Some have dubbed it the “Say Anything” shooting, but what happened in Portland, Ore., earlier this month to 26-year-old Donavan LaBella after he held up an old-school boom box and started blaring it at an intimidating line of federal robocops — looking, in the eerie darkness, much like John Cusack in the iconic 1989 film — was anything but a light romantic comedy.
As captured on video, LaBella first rolled away a tear-gas canister fired in his direction by the heavily armed, badgeless federal officers, but then falls to the ground — struck in the head by a so-called less-than-lethal round, which in the case of this Portland protester was just barely less than lethal. LaBella’s mom told Oregon Public Broadcast that her son required surgery for skull and facial damage and that doctors were draining blood from his skull while watching out for permanent damage.
“An American has been shot and sent to the hospital for apparently exercising his right of free speech,” Princeton visiting professor Steven Strauss observed. But the LaBella shooting turned out to be only the near-deadly first shot in what has become an unwelcome and unwarranted federal occupation of a major American city by a shadowy secret police force that answers only to President Donald Trump and his minions like acting Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf.
As protests in Portland over police brutality and racial inequity near the end of a second month, these heavily camouflaged, helmeted, and anonymous agents have routinely fired tear gas — even though courts have mostly banned local police from deploying it — and projectiles at protesters near a federal building in Oregon’s largest city. And — as captured in video or described by victims — these agents even snatched peaceful protesters off Portland sidewalks, shoved them into unmarked vans, and took them for questioning without identifying themselves or their agency.
These are the kind of Kafkaesque, police-state tactics that most civilized folks hoped had gone the way of Chile’s late authoritarian (and U.S.-installed) 20th-century dictator Augusto Pinochet, only to return for the increasingly desperate and dangerous final days of Trump’s disastrous presidency, and America’s descent into madness and chaos.
These hazy, tear-gas-soaked nights in the Pacific Northwest have been five years in the making — the inevitable climax of a storyline that began on a morning in June 2015, when Trump descended a gilded escalator to start building a movement of right-wing rabble with hate speech against Mexicans. You were warned in the early days of his presidency, when Trump made good on his promise to the white supremacist unions of cops and federal border and immigration agents to “take the shackles off,” cheering on police brutality while setting the stage for agents to show up at schools and courthouses and disappear undocumented immigrants with deep roots in their communities. Those who said nothing or uttered toothless platitudes at these tactics, or the agents ripping toddlers from the arms of their parents at the Mexican border, shouldn’t be shocked by now seeing Gestapo tactics in the streets of Portland.
Indeed, Trump’s inexorable frog-in-boiling-water push toward full-on authoritarianism has been so successful that almost no attention was paid on July 1, when the government announced a program with the Orwellian name of Protecting American Communities Task Force, or PACT (apparently the “F” is silent), which had the stated goal of protecting statues and monuments. But PACT’s real open-ended and ill-defined mission seems to be escalating conflict in a handful of cities, like Portland, with the most-active far-left communities.
PACT is comprised of officers from an array of agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection (yes, even though the Canadian border is 285 long miles away) — whose union Twitter feed is a steady stream of pro-Trump propaganda, including diatribes against “the Radical Left” — as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Service. Under the leadership of Wolf — a presidential lapdog who wields the powerful hammer of Homeland Security even though he’s only been confirmed as an undersecretary — this is a “dream team” for a Trumpian secret police.
And there’s a very real chance that Pinochet-style federal policing may be coming to your hometown very soon. Acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli (also not Senate confirmed) told NPR on Friday that “this is a posture we intend to continue not just in Portland but in any of the facilities that we’re responsible for around the country.”
Wolf set the template for these unwelcome — literally no major government official in Oregon has asked for this intervention, and most have pleaded for the federales to go home — mini-invasions when he showed up in Portland on Thursday, snubbed elected leaders but met with the head of Portland’s police union, and posted a picture on Twitter of himself rallying the troops, whoever these troops actually are. “Our men and women in uniform are patriots. We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch,” Wolf tweeted — trying to make it sound like his camouflaged crusaders were ready to storm Omaha Beach rather than fire rubber bullets at graffiti vandals armed with chalk.
Wolf’s renegade Homeland Security army is tragic vindication for those of who’ve been warning since the early 2000s that the extensive security apparatus that America created after 9/11 — from that ominous too-1930s-Germanic sounding moniker of “Homeland Security” to the level of militarized policing unavoidable seen since George Floyd’s murder — would be turned against U.S. citizens, especially if America ever elected a president with an authoritarian streak.
For now, though, Trump’s 21st-century fascism is mostly a political performance. Unable to run on his leadership or his record, with a mounting coronavirus death toll that just passed 140,000, and an 11% unemployment that may get worse again before it gets better, the president is hoping to save his presidency with fear. But his desperate and misguided efforts to recreate Richard Nixon’s 1968 “law and order” campaign and somehow scare voters about Joe Biden won’t work unless he can bring nightly scenes of disorder and chaos into your living room.
Portland — home to folks on both the far-right and the far-left, in a state with a white supremacist past that contrasts with its reputation for hipster liberalism — has been in many ways the perfect laboratory. Until the last couple of days, the national media — with few, if any, reporters based in the region’s second-largest city — had been slow to grasp what was happening, yet pro-Trump Fox News was right on top of it, leading its newscasts with tear gas rather than coronavirus bumbling.
It’s a strategy that won’t work, as evidenced by a slew of recent polls showing Trump trailing Biden by anywhere from 11 to 15 percentage points. Far too many Americans have lost someone or watched friends and family members get sick from COVID-19, or experienced job losses, to get really worked up about graffiti on a federal courthouse.
Instead, Trump’s dictatorial strongman shtick is simply eroding the rule of law in America to levels that were once unthinkable, and raising the prospect that someone will get killed, on top of the folks like Donavan LaBella already maimed.
This needs to stop before it spreads to Chicago, or New York, or Louisville, Ky., or, yes, Philadelphia. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has tweeted that the unmarked federal forces in Portland are “storm troopers,” but the most powerful Democrat in Washington seems to have little or no plan for ending the program. Leaders in Oregon — including the state attorney general and the local ACLU — are suing to make the feds go home, but even a victory may not prevent PACT from moving elsewhere. Meanwhile, protests are likely to escalate, which presumably is what Trump wants.
Yes, it’s more than a little ironic that all of this is unfolding on the very weekend that the greatest living American in the arena of civil rights, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, died at age 80 (and that we also lost another champion of democracy, the Rev. C.T. Vivian). Lewis had a complicated relationship with the type of left-wing activists leading the current protests in Portland, but there’s no doubt that the late congressman — famously beaten by both angry mobs during 1961′s Freedom Rides and by Alabama troopers near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma four years later — would have been appalled at the government’s brutal crackdown on any form of dissent there.
“We are tired of being beaten by policemen,” Lewis said in his address to the 1963 March on Washington. “We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. ... I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.”
The air has been filled all weekend with political platitudes about Lewis, many of them from hypocrites who’ve devoted their political careers to fighting everything he stood for, from voting rights to basic human rights. There is so much work left undone to honor the legacy of this great man, but a simple start would be to get Trump’s tin soldiers out of Portland, today if possible.