Feeling pretty mentally fried at the moment – so forgive me if this is not super concise or coherent – but I wanted to share some general musings on what is currently happening in Portland. I’ve been a little hesitant to post firsthand accounts in the past months because protesters are being targeted by surveillance, and because I remain unsure whether centering my own experiences is constructive. However, as things continue to escalate, I think it is important for people to hear what is going on from trusted personal sources. (Especially those folks who still partially cling to the idea that police keep society safe.)
Despite the ‘violent mob’ narrative, the BLM protests in Portland have been deeply inspiring. I have been consistently moved by the wealth of resources and knowledge that people bring – from medics to de-escalation teams to ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters to folks providing food, protective equipment, and educational resources. The community continues to evolve and adapt. These gatherings have exemplified the beauty and efficacy of mutual aid and horizontal organization.
Calling protestors ‘violent’ while refusing to place that label on the cops who attack them night after night is misleading and harmful. Every single instance of physical violence against human beings that I have witnessed at these protests has been at the hands of the police. When the cops do not engage with protesters, people remain safe. Characterizing victims of police brutality as ‘criminal’ and ‘threaten- ing’ in order to justify the exorbitant violence deployed against them is a framework deeply rooted in white supremacy. It is one of the ways the justice system has man- aged to maintain public complacency for decades as police disproportionately harass and murder Black civilians. This language has to stop. Please question the narrative and whom it serves.
The more recent presence of federal officers has dramatically escalated the violence that PPD was already perpetrating against protesters (and it should not be lost on anyone that those protesters are quite literally protesting police brutality and violence inflicted by systemic racism). In the past months I have experienced PPD officers repeatedly bull rushing and forcibly dispersing crowds (who posed absolutely no threat to public safety), assaulting protesters, and regularly deploying tear gas, stun grenades, mace, pepper balls, and rubber bullets. They have demonstrated time and time again that they are willing to label any form of civil disobedience as ‘vio- lence’ in order to justify their own brutal/escalatory tactics. While the marches and gatherings that I have attended in parks and residential areas have had little to no police presence (and have therefore remained safe), any protest that is adjacent to a police precinct, courthouse, or union building has been unilaterally met with violence instigated by police (and now federal) officers. The nightly protests downtown are now regularly tear gassed to the point that a dense fog of CS gas spans multiple city blocks, and the powder builds up in clumps on the ground. The sensation of tear gas reacting with your eyes, face, throat, and lungs combined with the auditory backdrop of gunfire and grenade detonation, all while being pursued by a wall of cops in riot gear, is disconcerting to say the least. Even leaving the protests feels fraught – at night, police cars (and now feds in rental cars) circle the neighborhoods surrounding the demonstrations downtown, and target anyone who looks like they have been protest- ing. Protest is integral to protecting human rights and ensuring healthy democracy, and should be protected as such. The local and federal responses are both telling and profoundly concerning.
The police have been increasingly flagrant in violently enforcing their own perceived absolute power. While I have to hope/believe that there will be repercussions for their actions, it is abundantly clear that the system is rigged in their favor. In late June, Gov. Kate Brown signed a law that banned tear gas except in situations that police declare to be a riot. Since then, the police have declared essentially any gather- ing they wish to disperse a ‘riot’ so that they can deploy tear gas. Reform doesn’t work if it is implemented by and at the discretion of the people that are being ‘reformed.’ In my eyes, any attempts at police reform are purely symbolic if the power structures that give cops authoritarian control remain in place. Reform without accountability is completely hollow. Our law enforcement system as it currently exists (and has always existed for that matter) is far beyond reform – there is an urgent need to reimagine what we as a society do to keep one another safe. Just because this is how it has been does not mean it is the only way forward.
The arsenal of physical weapons and psychological tactics being used against folks who are fighting for basic human rights shows how desperately both law enforcement and the federal government want to squash this movement. The police continue to frame protesters as some sort of violent career anarchists and vandals. They seek to obscure the fact that the crowds they are attacking are made up of concerned res- idents who have gathered to protest violence inflicted on Black communities by the police and the U.S. criminal justice system at large. Law enforcement doesn’t want to say the quiet part out loud: that what they are really – desperately, violently – protecting is their own power, which both upholds and is upheld by white supremacy at the core of their organization.
It is not lost on me that this is my first experience with police violence in 25 years of being alive, and that if I weren’t choosing to attend these protests I would have essentially no reason to fear for my safety in relation to the police. As a white person, and especially as a white cis woman, I recognize my life is deemed worthy of protection by the U.S. criminal justice system, even as I openly dissent. Many of the protesters who show up night after night do not have that layer of security, and I want folks to understand how much people are personally risking (both physically and psychologically) by showing up and fighting back. This is not a militant mob. Community members are risking everything despite immense vulnerability.
It is also worth reiterating that the police/feds are heedlessly using CS gas (which induces coughing, increased airway mucus production, and lasting breathing difficulty) in the midst of a pandemic spread by respiratory droplets. They force crowds into close quarters, preventing safe distancing. They do not protect or serve us, let’s not pretend otherwise.
So, I guess all this to say think critically, stay engaged, and do not let the current state of things limit your vision of a better future.