The Portland cops’ crusade against anti-fascists

August 20, 2018

Jordan Weinstein reports from Portland, Oregon, on the struggle to hold Portland police accountable for the violence that injured peaceful left-wing protesters earlier this month.

ON AUGUST 8, anti-racists filed into a City Council meeting in Portland, Oregon, to demand an answer to the question: Which side are the Portland cops on?

The call to attend the meeting followed the brutal police attack on counterdemonstrators who assembled on August 4 to protest a gathering of the far-right Patriot Prayer group and other right-wingers and white supremacists.

The few dozen anti-fascist activists at the council meeting demanded accountability from city officials and police for the violent assault — during which heavily armed riot police joked and smirked before unleashing a barrage of flash-bang grenades and other “less-lethal” weapons.

Several protesters were seriously injured — with one receiving a bloody head wound from a direct hit by a flash-bang grenade that was luckily stopped by a helmet, and another suffering a severe chemical burn to her arm.

Riot cops descends on anti-fascist protesters in Portland
Riot cops descends on anti-fascist protesters in Portland

Predictably, city officials attempted to ignore the protesters, who began to chant and call for action. In response, members of the City Council left the room. They held the rest of their meeting in a closed location, away from the public.

Before and since the meeting, city officials have dug in their heels and blamed protesters — not the police — for the violence on the streets of Portland on August 4.

PATRIOT PRAYER and other right-wingers claimed victory on the day of their rally, despite the fact that they had been outnumbered several times over by anti-fascists.

Their confidence is a direct result of the way the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) not only protected the far right from being confronted by left-wing protesters, but also systematically attacked anti-racists.

“If it’s a victory for [the right wing],” said Olivia Katbi Smith, co-chair of the Portland Democratic Socialists of America, “it’s a victory won by the cops. We outnumbered them.”

The approach of the PPB, under the direction of Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, was to keep the right-wingers — who had been encouraged by Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson to come to the demonstration armed — and counterprotesters separated. Hundreds of police in full riot gear and equipped with “non-lethal” riot control devices formed a formidable human barrier between the two sides.

The PPB issued warnings before the demonstration that protesters couldn’t bring “any weapon or items that could be used as weapons,” and announced that there would be checkpoints set up on the waterfront. But as Britain’s Guardian newspaper later reported, the right-wing rally was not subjected to the checkpoints.

Police focused their attention and repression on left-wing protesters, literally turning their backs on the gun-toting Patriot Prayer crowd while harassing counterprotesters for carrying signs.

After two hours, police decided to become the aggressor. The cops announced that counterprotesters had thrown rocks and water bottles at them — something disputed by participants — and ordered the crowd to disperse.

Allowing almost no time for the hundreds of counterprotesters to react, police went on the offensive, launching flash-bang grenades while Patriot Prayer members followed behind, cheering them on.

THIS ISN’T the first time the PPB has used such tactics against left-wing protesters.

Speaking in March about a lawsuit against the PPB for its use of excessive force at demonstrations, Mat dos Santos, legal director of the ACLU of Oregon, said: “[T]o our knowledge, no other police force in America uses crowd control weapons at protests with the regularity of the Portland Police Bureau.”

This time, however, the violent response was so intense and disproportionate — and the PPB’s disregard for its own procedures was so blatant — that even the mainstream media picked up on it, questioning why there was no observable provocation from the counterprotesters.

Police deployed tear gas, pepper balls and rubber bullets against the counterprotesters, but it was the use of flash-bang grenades that has gotten the most attention.

Photos show officers pointing the grenade launchers like guns directly at protesters — something that PPB officials themselves admit is improper. At a press conference on August 6, Assistant Police Chief Ryan Lee admitted: “They’re trained to fire those not directly at individuals. They’re trained to fire them over the crowd.”

Facing a public outcry, Chief Outlaw announced at the press conference that the use of flash-bang grenades by the PPB would be suspended pending further investigation. However, she doubled down on the idea that Portland police were right to disperse the counterprotesters, congratulating officers for the fact that the day didn’t become “another Charlottesville.”

Outlaw also complained that the PPB was being put in an unfair position. “[I]f one side gets the short end of the stick for whatever reason, then we’re accused of not protecting one side or the other.”

Later, Outlaw added insult to injury by giving an interview to a conservative talk show host in which she blasted counterprotesters as “whiners” who essentially deserved to be attacked.

Quoting Outlaw, the Willamette Week reported that the police chief compared the cops’ violence to a reaction to a fight after school. “And then you get mad because I kicked your butt,” Outlaw said. “And then you go back and you wail off and whine and complain.”

Outlaw clearly doesn’t have any regrets, not even about the severe images inflicted by her officers with their reckless deployment of flash-bang grenades.

Michelle Fawcett, a 52-year-old Portland resident, sustained third-degree chemical burns and soft tissue damage. Another woman went to the hospital with a possible broken arm.

But the most gruesome injury was sustained by a counterprotester identified only as “Anthony,” who was hit in the head by a flash-bang canister that punctured the helmet he was wearing and tore a sizable gash in the back of his head.

“If it was their plan to brutalize members of their own community,” Anthony told a reporter, “then I guess the police did their job.”

IN RESPONSE to the police assault, Portland activist David Mason created a Facebook event to “demand police accountability in Portland,” calling for activists to pack the August 8 City Council meeting and demand justice.

Several dozen people heeded the call, including Michelle Fawcett and others who were injured in the police assault. “I should be home recovering from the pain and trauma I’m suffering,” Fawcett said in an interview with the Oregonian newspaper. “But I’m also suffering from complete outrage and powerlessness.”

After filing into the City Council chamber and struggling to find seats, many people tried to get on the list to speak about the events of August 4, but were given a convoluted explanation about bureaucratic procedures and told they could only make comments about existing agenda items. This essentially blocked protesters from speaking.

While some speakers did try to use part of their time to discuss the police use of force, Mayor Ted Wheeler was quick to cut them off.

After about 45 minutes of attempting to go along with City Council norms, the audience became frustrated with the mayor and city commissioners’ refusal to acknowledge the reason most of them were there. A chant of “End police brutality!” broke out.

After a few feeble calls for order by Wheeler, the commissioners simply got up and left. They ended up holding the rest of their meeting in a closed room, only allowing city staff, the media and “people called to testify on Council business.”

Apparently, police brutality was not considered “Council business.”

Protesters remained, some making their way up to the third-floor room to disrupt the meeting, while others moved downstairs to join protesters who remained outside.

When David Mason attempted to find a city staffer to ask how he could get on the agenda to discuss the issue “legitimately” in the future, an employee mouthed to him through a glass door, “We’re in lockdown.”

Apparently, what had started as an attempt at civil discourse had become a “threat” to Portland officials. In an ironic twist, some 20 Portland police officers then streamed into the building and converged on protesters in the lobby.

The anger of protesters was electric. Chants of “Go get Ted!” and “Who do you protect, who do you serve?” rang out. But police and security guards eventually pushed the protesters out of the building.

City Hall was quick to claim that the protest had become violent, playing up the fact that one guard had been reported injured in a scuffle and a sugar bowl from the lobby coffee shop had been smashed. Two protesters were arrested on charges of trespassing. But how can Portland residents be charged with trespassing in their own municipal buildings?

LATER, MAYOR Wheeler seized the opportunity to wag his finger at protesters: “Whatever message you thought you were delivering today, it was completely lost in your senseless acts of violence against our city staff.”

This is an outrageous inversion of events. David Mason and those who responded to his call came to have a conversation. It was the actions of City Hall and the Portland police that caused things to escalate.

Mason was eventually able to get the issue of the use of police force on the City Council agenda — for September. It’s unclear what this will accomplish, however, as Wheeler and the rest of city government seem determined to ignore the actual concerns of residents.

Rebecca Smith, another local activist who was at the City Council action, summed up the behavior of City Commissioners this way: “If you get up and walk out, you’re saying we disagree with that issue.” Smith added that writing letters, making calls and holding rallies has yielded “no response. So you need to be louder. There’s nothing wrong with being louder.”

As we saw in Washington, D.C., on August 12, when a handful of white supremacists were drowned out by thousands, one way of getting “louder” is organizing masses of people to send a clear message that the politicians can’t ignore.

Anti-racists in Portland have experienced firsthand the indifference of their supposed public servants. Now they have to be ready to take the next step and “be louder.”

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