31 July

One Man’s Truth: Nia’s Diary And The Lessons Of Portland

by Jon Katz

In one night, write Nia, a young protester in Portland who shared her protest diary with me, “the battle turned into a party.”

And all that was necessary for that to happen, she said, was for the police to do nothing.

Portland turned out to be a turning point in 2020, both for Donald Trump’s struggling presidency and the 2020 election campaign. We learned a lot about our politics.

We learned how there is nothing so sacred, dangerous, or dumb that President Trump won’t politicize it and pretend to heroically solve it. We saw him lie and lie and lie.

We learned that he is provoking and creating the biggest Army of Resistance since the American Revolution itself. He is trying to create a new kind of cultural civil war that could turn dangerous.

He may succeed with that.

Portland is worth thinking about. The latest reports from the city show that for the first time, there were no arrests, no violence, no serious confrontations between protesters and the police.

I feel grateful for Portland, I think they helped to protect our democracy.

The President has made it clear that there will be more confrontations and provocations daily, Portland will just be one of them.

But so far,  it is one of the most important, up there with Charlottesville, Tulsa, and Jacksonville.

With Black Lives Matter, confederate statues,  the moms, and millions of aroused urban Americans and suppressed voters, he has poked some powerful hornet’s nests.

He is going to get stung.

Last night brought a stunning – and for Trump, embarrassing –  change in Portland after two months of violence, outrage, and chaos in six square blocks of the city. He vowed to calm the city down, he nearly set it on fire with his clumsiness and dishonesty.

Last night, a protester named Nia agreed to lend me her eyes and ears and sent me her diary of the night real police brought real peace to a reeling community.

It was a big deal for her to be there, her mother back home in New Jersey was terrified, her father was proud, and she has a new boyfriend she met while both of them were being tear-gassed by federal agents posting as combat warriors.

“You never know about these things,” she e-mailed me, “but he seems really nice.” Nia wouldn’t make a convincing anarchist, terrorist, or worse, socialist! She is taking culinary studies, hoping to be a chef.

Trump has made arousing his base the critical strategy of his campaign. Portland was a key part of that.

He doesn’t appear to recognize that he is also arousing the other and bigger base. Maybe he’s working for Biden, not Putin. I’ve never seen or heard of so many summer soldiers coming back to the battlefield.

His promised “dominance” of Portland was a joke and a dumb one.

Night after night, his palace guard went out to gas and provoke and grab some protesters. The idea seemed to be that they would cut and run at the sight of so much power.

To see how dumb this was, think of waking up to a field of bees nests with a stick and poking it a few times to make the bees run away, and then being outraged when you were stung.

This went on night after night.

Joe Biden doesn’t have to do much but count his donations and get reporters excited about his vice-presidential pick, due to be announced next week. Trump is doing everything for him that he can possibly do – ignore the pandemic and the economy, and now threaten to cancel a national election for the first time in the country’s history.

What a charmer.

The Oregon State Police stopped the violence and calmed the city and kept the federal courthouse safe in the most radical and dramatic ways: they stayed almost entirely out of sight.

“It was unbelievable,” reported Nia. “We came to get gassed, instead it was almost a love-in. I saw a couple of troopers walking around in their Smokey hats, but mostly, you wouldn’t know they were there. Soon, we were dancing.”

Nia gave me a short timeline, which I write about down below.

So Portland primed us for what is becoming the central drama of this election: Trump’s determination to politicize every part of America’s civic life and historic tradition, including the election itself, even if lives are risked to do it.

Keep your blood meditation apps and iPhones handy. We’re heading into the thick of it.

It is always important to remember that thanks to Trump and Fox News and the growing conservative online media,  America sees everything – the pandemic, the protests, racial conflicts, confederate statues, the election – in two completely different ways.

If you watch Fox News, you will think of Trump as a kind of foul-tempered, immature but heroic Winston Churchill, gallantly saving Portland from thugs, anarchists, and terrorists.

Don’t expect Trump’s latest defeat to even be mentioned to his many millions of supporters. They live in a different world.

The moms are hardly mentioned, the protesters are all anarchists, or worse, terrorists. The suburbs will be the next battleground. He is fighting a holy war.

When it comes to Donald Trump and politics, we live in two different countries.

In the other media, the withdrawal of the federal agents was not portrayed as a retreat or humiliation for the President but as a great victory for law and order. The federal courthouse and the city was saved from Democrats and socialists, and only because of him.

Rural people hate the cities now and believe almost anything said about them. I think the cities are doing the same thing, to many urban people,  the country is no longer peaceful or bucolic, but a seething nest of bigots and fools.

If you watch CNN or MSNBC, it’s the eve of World War II, and the German Army is storming France. The Bubonic Plague is already here. Nobody should ever be forced to wear a mask.

It is challenging to get clarity or achieve balance when the media has been politicized too. Just where are we supposed to get the truth? I’ve been getting my Portland truth from Nia, a college freshperson who seems honest and funny.

And she is there.

On Fox, one does not get the sense of a community traumatized by an unprecedented and seemingly unnecessary injection of heavily armed, unwanted, not needed, and uninvited federal police into a city.

He is just fighting to protect us from…well, us!

Trump is our Daddy, he is protecting us, fending off the hordes of elitists and yes, socialists beating endlessly on him for no good reason.

On MSNBC, we are in a total meltdown. Armageddon is just around the corner, actually just around the White House. CNN is only marginally better.

Everything that happens in our country is used to divide us, not unite us. What a tough time for democracy.

If you read my blog, you will get a very different story, and I thought I ought to say that. You take your chances here. I have no informed sources unless you count Nia, who is very well informed.

This is what it will be like until January at least when somebody will probably have to drag  Trump and Melianna out by their hair, which in Trump’s case, will be a horror show.

I will repeat once more for my readers with anxiety: this Peronist Trump-in-the-bunker stuff he’s pulling isn’t working, and can’t work.

Trump and his supporters have joined in what is at the worst a political suicide pact, and at best, a post-election survival campaign. I think it is clear that Donald Trump knows he is doing to lose now – the pandemic and the economy will get him – so he’s just working hard to make sure nobody believes it when he does.

Even he knows he can’t stop and election. But can undermine it, he does it all the time. He’s tweet 73 times now about a rigged election while the death toll climbs and climbs.

Do not buy stock in the Republican Party for a decade or so.

Nia, a protester who has marched in Portland for a month, been hit with a baton and six rubber bullets and been tear-gassed almost every night, volunteered to send me an hourly update from the courthouse itself last night. I thank her for that.

We’ve been e-mailing each other.

I need to say this: There was real violence on both sides of this issue.

My feeling – fair disclosure – is that police and protesters both need to be held accountable when they hurt or kill people without justification.

Both harm our democracy in their different ways.

Cops who shoot black men or watch them choke to death should be prosecuted and punished. “Protesters” who fire lethal weapons like bricks, acid, explosives, and laser lights aimed at people’s eyes should also be arrested and prosecuted and punished.

There is nothing heroic about blinding a police officer standing 100 yards away with laser beams or tossing homemade explosives at him. It is cowardly and depraved.

Playing at a revolution is dangerous. Strangers in combat suits with guns may show up in your town.

What the DHS police never seemed to grasp is that once police officers are dehumanized by putting them in Superhero movie attack clothes, angry demonstrators and protesters and impulsive younger and older people will stop seeing them as human but as something alien and menacing

They don’t see them as people, but as cutout cartoons, like the Star Wars Storm Troopers, they see moved won by the thousands in movies.

The federal agents never tried to talk to the protesters or listen to them.  They obviously knew nothing about them.

They simply came charging out, swinging batons, firing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets. They expected the demonstrators to melt.

When the moms showed up to protect their kids, they showed us that in a democracy, you couldn’t merely bludgeon away the right to protest.

The federal agents did something trained police try never to do – make themselves the issue, especially during a time when police brutality and insensitivity itself is so big an issue.

These federal officers were exploited and misused, they were sent into a trap, a cynical political skirmish they couldn’t possibly win. As is often the case, police are thrown into the middle of complex emotional conflicts they have no way of resolving.

When the agents overreached in suppressing the demonstrators, they lost. When they stopped, they lost again. Apart from killing scores of people, there was no path to winning.

They become cannon fodder for our indifference.

Once again, President Trump shows his greatest skill is turning out to be enabling and arousing a great resistance that will almost certainly him from power.

He’s got the whole country aroused now, and at fever pitch. Sadly, lots of people will get hurt – protesters, police, clerks in stores asking people to put their masks on, kids tearing down statues honoring treason.

It is absurd at this point to dignify the idea that Trump is powerful enough to seize control of the presidency by undermining a presidential election.

There are plenty of institutions in Washington able and ready (and eager) to haul him out of the White House if it comes to that. It won’t. He’s a coward, not a warrior.

The President is eager to distract people from his looming defeat.

My idea is to do something rather than wring my hands. Volunteers are needed everywhere.

Violence does beget violence. Scores of protesters testified that the federal agents never gave warning before they came out firing gas and rubber bullets at demonstrations.

Nia and many others say most people were peaceful.

The federal agents and their arrogant leader, Chad Wolf, the acting and illegal head of Homeland Security, made it clear when he came to Portland that he saw the protesters as the enemy -thugs and anarchists.

Since he had no respect for them or what they were doing, they had no respect for him and what he was doing.

He forgot that he needed the people of Portland to support him if he had any chance of succeeding.

Either you fix it or we will, he boasted. I hope he can ever get the egg off of his face.

No sane law enforcement person insults the people he or she has to subdue and control.

The mostly young crowd was happy to oblige the stereotypes of them. The federal occupying force, at the President’s direction, took the protesters much more seriously than they took themselves. So they got serious.

Every night, the protesters showed up with new weapons, new devices, new laser beams, helmets, water bottles, fireworks, and rocks.

Even Chad Wolf could see where it was heading – somebody was going to get killed.

What the feds saw as dangerous subversion was another chapter in Portland’s cherished status as a center of free spirits, oddballs,  protest and mostly minor vandalism.

It’s where young revolutionaries often to go act out fantasies of rebellion, and older people see protest as a way of life.

The moms understood this – enough was enough; they seemed to be saying –  and moved right in.

The state troopers understood this also and realized that they were there to protect everybody, not inflame them.

It is welcome and refreshing to see what a professional and well-trained police force can do.

We saw it last night. The Portland troopers reminded us that we need police officers, and there a lot of good ones.

What began as a Black Lives Matter protest had, from the BLM’s point of view, devolved into an us-versus-federal-agents protest and battle.  The media was happy to focus on a new cause.

They got their cause back last night.

Around 10 p.m., says Nia, protest organizers walked through the crowd and passed out goggles, helmets, and ear protection coverings. They expected the federal agents to come out after midnight or if the demonstrators got close or loud.

None of those things were used Thursday night.

By 10:15, the rally was over, there were no agents or troopers, people started to leave or went to hang out in a nearby park.

The troopers had taken control by not showing up at all. All it took to stop weeks of protests were no police.

The demonstrators waited for hours  Thursday night for them to come out shooting, but they didn’t come out at all. They stayed inside the courthouse until 1:30 a.m. when most of the bored demonstrators had gone home.

The demonstrations, which started as protests against police brutality, had now focused instead on the federal agents once they appeared in their combat camos.

“We came to protest police brutality, we ended up protesting Trump brutality,” said Nia, “by the end, it was all about him.”

Nia’s notes make clear that a local police force will almost always do better than a foreign one inserted against the will of the local government and population.

“The troopers were Portland, they seemed calm and cool,” she said. “They weren’t looking for trouble, and the thing of it, honest, is we weren’t either. It’s no fun to be  tear-gassed, night after night.”

Truly autocratic governments – Brazil, Argentina, Russia, China, Egypt – have responded to protests by shooting or arresting everyone in sight and taking control that way.

America is not there yet, but it is troubling to remember that everyone who runs those countries is a friend of Donald Trump.

Try as he might, Trump isn’t there yet, and no sane or rational person believes he will get there. This is the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, not Hitler and his Storm Troopers.

He sent in an Army, but only the clowns showed up.

The deal was this. The Oregon State Police are now in charge of protecting the federal property that was ostensibly the reason for the federal agents to be sent.

If things calmed, then the agents would gradually leave, starting today.

The changeover was to take place Thursday evening.

Nia (and reporters there) said about 2,000 protesters showed up fully prepared to do battle – masks, towels, leaf blowers, drums, scarves,  fireworks, shields. Most of the crowd came to witness the dangerous and highly charged nightly battle between the demonstrators and the federal agents.

“We assumed the agents were still inside, the rumor was that Trump had said they weren’t going anywhere,” said Nia. “But I wasn’t getting gassed, I took out my cell and we listened to some music. It was getting mellow there.”

A few people stood on the concrete barriers near the fence outside the courthouse. There were some chants and protest slogans.

“Revolution, nothing less,” shouted one demonstrator just in from L.A. The Portland kids didn’t seem interested in revolution, the target of their fury – the agents – were nowhere to be seen.

By 11:15 said Nia, the dwindling crowd was mostly subdued, there were still no officers – agents or troopers – in sight. Most of the protesters were now in Lownsdale Square waiting for something to happen, she said, as it always had.

“People brought drinks, music, some pot,” Nia said, “it started to look like a party.”

There were some speeches, and a few people threw bottles over the fence, but still, nobody came out of the building. Clearly, the new idea was to leave the demonstrators alone unless it was necessary to stop them.

At 12:15, several organizers calling for peace rushed to douse a small fire near the fence with bottled water. It was quickly extinguished. Most of the people standing next to the fence sat down and turned back to the crowds. They all shared snacks and water.

“Some people got violent most nights,” she said, “but most of us didn’t like it. We kept shouting at them to go home, and they did.”

By 12:30 a.m., many people started to leave, several hundred remained.

By 1 a.m., the tension of previous nights was almost entirely gone, and people relaxed, said Nia, “they were singing and dancing in the park.” One trooper came up to the fence, he didn’t even have his hat on.

Somebody knew him, she said. “They waved to each other.”

By 1:30 a.m., said Nia, there were only 300 protesters left around the courthouse – there usually were thousands  most nights. Even the Portland Police had left, and the troopers had still had not yet been seen in any force.

Later a few troopers came out to look around and then went back inside. The officers wore their usual ranger broad-brimmed hats, and the battle for the Portland Court House seemed to be over.

“It was like they were tourists,” she said, “they didn’t have any attitude..”

The anarchy Trump had promised us seemed to fizzle. The minute the federal force left, the worst of it was over.

The hard truth is that he lied about the danger, he lied about the people protesting, he did enormous damage to the credibility and effectiveness of a bloated and unaccountable Department Of Homeland Security.

He woke up millions of people to the dangers of the vast and militarized law enforcement machine America has been building for years while so many of its citizens can’t afford school, health care or rent.

There will be a reckoning at the budget time next year.

Rather than leadership, Trump is reminding us that he would grievously damage our democracy rather than surrender political power.

To me, that is not the cry of the left or the right.

It’s the truth, and truth sill matters.

A hero to many, he is Thomas Jefferson’s worst nightmare.

Speaking only for myself, I would rather be rudely awakened from deep sleep than oppressed.

 

2 Comments

  1. I am a dispatcher for Oregon state police and I am so proud of how my agency handled this. I am also happy to be able to read about how the protesters viewed their presence last night. Thank you for your article showing Portland and Oregon not as an out of control democratic state but a collection of people try to do the right thing from all sides with dignity and respect.

    1. Thanks, Val, so good to hear from you, I am full of admiration for the Oregon State Police showing what a professional and well-trained department can do, an important message right now. They just handled it perfectly, and in doing so, taught the protesters to do the same…As a former police reporter, I am full of admiration for them ..I hope they know how much they are being appreciated…

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