Videos and images from the latest protests in Portland show that demonstrators have diversified their tactics in their ongoing clashes with local police and federal security agents, making use of a wide range of equipment and items to (1) protect themselves against the efforts of the police and federal security agents to force them to disperse, (2) disorient and confuse the security forces, (3) attempt to take over or damage the federal courthouse, which has become the focal point for the protestors’ wrath following the controversial deployment of federal agents to the city by the Trump administration.
The Oregon city has been the site of ongoing protests following the killing of George Floyd by police on 25 May. The situation intensified after additional federal officers were deployed there in early July to crack down on protesters. While Trump has accused the protesters of being “anarchists” who “hate our country,” many state and local officials characterize them as being mostly peaceful and exercising their legal right to protest issues including police brutality and racial injustice.
After more than 50 days of often violent and destructive protests and demonstrations, there is no sign of improvement in the overall situation in Portland. Amid ongoing escalation by both sides, the diversity of tactics and implements deployed by protestors, including lasers, strobe lights and in one case an electric saw used by a group attempting to storm the federal courthouse, is examined in a report by RT. LINK
In terms of the latest developments in Portland, security forces arrested at least 28 people over the last week, including seven people arrested during protests on Thursday night when police and federal agents used tear gas to force thousands of demonstrators from crowding around the courthouse. Protesters projected lasers on the officers protecting the building and tried to take down a security fence. They eventually scattered as clouds of tear gas and other crowd control munitions were fired by security forces.
The Department of Homeland Security said that during Thursday’s demonstrations one federal officer was injured and that “no injuries to protesters or rioters have been reported.”
Thousands of people gathered in Portland streets for another night of protests Friday, the same day a US judge denied Oregon’s request to restrict federal agents’ actions when they arrest people. By 8pm a few hundred people stood near the fountain on Salmon Street Springs, one of the locations where groups meet before marching to the Hatfield Federal Courthouse and the federal agents there.
Among various organized groups, including Healthcare Workers Protest, Teachers against Tyrants, Lawyers for Black Lives and the “Wall of Moms,” was Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who spoke to protesters outside the Justice Centre.
By 9:40 p.m. crowds of people, pressed shoulder to shoulder, packed the streets chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Feds go home” as they carried signs and marched to the courthouse.
Earlier in the week (on Tuesday) a spokesperson said that at least 43 people had been arrested by federal security agents at that point. They face federal charges including assaulting federal officers, arson and damaging federal property, US Attorney Billy J. Williams said. All the defendants are from Portland and were released after making a court appearance.
The respective positions of those in favour of and opposed to the deployment of federal forces in the city can be summarized as follows:
Before the federal intervention, Mayor Ted Wheeler and other local leaders had said a small cadre of violent activists were drowning out the message of peaceful protesters. But the Democrat, who was tear-gassed this week as he joined protesters, says the federal presence is exacerbating a tense situation and he’s repeatedly told them (federal security forces) to leave.
Homeland Security acting Secretary Chad Wolf denied that federal agents were inflaming the situation in Portland and said Wheeler legitimized criminality by joining demonstrators, whom Trump has called “anarchists and agitators.” LINK
An activist and committee member with the Portland General Defense Committee, which provides financial and legal support to protesters, including posting bail, says protesters are being released relatively quickly because of the coronavirus.
The Portland General Defense Committee reported last Monday that at least 423 people have been arrested in Black Lives Matter protests since May 29 and that almost all of them have been bailed out.
The source says they are seeing a lot of protesters who are being arrested for the first time. The volunteer-run group also manages a hotline to document complaints involving law enforcement, talk through traumatic experiences and refer them to appropriate resources.
Based on the complaints he has heard and from his observations at protests, the Portland General Defense Committee source says that “federal law enforcement is incredibly aggressive,” even more so than local police, “which is already intense and aggressive.” Portland police said they had no comment on this characterization.
The inspectors general for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have announced that they have opened investigations into federal officers’ response to Portland’s protests. The action comes after a request from several Oregon Democrats in Congress (Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici) for a formal inquiry into “the unrequested presence and violent actions of recently deployed federal forces in Portland.” The chairs of the Judiciary, Homeland Security and Oversight committees subsequently issued a joint statement welcoming the news of the investigations.
The Oregon delegation has also introduced an accountability measure in Congress that would require agents’ uniforms to display information about an individual’s identity and agency affiliation, prevent the use of unmarked vehicles in arrests, add restrictions to federal agents’ ability to conduct crowd control activities to “federal property and its immediate vicinity” and ensure that the numbers and reasons why personnel are deployed are made clear on an agency website within 24 hours of deployment.
Oregon’s governor, attorney general and several Democrats in Congress, as well as Portland’s mayor, have all condemned the presence of federal officers in Portland.
Governor Kate Brown said in a tweet Thursday that she told Wolf “that the federal government should remove all federal officers from our streets.” She accused Trump of “looking for a confrontation in Oregon in the hopes of winning political points in Ohio or Iowa.”
The Office of the Inspector General for the DHS said in a separate letter that it is investigating allegations relating to a specific July 15 incident “in which DHS law enforcement personnel improperly detained and transported protesters in Portland.” The agency also indicated a broader investigation would be underway and a multi-disciplinary team would be created to “examine DHS’ deployment of law enforcement personnel to Portland.”
DHS has accused protesters of setting fires and trying to “injure or kill federal officers” by “launching projectiles, including commercial grade fireworks and bags of paint,” at them and “targeting their eyes with laser weapons.”
Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) also addressed a widely shared video that showed a protester being picked up by federal agents in an unmarked van.
The agency said they had reason to suspect the person in an unspecified video was “suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property” and that as they approached the person, “a large and violent mob moved towards their location.”
CBP said that the person was quickly taken to “a safer location for further questioning.” It said that the CBP agents did identify themselves but acknowledged that their names were not displayed on their uniform.
Responding to allegations of excessive force against protestors, Portland police said in a press release that people attempted to break into the federal courthouse and lit fires downtown on Monday night (last week).
They said “dozens” of people “pounded on and began breaking the plywood covering the west side of the building,” using “hammers, crowbars and other pry tools.” Just after midnight, federal law enforcement “began dispersing the crowd using a variety of munitions,” the police statement said. Portland police also reported Sunday that people had broken into the Portland Police Association and lit the building on fire.
Acting secretary of DHS Chad Wolf condemned the events in Portland on July 16, saying the city has “been under siege” by a “violent mob while local political leaders refuse to restore order to protect their city.”
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum sued DHS, CBP, the Marshals Service and the Federal Protection Service last week in connection with the seizing of protesters from the street, “alleging they have engaged in unlawful law enforcement in violation of the civil rights of Oregonians by seizing and detaining them without probable cause.” The case was dismissed late last week on technical grounds.
The ACLU has also sued the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service “for their unconstitutional attacks on people protesting the police killing of George Floyd.”
The ACLU had already sued Portland police for using excessive force and Friday’s action adds federal agents to the lawsuit.
The ACLU also said in a statement Thursday that the investigation launched by an internal watchdog for the DOJ was “a start, but not enough.” They argued that the DOJ “must immediately appoint an outside special prosecutor to investigate” and potentially prosecute crimes to “help ensure full accountability.”
The Trump Administration, including the President and DHS leadership, has consistently generalized all protesters as being “violent anarchists assaulting federal officers and damaging federal property,” despite video evidence that law enforcement has in some instances harmed protesters who are not provoking them.
Trump has vowed to send federal troops to more US cities as federal and local authorities clash over how to handle protests. Federal officers from various US agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Marshals Service and Customs and Border Protection, remain in Portland despite resistance from state and local leadership.
Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Portland mayor Ted Wheeler have asked federal officers to leave and said they will not cooperate with them. Wheeler was tear gassed by federal officers Wednesday night while he was out protesting. He called their response an “egregious overreaction” and said they were “engaging in urban warfare.”
The mayors of major cities — Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Portland and Washington D.C. — sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Acting Secretary of DHS Chad Wolf Monday objecting to the “deployment of federal forces” in their cities, which they said would be both unconstitutional and unprecedented.
“In Portland, (federal authorities’) actions have escalated events and increased the risk of violence against both civilians and local law enforcement officers,” the letter states. It also notes that “federal forces have not been trained for urban community policing, including critical crowd management and de-escalation techniques” and that they lack oversight. LINK
While there are also many important differences, in some respects the scenes in Portland and elsewhere in the US resemble those produced during the ‘guarimba’ protests that rocked Venezuela and left much of the country paralysed for several years, particularly the capital Caracas, as violent mobs took over many parts of the city and took to attacking passers-by, looting and destroying public property as they deliberately generated violence and terror in an attempt to increase pressure on the Venezuelan Government and make the country ungovernable.
In this sense they can be distinguished from social protests that have occurred in some other Latin American countries, where on numerous occasions groups of well-organized protestors have taken over State (or corporate) properties, buildings and offices and occupied them without causing damage, looting or attacking people, in order to force authorities to negotiate over specific demands and objectives.
There are some signs of strategic planning and organization with specific demands and objectives among some sectors within the protest movement in Portland and elsewhere in the US (beyond the simplistic calls to end racism and police oppression, which are important but which arguably are simply symptoms of a deeper malaise). However, they have been overwhelmed by the outbreaks of violence, destruction and looting in which it becomes increasingly difficult to identify cause and effect, victims and culprits.
There is ample evidence to demonstrate that there are many of each (victims and culprits) from each side (protestors and security forces): in many cases, protestors or groups of delinquents are clearly out to cause trouble and the authorities have no alternative but to respond with force. In others, the forces of ‘law and order’ have clearly attacked protestors who are acting in an orderly manner. In most cases however, such aspects cannot be determined with confidence and the details will remain lost in the wider ‘information war’, confusion and deliberate disinformation operations.
Some media reports or outlets clearly hold the protestors, flash mobs and more or less organized delinquents and provocateurs responsible for the social breakdown (see, for example, ‘Portland protests have no goal except violence and anarchy’). Others place the blame on local police and federal security forces (for example, ‘Violence mars Portland protests, frustrates Black community’).
Probably the most important difference from the ‘guarimba’ protests in Venezuela mentioned above is that in the case of Venezuela, the number of protagonists is much more limited, their objectives are clear, and events have followed a consistent course over many years the contours of which are relatively well documented and understood by those who have been paying attention. There are two established focal points for the belligerents in Venezuela; one is ‘Chavismo’, based on the legacy of Hugo Chavez and Simon Bolivar – national liberation, independence (from domination and exploitation by the US and international financial capital), regional solidarity with other countries in Latin America, and ‘socialism for the twenty-first century’.
The second focal point is made up of a core formed around the traditional elitist ruling classes in Venezuela and the US Embassy, operating through the traditional political parties, US ‘aid’ and ‘pro-democracy’ foundations, large corporations (Venezuelan and foreign – not all of them, but many), and flash mobs and provocateurs recruited from among the masses of unemployed youths in Venezuela (or paramilitary groups sub-contracted from Colombia for the more heavy duty assignments of generating chaos, violence and terror).
These political factions and interest groups count on the support of a core of around 30% of Venezuelans, many of whom either oppose the objectives of ‘Chavismo’ generally or are simply fed up with the widespread corruption that continues to heavily affect many State institutions and the economy and/ or Venezuela’s isolation from the ‘international community’ (i.e. the US punitive sanctions). Numerous well researched documentaries have examined developments in Venezuela in considerable detail (see, for example, ‘Venezuela: The Revolution will not be televised’, and ‘Venezuela: The anatomy of a coup’).
In the case of the US however, there is a huge variety of interest groups, social sectors and political factions involved, both domestic and foreign, the nature and extent of their participation and their objectives often are not clear, and the historical background factors and contours influencing recent developments are more diffuse notwithstanding that some specific details are apparent.
Those groups typically described as ‘left-wing’ (though they have nothing in common with ‘left-wing’ social movements and political factions in Latin America), and accused by Trump and many others of being the cause of the violence, looting and widespread social breakdown in most areas, include Black Lives Matter and Antifa.
Given their decentralized and diffuse structures, it is very difficult to evaluate the extent to which their leadership, to the extent they have a leadership, may have deliberately set out on a course of generating violence and chaos, whether to increase pressure on the government, as a negotiating ploy, with subversive intent, or for other reasons. Or whether they may have been infiltrated by other groups to discredit them or manipulate their objectives and activities.
While many of the ‘right-wing’ militias have made their positions, objectives and structures clear, and in many cases seem to be acting in accordance with their stated objectives and principles, it is also possible that some members or autonomous groups are taking advantage of the situation to throw fuel on the fire in order to raise the stakes in the social and political crisis, increase polarization and force the pace of change. (See, for example, the background report, ‘Leader of ultra-right militia predicts end of US and warns of civil war’)
Many of the most prominent Democrats and Republicans, whether in the White House administration, the Congress, or at the state or local level, are much more interested in grand-standing and scoring political points than in resolving the situation as quickly and effectively as possible.
It remains unclear the extent to which other actors are involved or attempting to manipulate developments in their favour – as yet there do not appear to be convincing, evidence-based reports suggesting some type of large scale foreign or domestic ‘colour revolution’-type mastermind orchestrating events. (See, however, this report by Veterans Today).
The established or emerging social movements and other manifestations of civil society and interest groups in the US seem overwhelmed by events, ill-prepared and ill-equipped to influence ongoing developments whether at the local, regional or national level.
While events to date don’t provide much grounds for optimism, if some of the numerous inquiries and investigations that have been established can proceed in an impartial and professional manner it may yet be possible to unravel what has occurred and provide a constructive basis to move forward.
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