They’re the kind of scenes you’d expect to see in a dystopian movie: unidentifiable military guards grabbing protesters from the streets and putting them into unmarked vehicles; a photojournalist getting shot 10 times with impact munition by federal agents; angry demonstrators storming a police union building and setting it on fire.
Yet Portland, Oregon, is not meant to be a dystopian hellscape, but rather a laidback west coast city filled with friendly hipsters, microbreweries, and picturesque gardens.
With just more than 100 days before the US election, the so-called City of Roses now finds itself at the centre of a political storm, as Donald Trump tries to assert himself as America’s “president of law and order.”
Federal troops were sent to Portland to crack down on protests – without the consent of local and state authorities – raising constitutional concerns. Then, on Monday (US time) the President threatened to expand the policy by sending federal agencies into other cities “run by very liberal Democrats” such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.
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First some background, in case you missed it. In the wake of George Floyd’s death on May 25, residents of Portland, like millions of other Americans across the country, took to the streets to demand police reform and an end to violence against black Americans.
But what began in Portland as a fight against structural injustice soon morphed into something less tangible, as different groups joined in on the action.
When protesters stormed the federal justice centre in downtown Portland at the start of this month, federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security were sent in to deal with “violent anarchists”. According to Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, this action only intensified the discord.
“Our local and state law enforcement officials had contained the situation. The energy was coming out of the demonstrations,” Wheeler told CNN. “We had hoped they would end within a matter of days. And what happened instead is, the federal troops came in; they used their unconstitutional tactics; they injured nonviolent demonstrators, and the whole thing blew up again like a powder keg.”
It’s no surprise that Trump is using Portland to assert his authority, attack his rivals, and distract the public from his political woes. Successive polls in recent weeks have shown he is behind in critical battleground states, largely due to his mishandling of coronavirus, which has now killed more than 140,000 Americans.
Even fresh polling released on Sunday by Trump’s preferred media outlet, Fox News, found that the President trails Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden by eight points, with the virus outranking the economy as the number one issue for voters.
Trump has publicly derided the polls as “fake”, but in a sign of just how nervous his campaign has become, the President tweeted a picture of himself on Monday wearing a mask after months of downplaying their usefulness.
“We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!” he Tweeted.
But in the absence of a clear and consistent strategy to tackle the pandemic, the scenes in Portland fit with Trump’s narrative that “angry mobs” and “left wing fascists” enabled by Democrats are destroying America’s social fabric.
It also plays into the misleading claim that Biden wants to “defund police”, while appealing to voters who have growing concerns about violent anarchists, rising crime rates, and growing hostility towards police.
Some of these concerns are legitimate: just take a look at Chicago, where 63 people were shot over the past weekend, 12 of them fatally, while a shockingly violent clash between protesters and police ended up with multiple officers injured, including one having his eye socket smashed.
Something clearly needs to be done, but Trump’s push to expand federal policing into “very Liberal” cities without their consent, rather than trying to work with local authorities to tackle the issue, carries risks – for the President and the people.
Firstly, it’s a test on states’ rights, with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Oregon, and the state’s Attorney General both moving to sue the Trump administration over its deployment of federal agents.
Secondly, there’s every chance more innocent people could get hurt, or worse. In an interview with The New York Times, for instance, freelance journalist Robert Evans, a reporter in Portland who has also reported from Iraq and Ukraine, described the situation on the ground like this: “It’s as close up to the line as you can get to actual war without live rounds. It’s really hard for me to see how things go much further without people dying.”
Thirdly, America is a fiercely divided nation right now, which will no doubt play into the minds of voters ahead of the November 3 election. Continuing to stoke the divisions, rather than find a way to unite the country, is a risky strategy for a nation already on edge – particular when so many of its citizens are desperate to heal.