After weeks, and in some places months, of protests following the murder of George Floyd, demonstrations in most places have subsided. Many of those who demonstrated their outrage against the racist brutality of the police may no longer be in the streets, but they feel like they had accomplished something. And they have.
The demonstrations forced a discussion, and in some places actions, addressing police terror and brutality against Black people. The decisions, symbolic or not, to reduce funding for the police, to establish some limits to the terror they represent in many communities and to substitute social workers for cops in various situations are being discussed or implemented in a number of cities and towns. Monuments that commemorated slavery and colonialism were toppled, which led to local and state governments carrying out or promising to carry out an end to the honoring of those who represented the open racist foundations of the U.S.
Trump viewed these actions as an attack on the America that he said he wanted to make great again – the America he campaigned on. He launched an attack on the movement, sending federal forces into the streets of Portland in mid-July to put down the demonstrations that had been continuing for months. In addition, he threatened to send troops into Albuquerque, Chicago, Oakland, Philadelphia, and other cities, to protect federal buildings or to supposedly combat street crime.
Sending his heavily armed “armies of the night” into the streets of Portland, dressed in camouflage, with no identifying insignias or names, to attack people was meant as a warning to the rest of the country. Those unidentified military units rolled up on demonstrators in unmarked vehicles and snatched them off the streets, taking them to various detention facilities – subjecting them to questioning before releasing them.
Trump and his spokespeople claimed that their troops were in Portland to protect Federal property and to restore order. The reality was that the demonstrations had been declining. But in the face of this invasion, many people who hadn’t been active, felt they had to oppose this occupation of their city, and joined the demonstrations. Far from being “professional protestors,” as Trump and his underlings claimed, the demonstrations were made up of a broad cross-section of Portland and the surrounding area. The only “professional protestors” in the demonstrations were undercover government agents.
Vicious attacks against those who were demonstrating were captured on cell phone cameras and sent throughout social media. When two older military veterans were brutally assaulted – one pepper-sprayed at close range and another thrown to the ground, shattering his hand, it was a guarantee that many could no longer sit back. Democratic politicians – the governor and the mayor (who was also tear-gassed) called for the withdrawal of the forces that had invaded the city they were supposed to be responsible for governing. Democratic mayors and governors and city councils across the country, whose cities were on the Federal “hit list,” spoke out against this abuse of federal power.
The troops are being withdrawn from Portland and small demonstrations continue. But this is not the end of Trump’s election strategy. The attack on the people of Portland was an attempt to distract attention from the out of control pandemic and the social and economic crisis that has resulted. It is also a warning of what could lie ahead, as the November election nears. Trump still claims he has the right to send in Federal troops and he threatened to mobilize the National Guard in Portland if the demonstrations don’t subside.
Trump’s claim to restore “law and order” is aimed at his supporters who are losing faith in his ability to solve the many problems they face. The insecurity that has swept the country was brought on by the failure to address the spread of COVID-19. The spread of the virus has led to a social crisis of staggering proportions. Aside from the fear of illness and the growing numbers of people hospitalized and dying, the massive unemployment, food shortages, the collapse of education, and the threat of mass evictions – weighs heavily on individuals and on families. This is the crisis that helped to propel people into the streets in response to the horrific murder of George Floyd. And this is the reality that Trump wants to hide and the unity that he wants to divide.
The pandemic has also accelerated the street violence that has become part of life in many U.S. cities and towns. As tensions have increased due to sheltering in place and a disruption of normal life, it has led to clashes in the streets and shootings and killings. Trump’s threat to send troops to quell street violence is a bluff at best and an excuse for more police violence at worst. Either way, it plays to the racist fears he works to keep alive among some of his supporters.
Trump’s comments denouncing the demonstrations and calling activists in Black Lives Matter terrorists provide support to racist and openly fascist groups like the Portland-based Patriot Prayer, the Proud Boys and others. This also included those who are part of the “Boogaloo movement” that aims to incite a second civil war – a race war in the U.S. Some of them infiltrated the recent demonstrations, attempting to incite property damage and violence – including against the police. In a number of cities local police have arrested and identified people with links to this “movement.” Two of them were arrested for the killing of a guard at the Federal building in Oakland. But in denouncing what Trump calls the violence of the demonstrations, and his concern for the safety of the police and federal property, there has been no mention of these groups. All that spews from Trump’s tightly pursed lips are attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters. There is no question where he stands.
Trump and his policies represent a threat to our lives. His arrogance in using the powers that he has as President, has exposed the enormous power that rests in the hands of one person. He has shown he is willing to use that power against protestors who are simply exercising what are our supposedly protected democratic rights.
The people of Portland were right to stand up to the brutal force and occupation that was unleashed on their city. They were right to stand up for their democratic rights. And as the November election approaches and the crisis brought on by the pandemic continues, we have to keep those lessons alive. Regardless of who is in office – a Trump or another politician – we cannot depend on them to solve the problems we confront. We have to rely on ourselves to determine the conditions of our lives.
Featured image credit: Doug Brown/AP