In the last two weeks, Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that there are “many, many people in jail right now—many, many people in jail, all over the country” for attempting to topple Confederate statues. And then there was the sequence from Trump’s appearance on Thursday, in which he promised, “many exciting things … Things that nobody has even contemplated, thought about, thought possible, and things that we’re going to get done … we can honestly say nobody has ever going to see eight weeks like we’re going to have.” He continued, “We’re going to get things done that they’ve wanted to see done for a long, long time.”
Trump did not say who “they” were, but it’s not hard to guess what the things are. Because a day earlier, Trump made it clear that one of the “detailed” and “thoughtful” things he has planned for next week is a federal takeover of multiple cities from “the left-wing group of people” that voters have elected as governors, mayors, and other local leaders. “Next week, we’re going to have, I think, a very exciting news conference because we’re going to be talking about some of these cities that — where the Democrats running them have just lost control of the cities. So that’ll be very interesting.”
Interesting … may not be the right word.
On Saturday morning, it did seem as if the national media had finally noticed that Portland, Oregon exists. Video of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler demanding the removal of uninvited federal troops from his city’s streets appeared on multiple broadcasts, as did video of those unidentified federal forces kidnapping people off the street and forcing them into unmarked vans.
The New York Times has detailed the last fifty days of protests and unrest in Portland. The article does a good job explaining the many steps between the protests against police violence and systemic racism that grew in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, and how those protests eventually led to unarmed protesters being shot in the face by federal officers. That story includes a spiral of protest actions, over-response from police, escalation of tensions, and events such as a July 4th exchange with protesters directing fireworks toward the federal courthouse while police returned a hail of rubber-coated bullets, pepper balls and tear gas … for three hours.
But the biggest takeaway of “how did we get here” when it comes to unidentified men in camo dragging people into vans, or blasting them in the face, is simple: Donald Trump wants it that way.
A year ago, it might have seemed possible that Donald Trump could be reelected, based on the complacency of a white America willing to overlook—or reward—three years of racism and corruption in exchange for an extra nickel on their paychecks and the satisfaction of knowing they had a leader who was making white supremacy fashionable again. But with COVID-19 revealing just how impossibly weak Donald Trump’s leadership really is, and coming off a year in which Trump’s impeachment brought a cascade of testimony to his pettiness and insecurity, any concept that Trump might hold onto power in anything resembling a normal election is out the window.
If the American people can go to the polls, or even better, mail in a ballot, to select their choice in November, Trump will lose in all but a handful of the most blood red states. In fact, his slide over the last month has been so precipitous, it’s hard to predict that any state is unthinkable in the fall.
Trump knows this. In response, he’s going with what has always worked for him in the past—racism, the shock doctrine, and fear. Trump intends to sell his followers on a vision of America where Democratic states and cities are not just less important than red states, but a threat to real Americans. A threat that must be dealt with. What’s going on in Portland right now is the prototype for Trump’s America.
As the Times article—and the mayor, and the governor, and everyone on the scene—makes clear, the presence of federal forces in Portland has greatly escalated the violence and tension in the city. It’s only since these forces appeared on the scene that “it’s gotten really brutal.” That’s because the federal forces have no respect for the usual tension and back-and-forth that exists between protesters, even the most peaceful protesters, and police. Here’s a scene in downtown Portland from a week ago.
Last Saturday, the crowd was 100 or so. It was very chill—nothing going on beyond the now-normal occupation of the Justice Center. And feds came out grabbing people seemingly at random and beating people with sticks. There was the kid who got shot in the head and his skull was fractured.
The federal forces didn’t just shoot an unarmed student in the head. They shot the relationship between the police and the protesters. They blew away an already tentative sense of cause and effect. They made it clear that there are no rules. Anyone could be hurt at any time for any thing. Or for nothing.
This is not accidental. In both the protests in Washington D. C. and what’s going on in Portland, the forces sent in by Trump, Attorney General William Barr, and acting Director of Homeland Security Chad Wolf are people completely untrained in dealing with either public demonstrations or even normal law enforcement. These are ass-kickers, and they’ve been sent in to kick ass.
They are not there to make things better. They are very, very much there to make things worse.
And they’re being successful. Early on in the sequence of protests in Portland, a man called “Legend” started providing free food to protesters. His efforts got him tear gassed, but the community response ended up allowing him to create an always-open spot where anyone—protester, homeless, or just hungry—could come in for a free plate of food. The community rallied around him, local merchants provided supplies, voluntary contributions covered all the costs. Other services grew up around “Riot Ribs,” including free medical care, and even help in finding jobs and homes for those on the streets. But after the federal forces smashed the unspoken agreement between the police and protesters, the location was stormed, Legend and everyone else involved was driven away or arrested, and all the donated food was confiscated. A fence was put up to make sure no one could come back. The relationship between the police and protesters went way down. The chance of violence … through the roof.
This is exactly the kind of outcome Trump is going for. It does Trump no good to have people sitting around sharing food, helping their community, and planning for the future. He needs there to be violence. So he, and Barr, and Wolf, are creating it. They have no intention on stopping with Portland. The United States is currently undergoing the greatest crisis it has faced in a century. At the same time, it is wrestling with the greatest reconsideration of civil rights in half a century. Trump has no interest in dealing with the former, and nothing but distaste for the latter. He’s creating a crisis on top of crisis on top of a crisis because … racism and fear. In the end, it’s all he ever brought to the game.
Fox News and right wing sources are already selling their audience on a vision of America in which blue states and cities are in “anarchy” and where violence “demands” a federal presence. It fits exactly with their claims that had the gun-waving couple in St. Louis not directed a military weapon at passing protesters, they would have been “murdered” and their house “would be ashes.” They mean to make violence not just understandable, but inevitable.
Trump means to send federal forces to Chicago, and Seattle, and anywhere else he can think of, explicitly to insert the chaos and violence that justifies taking even more federal control. And it would not be too much to believe that action is headed toward something very like a declaration of martial law, or a federalization of police forces.
However, there is one thing that can slow Trump’s action: Visibility. The right wing has been getting a stream of “antifa violence” fed to them 24/7 since the George Floyd protests began. They’re plenty ready for Trump to crack some skulls and shoot some protesters. What happened to John Lewis on that bridge in Selma may have shocked the nation, but Trump supporters are eagerly waiting to see that kind of bloodshed on their screens. Every note of racism and fear has been played to not just make them want it, but feel like they need it.
There has to be more visibility for everyone else. A momentary blip on the news, 50 days into protests and over a week after federal forces blew apart the situation, is far from enough. What’s happening in Portland needs to be elevated not just because it’s frightening, and a huge threat to America, but because when it’s seen up close, the intention is also obvious, crude, and even more than a little ludicrous.
Mayor Wheeler has forcefully renewed his call for the withdrawal of federal forces. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has made it clear that Trump is “looking for a confrontation” in hopes of turning violence in Portland into votes in Ohio or Michigan. Even the U. S. Attorney for the District of Oregon has called for an investigation into an action that his boss has played a major role in organizing (So don’t be surprised to hear about another U. S. attorney “resigning”).
But the most important thing at the moment may be to elevate the videos and reports from those on the ground. To join in saying that this is unacceptable. And to make it clear to Donald Trump that you see what he is doing.