As thousands of BLM protesters continue to resist armed Federal agents on the streets of Portland, Rebel speaks to Bob Bacon, an activist on the ground.
Rebel: Just last week, it was announced that the Federal Troops will be leaving Portland’s streets. This seems like a massive blow for Trump and a U-turn in strategy for quelling the protests. Can you explain what caused such a major retreat?
Bob Bacon: First, it’s important we acknowledge that there is a split among the ruling class on how to best quell the protests, and there are still competing narratives from the two camps (on one end, Trump and those loyal to him, and on the other, the local and state-level Democrats) on what exactly is going to happen and when. For weeks before the Feds arrived, Ted Wheeler, who is the mayor of the city of Portland and commissioner of its local police force, was happy to allow the local police to gas and brutalise protesters night after night.
And before the Feds arrived, the nightly protests had dwindled to some degree, and while it’s impossible to know exactly what sort of communication occurred between Wheeler and Trump’s camp, it is naive to assume that Wheeler did not have consensual knowledge of the plan to bring the Feds in. In fact, it’s important to remember that before the Feds entered the scene, on several occasions, Ted Wheeler had petitioned Oregon State Governor Kate Brown to allow him to bring in non-local law enforcement.
That said, when the Feds arrived, a protest movement that in some areas had begun to lose steam, became revitalised, and protesters have once again taken to the streets, not only in massive numbers, but have sustained much of those numbers well into the later hours of the night. In addition, the character of the protests has broadened: mothers, military veterans, lawyers, healthcare workers, unemployed workers, and other sections of the working class are organising themselves to stand in solidarity with the movement for racial justice.
In other words, the decision to bring the Feds in was a test, one that backfired for their side, and now they have to scramble to quell a protest movement that is re-surging, and more importantly, building the bonds of solidarity among workers, and there is no consensus among the representatives of the ruling class on how that is best done.
Hence, Wheeler and company’s current attempt to align themselves with a protest movement they oppose. They will no doubt attempt to continue to hyper-focus attention on the feds (who should without reservation be expelled from Portland’s streets) and to shift focus away from the larger struggle: concrete justice for Black people, liberation for all those oppressed and exploited, and ultimately, a dismantling of the police. This is, historically, a role that liberals are adept at playing when other tactics fail to quell movements for liberation.
Rebel: A lot has been made about the deployment of the Federal agents, as opposed to the local police. However the protests are against police brutality in local forces and for the defunding or the abolition of police forces. What are the differences in behaviour between the federal agents and the local police? And what are the demands of the protests in terms of the federal forces, as well as the local police?
BB: As has been widely reported, the feds initially gained notoriety for their decision to enter the scene in largely ambiguous body armor, abduct protesters off the streets, load them into commercially-rented vans, and drive away to undisclosed locations to interrogate those protesters. Some of those to whom this has been done have reported that after abduction, they were questioned and pressured to reveal information on other protesters, and after refusing, were released a few hours afterward. Some of these comrades have attempted to request information on their arrests to find that there are apparently no logged arrest records. This is, of course, chilling.
In addition, while the local police have for the most part held back on inflicting the most severe violence on the movement until the nightly numbers have dwindled (though this behaviour has been by no means consistent), the Feds have shown a clear willingness to gas and attack people while there are still thousands, or many hundreds in the streets. Some have remarked that the Feds are more brutal than the local police. I think this is true to a degree, but I think focusing on this difference is misleading. A more accurate appraisal of behavioural differences between the local police and the Feds does not lie in a difference in disposition to inflict violence, but on the changing character of the movement.
The Feds could not wait for numbers to dwindle, because after the movement galvanised to oppose their secret police-tactics, the numbers were not dwindling. They were forced to either attack larger-than-expected crowds, or not attack at all. It is important to consider that the local police have countless times before taken this exact tack when they found themselves in similar circumstances.
Of course, with the Feds at the centre, the protesters have overwhelmingly demanded their removal from our streets — and this is correct — but we must be vigilant, in that after we concretely achieve their expulsion, we recognise two things.
First, it is our sustained presence in the streets that has forced this split among the rulers, has forced [Portland Mayor] Wheeler to pretend to ally with us, and is forcing the potential withdrawal of the Feds.
Second, we cannot allow Wheeler and other liberal representatives of the ruling class (white or Black) to co-opt this potential victory and use it to diffuse the movement away from the larger victories on our horizon.
Rebel: Portland has been rocked by protests nightly since the murder of George Floyd. Yet, Portland is the least diverse major city in the US. Can you talk a little about the long racist history of Portland, and Oregon in general, and why there has been such a large protest movement for Black Lives this time around?
BB: The state of Oregon was originally envisioned as an attempt to create a white haven, and this legacy had followed the state and the city up to the present day. In the 19th century, the very presence of Black people in the state was criminalised and the government has had a long history in which government officials were openly white supremacist. Today, Portland enjoys a ‘progressive’ veneer — but it is largely just that — a veneer.
Police murder Black, Brown, and poor people here as they do in all other parts of the country, and by-and-large escape justice for their actions.
Comrades and I have spoken to many in the crowds, which have been predominantly white (not a surprise in the least diverse major city in the US) and when we ask them why they showed up, the answers they give are fairly consistent — first, they empathise with the horror of day-to-day life Black people experience in a deeply racist society, and they want to see justice for the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. This is encouraging, and cuts against the newest idea currently peddled by local liberals — that the massively white showing among the crowds is an attempt to co-opt the movement and turn it into white spectacle. As revolutionaries, we must applaud and encourage what is happening, as this empathy is a crucial ingredient in laying the groundwork for deeper working-class solidarity.
Second, a good number of those with whom we spoke told us of the economic desperation they feel in their own lives. While many of them were not able to concisely put into words what they were feeling, there is a clear linking in their hearts with the exploitation they experience and the empathy they feel for the horrors experienced by Black people. Again, this should be encouraged, as we are seeing something of a preliminary emergence of class politics in the movement.
All those who care about the struggle against economic exploitation should care about involvement in this movement, as the struggle of Black liberation has always been at the centre of the struggle against capitalism in the US. And all those who care about the liberation of Black people, and in fact the liberation of any of the oppressed, must work to link those struggles to class politics, as ultimately, all of the amazing demands that have so far been brought forward by the movement, such as defunding the police, and further still abolishing the police, are frankly impossible without a militant, organised working class solidarity movement that can force Capital, whether liberal Capital or conservative, to capitulate, by conducting strikes, sit-ins, and other methods by which the only thing that Capital cares about — profit — is halted until demands are met.
Rebel: What have the protests looked like on the ground? Are there organisations that have been leading? What do you see as the next phase in the movement?
BB: Much of what has happened has been a mixture of some degree of organisation and a great amount of spontaneity. Early organising efforts began in a largely clandestine manner, and while it can be debated whether or not this tactic was necessary for security, at this point, what has emerged is a movement that on the one hand is incredibly inspiring and has pulled many people to their first protest, but on the other hand still lacks the organisational structure and open, democratic processes necessary to ensure that as we move forward, the leaders of the movement are selected by and accountable to the movement, and the rank-and-file of the movement hold a greater degree of say in what the movement does, and how it does it.
As it stands today, the leaders, at least those most visible, are self-selecting and largely unaccountable, except to those other self-selecting leaders who hold more sway than them. This has created a difficult, often frustrating dynamic in which class differences and competing political ideas have emerged on the street, and have, as-of-yet, been unable to be resolved in a clear manner. Of course, it is ludicrous to assume these problems would not emerge, and we must not be impatient in our strategies on how to resolve them, but they must be resolved.
As I mentioned before, it is only the sustained pressure of those on the streets that have gotten us to where we’re at now. To move forward we must maintain that sustained pressure, but that pressure must also be sustainable. Otherwise, all workers, even the most dedicated, will eventually arrive less and less often, and the movement will be more easily crushed or co-opted.
It is deep, democratic organisation that helps prevent this outcome — by allowing participants in the movement more buy-in into what is happening, by bringing in wider and wider layers of the working class to stand in a long-term manner in solidarity with Black lives, and by allowing open dissent and discussion to emerge, so that ideas of how we organise and what we do to carry this struggle to victory can be debated, agreed on, dismissed, tried, and refined.
At the root, what we’re doing in Portland is participating in a movement whose victory ultimately depends on workers’ struggle to emancipate themselves. That, by its nature, cannot succeed without democracy.
Bob Bacon, is a socialist activist and immigrant living in Portland, Oregon.