Yeah, I’m a pacifist but I wanna set fire to“Armchair Anarchism,” Not Half Bad
What makes you comfortable and give you what we got from you
Kick down your podium and never let things get this bad again!
Not sure what I believe
But I’ve got hope in Anarchy
Because if it’s against you then I know it’s the thing for me
Me and all of my friends
We’ve got everything that we need without you.
My first direct action in Portland took place in late September 2020. There were many factors going into the motives and emotions of that evening, but the main reasons for the gathering was to protest police violence, the federal occupation in response to Portland activism, and the human rights abuses in ICE concentration camps at the border. Also, on our minds was the administration’s deliberate sabotage of the pandemic response, austerity, and other underlying themes right now. These problems have not gone away under the new administration, nor has the structural power to subjugate individuals been removed.
Remembering all the details of activism can sometimes be difficult due to the usual combination of adrenaline, exhaustion, and the overall Dionysian energy. Even so, I’m still able to give a thorough enough outline of the event from my perspective, but there are no doubt gaps in this story, which I’ve tried to minimize as much as possible. Any activist could tell you that the experiences found in direct action are often so profound in their demonstration of courage, grassroot authority, and natural solidarity, and inspiring in the way they push people to participate in their own environment, that it’s often hard to separate them from our most cherished and profound memories.
I took a Greyhound in from Boise, Idaho. The week I arrived the air quality was the worst in the world due to record-sized fires in Oregon, Idaho, and California caused by climate change. It was more toxic than places like Karabash, Russia and the most industrial parts of Beijing. From central Oregon onwards, the smoke looked like heavy fog, so thick you couldn’t see five feet in front of you; the breeze smelled like campfire smoke which still lingered in my nose for days after I escaped it. The plan was to live out of the Streetlight/Porchlight shelter for the next week. This meant that for most of each day I would be forced outside, with limited access to refuge from toxins and the virus. I would be left to wander the city and sit on trains and outside HYC (Homeless Youth Continuum) drop-ins until I caught word of local activism.
After reaching the Portland area, I was immediately in awe of the revolutionary atmosphere evident in all parts of the city. On the drive in I could see ‘BLM’ and ‘ACAB’ tagged along a cement wall alongside the highway. Orators could be seen attracting crowds of people on street corners and in parks blocks, usually speaking against systemic racism, the police, and their relationship with private profit and pecuniary hierarchy. On every bridge, statue, State and corporate buildings you’d see statements like “down with capitalism” and “abolish the police.” While it had been common to see panic and violence just a few months earlier, during the most disorienting part of COVID, now there was a strong sense of society and consciousness in the air, and almost nobody seemed to escape it. I almost felt like George Orwell when he first visited Revolutionary Catalonia.
I’d lived in the HYC months earlier with my partner before travelling to Idaho to get housing. This was over five months of being caught in a loop of poverty, having limited access to utilities or any place to rejuvenate amidst our housing crisis, with a constant fear of theft and assault, including at the hands of the Portland Police Department with their professional obligation to make things worse for the marginalized, and professional tendency to enjoy it. I left when COVID was beginning to get especially bad and places were shutting down. Since the homeless population was the most socioeconomically vulnerable and commonly had little access to internet or news, there was a strong energy of confusion and irritability in the community. Honestly, everyone was terrified. Rumors about martial law (which did happen, but not for the reasons they expected) and corporate expansionism (which is always happening) were going around, some more educated than others. One evening I witnessed two different fistfights in a ten-minute interval in Southwest’s “Crack Alley” with my friends Jair and Phoebe. Things which were already depressing had an even more hopeless air to it. While seeking refuge at PSU (Portland State University), my friends and I ended up meeting a heroin addict who was desperately trying to get a hold of his dealer, sitting in a wheelchair with only one arm and one leg, in a nearly empty city while terrified yelling could be heard in the distance; poverty was exploding with an economic and health crisis daunting the planet. The street price for provisions rose dramatically—cigarettes went up to two dollars each (being around 15 to 50 cents previously and let me remind you the average cost of production for a whole pack is around 30 cents). Everywhere you looked were people robbing and abusing each other. The stunning lack of solidarity affected me for a long time.
After returning from Idaho, though, I quickly noticed that the homeless population—having also tripled in size, no doubt because of the mass unemployment and exorbitant costs of rent—had somewhere along the line achieved a notable amount of organization, with a communal system over the distribution of resources, as well as close networking and diplomacy between certain camps. Much of downtown gave off the appearance of an urban tent commune, with homeless camps lining every other street, often near mostly vacant buildings. At many camps, clothes, food, medical supplies, weed, alcohol, tobacco, and weapons were often communally shared or otherwise fairly distributed, electricity too if someone had an extension cord or battery.
At the sidewalk commune directly in front of Outside In (an HYC transitional housing and resource center) they displayed keen responsibility. When it came to communal stashes, campers consistently took no more than what they needed and acted generously in their deposits. I can’t fully express how amazing this was to me, coming from a demographic whose conditions often make them desperate and dysfunctional. In my opinion, it says a lot about human nature. In pretty much every camp, I learned, people naturally took to a loose democratic process based in consensus and delegated facilitators to mediate and enforce against theft, violence, and other violations determined by the occupants, which most of the time only additionally included heavy drug use.
The unofficial leader of the camp in front of Outside In, J.J., told me he felt an obligation to protect the people who came there, going on to say the only time he thought it was necessary to intervene with someone’s presence was when multiple people came to him with complaints. Beyond that, self-policing and communication was key. Part of me wanted to believe the spontaneous nature of these camps—no doubt developed out of the threat against individual survival combined with our innate social instincts—was evidence that people are capable of instinctively organizing utilitarian alternatives to our hegemonic bourgeois state, the one directly responsible for their suffering, all our suffering, in this case, by hoarding housing and violently displacing human beings with police sweeps and anti-homeless architecture. All that would be needed is more numbers, consciousness, resources, and common discipline.
As I was initially reflecting on this, someone I used to know came out of the building, and we caught up. His name was Logan. He ended up in the HYC after he escaped an abusive situation with his father and developed a polysubstance addiction to cope with his trauma and depression, which he had barely recovered from by the time we first met in November 2019. We talked about how Portland had changed since I left, for better and for worse, and it was through this conversation I learned a third of the people I’d seen regularly had died, most of them from the pandemic, other from accidents and overdose. No wonder the city was angry—on top of decennial economic crises, climate change, and police brutality, and considering the infamous State reaction to loud discontent it should be understandable why they feel the need to fight back.
By day four the air condition had greatly improved.
On the fifth day another close friend of mine heard I was in town and invited me over to catch up. I hadn’t seen him since he’d left the HYC when I was still living in Portland; he was living with his girlfriend and pursuing a career in music. We smoked bottom-shelf pre-rolls and talked politics; he told me how he was getting interested in anarchism and wanted to know where he could learn more about horizontal economic and political theory. Then we had a conversation about the malignant mental illness of my sibling and how the trauma of poverty contributed to that, as they had also been in the HYC. We talked about activism in the city. He said that activity died down significantly due to the smoke, but things were beginning to pick up again, and that there was going to be a demonstration somewhere on SW 3rd Ave at six that evening. I asked him where on 3rd exactly, but he said he didn’t know for sure, having only heard about it and not knowing who posted it. He warned me to be careful if I went, to stick with crowds and to watch my back when I returned to shelter. I listened to some songs they wrote and departed not long after.
I sat outside OI (Outside In) until around four, talking with street kids and drop-in volunteers when they came downstairs. Eventually, I decided to leave early, with nothing to do and figuring I might find difficulty with the vague directions I was given. I had trouble remembering how to get to SW 3rd from Outside In. Even though I’d lived in Portland before—for months, in fact, being outside literally every day—I still only knew the city by landmarks and buildings. My phone was dead, and I doubt I would have found good internet access, so I couldn’t even look up directions. Eventually someone gave me a general direction. I took a MAX, but I was so exhausted I ended up hopping on the wrong one. On the train I also wound up forgetting the directions, and by the time I noticed my mistake I was in Northwest Industrial, so I had to spend another 30-odd minutes taking the train back. When I reached my stop, transit police boarded to inquire about tickets and kick off homeless people. As an advocate of the “Never Pay” movement regarding public transportation, I was at risk. I successfully slipped out without being noticed and began walking. Now I was back to square one. I was lightheaded from starvation, the effects of my present living situation, constant exposure to the elements, no place to recuperate and nowhere to sleep but a steel bunk between 9:00 PM and 9:00 AM in a dark shelter reeking of cancerous chemicals. Finally, someone explained to me SW 3rd was near the Waterfront, and as someone who guides themselves better by environment and intuition rather than street numbers, I wished I would have just been told that in the first place, as it was only a few blocks away from Outside In.
When I got to the Waterfront, I saw a crowd growing near Hawthorne Bridge. Even though we weren’t on 3rd Ave, I figured it might be related to the protest in some way. When I walked over, I was immediately disappointed. What I saw appeared to be the epitome of ‘Blue MAGA’ neoliberalism, a hopeless quasi-intersectional gathering where words and symbolism was put before action. Grown adults were wearing visually intrusive Biden/Harris and ‘Vote Blue No Matter Who’ t-shirts, which brought an empty bourgeois element to the scene. Children were present, as well as middle to upper-class 60-somethings, who both would not likely be present for anything important. People were being handed electric candles and pamphlets. There was a stage in the direction of the street and in front of it a memorial; they were setting up a podium where the hosts would presumably address the crowd. A woman walked by passing out candles. I asked her about the purpose of the event. Her response explained a lot. I wasn’t at the protest my friend told me about, but a memorial for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died within that past week.
I decided to stay to rest and observe. I have little against RBG except the nature of her career and a few decisions she made which harmed Indigenous land rights, which she apologized for, but words mean nothing, and it reflects the danger of that system. The thing about Ginsberg, and most importantly the people celebrating RBG her life and career, is they often think supporting her politics means ignoring and even justifying the inherent illegitimacy of her position, which she would have to be insane to want to pursue in the first place. The position she held in the supreme court is lifelong and unelected, without public referendum, without any formal public consent or participation, making it an authoritarian occupation regardless of your thoughts on her. The same goes for the theofascist who replaced her, and all politicians to some degree or another. The fact that people went on about her as long as they did without any indication that they understood this fact disturbed me.
The hosts went up to say a few words, on the career of Ginsberg, on feminism, on Judaism, tying it into their experiences as a Jewish woman. Afterwards, people began placing candles around a photo of her at the front, and I participated out of respect. One of the hosts notified us that there would be a direct action a block away near the Justice Center and Courthouse in half an hour, and that although it was meant to be peaceful it was recommended that children didn’t attend. I realized this was probably the one my friend told me about. Ten minutes later I went to the Courthouse and waited across the street in Chapman Square, near the Spanish-American war statue which to my elation was covered top to bottom with graffiti. The block was a masterpiece. The sidewalks, statues, parking meters, and nearby government buildings were covered in graffiti-ed statements like ‘We Keep Us Safe: Abolish the Police,’ ‘Bash the Fash,’ and ‘We Own These Streets,’ with insignia such as the Iron Front and the circle-A ‘Anarchy with Order’ symbol filling the gaps in between. Every interstice on the Courthouse was sealed, its entrance fenced off, with ‘ACAB,’ ‘BLM,’ & ‘1312’ among others tagged all the way around the side. With any luck, I thought, things would take a constructive turn, and we’d successfully set the place ablaze this time, sending a message to our court system which uses violence to create and facilitate second-class citizens for the prison-industrial-complex. Across from the courthouse there was a mutual aid station set up by activists, which provided water, medical supplies, and food to anyone who asked for it. To the right of the station (facing the Justice Center) was a statue built by an artist in the community, in the place of the bronze elk statue that was torn down during a street fight earlier in the summer. On either side of the statue was about twelve to fifteen tents belonging to occupants involved with the movement.
I noticed instantly that many of the occupants were in the homeless community. In fact, a good amount of them were people I used to see regularly at HYC drop-ins. I walked over and talked with them. They were apparently using their situation as an opportunity to help activists hold the area, and a few (though in the minority) were simply using it as a place to camp, even though they had good things to say about the activists. I figured it wouldn’t be difficult removing them, remembering my own experiences witnessing police sweeps, knowing the militarized brutes that the city employs to beat down the marginalized. Still, their presence seemed to have an important function. Similarly, in other cities like—such as San Francisco, where the homeless used their displacement to help occupy federal buildings—these demographics have played a helpful role in the struggle. Karl Marx derogatively called such demographics the ‘lumpenproletariat.’ He did not believe they had a useful revolutionary function, but it looks like his contemporary Mikhail Bakunin was right in challenging this point by placing emphasis on the bottom of the barrel.
Thanks to the involvement of the homeless community, there were consistent activists who not only experienced the worst of our hierarchical society but had far less to lose. They were always there to ensure the same message would be delivered: this was the People’s city, and there should be no racist, capitalist-intertwined State preventing them from making changes in accordance with public interests. If the People wanted to abolish, defund, or reform the police and allocate resources into more appropriate responders and institutions, it was the business of the locals. If they wanted to replace punitive and profit-based justice with humane and restorative justice, it was the business of the locals. If they wanted to establish programs to decrease crime by improving material conditions for desperate people, then that should be the business and right of the locals and only them. In many parts of the country, people are only pushing for defunding and demilitarization; in Portland, not only do they often understand why the police could safely be disbanded, but it’s also common that they understand we are ethically entitled to a participatory role in that decision.
We can’t vote it in, because we don’t have any actual democratic control; we just elect oligarch-friendly authoritarians pushed on us by corporate media and the Duopoly, who always ensure that the interests of the ruling class have their own security in the State. Any attempt to implement radical populist change, whether indirectly through electing (in my opinion, untrustworthy and insane) representatives or by taking direct assertive action, is swiftly attacked, which can be withstood but only with dedication and consistency. If successful on a municipal level, like in Minneapolis, there would always be a swift State intervention, like in Minneapolis. Our hierarchical economic and political system ensures that the most affected—the poor, people of color—have the least amount of power acting within the system. When they petition it’s ignored; when they protest peacefully, it’s common for it to be declared a riot anyway just so the police can legally shut it down, and when it turns out that violent institutions can’t be challenged without a violent reaction, then the only option besides submission becomes organized self-defense. They say this country is polarized, but the real divide is between those who think this system is unchangeable and those who understand that the only reason it remains is because we’re consenting to it. Those in power want as much of the former as possible.
I turned around to see someone coming in from the street behind me. They were dressed in an outfit meant to resemble the American flag. They had a stars and stripes t-shirt and shorts, and red, white, and blue knee-high socks. When they got nearer to me, they asked if I’d seen anyone marching. At first, I hesitated to answer. This was around the time that the Proud Boys and other chauvinist militia groups were coming into the city to attack protesters and correspond with the federal officers in the name of their quasi-divine nation and iron-fist leaders. However, I grew up in Idaho, a state which is culturally ultraconservative and politically corporatocratic to every extreme, and as such I recognize a nationalist when I see one. You can feel their angry insecurity, just like in the case of Democratic Party corporatism you can sense their pompous elitism and false egalitarianism. Perhaps on top of this I’m extra concerned about not attracting counter-protesters, since in Idaho they follow you around with AR-15s and machine guns mounted to the back of their Jeeps like a modern Volkssturm, even though at a certain point you must stand your ground. They did not give me this kind of impression, so I decided it was safe to engage. I told them that there was supposed to be a direct action at the Justice Center, but only a few people had arrived. To this, their eyes lit up.
“Direct action? Yes! Those are my favorite! Do you know when it starts?”
I told them that I didn’t know for sure, but no less than half an hour.
They introduced themselves as something or other and went on to explain that they were a career activist based in Gresham, near Portland. They said they were non-binary, and an advocate of neo-mutualism and police abolition. They’d gone to almost every demonstration in the Portland area since the riots following Trump’s inauguration in 2016—which a close friend of mine in Idaho also attended, where he helped throw a Molotov cocktail into the back of a police car with another guy who is now serving twenty years in a state prison for that act of righteous indignation. Although I have no way of knowing, from what they told me I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d also gone to the DNC occupation in January over Biden, the Duopoly, and neoliberalism in general. I was asked if I’d come with anyone. When I said no, they offered to accompany me, which I gratefully accepted. Right at that moment, a man who I’d previously seen by the Spanish-American War statue approached us. He was about six foot, five inches, bald, and a black shirt with biceps larger than my head.
“How is everyone doing?” he said.
“Just waiting for more people to arrive,” answered my new friend. “And I know, I know, but don’t worry—I just wear this to piss off cops.”
They gestured to their outfit.
He laughed, saying something like: “Oh, okay. Yeah, I was just checking to see if we were dealing with fash. I get the same thing all the time. I may look like a cop, but I promise I’m here for human rights. . ..” I turned away as they began a conversation. It looked like people were beginning to gather by the Courthouse. The numbers must’ve been near ninety and rising steadily. In August, the numbers got up to as high as thirty thousand, but I doubted it would be anywhere near that this evening. There were people wearing black bloc, carrying signs, gear, gas masks, leaf blowers, shields, etcetera, etcetera. The mutualist and I joined them shortly. Upon mixing in with the crowd, them and I had a conversation about how inspiring the energy was, how necessary it was, about police abolition versus defunding and the events over the past several weeks of protest.
We talked about democracy, and how the federal occupations, systemic racism, and ICE concentration camps are a product of the lack thereof, cultivating an authoritarian and strategically divided society for over the course of hundreds, even thousands of years. Our discussion prompted them to ask me my thoughts on anarchism, otherwise known as libertarian socialism. I told them that I thought labels can sometimes be counterproductive, but that my guiding principles are horizontalism, mutual aid, and self-determination; that my main concern is structurally breaking up and preventing monopoly (government and private) and establishing localized direct democracy, to ensure that people can have the ability to participate in decision-making to the same degree they’re affected, thus giving them the means to pursue socialism voluntarily based on their own interests and human instinct, separate from the obsequiousness and manipulation caused by complex hierarchy.
This response seemed to satisfy them.
“Exactly!” they exclaimed. “People think it’s about chaos and the absence of authority, but all anarchism is is authority—actual authority, derived from the masses! That’s why I love the word mutualism—it encompasses ideas central to human nature without triggering people.”
They started talking about how libertarian socialism was closer to the traditional idea of ‘American values’ (free association, the concept of legitimacy, etc.) than the political and economic structure laid out by oligarchs to psychologically ensnare the bottom eighty percent, and about how this was reflected both in the writings of prominent Enlightenment-era thinkers such as Rousseau and James Madison, and in the Declaration of Independence itself. To prove this, they recited an except in front of me, rapidly emitting syllables with their eyes staring upwards in thought. Next, they told me a story about shouting that at a cop a few protests back and watching him become visibly pissed. They told me that that same night another cop set a Prius on fire.
As soon as somewhere between 400 and 600 activists arrived, we began marching. We went up the street and turned, doing a loop around to the opposite side of the Justice Center. The sun set as we made this trip; I recall it being dark by the time we made the first corner. I’ve always been amazed by how quickly and early the sun set in the Portland area. Along the way, I noticed an uncanny absence of police. After an entire summer of intense confrontation, they were apparently trying a more covert approach. At one point someone noticed the green and red lights on an officer’s vest, and they were officially located on a commercial patio elevated just above the street, watching us from the darkness. We all began collectively mocking them. Hundreds of people, including myself, were laughing, pointing, flipping them off, and someone with a megaphone was saying things like
“You know, after all summer you’d think you guys would be getting better at this” and “If this this is where our tax money is going, I’m going to be honest, I’m not very impressed.”
It was a tribute to the entire energy of that summer in Portland, Seattle, and other places—don’t respect illegitimate authority, don’t respect enforcers of a criminal State and anything else which threatens our security.
I became increasingly worried that if something went down, I’d wind up being late for check-in at shelter, which would cause me to lose my bed. My anxiety was getting harder to contain, but I was still somehow enjoying myself, in awe of what was happening around us. Early into the night I was sharing weed with my new friend from a purple pipe belonging to a generous stranger, who at that time was trying to speak to the drummer of a local antifascist marching band whose name was catchy but escapes me. You may think that the use of drugs, even as minor as cannabis—which like all of Portland at all times was passed around liberally—takes away from the seriousness of the mission, perhaps even harming people’s dedication to the issues in question. On the contrary, it appeared useful for building morale, as well-being a piece of Portland culture nobody present gave a second thought to. That aside, once you understand the psychology of assertive demonstration, you’ll see this is just part of the spiritual embodiment of justice and grassroots authority, where in all ways people act in cavalier disregard to the spoken and unspoken lines set by the criminals who control our planet.
The entire reason people were there was because they were angry. They should be! At this point, it would be justified for all of us. The U.S. government was, and still is, practicing genocide in ICE concentration camps at the border. It was, and still is, providing subsidies to parasitical multinational companies while over 78% of American’s are living paycheck to paycheck and half the world is starving. It was, and still is, sending desperate and manipulated teenagers to kill poor people in imperialist wars. It was, and still is, beating down the homeless simply because capitalists lobbied for it, even though providing everyone with free housing is cheaper. But giving economic freedom to the poor is still dangerous for the master classes because it decreases inertia. It was, and still is, economically suffocating non-white communities, profiling them, murdering and imprisoning them at disgustingly higher rates for a plethora of unscrupulous motives. I’m neither advocating it nor criticizing it, but the consensus at more than a few of these events was to responsibly enjoy yourself while you challenged the enemy with everything the moment would allow, because you were not afraid of them, because staying positive in crisis is in itself a revolutionary act.
As Emma Goldmen put it: “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” This doesn’t mean abandoned discipline, which I would like to see more of; it means creating an environment which inspires people with the essence of communal comfort, reminding them of the world they’re fighting for. Speaking of dancing, somewhere along the line—and I know for a fact there is a video out there of me doing this—I grabbed two foam tubes off the sidewalk, handed one of them to a stranger, and we began spontaneously dancing in circles in the street, flailing them to and fro to the beat of the music blaring behind us. I carried this tube with me for most of the night, eventually sticking it onto a fire hydrant. At one point someone asked me if it had nails at the tip of it. He explained that at one protest people did exactly that to keep charging officers at bay.
By the time we returned to the Justice Center, I noticed I’d become separated from my new activist friend. It wasn’t important at that moment, though, and I knew I’d catch up eventually. For a period of about 15- or 20-minutes people were freely socializing and engaging in mostly political discourse—a few were banging on the steel doors of the Justice Center with sledgehammers while a group of people circled around them cheering and spectating. They were not successful at opening it, but notwithstanding it added to the energy. Basically, what we were doing now was taking a break to rejuvenate and wait for the facilitators of the protest to speak to the crowd, although only a few people knew this at the time. There were two people carting an amp and taking song suggestions. They were playing a few which I genuinely hope will be saved for posterity. This included Anderson Paak’s “Lockdown” among others. I asked them to put on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott Heron, which I’d been listening to religiously for the past month.
After a while of this we all went up to the back entrance of the Courthouse and people were given the opportunity to go up individually and share their thoughts. One of the organizers went up with a microphone and began talking about the history of the U.S. police force, how it was established to hunt down escaped slaves, marking its history-long purpose of protecting the interests of the owning class. After him, another person went up—a student from the Middle East who spoke of being abducted three days earlier on his way home following a peaceful protest, and then of being abused and interrogated in jail. The result: he was being deported for protesting. The reason he was protesting: his only relative, his brother, had been shot and killed by the police in New York.
Soon we continued in the opposite direction to do another lap. Almost immediately, seemingly out of nowhere, we were declared a riot. This was before any actual disturbance on our part, which I knew was all too typical when I arrived. Police were waiting for us around the corner, standing side-by-side in black militarized gear, the road behind them blocked off with police cruisers which combined darkness and smoke created an extra threatening ambiance. “THIS DEMONSTRATION HAS BEEN DECLARED A RIOT: PLEASE CLEAR THE AREA!” a voice boomed from their direction. There were a few heartbeats of total silence. Suddenly, four people, who from the looks of it were Portland Antifa who often accompanied protesters as security in case they’re attacked by counter-protesters or the police, began addressing us, warning people to put on their gas masks if they’d brought one. Everyone around me responded as though it were muscle memory. Someone nearby explained to me that they’d been tear-gassed and shot at with a volley of rubber bullets at the previous demonstration in an ambush-style attack. The police declared it a riot once, then again, and minutes later they struck by surprise, attempting to weaken and disperse the protesters as much as possible. Less experienced protesters began to panic, and some ran in the opposite direction, where a separate team ambushed. The energy that night I was there must’ve been similar. We were told that Antifa would form a wall of makeshift shields to guard the more vulnerable, with leaf blowers to help clear the gas, and chains, bats, and truncheons to fight back if necessary. I waited towards the back and tried to determine what the best reaction would be if things took a turn for the worst.
Fortunately, things didn’t escalate any further, and after 10 or so minutes, we continued up the road and back around to Chapman Square.
The incident made the crowd extra rowdy.
Two people in blackbloc went up to a Starbucks window and shattered it with bats. Someone in the crowd shouted: “What did you see?” Synchronously, everyone else shouted back: “Didn’t see shit!” The way they handled themselves made me proud of Portland. Starbucks, among other corporations, is nothing more than a racket. It replaces competitive wages and prices with monopolized ones; it extracts most of the capital generated by its employees for a few uninvolved shareholders; it lobbies to brutalize and displace poor communities; it uses beans grown on Starbucks-certified Brazilian slave plantations. It was justified and important to fight back; every politically conscious person in Portland would agree it was justified and important. It helps the community, and it only harms public perception if you go along with the myth that it’s wrong.
The people who criticize political vandalism most are often the same ones who look back on the Boston Tea Party or, if they’re more socially egalitarian, the Stonewall Riot as effective and justifiable incidents. Meanwhile, there have rarely been cases in history where complete passivism has not only helped the oppressing classes—keyword, complete—by creating an inactive and controllable political scene. In a moment of impulsivity, I ran up to another window and booted it as hard as I could with my steel-twos, scuffing it up a bit but not breaking it, afterwards feeling an intense pang at the tip of my foot for a few minutes until it was nullified by the adrenaline. I ran back into the crowd and kept an eye out for the Star-Spangled Anarchist. Not long after someone tapped on my shoulder. I turned around to someone dressed in blackboc and wearing a red medic band.
“Just wanted to say,” they said, “I don’t give a shit if you smash shit, but make sure that when you do it to wear dark clothing and keep your face covered, to blend into the crowd—see that blue shirt of yours? That’s exactly the kind of thing the feds look for.”
I nodded and quickly shoved my blue flannel into my backpack. I turned around and he gave me a thumbs up, then I kept moving.
The activists in Portland know the culprit behind systemic racism, our growing inequality, and police brutality. They understand private interest benefits strongly from keeping certain demographics vilified, vulnerable to exploitation, and made easy scapegoats for the problems caused by the elites themselves, which itself overlaps with classism. When rioting, Portlanders are not the terrorists or burdens to the community that corporatist media wants you to think they are. They smash windows, sure, but still there’s a general respect for personal property and local businesses, so it’s only the parasitical multinational chains, world-owning banks, and certain State property, all which belong to those responsible for the angry reaction, for suffering and death around the world at a more extreme rate than even the Nazis undertook, who should be concerned.
At the next corner, another person smashed a bank window. People cheered. (“What did you see?” “Didn’t see shit!”) When we made the turn back toward the Justice Center, I spotted the mutualist. They were letting someone take a photo of them near the sidewalk. I approached and the person they were with gave me a marker to write something on a nearby parking meter. I put down a quote by John Stuart Mill: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their aims, than that good men look on and say nothing,” adding it also to my foam tube, which I was still very much enjoying.
Another incident ensued roughly 10 minutes later, at a time when the back half of protesters were falling behind and there was an opening in the crowd. While the organizers leading us stayed down the road, a guy near the middle insisted we should turn. Very few bought this, but for a moment the more disoriented listened just long enough for us to erupt into temporary confusion. When the main organizer at the front noticed he made everyone stop and asserted we were continuing straight, and we needed to stay at a unified pace. After a bit of noise and arguing between him and the other guy, we disregarded the apparent saboteur and kept moving. A stranger randomly turned to me and said they’d seen him get into confrontations at multiple demonstrations and someone discovered he was corresponding with the police, but there was nothing they could do about it at the moment besides keep people informed.
I asked the mutualist what time it was. They said something like 9:00 or 9:10. This meant when we arrived at the Courthouse and Justice Center, I had to run to shelter as fast as I could, even though I would’ve liked to stay the whole night, for days even, perhaps months on end, years until the job was done. Many people want this, but we’re all waiting on each other to start organizing, and regardless of our political orientation many of us have the same fantasies and interests without realizing it.
After witnessing the atmosphere, and knowing Portland’s political scene, I’m inclined to say that most protests in this area are broadly anti-State, anti-capitalist. Most people there advocate for restorative justice, stronger democracy, and an end to feudalistic structures which thrives on inequality, on racism, on xenophobia, on synthetic polarization, on a blinded society in general. They publicly expressed their rage knowing full well even if they were innocent by our flawed legal standards, they risked being subject to mutilation, death, profiling, torture, spying, abduction, and incarceration slavery at the hands of the U.S. Government and the private multinational companies they’re intertwined with. If they are a person of color, this risk skyrockets. The precise motives vary from city to city, especially between reform, abolition, and defunding. In Portland, it is mostly abolition, to an extent tied in with all kinds of radical notions.
There is no empty idealism here. Police abolition is backed by countless studies and well-built research on human psychology and criminology. Among these include the recent Denver STAR program, which proves police are rarely needed as responders; the Kansas Preventive Patrol experiment, which indicates police patrols don’t affect the rate of crime; the Stanford Prison Experiment, which provides data for the notion that special authority corrupts; and the several developed theories, such as Robert K. Merton’s strain theory, providing empirical evidence that social and material conditions are the root of most crime, and therefore crime is most effectively prevented by improving such conditions, preferably allowing direct political participation in matters that affect us all. Abolishing the police department means finding the best professionals for the job, while building upon and democratizing other parts of government and productive life. It means having nurses respond to sexual assault cases, social workers to domestic crisis, etc., and for justice to be humane and restorative. It means that community security, in the rare cases where they are required, have no more authority than event staffing, instead of being able to murder you and damage your property indiscriminately as they defend the owning class. Police abolition means abolishing legal action against victimless behavior while heinous crimes are made rare enough that most communities can often rely on self-policing, and justice would often focus on treating mental illness, only in extreme cases separating people from society.
On the walk home I was terrified that I’d get picked up by the police. I saw four cop cars circling a block near Burnside. Two more as I walked across the bridge. I managed to make it to shelter barely on time. Every bunk was full except one, located in the center of the dorm two surrounded by 17 other beds. When I stayed at this shelter before, I had my shoes stolen five times in five months. Theft was especially common at that particular time. I’ve heard reports of sexual assault from almost every woman I’d known there which I’ve come to understand as a side effect of the toxicity and self-perpetuating illness created by poverty. This was enough to keep me anxious, despite the growing practice of mutual aid and teamwork in the homeless community, and that all in all I knew that most people in this community just want to keep their head down. I tried going to sleep so I would have enough energy to locate and attend another protest the following day. On top of being stimulated from the experience, I was too overheated and breathless to keep my eyes closed. I ended up staying until six in the morning talking with staff and writing notes. I awoke to the usual stress in the morning, with the shelter staff trying to get everyone up and out of the building before nine. Falling to leave meant losing a night. After going down the stairs out into the street I turned right to downtown, meeting my friend Phoebe at Outside In. I promised myself I would spend extra time in the moment that day, in order to savor the spirit of the city.