Portland: Where elections and protests meet in the United States

September 30, 2020
Protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Portland Oregon on July 22. Photo: Tedder CC BY-SA 4.0

Portland entered the 100th straight day of protests connected to the Black Lives Matter movement this month, and finally Portland’s mayor joined hands with the governor to solve the crisis. Not by taking action to address the widely-shared grievances against law enforcement, but to deliver a movement deathblow aimed at protesters.

The quietly coordinated move allowed Oregon State Troopers to be federally deputised, essentially making them Trump’s Troopers. Such a bold move by Oregon’s liberal executives — in arguably one of the bluest states in the country — is comparable to treason.

Weeks earlier, when thousands of protesters confronted Trump’s feds at the “Battle of Portland”, the mayor and governor won much public acclaim by decrying Trump’s tactics. And when a “ceasefire” was negotiated between Oregon’s politicians and the president, the public wasn’t told of a key provision — the bait and switch that substituted Trump’s feds for Oregon’s federally deputised state troopers.

Additionally appalling is that state troopers were deputised, in large part, to circumvent the powers of Portland’s newly-elected district attorney, Mike Schmidt, who won in a landslide on a progressive platform that included limiting the prosecution of protesters.

Now the Trump administration is deciding what arrests get prosecuted in federal court, and local democracy gets curtailed in favour of Trumpism, fully backed by the “progressive” mayor and governor. The Oregon State Police, recognising the jurisdictional conflict, told the media: “We respect the authority of the [Portland] district attorney, but to meet the Governor’s charge of bringing violence to an end we will use all lawful methods at our disposal.”

Trumpism matures amid crisis

Prior to COVID-19 and the rebirth of Black Lives Matter, the alt-right movement of “Trumpism” was still in its infancy, crawling, capable of the occasional mobilisation in a strategically-picked liberal city, with the goal of gaining notoriety through media attention.

This tactic, while initially effective, had arguably run its course. At the beginning of this year, the alt-right was at a low ebb, while the left had a brimming overconfidence connected to the Bernie Sanders campaign and later bolstered by the Black Lives Matter uprising. 

But the protests triggered by the death of George Floyd incited a backlash from the far right, helping to coalesce a formerly scattered group. Trumpism entered a new stage of development, finally learning to walk. They are no longer simply a flock defending their messiah, but pursuing a distinct politics that could objectively be called “proto-fascism”, the predecessor movement and ideas that directly lead to actual fascism.

A key part in their recent maturity has been ideological: militia groups now see themselves engaged in a direct struggle with a specific brand of leftism, as opposed to the formerly vague enemy of “liberalism” — the fuzzy political lines are quickly being solidified. Rhetoric increasingly used by Trump himself calls Antifa “terrorists” and primarily blames “Marxists” and “socialists” for the fundamental threat to “law and order” triggered by nationwide protests.

Critical to the new stage of Trumpism is that a broader layer of supporters have been drawn into the struggle, themselves radicalised by the radically-changing world around them. Their legitimate fears — the pandemic, subsequent economic crisis, extreme weather, etc. — have been irrationally funnelled into an obsession with “Antifa” and “looters” (a dog whistle for Black people) and a more-populist obsession with law and order.

Lastly, and especially dangerous, is that Trumpism matured with bloodshed. When Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protestors in Kenosha the broader movement closed ranks around him, whereas before, murderers were only embraced by open white supremacists. And when Trump’s feds later assassinated Michael Reinoehl — after his killing of an alt-right activist during a pro-Trump rally — Trumpism took another violent step to the right, condoning and even cheerleading the state-sponsored assassination.

The media reaction to these killings has set the stage for increased bloodshed while bolstering the image and platforms of the regional fascist groups already using violent tactics. If one wants to assault or even kill protestors — a suddenly-respectable hobby — there are pre-existing groups eager for recruits.

Luckily for the left, the fascist forces are still largely unorganised, have poor leadership and have no political program aside from being pro-Trump and anti-Antifa/BLM. What base they have among the working class — who aren’t hardened racists — can be stolen from them, which was evident from the Sanders’ campaign that many Trump-leaning voters supported.

But momentum is on the side of the far-right, which is brimming with confidence at a moment of deflation for the left. The political moment is still dynamic though currently moving in the wrong direction.

Given the various crises gripping the country it’s safe to assume that shifts in political momentum will zigzag from right to left and back, as the political crisis deepens alongside the economic crisis. The clear inability of the centrist establishment (of both parties) to cope with the evolving world around them will continue to fuel more radical solutions from the margins as the political middle collapses.

The battle for public opinion

The right-wing backlash against Black Lives Matter is fed, in part, by the shifting sentiments of the broader public. In Portland, local polling still shows broad support for the protests, but there have been growing complaints fuelled by the media about protest tactics and endless talk about the need for “law and order”. Although they’ve been overwhelmingly peaceful, the media primarily focuses on the exceptional bouts of protester violence while minimising the motorforce of violence at protests, the police.

The media is able to do this, in part, because the protests regularly devolve into a game of cat and mouse with police, which is understandable given that the police regularly brutalise protestors. Instead of focusing on movement demands, street clashes with police become the focus. And in these situations the establishment wins, which is why they continually deploy riot police, whose goal is to disrupt, disperse, and distract from the issues by deploying large doses of repression and fear.

When the public watches these skirmishes on TV and there are no visible, popular demands on banners or picket signs, the establishment narrative goes unchallenged. Complicating things is that many of the smaller and more radical protests are organised around a central demand to “abolish the police”, an issue incapable of mobilising the broader public — in turn making protesters more vulnerable to police repression.

The mayor and governor, expressing the interests of the business community, feel comfortable with the concessions they’ve made to the movement because they no longer feel politically threatened by the protests. They feel the flame of protest flickering and want to snuff it out.

Winning the broader population back requires both a re-focus on the issues and the effective broadcasting of these issues to the public, packaged as demands placed on city and state government.

Where elections and protests meet

Portland City Council is smaller than most cities, consisting of only five council members (which includes the mayor). Thus small shifts in the council have big consequences, especially when the election is centred around an important issue.

Two years ago Jo Ann Hardesty was elected after decades of being the loudest voice on police reform. Her election served as a mandate on the issue and her already-powerful position was bolstered exponentially with the rebirth of Black Lives Matter.

The upcoming city council election is also critical for the movement. Because there are clear distinctions between the candidates while the movement is at a crossroads, the results will act as a clear referendum on the movement’s political messaging and demands. They will either add needed fuel or empower the establishment to go for the jugular.

If, for example, Mayor Wheeler is re-elected after months of allowing police brutality, he’ll have a mandate to continue this approach, while his challenger, Sarah Iannarone, has staked her campaign on the issue too, but in the direction of the movement. If she wins Black Lives Matter wins an important mandate to continue pressing forward.

Equally important is Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s re-election: her opponent is backed by the police union and landlord lobby, and her vocal vote to defund the police earlier this spring — and ongoing statements of support — also makes her election an important referendum for the movement.

The election outcome will justifiably be used by either side to further their agenda, making the absenteeism of the Portland Left a dangerous gambit. The mayor is incredibly weak yet stands a real chance of being re-elected — since he has the combined strength of incumbency and the Portland establishment behind him. If he wins he’ll scoff at ongoing demands that he resign since “the voters have spoken”.

Sometimes the counter-revolution consolidates itself via elections. The recently-radicalised left is correct to be sceptical of electoral politics, though many are too young to remember when a “movement-candidate” was a very rare phenomenon in Portland, since the movement wasn’t capable of producing the kind of wave that a politician could ride into office.

Finally, police accountability? 

The November election will also feature a historic police reform ballot initiative, put to the public by City Council under pressure from Commissioner Hardesty. The initiative would create a new police oversight board with powers to discipline police for misconduct.

It’s likely the initiative will pass, but it’s a skeletal structure whose flesh will depend on the outcome of the city council elections: If Eudaly and Iannarone lose, the new oversight board will almost certainly be watered down and languish in bureaucracy, since the new council will be more cop-friendly.

If voters pass the initiative, the new police oversight board will immediately face an additional threat: the police union contract must be altered significantly for the new oversight board to have the legal powers to discipline officers. In Portland this process has served police well, and they will not quietly succumb to a new oversight board proposed by Commissioner Hardesty, their avowed enemy, if they can avoid it.

If the police union sees Wheeler re-elected and watches Eudaly lose, they’ll feel empowered to drive the hardest possible bargain during contract negotiations against a more police-friendly city council, the outcome which could be a defunct or toothless oversight board and a waste of movement energy at a critical moment.

Where national and local politics meet 

When Trump won four years ago Portland erupted in protests that lasted for months. The same election also brought Eudaly to city council, who passed the most radical tenant legislation in modern memory. The local result was a major political shift to the Left.

Ultimately the maturing Trumpism in Portland proper remains weak, still needing to import manpower from the suburbs and beyond, though they feel emboldened by recent events which, they believe, are pushing public opinion in their direction.

Their assumptions will be tested in Portland’s upcoming elections, which will re-adjust the local balance of power in reaction to recent events, one way or another. The establishment intimately understands this while sections of the Left seem oblivious about it. If movement-candidates lose and Trump wins, the one-two punch will cause a crisis for the movement — it’s conceivable that in six months people will reminisce about when “Black lives mattered” in Portland.

The recent protest-connected murders in Portland have also caused the situation to deteriorate in some ways. There is a palpable fear in the air, pushing people to glamorise physical fighting and prioritising guns over politics. And while organised self-defence is important — since the fear is real — it becomes impotent and even self-defeating without an effective political strategy.

Overcoming fear requires that people are agitated into taking action based on issues they care about — this is a central assumption of all organising. Agitation is best when it’s concrete, fighting for demands that galvanise the inactive into action where weak points in the political system are directly challenged in the clearest possible way.

Because of the wildfires that erupted in the middle of a pandemic-economic crisis, Oregon is likely to enter a deep political crisis, which will be settled with either left or right solutions. At the moment the future is up for grabs, but can only be seized with a strategy capable of winning the allegiance of the broader public. This is the only approach capable of stunting the growth of a now-toddling fascism.

[Abridged. Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com]

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