Bad Strategery In Stumptown Threatens Portland, the President, and Us
A city with a long history of protesting and activism and a president looking to make an example of that same city is making for a combustible mix in downtown Portland:
Night upon night the chant goes up in front of Portland’s federal courthouse: “Whose streets?”
The answer depends on the hour of the day. After Donald Trump sent federal agents to take control of a city he said had been abandoned by its mayor to anarchists and mob rule, the protesters still turning out in support of Black Lives Matter can make a legitimate claim that these are, as the chant goes, “our streets”.
Department of Homeland Security taskforce agents were again out firing waves of teargas and throwing stun grenades against a hard core of a few hundred demonstrators in the early hours of Wednesday morning. The confrontation centered on the courthouse at the heart of several blocks of downtown Portland that have effectively fallen under the control of the protesters after the city police withdrew.
But after pushing back demonstrators, many of them kitted out in helmets and gas masks, the federal agents retreated into their courthouse citadel to mocking jeers and women who were part of the “Wall of Moms” protest linking arms and chanting: “Our streets.”
This ritual was played out three times on Wednesday morning but the end result was the same as every other night. The DHS officers dispatched by the President to put down the demonstrations have instead become prisoners of the building they are ostensibly there to defend.
President Trump has made a real mess for himself here. While he can rightly point to the vandalism and often out-of-control behavior of the long-running protests in Portland, Oregon, as skipping along the line of anarchy, declaring he is sending in the feds to fix optics in the west might very well turn into his own version of the Eastern front. To make matters worse, he is also hinting at sending federal agencies to Chicago and other deep blue cities that he senses are law and order problems. While the Windy City has long been the bloody shirt the President’s own party and supporters like to wave at the Black Lives Movement, sending in feds is something many have talked about but few actually thought of doing. The legalities, not to mention the moral aspects, are debatable. On top of that, the practical aspects of what the mission would be other than appeasing a president who doesn’t like what he sees on TV are an unresolved problem even as federal agencies deploy at the executives order.
But in Portland, we now have data on the ground to go by. Multicam clad forces of DHS’s Customs and Border Patrol and other federal agencies have been on the ground, but not gaining any. Every night they work to disperse the crowd, every night at some point they have to cede the blocks around the Federal Courthouse back to the throngs of mostly protesters, a few rioters, and no doubt several troublemakers taking advantage of it all to wreak havoc. Far from discouraging the protests, the arrival of the feds is fueling the crowds and the media coverage that goes with it.
Which begs the question: now what?
The hard truth for the President is this is a situation that can only get worse if he pushes ahead on his present course. There is no win here. Having bragged about how great a job they were doing, pulling out the federal agencies and ceding federal property to the masses would be an unimaginable defeat for a president obsessed with the appearance of strength. The crowds are such that federal authorities present, especially without help from local authorities which grow more hostile to them by the day, have almost no chance of maintaining order without a massive escalation in force used. The President will no doubt threaten that very thing.
But will he pull the trigger on it?
Herein lies the trap for President Donald Trump. A nation that has been gorging itself on riot porn for the better part of four months has never been more aware of policing actions and conduct. It’s all well and good for certain folks to cheer on from their screens police lines dropping the hammer on protests that challenge them, along with tear gas, mace, batons, and other non-lethal means. But these situations are not controllable from afar. Passions run high, and the federal agents being sent out into the mob night after night are going to be growing increasingly tired of the mockery and restraints put upon them. The throng outside will feel increasingly emboldened every day that passes that they are still in the streets. With the President locking himself into a corner where he cannot de-escalate, the calculus for something truly horrible to happen is getting simpler, and more likely, by the minute.
God forbid it happen, but all it takes is one second, one mistake, one multicam-wearing fed to seriously injure, maim, or kill someone in the crowd on video, and all the vandalism in the world won’t excuse it. Imagine the imagery of camouflage feds under the direct orders of the President committing some atrocity overlaid with his own voice vowing to bring law and order to the streets of Portland. He may succeed in putting down the mob, but there far more chances of his actions combining with an emboldened mob and stretched-to-the-limit law enforcement causing another Mary Ann Vecchio moment.
When National Guardsmen shot and killed four and wounded nine more at Kent State on May 4th, 1970, it was the image of a screaming Vecchio kneeling over the body of just-shot Jeffrey Miller that remains one of the indelible images of not just the Vietnam-era but in American history. Vecchio wasn’t even supposed to be there, as a 14-year old runaway kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. That black and white image has just as much power 50 years on as it did when the screaming was still audible. In the two parks adjacent to the Federal Courthouse and other municipal buildings that have become the base camp for protests, rioters, and anarchists alike in Portland, how many potential Vecchios are there with the waiting media and power of the internet able to magnify a tragic event a thousand fold?
It will only take one, is the frightful, unimaginable answer.
The President has, by putting federal agents clad in multicam against the mob, taken full ownership of the situation. The previous actions of the city and state authorities, or lack thereof, to rein in the crowds before it got to this point will not be remembered. The prayer is some point of de-escalation can be reached. But the mob has been given no reason to back off, and reasoning with this or any other mob never works out. Agents with their backs quite literally against the wall have only force to issue to them, and a mandate to do so by a president who will see a mob mocking his authority and attempts to exert it, a media of all sides doing the same, and an election bearing down. The media catastrophizing with “City Under Siege!!!!” headlines what happens in a few blocks and protests that occur in the same place at the same time so regularly you can set your watch, Twitter notifications, and DVR to them has not helped either.
There are no good solutions to the problem of rioters in the Rose City. There are many moving parts that, should any of them rub together, means a human tragedy. There certainly doesn’t appear to be anyone or anything that is going to magically fix this. The President would do well to remember that of the several memorials at Kent State, none are for the National Guardsman or the authorities that sent them there, failed to control them, and had to live with what happened that day. The mob should take the W of embarrassing a president who talked bigger than he could deliver and not push the issue with federal authorities that do not like such mockery of the law, and especially of their authority.
Pray for Portland, that God will have mercy on them and us, that we don’t lose a piece of our national soul there like we did in Ohio half a century ago. For the President and the mob sure seem disinclined to have it on each other.