The stormtroopers are warming up
I know you’re weary of crisis and outrage
So am I. COVID cases surging. The economy in shambles. The nation so polarized that even the mildest act of safeguarding one’s own health and that of others by wearing a facemask is a politicized lightning rod. And every division in our society has become an open, gaping wound.
Frankly, I’d like to bury my head in some nice, warm sand and forget the whole mess for a while. Being an American these days is exhausting. But there is a clear and present danger unfolding — not coronavirus, although the pandemic is certainly contributing to the conditions that spawn the threat — and I can’t look away. I don’t want you to, either.
What’s going on in Portland, Oregon is a frightening harbinger
For weeks, photos of the brutal response to the protests in Hong Kong were front-page news, even in the midst of the COVID calamity. But right here on the West Coast, something similar is happening, and while it’s making the news, it’s not getting nearly enough attention.
I want it to have your attention. It’s time to worry.
Picture this: a young man attends a demonstration, as he has for many nights in a row. He’s a peaceful protester, and it has been a relatively quiet evening. He is walking back to his car to go home when men wearing green military fatigues and generic badges saying only “police” jump out of an unmarked minivan and approach him.
They don’t identify themselves or their intentions, and he has no way of knowing if they’re actually cops or some of the far-right extremists who have been seen harassing demonstrators in the city. Frightened, the young man runs for about half a block, until he realizes there’s no escape and he’s in real danger. He sinks to his knees, hands in the air. The men in fatigues surround him. They confirm he is unarmed. They say nothing to explain why they’ve stopped him; they simply grab him and shove him in the minivan. And then they drive away.
That’s not supposed to happen in America
As the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other news outlets have reported, what happened to 29-year-old Mark Pettibone in Portland, Oregon in mid-July is not an isolated incident. Federal troops from the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshalls Service, and Customs and Border Patrol have been deployed to Portland allegedly to protect federal property and monuments from “lawlessness.”
But they don’t behave like the police. They show up without warning and act without clear provocation. They don’t identify themselves. They don’t make arrests; they snatch and grab. They behave like what they are being used as: stormtroopers. Their purpose is not to enforce the law, but to quell protest through terror and intimidation.
And they are doing it all in direct opposition to the wishes of Portland’s mayor, who is also its police commissioner, as well as other state and city leaders. As Benjamin Fearnow ( sadly, aptly named) reports in Newsweek on July 18:
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told Trump directly on Friday to “keep your troops in your own buildings or have them leave our city,” as video emerged that appeared to show unidentified federal officers handcuffing a protester and placing them in an unmarked vehicle.
Oregon’s two senators and two of its House members have written to Attorney General Bill Barr to demand the immediate withdrawal of “these federal paramilitary forces from our state.”
The troops are not there to keep the peace
On July 17, Oregon Governor Kate Brown told reporters that the federal troops were only making the situation worse:
“Let me be very, very clear, having federal troops on the streets of Portland does not solve the problem and in fact, it escalates the problem,” Brown said. “I was very clear with [acting DHS] Secretary [Chad] Wolf about that fact. This is pure politics; this isn’t about problem-solving.”
Not only are the federal troops exacerbating the situation rather than calming it, Oregon’s state and local leaders contend it’s the troops who are violating the law. Oregon prosecutors are opening a criminal investigation into the case of one protestor whose skull was fractured by a “less lethal” weapon when fired upon by federal troops. The state’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit accusing federal officers of unlawful tactics, including the practice of pulling people off the street into unmarked vans.
As the New York Times reports, the strong-arm tactics are at the behest of President Trump, as part of his stated mission to “dominate” protesters:
Mr. Trump said last week that he had sent personnel to Portland because “the locals couldn’t handle it.”
The locals would like him to send his goons home, but he’s not listening.
Consider what this means for the near future
What’s happening in front of the Justice Center in Portland — and let’s be clear, the ongoing protests there are highly localized, with the rest of the city operating with its usual laid-back, albeit COVID-dampened, vibe outside the protest zone, despite how things look on Fox News — could well be a taste of things to come.
I urge you — seriously, I outright plead with you — to take five minutes to read Charlie Warzel’s opinion piece in the New York Times (“50 Nights of Unrest in Portland,” Sunday, July 18). He includes his interview with Robert Evans, a freelance journalist based in Portland who has also reported from Iraq and Ukraine, and who covers far-right extremism. Evans has been covering the Portland protests in-depth and in person, being on the scene about 30 nights out of the past 50.
What he has to say will make your blood run cold. But there are times when that needs to happen. Besides depicting a raw, on-the-ground take on the Portland protests, Evans makes the chilling case that the federal troops are there as a test. They are the Trump administration’s experiment to see just how far it can push things:
“Portland is being used as a bellwether to see what this administration can get away with. And also what works to quell protest . . . August is shaping up to be one of the hardest months in our nation’s modern history. September may be worse. And it will have to come to a head.”
What about November? Or January 2021?
Trump’s stormtroopers in Portland could be just a taste of what he may try to unleash if things don’t go his way — as seems increasingly likely — in November. With his constant, spurious attacks on voting by mail and, indeed, the Post Office itself, along with already salting his rants with claims that the election is rigged, it’s clear he’ll stop at nothing to skew the vote.
If he loses by anything less than a landslide, he will call foul and fight with everything at his disposal to remain in office. He may do so even in the face of an overwhelming defeat. And if we take to the streets to protest his refusal to bow to law and the voters’ will? Well, we’ve seen what he’s willing to do about that.
And when the time comes for him to relinquish power in January . . . I can hardly bear to think about that. But I have to, and so do you.
There are times when we should be scared, and this is one of them. But once we’ve registered our fear, we have to be ready to stand up for our rights.
Let your elected officials know what’s on your mind. And don’t let anyone or anything stop you from voting in November.