Our Opinion: A disastrous intervention in Portland
In these pages, in the past, we've bemoaned the performative jousting between black-clad antifa and camo-wearing Proud Boys — "sound and fury," in the words of William Shakespeare, "signifying nothing."
When people want to dress up and play war in the streets, we have little patience with it. And when Portland's police force has, responding to those past demonstrations, done everything possible to avoid actual violence, we've praised their efforts.
Read our Aug. 21, 2019, editorial on the confrontations between left- and right-wing activists in Portland.
Right now, the situation is different.
For nearly two months, demonstrators have rallied nightly in downtown Portland to demand call for justice for the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other people of color who have died at the hands of police and demand changes in the way that law enforcement is carried out in this city and in this country.
Some of their demands are realistic and should be implemented. Others are more fanciful.
Most demonstrators have been nonviolent and have not committed any crimes. Some have engaged in acts of vandalism, ranging from the relatively minor offense of graffiti to more destructive acts like breaking windows and setting fires. A handful have attacked police with projectiles or lasers.
Despite how some have attempted to portray them, these protesters are not a single group with a single strategy or a single objective.
And it's disturbing that the Trump administration, which has seen fit to barge into this delicate situation and throw its weight around in a city, county and state where its interference is not welcome, can't seem to grasp that nuance.
The justifications that the acting secretary of homeland security, Chad Wolf, and his henchmen have offered have been flimsy at best.
Wolf and his boss, President Donald Trump, claim they've sent federal agents to fire tear gas and flash-bangs in downtown Portland because violent crime is out of control and local authorities haven't done enough to stop it. The list of "violent crimes" Wolf presented to support this decision? Graffiti, graffiti and more graffiti.
Last week, a video went viral showing federal police getting out of an unmarked minivan in downtown Portland, grabbing a person off the street and bundling them into the car before driving off. No name tags were visible. No explanation was given. No probable cause was seen in the video.
Read Oregon Public Broadcasting's story on the federal government's use of unmarked vehicles to seize and detain civilians in Portland, originally published online July 16, 2020.
Responding to public outcry and demands for answers from elected officials, U.S. Customs and Border Protection released a statement claiming its agents were menaced by "a large and violent mob" — again, nowhere in evidence in this video — and that's why they felt the need to abduct this person and shove them into the back of a rental car.
Even after a series of what could charitably be described as public relations disasters for the feds — including an unarmed protester being shot in the head with an "impact munition," fracturing his skull; a 53-year-old U.S. Navy veteran being beaten with batons and pepper-sprayed by federal agents, leaving him with a broken hand; and a "wall of moms" being tear-gassed by police in front of the federal courthouse — Wolf and Trump have doubled down this week, vowing to carry out similar deployments in other cities led by "liberal Democrats."
Federal police strike protester with baton, use pepper spray and tear gas outside courthouse in Portland pic.twitter.com/VX2xTVaaYq— Zane Sparling (@PDXzane) July 19, 2020
It seems this and nearly every other editorial page in America has worn out this refrain over the past three and a half years, but this is not normal, and this is not how our country is supposed to work.
The president of the United States of America is not supposed to send paramilitary forces to occupy cities and rough up citizens because they're governed by the opposition party.
Combat fatigues, armored vehicles and heavy weapons do not belong on the streets of American cities.
Federal agents are not empowered to grab Americans off the street and toss them in the back of an unmarked vehicle.
We wrote a few weeks ago that you can't squash a protest movement against police brutality with more police brutality. Even as Wolf and Trump boast about how they will "quell" the protests in Portland, the crowd have gotten larger and louder night after night. It turns out that when you tear-gas a wall of moms, they will come back later with more moms and form a bigger wall.
This isn't going to end the way that Wolf and Trump want it to end.
This is not going to end with "antifa leaders" surrendering on the courthouse steps. This is not going to end with the wall of moms publicly disavowing the civil rights movement. This is not going to end with the Portland City Council promising to let police do whatever they want, with no civilian oversight.
This is going to end with the federal government withdrawing its little green men from Portland.
Yes, it is upsetting and frustrating to have nightly unrest in the downtown area. It's dismaying to see a beloved symbol like the elk statue have to be taken down because some demonstrators have seen fit to express themselves through vandalism or even violence. It's expensive for the city, and it's expensive for the state, to deal with this situation.
But as we've been saying, this is not a one-way street. These protests have not taken place in a vacuum. They have a clear cause. Although they have several different objectives, their overarching goal is to end police brutality and the systemic mistreatment of Black people, Indigenous people and people of color.
And the police force — the same police force that we previously praised for finding creative solutions to keep the peace when the Proud Boys and their far-right fellow travelers were in town — has responded on many nights with excessive and indiscriminate force. That force can break up a crowd, but it won't keep them from coming back the next night with the same demands.
It's up to the locals to break the cycle. Leaders in Portland, Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard, Forest Grove and beyond need to listen to the people and make responsible decisions that protect the community and ensure their residents' rights. Police need to de-escalate and disengage instead of declaring a riot at the drop of a hat and charging in with nightsticks raised. And once that happens, activists ought to be ready to be part of the change for which they have been organizing, coming to the table with ideas and working through the democratic process to better our society.
But in order for that to transpire, the federal government must withdraw. It must respect and uphold the Constitution. It must stop harassing and assaulting Oregonians. It must stop play-acting a war in the streets. It must stop laying siege to an American city.
This isn't going to end the way that Wolf and Trump want it to end. But it can end soon. It's up to them. And history is watching.
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