens to derail his bid for a second term in November.

Legacy of racism

The state terrorism now occurring in Oregon is the climax to the wave of protests that erupted in Portland, along with many other US cities, following the racist killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police at the end of May. One of the most remarkable features of the resilience of the BLM campaign there is that it is an overwhelmingly white city with an unenviable tradition of far right activity.

The KKK openly patrolled the streets before WW2 and just twenty years ago a local police sergeant erected a shrine to the Nazi army. The gratuitously offensive monument was not removed for a number of years and the officer concerned was later promoted to the vice squad! The police killing of two young black bothers on the same day in 2010 prompted the Obama administration to take over the running of the Portland PD. Four more similar fatalities have occurred in the city since Obama’s successor moved into the White House. African Americans are just 6% of the the Portland population but account for 30% of police shootings over the last three years.

Bible basher

Multiracial demonstrators started to congregate around the city courthouse as soon as news of the George Floyd killing broke. At the end of May the first mass demonstration took place as over a thousand people marched on the courthouse that also contains the police department. The predictably excessive response from inside the building only served to invigorate the local anti-racist campaign and numbers organised by BLM swelled over the next few days.

At the beginning of June, Trump made his infamous Bible-clutching appearance at Lafayette Square, opposite the White House in Washington, tacitly signalling that he would be consciously seeking to spurn a strategy of national reconciliation and instead generate a poisonous atmosphere in American politics. His crass misjudgement catalysed the Portland demonstrations even further and, in an effort to quell the local crisis, a district judge there legislated to ban the use of tear gas by the PD.

Constitutional crisis

The President’s unhinged megalomania could not tolerate this state-level attempt to placate the protesters, however. One of the features of the escalating crisis of US politics under Trump is the hollowing out of the principle of federalism that underpinned the system for centuries. The district judge’s intervention provoked Trump to devise an executive order at the beginning of this month authorising the Department of Homeland Security to protect national monuments – a thinly veiled pretext to use massive force to crush the BLM campaign in Portland and elsewhere. This is the constitutional fig leaf Trump has used to justify the shocking use of snatch squads, sound bombs and pepper balls in the Oregon capital.

Ironically, it was on July 4th,the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, that militarised forces from Trump’s iron heel –otherwise known as the Customs and Border Patrol, the Special Operations Group and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit- descended on Portland to launch random and unprovoked attacks on the civilian population. Many legal commentators have pointed out the protesters are simply exercising their First amendment right to free speech and that Trump’s goons are committing gross violations of the Fourth amendment’s restrictions on the powers of the armed forces of the state. One of his aides memorably noted this President’s tenuous grasp of constitutional detail a few years ago: ‘I got as far as the Fourth Amendment, before his finger is pulling down on his lip and his eyes are rolling back in his head.

Following Trump’s threat to send federal troops to Chicago and other cities, the leaders of six major US cities have asked Congress to make it illegal for the President to send troops to cities where they aren’t welcome.

Gasoline on the fire

Significantly, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Governor Mary both condemned Trump’s power grab. The former even found himself being teargassed by the federal forces when he attempted to show solidarity with the protesters. The verbal clash between these officials and the President highlights the centralisation of federal power under Trump and the weakening of the traditional ability of the states to resist Washington. Referring to an angry conversation with one of Trump’s White House team, Governor Brown said:

‘I told him that the federal government should remove federal officers from our streets. I said it’s like adding gasoline to a fire. I said, ‘We do not want you here, you are exacerbating the situation.’ It provokes confrontation to have federal troops on the streets. This is purely for political purposes. It was clear that they were not interested in conversation. If they were interested in a solution, they would have been willing to deescalate and dialogue. It’s an overstatement and a deliberate effort to provoke. Their presence here escalates the situation, and it is a blatant abuse of power by the federal government.’

Photo: Tony / CC BY 2.0


Moms and Vets

The likes of Brown and Wheeler, however, cannot be relied on to consistently defy the federal forces. As Democrat politicians, their primary concern is not to rock the electoral boat too much ahead of the presidential election in November. Their party boss, Joe Biden, has conspicuously failed to denounce Trump’s militarised response in Portland in fear of looking weak in the eyes of the US political establishment. The best type of resistance has come from the people of the city themselves.

The most impressive and creative reactions on the ground have been the spontaneous appearances of the Wall of Moms and the Wall of Vets. The former is a yellow-shirted line of mothers of young protesters who have taken to the streets every night to shield their sons and daughters from the brutality of Trump’s snatch squads. The latter is a formidable group of local ex-service personnel who have adopted the same technique. One ex-Marine stated he was ‘there to ensure our citizens did not have their right to free speech and their right to protest and right to assemble taken away from them. Our veterans are here to support specifically the rights of the protesters.

These are the type of people that Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, has absurdly denounced as ‘lawless anarchists’ and part of a ‘violent mob’.

Impending implosion

These heroic displays of collective self-organisation on the streets of Portland are an inspiring example for the US left as the country continues to grapple with an unprecedented domestic catastrophe brewed in the White House. Trump’s disastrous handling of the pandemic has now killed 150,000 Americans and his misreading of the police violence issue has only added to the sense of an impending social and economic implosion.

Many political pundits are suggesting a parallel with the 1968 presidential election when another cynical Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, sought to exploit the sense of political dislocation that followed a similar wave of anti-racist protests in urban centres. Trump recently stated he might not accept the result of the November election if he fails to win a second term.

The people of Portland, along with thousands of others in major US cities, will need to remain on the streets for a long time to prevent Jack London’s fictional warning from becoming a reality.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters