Portland, Ore. — To watch Fox News is to learn from Sean Hannity that the “Rose City” of Portland is “like a war zone” that has been, in Tucker Carlson’s words, “destroyed by the mob.”
So I invite Hannity and Carlson to escape their bubbles and visit Portland, Oregon, stroll along the Willamette River and enjoy a glass of local pinot noir. They’ll be safe — unless they venture at night into the two blocks beside the federal courthouse.
Citizens need to be vigilant there, for armed groups periodically storm the streets to attack peaceful visitors. I’m talking, of course, about the uninvited federal forces.
I’ve watched them fire round after round of tear gas, along with occasional rubber bullets or other projectiles. They even repeatedly tear-gassed Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, who has demanded that they go home, leaving him blinded and coughing on his own streets.
“They knocked the hell out of him,” President Donald Trump boasted on Fox News. “That was the end of him.”
Trump is pretending that he is bringing law and order to chaotic streets, and now he has dispatched similar troops — what else can you call a militarized force like this but “troops”? — to Seattle, where that city’s mayor has also said they are unwanted. Yet if Trump is actually trying to establish order, he is stunningly incompetent. The ruthlessness of the federal forces has inflamed the protests, bringing huge throngs of Portlanders out to protect their city from those they see as jackbooted federal thugs.
“Their presence here escalates,” Kate Brown, Oregon’s governor, told me. “It throws gasoline on the fire.”
Brown noted that the federal troops may also be breaking the law. “We cannot have secret police abducting people into unmarked vehicles,” she said. “This is a democracy and not a dictatorship.”
The paradox is that Oregon is simultaneously begging for federal assistance to address a real threat: the coronavirus pandemic. Brown said she has been pleading for COVID-19 tests and for personal protective equipment, but the federal government has rebuffed the state.
“It’s appalling to me that they are using federal taxpayer dollars for political theater and making no effort to really keep our communities safe,” Brown said.
So let’s be real: Trump isn’t trying to quell violence in Portland. No, he’s provoking it to divert attention from 140,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States. Once again, he’s tear-gassing peaceful protesters to generate a photo op — and he’s doing this every night in downtown Portland. This is a reckless campaign tactic to bolster his own narrative as a law-and-order candidate, a replay of Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign theme.
It is true that some protesters are violent. Some start small trash fires. Others paint graffiti, including “Kill pigs” and “Kill cops,” or hurl water bottles or firecrackers at federal agents. Some protesters point lasers at officers, and in one case a man allegedly hit an agent with a hammer.
Such violence is wrong and plays into Trump’s narrative. Rep. John Lewis, who died earlier this month, showed how much more powerful it is for changemakers to endure violence than to commit it.
But it’s also true that the vast majority of those in the crowds each evening are peaceful. They sing about racial justice, chant “Feds out now” and try to protect their city from violent intruders dispatched by Trump.
The protesters — including a “Wall of Moms” who turn out each night to lock arms and shield protesters — protect themselves with bicycle helmets and umbrellas, while suburbanites bring leaf blowers to dispel tear gas (this works surprisingly well). Medics attend to the injured, and cleanup crews collect litter.
“They have guns; I have an umbrella,” said a protester named Jackie — who added that she was fearful of the government and did not want her last name published. That’s common in dictatorships, but I find it ineffably sad to breathe tear gas in my beloved home state and to interview Americans with such fears of their own leaders.
On the streets, I have no fear of the protesters (except when they pull their face masks down to shout slogans, risking the spread of COVID-19), but it’s prudent to worry about the troops. In a few weeks, they:
— fired “less lethal” munition at a peaceful protester named Donavan La Bella, fracturing his skull and requiring facial reconstruction surgery. Video shows that the shot was unprovoked.
— clubbed a Navy veteran, Christopher J. David, as he tried to ask federal agents how they squared their actions with the Constitution.
— allegedly sexually assaulted a lawyer who had been arrested after taking part in the “Wall of Moms.”
An iconic moment came when a woman known as Naked Athena confronted the troops while wearing only a hat and face mask. Her naked vulnerability as armed troops fired pepper balls at her feet underscored the absurdity of Trump’s narrative that he is “protecting” anything.
Beware. What you’re seeing in Portland may be coming to other cities. After all, Trump’s verdict on the troops: “In Portland, they’ve done a fantastic job.”