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Federal police presence in Portland highlights fragmented American cultures

Travel and Culture

Portland, Oregon, is known for its bicycle culture, its book culture, and its general funkiness. It has a reputation among many of its residents and visitors as a safe city — and indeed, its violent crime rate (5.27 per 1,000 residents) is lower than Dallas, Texas (7.76 per 1,000) and less than half that of Anchorage, Alaska (13.13 per 1,000).

The city is often painted differently in right-leaning media, however — Fox News, for example, recently described the city in terms of “violent protest” that is “destroying businesses, infrastructure and quality of life in Portland.”

This doesn’t sit well with many residents of the city. “I am consistently confused by the Fox News narrative every time they talk about my city because it’s literally never unsafe here. I could walk my kids down every single street in downtown at any time,” said longtime Portland resident Tori Douglass of the protests.

On Monday, President Trump claimed that Portland had become so violent that he’d had to send federal forces to quell protests. However, nationally-shown videos of “riots” are localized to a small portion of the downtown, according to Portland residents like singer-songwriter Asher Nathan Weinbaum.

The impact of protest on businesses has been virtually nil, said Weinbaum — Portland looks like any other US city in the middle of a pandemic. Many businesses had been working from home for months, given the situation with COVID-19. Localization company Welocalize has a substantial workforce in Portland, for example. The company had already moved to working from home, and is currently operating as business as usual.

Although Portland protests have been ongoing since May, the oft-overbearing local police tactics did not contain them. Residents said the protests, which encompassed tens of thousands of people, were largely peaceful until unbadged federal forces showed up in fatigues, started beating people, deploying teargas, and even grabbing protestors off the streets — and then, said residents, Portland started fighting back for real. On Sunday, the state’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, announced that she had filed a lawsuit against the federal agencies that had descended on Portland. Rosenblum said the tactics of this ad hoc occupying police force infringe on the civil rights of protesters.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has additionally requested that the federal forces vacate the city, but the White House ignored that request. “What they are doing is sharply escalating the situation,” Wheeler told CNN. “We want them to leave.”

Protests have indeed escalated since federal agents started fighting civilians. Some protesters lit the Portland Police union headquarters on fire, and the protests grew to 2,000 people Monday night. “As a Monday tradition, we are all waiting to be assaulted by federal agents,” conflict journalist Robert Evans, who covered the war in Iraq, quipped on Twitter.

The question remains: if the city was relatively safe, why did President Trump choose Portland as a testing ground for the deployment of federal troops against civilians?

The long history of protest in Portland

Quite separate from its crime scene, Portland has a long history of protest, and specifically, protesting Republican policy. In the 1990s, it earned the nickname “Little Beruit” for the protests against the First Gulf War that greeted George Bush Sr. upon his visit to the city. The city gentrified extensively in the following decades, trading punk music venues for whacky donuts and swank coffeeshops. But an underlying leftist streak remained. In the national mind, the city still represented an upstart, anti-authoritarian ethos that had been blunted in other coastal cities like Seattle and San Francisco when the tech giants moved in. Where Portlandia celebrated the weirdness of Portland, Frasier toasted the intelligentsia of Seattle.

And importantly to Republican leadership, anarchy, as a belief system, was alive and well in Portland. Anarchists believe that society should ultimately be free from the rule of any government, and for Portland, that took the form of shared housing, activism for the houseless, and resistance to neo-Nazi presence. Evans, a gun-rights activist and journalist who has trained federal agents, has written about how cozy far-right groups are with Portland police, and how this has led to clashes between police and Portland residents.

A small riot in 1993 helped set the stage for what is currently happening in Portland. Protesters from the scene described tactics that have become familiar in many viral videos in recent months: police in riot gear surrounding a crowd they deemed suspicious — in the 1993 case, concert-goers who had exited the once-famous X-Ray Cafe music venue — refusing to let them leave, and then arresting them en masse when chaos ensued. Many of the concert-goers were self-described anarchists. Five were charged with felony riot.

Oregon law states that “A person commits the crime of riot if while participating with five or more other persons the person engages in tumultuous and violent conduct and thereby intentionally or recklessly creates a grave risk of causing public alarm.”

The riot case was dismissed in 1994 because the judge deemed the statute to be overbroad — “a grave risk of causing public alarm” could mean just about anything, including the current actions of police themselves. However, the decision was reversed on appeal, and the statute is still in place in Oregon.

Being charged with rioting does not necessitate that participants engaged in otherwise illegal activity. Merely being in the vicinity of other people who vandalize property, for example, is enough for a riot charge, legally speaking. In Portland, protesters snatched off the street by federal police describe not knowing why they were being held, and not even necessarily being charged with anything.

The language of political opinion

The presence of federal agents in Portland cuts to the heart of a growing divide in America — a divide so deep, the factions speak different languages. For example, the claim that “Portland is full of anarchists” is true in one sense, and untrue in another. Language does not exist outside of historical precedent, and historically, worldwide, anarchists of various persuasions have been committed to fighting fascists — perhaps most notably during the Spanish Civil War, when they fought against dictator Francisco Franco. Most anarchists define their propensity for violence in the same terms that the average American would define it: fighting is only appropriate if it’s against tyranny or in defense of the vulnerable.

If you define anarchism as a belief system protected by the First Amendment, Portland is indeed full of anarchists. But if you mean that Portland has committed itself to crime, lawlessness and burning down businesses, this is untrue. The challenge lies in the different cultural meanings of “anarchy,” and the way language such as this is used to justify political policy.

“Our city has not been decimated by anarchy and violent upheaval. And for those of you outside Portland that believe that it has, you are being fed a repulsive and profoundly dangerous false narrative,” said Portland resident Johnna Wells. “My city is under siege by a federal ‘army’ that the President of the United States has unleashed. A fascist move that I fear will carry forth into other cities as well.”

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Katie Botkin, Editor-in-Chief at MultiLingual, has a background in linguistics and journalism. She began publishing "multilingual" newsletters at the age of 15, and went on to invest her college and post-graduate career in language learning, teaching and writing. She has extensive experience with niche American microcultures across the political spectrum.

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