This article was published in the Winter 2021 issue of The Activist in a shortened form. This is the full version.
October 17, 2020, South Portland Waterfront
It’s 11:30 PM in Portland and several hundred black-clad protesters are milling around between an empty business and a locked apartment complex. In front of them ー about forty feet away ー is a line of a dozen heavily armed federal agents standing watch over the entryway to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office.
A few hours earlier a crowd marched from nearby Willamette Park to the building carrying drums and balloons while being followed by dozens of livestreaming journalists in what had become a familiar pattern for the streets of Portland: a marching protest nearing its target. The balloons were a recent innovation designed to highlight the cruelty of ICE by writing a condemnation on each balloon.
When the protesters arrived at the building, they were abruptly rushed by federal agents who fired pepper balls that sprayed gravel into the air as they hit the ground. The balloons were released, floating into the air as the protestors’ shouts and yells were drowned out by the gunshots.
This surreal and spectacular scene was just one “direct action” in a year that has proven historic in Portland. For over one hundred uninterrupted nights, and periodically since, Portland has exploded into riots and protests that have not only tested local and federal governments, but also left-wing organizations.
One Hundred Nights of Protest
After the initial wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd the loosely connected local Black Lives Matter movement split over the issue of what is to be done between liberal reformists and radical abolitionists. The latter, most heavily influenced by a powerful local anarchist movement (see the Youth Liberation Front), argued that police as an institution are so thoroughly rooted in white supremacy that anything short of total abolition is not worth prioritizing or demanding.
This split played out over social media and in separate dueling protests because there were no clear leaders and no coordination of events. Anarchists and other abolitionist radicals gathered every night at the Justice Center for direct — and often destructive — action while liberals met at the ironically named Revolution Hall, a local music venue, for events that usually ended as marches through the city. As the divide between liberals and radicals grew, the commitment to Black Lives Matter became the only unifying factor for the movement. The spectacle of mobilization became the primary draw for protesting.
The city had shut down early because of COVID-19 and unemployment quickly passed a staggering 15%. With social interactions cut off, the protests created their own subcultures that served as a catharsis for those who attended the protests, giving them a rare bit of human interaction.
A Demandless Movement
The protesters’ culture developed into an odd marriage of NGO style fundraising and anarchist affinity groups organized into small anonymous cells of independent radicals through personal connections, raising money online for mutual aid to support the protests.
These efforts fortified the BLM movement — sometimes literally, with protesters manufacturing shields and armor. Protesters were able to build the required infrastructure for a long-running uprising: medical supplies, food, bail money, etc.
While the strategy worked well in channeling community support to perpetuate the protests themselves, it failed to create a clear message or strategy for a political offensive. The lack of leadership created a movement of individual participation, not of collective struggle. Almost ritualistically, windows were broken and buildings were lit on fire but with a government that wholeheartedly supported the police there was little hope in truly exhausting them. What remained was a war of attrition that only one side could win.
Were the protests futile? Not necessarily, they gained national support, bringing more attention, donations, and outrage to the plight of Portland. However, no amount of people cheering for — or even joining — the protests changed the political structure we lived under.
Trump’s Reactionary Goons
The subcultural and enduring nature of the protests caught the ire of the conservative media machine, Donald Trump, and violent right-wing militias. Donald Trump targeted the city and its local Democratic leadership — specifically incumbent mayor, Ted Wheeler. In July, Trump’s far right echo-chamber inspired him to write an executive order surging Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agents to protect statues and federal property by any means necessary.
Days later, a protester was wounded when federal agents shot him with a low impact munition round that hit him between the eyes. More dramatically, videos emerged of protesters being dragged into unmarked vans sparking national condemnation. The presence of federal agents, national attention, and the animus towards President Trump inspired a massive resurgence in protest turnout with numbers swelling to the tens of thousands.
Among this increase were many liberals who had not been previously motivated by the cause of racial justice. The famous “Wall of Moms” formed as the protests were picking up. The image of mothers blocking police from attacking children was particularly evocative and inspired several more “walls.” The “Wall of Veterans,” “Wall of Chefs,” “Wall of Union Members,” and “Dad Bloc.”
This new response was even more liberal than the pre-existing reformist wing. Their participation was conditional on Trump’s presence and faded into infighting and apathy. In the wake of a limited federal withdrawal at the end of July liberal political support withdrew in kind. The ending of extended unemployment benefits also cut into the idle, protest-ready unemployed population. The drawdown did one thing: embolden the far-right.
The increased focus on the city had driven an already present right-wing to increasing fury but the large numbers and rapid mobilization of protesters made countering them difficult. In the aftermath of the July surge, right-wingers began planning a rally on August 29th. Hundreds of trucks and jeeps flooded the city, most flying MAGA and Trump flags. At the end of this “truck parade,” Michael Reinhol shot the far-right radical Aaron Danielson.
In an interview with Vice, Reinhol claimed to be a left-wing activist and on September third he was extra-judicially executed by local police in Lacey, Washington under the direct supervision of the US Marshals. Just as the movement began to grapple with Reinhol’s death and its implications a massive wildfire east of Portland brought an oppressing crimson smog that ground the protests to a halt for the first time in over one hundred consecutive nights.
That’s Politics, Baby
Yet unresolved were the diverse and divided politics of protesters, the anonymous nature of much of the mobilization, and the heavy anarchist presence, all of which led to an uncomfortable tension between electoral activism and direct action. Many in Portland consider electoralism and any effort to “lead” a protest or movement at all to be antithetical to the purity of their radical strategy, and thus attacked efforts to bring protest energy to any campaign for elected office. While many liberal protesters recited “just vote” like a mantra and refused to advocate for a specific candidate. These splits heralded a number of devastating defeats.
The two ballot listed candidates in the mayoral race fell on opposite sides of the protests. While incumbent Ted Wheeler happily posed for cameras and condemned Donald Trump, he stood openly against the protests themselves, claiming to support Black Lives Matter while calling the actions self-defeating acts of anarchist sabotage filled with outside agitators. Sarah Iannarone, a liberal progressive, sided with the protests, calling herself “everyday Antifa” and attacking Wheeler’s red-baiting response.
However, the race was not a straightforward contest between a progressive reformer and a moderate incumbent. Teressa Raiford, a longtime community organizer who runs the police accountability group “Don’t Shoot Portland” responded to a poor primary performance by running a write-in campaign.
This led to bigger divisions on the left over whether the white Iannarone could truly usher in change or whether Raiford, who is black, was the only real reform option. In the other direction, Iannarone supporters argued Raiford was a spoiler candidate who could not win. Portland DSA, aware of the potential divisions and a split within chapter membership, decided not to even discuss endorsing a candidate.
On November 3rd, Wheeler won with a narrow plurality ー 46% against Iannarone’s 40%. Polling indicates that Raiford received the other 12%.
Iannarone’s rapid increase is an undeniable mark of the societal impact of the protests, further confirmed by an 80% victory for a tepid police overview measure. Raiford’s apparent write-in success, one of the most successful write-in campaigns of the last decade, is a further testament to the energy created by the protests. Yet, while Wheeler lost ground, the result of the mayoral race was nevertheless a victory for the conservative incumbent. The results show that a split in the left, not a right-wing reaction to the protests, allowed Wheeler to win.
Incumbent progressive city commissioner Chloe Eudaly ー a prominent supporter of tenant’s rights and police reform ー was defeated by her conservative challenger Mingus Mapps. Mapps has since compared protesters to the Ku Klux Klan and claimed protesters who gathered outside the house of councilor Dan Ryan to demand police budget cuts were part of a “campaign of intimidation and violence.”
Despite the increase of support of vaguely left-wing ideas and candidacies, the election was a blow to the organized left. Portland’s unique commissioner system means Iannarone, Eudaly, and one other progressive, Jo Ann Hardesty, would have formed a majority but instead conservatives now control the city council. With a budget crunch expected from pandemic-related revenue losses the city council seems likely to enforce deeply unpopular policing and austerity policies.
The movement failed to develop a clear strategy for what it wanted to win and how it wanted to win it. For example, some had raised the demand for putting Hardesty in charge of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), Iannarone took up that demand but it was not universal. Nobody even agreed upon what percentage of the PPB’s budget to defund. Five percent? Fifty percent? The entire budget?
Yet, this does not mean that protests are ineffective and need to be discarded as a tactic. Not only did left-wing ideas generally grow in support, but numerous smaller victories were gained based on clear ballot initiatives and local mobilizations. Protestors defended the “Red House” and their Afro-Indiginous owners from foreclosure through a concerted occupation. The Portland Police were successfully sued twenty one times for their numerous abuses of power, and most importantly, a police oversight bill passed with 82% of the vote. The bill, while somewhat tepid, would allow for a police oversight board to call for investigations, witnesses, and even fire abusive officers.
While the protests in Portland are a testament to the stamina of the city’s radical movements, their failure to translate the massive mobilization into larger material victories represents a painful failure for a cause that so many of us have sacrificed so much for. What can we do to prevent this from happening again?
If the city landscape looks even more reactionary today, it is not because of the lack of support in the Portland community or the failures of any one organizer. Instead, the problems facing Portland are the result of the inability of the socialist-left to develop a series of radical demands that can unify mass support.
Mass mobilization is a necessary tool of the socialist movement but it must be paired with a political program to achieve the principles the movement espouses. The public support exists for a confrontation with the state after more than one hundred days of civil unrest, but that is all it is: a confrontation with continuously diminishing returns. Without strategies to seize power in positions of government and organized labor to transform protest into change, protest movements like these will continue to surge and fall away without succeeding in the aims they pursue. This cause is too important and our opportunity too great to allow the same mistakes to repeat themselves. A mass socialist movement, rooted in the power of workers is our best hope to fight the scourge of white supremacy and end our racist police system. This summer showed thousands in Portland are willing to fight for that. Now, Y/DSA must rise to the challenge and offer the support, structure, and leadership to help win that fight.