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The Internationalist
  July 2020

Trump and Democrats Assault Protesters

Federal agents emerge from the boarded-up federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon, in the early morning hours of July 21, seeking to intimidate and disperse protesters against racist police brutality. The protests only grew larger.
(Photo: Mason Trinca for The New York Times)

PORTLAND, Oregon, July 21 – Unidentified federal agents in unmarked vans cruising city streets, kidnapping protesters to haul them in for “questioning.” Others shooting unarmed protesters in the face with impact munitions. Feds holed up in a boarded-up U.S. District Court, firing through peepholes cut in the plywood that covers doors and windows, periodically charging out to attack protesters with tear gas. City police outfitted in camouflage, riot gear and gas masks, tossing flash-bang grenades and firing plastic bullets, working in tandem with the feds. This scene that could be from a film about some U.S.-backed Latin American military junta has been playing out in real time on the streets of Portland for days, as federal paramilitary forces and city cops have sought to intimidate protesters against racist police brutality – to no avail.

The feds’ provocative tactics and police-state measures have stoked massive opposition, here and nationally. As outraged protests grew into the thousands, the mayor, governor, both U.S. senators from Oregon and virtually every other local and state official called for the federal forces to leave Portland. The state attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal agencies for violating constitutional guarantees. Acting DHS chief Chad Wolf retorted that “I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors, or state governors,” adding that the feds were staying, “whether they like us there or not.” Next up: with 150 federal agents poised to go to Chicago, Trump yesterday took aim at New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California, “all run by liberal Democrats.”

Federal agents in unmarked van abduct protester, July 15. The kidnappers were from BORTAC, the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, using the same police-state tactics as they do against asylum seekers along the Mexican border.  (Screenshot from Twitter video)

The pyromaniac in the White House is throwing fuel on the fire, overtly seeking to provoke explosions of unrest as an election tactic, in order to pose as the “law-and-order candidate.” He wants to frame the vote as Trump vs. antifa. This is the sequel to his attempt to impose martial law in Washington, D.C., in the first days of June. Yet at that same time, Democratic mayors decreed curfews and Democratic governors mobilized National Guard units to put down protests over the racist police murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop on May 25. The bipartisan repression backfired, as Black Lives Matter marches grew and spread spectacularly. Now, once again, after Trump denounced protesters as “anarchists and agitators” on Sunday, on Monday thousands converged on downtown Portland, led by a “Wall of Moms”: “I am the face of anarchy,” said one grandmother defiantly.

Trump’s use of his Gestapo of secret police forces, assaulting protesters to sow terror, is an ominous threat to the democratic rights of all. It is a major step toward the imposition of direct military/police (“bonapartist”) rule. But while Democrats pose as heroes of the “resistance,” the reality is that the vast majority of the thousands of arrests and innumerable brutal beatings of protesters in the last few weeks have been carried out by police forces under the command of Democratic mayors and governors. The Democrats threaten lawsuits and legislation, but that won’t stop Trump and his stormtroopers. The Internationalist Group calls for workers strikes and mobilizations together with all the oppressed, against racist repression and martial law threats. In the present sharp crisis, the IG and Class Struggle Workers – Portland raise the call: “Cops and feds get out!

“This Is What a Police State Looks Like”

Following the racist cop murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, there were massive "Black Lives Matter" in Portland that have continued ever since. Above: July 10 demonstration against racist police brutality outside the Multnomah County jail and Portland police headquarters. (Photo: David Killen / The Oregonian)

For the past 54 days and nights, protests against police terror have shaken downtown Portland. Across the U.S., millions have joined in Black Lives Matter marches in at least 2,500 cities and towns (see “To Uproot Racist Oppression: Socialist Revolution,” The Internationalist No. 60, May-July 2020). In Portland, where police have a history of working hand in glove with fascist groups like Patriot Prayer and even have officers who have celebrated Nazi war criminals, the repression has been particularly vicious. Cops fired gas grenades against anti-racist protesters so wantonly that Democratic mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also in charge of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), was nicknamed “Tear Gas Teddy.” Just about everyone wanted him gone.

But after demonstrators on June 13 tore down a statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the high school bearing his name in an historically black neighborhood of north Portland, and then on June 18 toppled a statute of George Washington, racist Republican president Donald Trump set his sights on the city. Ranting about “anarchists and left-wing extremists,” Trump signed an executive order on June 26 announcing his intention to prosecute “desecration” and “vandalism” of federal property and monuments. The next day, federal officers in camo with military-style helmets showed up at the federal courthouse, next to the Justice Center, site of the Portland Police Bureau and Multnomah County Jail, where protesters have been rallying for weeks. The feds’ provocative presence stoked further protests.

Feds pepper spray protester from peep hole in barricade in front of federal court on July 4. But demonstrators had their own fireworks display.  (Photo: Jonathan Levinson / Oregon Public Broadcasting)

On July 4, as Oregon Public Broadcasting (19 July) reported: “After more than a month of police using tear gas, impact munitions and flash bang devices to disperse enormous crowds and largely nonviolent demonstrations, the protesters on Independence Day had a fireworks display of their own.” After cops shot randomly into the crowd, volleys of fireworks were fired at the “Justice Center” and courthouse, which “had come to represent everything the demonstrators were protesting: racism, police brutality and an unjust criminal justice system.” In the following days Portland was flooded with police from the DHS and other federal agencies, including the Federal Protective Service, U.S. Marshals Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.), and the paramilitary Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC).

Using graffiti on federal buildings as an excuse, federal officers have been running amok in downtown Portland. A video shows heavily armed men in fatigues jumping out of an unmarked van and nabbing a suspected protester. A woman cries out, “Who are you? Use your words.” Silence. “I was terrified,” Mark Pettibone told the Washington Post (17 July), saying he “did not know whether the men were police or far-right extremists” who often don military gear. The Nation (17 July) reported that the kidnappers were from BORTAC. A few days earlier, federal officers were caught on video shooting 26-year-old Donavan La Bella directly in the head with a “less-lethal” projectile, fracturing his face and skull and requiring him to undergo surgery. And on July 18, a video showed U.S. Marshals beating and pepper-spraying a stoic Navy veteran, Chris David, 53, who wanted to ask them why they were violating their constitutional oaths.

Donavan La Bella recovering in hospital after being shot in the face with impact munition by federal agents, July 12. (Photo: The Oregonian)

Voices of the capitalist establishment complained that this slap-dash army was not trained in crowd control. Yet their purpose was not to “control” protesters but to terrorize and provoke. The sight of snatch squads in unmarked vans tooling around town abducting protesters recalls the Argentine military junta in the 1970s, as it dispatched green Ford Falcons without insignia or license plates to grab leftists off the streets. This is what a police state looks like. And it’s not new. For years I.C.E. cops have prowled immigrant neighborhoods across the U.S. in unmarked vans, hauling off detainees in unmarked buses for deportation. (The Nazis deported people in box cars.) For the 15 million undocumented immigrants and their families living and working here, the U.S. was already a police state under Democrat Barack Obama . . . and continues to be so today. Now the rest of the population is getting a taste.

But the feds have a little problem: the fascist-infested Portland police have used such tactics so often in the past that they have ceased to intimidate. As a freelance journalist who had reported from Iraq and is now tracking the far right in Portland commented: “nobody is scared of the cops anymore. At a certain point of being subjected to police flash bangs and gas, you stop fearing it” (“50 Nights of Unrest in Portland,” New York Times, 18 July). Asked if the image of feds in unmarked vans, “which feels so nakedly authoritarian,” was “the purest example of American militarized policing” or “something different,” the journalist, Robert Evans, replied: “It’s something different…. Portland is being used as a bellwether to see what this administration can get away with. And also what works to quell protest. The police tactics don’t work.”

Feds fire tear gas at crowd besieging their bunker on July 21. Portland cops have used gas and flash bang grenades so often while defending fascists that protesters are no longer intimidated. (Photo: Noah Berger / AP)

A spokesman for the Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said the same: “I think Portland is a test case … they want to see what they can get away with before launching into other parts of the country.” Portland is just the most recent instance. In June, heavily armed police in Columbus, Ohio, were filmed tossing an arrested protester into an unmarked van (Raw Story, 25 June). Key to this operation is cooperation with the local police. While Mayor Wheeler pretends the city is not cooperating with the feds, the PPB said it provided “help” to federal officers on the night of La Bella’s shooting, and police chief Chuck Lovell “confirmed the two forces share real-time plans with one another,” sometimes pushing demonstrators down parallel streets (The Oregonian, 19 July).

For Labor/Black/Immigrant Mobilization Against Racist Cop Terror

Thousands gathered on July 20 in front of the Portland “Justice Center” to demand that federal agents leave.  (Photo: Beth Nakamura / The Oregonian)

Chapman Square is surreal. Federal agents emerge at night from the barricaded federal court building to fire tear gas into the crowd, stand around for a while like ghosts in the darkened park, then retreat as hundreds cheer. “Feds Gas Moms & Dads” read the headlines (Portland Mercury, 21 July). Along with the several hundred moms in yellow t-shirts, many with helmets, masks and goggles, PDX Dads now bring leaf-blowers to clear tear gas. PPB police cover their name tags with tape bearing city personnel numbers, supposedly to prevent “doxing” of officers (actually to make it difficult to sue them). City cops and feds justify attacking journalists and legal observers on the grounds that their presence makes clearing the area “complicated.” A livestreamer is disappeared. DHS chief Wolf responds to “feds out”: “If we left tomorrow they would burn that building [their bunker] down.” Maybe.

Wolf complains that federal agents are getting bad press: “These police officers are not stormtroopers, they are not the Gestapo.” (Kind of like Richard Nixon declaring, “I am not a crook.”) Meanwhile, liberal columnist Michelle Goldberg asks in today’s New York Times, “Can we call it fascism yet?” This is a common liberal/reformist conception, applied to any particularly repressive regime. But as Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky underlined in “Bonapartism and Fascism” (1934) and other writings on Italy and Germany, fascism is a movement based on the ruined petty bourgeoisie, or middle classes, from which Mussolini recruited his black-shirt thugs and Hitler his Nazi brown-shirt squads. Pinochet’s Chile or Franco’s Spain, on the other hand, were bonapartist military dictatorships based on the capitalist state apparatus.

It’s not just a matter of definitions: behind labeling Trump an actual fascist lurks the political program of forming an “anti-fascist” popular front chaining workers and the oppressed to a wing of the bourgeois ruling class. In the U.S., various Stalinists and social democrats, each in their own way, are looking to the Democratic Party, or sections of it. The Democratic Socialists of America jump right in, running for election as Democrats, while the eccentric, Maoist-derived “Revcom” personality cult and its Refuse Fascism front group, with their calls to “drive out the Trump/Pence regime,” want to hook up with wayward liberal Democrats. Yet not only are Democratic mayors “the bosses of the racist killer cops,” as we have emphasized, but Democratic administrations have done as much or more than Republicans to beef up the police apparatus, while basing their “resistance” largely on appeals to the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus.

Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Bill Clinton in 2010. Democrats are directly responsible for the police occupation of African American and Latino neighborhoods and for the militarization of local police.  (Photo: Charles Dharapak AP)

For decades, in and out of the White House, Democrats have been key to ramping up the forces and powers of the central apparatus of reactionary repression (which the fascist groups work to augment): the capitalist state. Barack Obama greatly expanded the Border Patrol and I.C.E. immigration cops, while the 1994 Clinton-Biden “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act” created the COPS program, which  has funneled $30 billion to local police (and Clinton's 1033 program provided them with billions more in military equipment). In the guise of “community policing” and fighting “terrorism,” the Democrats are directly responsible for the cop infestation of African American and Latino neighborhoods and militarizing the police. And most Democratic Senators voted for the 2002 Homeland Security Act that Trump is using as the “legal” basis for sending in the feds.1

The actual fascist groups in the U.S. today are relatively small and populated with bizarre figures (“Baked Alaska,” “Based Stickman”), compared to the mass fascist militias of the 1930s. But fascist/ultra-rightist forces have been emboldened by Trump and often (like the III Percenters) interpenetrate with police forces, which are shot through with fascistic elements prominent among cop “unions.” Moreover, the marauding feds with their snatch squads send a signal to their fascist auxiliaries. As U.S. capitalism’s “triple pandemic” of the deadly COVID-19 plague, mass joblessness and racist police murder intensifies, with tens of millions set to lose supplementary unemployment benefits, there is a potential for explosive social struggle, but also for sharply increased repression. The federal body snatchers could soon appear in a city near you. The outcome depends on the political program of those who seek to wage effective struggle against the reactionary onslaught.

Everywhere and always, the key is to fight for working-class independence. This means: kick cop “unions” out of the labor movement. Police are not workers but the armed fist of the ruling class, professional strikebreakers and enforcers of racist capitalist “law and order.” It means: break with the Democrats. Today Democrats are cynically posing as staunch defenders of the protesters. Mayor Wheeler called the feds “uninvited, untrained, and unwelcome.” Governor Kate Brown’s spokesperson called the arrests by federal officers “a violation of their civil liberties and constitutional rights.” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum accused the Trump administration of choosing Portland “to use their scare tactics to stop our residents from protesting police brutality and from supporting the Black Lives Matter movement” (The Oregonian, 18 July). These bourgeois politicians must think Portlanders have a short memory.

Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty in January 2019. Wheeler unleashed the police who repressed protesters following the murder of George Floyd while Hardesty initiated the curfew to squelch protests. (Photo: Ted Wheeler/Twitter)

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, it was Wheeler and his rabid PPB cops who went after protesters with batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades. The violence was so bad that Jami Resch had to resign as police chief and a federal judge issued an injunction limiting the use of gas. Last summer, Wheeler requested National Guard troops be deployed to Portland against anti-fascist protesters, but was denied. Last weekend, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the former president of the Portland NAACP, held a candlelight vigil and called on the mayor to put her in charge of the police. Yet it was Hardesty who initiated the curfew to squelch protests in May: “As the acting president while the Mayor was out of town last night, I was the one to call for a curfew this weekend” (The Oregonian, 31 May). And it was Governor Brown who sent the National Guard to Portland to quell protests in June. Looking to these Democrats or other capitalist politicians is a recipe for defeat.

The class-collaborationist politics of the popular front always spell defeat because they serve as a barrier to class struggle and a roadblock to the struggle for revolution. Yet only a socialist revolution can bring justice and put an end to racist cop terror. Democrat or Republican, PPB or DHS, the state with its forces of repression and the politicians who lead them are class enemies, wholly invested in maintaining capitalism’s racist killing machine. While defending antifa against the bourgeois forces (and their reformist camp followers) who demonize them, Trotskyists emphasize that mass action by working people and the oppressed is necessary to stop the fascists and thwart bourgeois state repression. We call for labor/black/immigrant mobilization against cop terror and to stop deportations. To protect against racist/fascist threats and attacks, class-struggle militants should initiate the formation of workers defense guards.

When Portland mayor Ted Wheeler showed up at protest on July 22, thousands booed. Internationalist Group and Class Struggle Workers – Portland signs said “Labor: Cops and Feds Out of Portland,” “Democrats Are the Bosses of the Racist Killer Cops” and “Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution.” (Photo: David Killen / The Oregonian)

Most importantly, the working class must politically arm itself for the coming struggles. Painters Union (IUPAT) Local 10 resolved in August 2016, on a motion put forward by supporters of Class Struggle Workers – Portland, that the union “does not support the Democrats, Republicans or any bosses’ parties or politicians,” and that “we call on the labor movement to break from the Democratic Party, and build a class-struggle workers party.” The same union, a week after the election of Donald Trump, noted that “there has been a sharp increase in racist and anti-immigrant attacks across the country in recent days,” and resolved that it “stands ready to join with the community in mobilizing against the clear and present danger that the KKK and other racist organizations pose to us all.” That call for independent working-class mobilization points to the road forward today. Cops and feds, get the hell out of Portland!  ■

  1. 1. Having failed to get the Pentagon brass to go along with invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act, Trump is using the Homeland Security law for his police-state measures. Under 40 U.S. Code § 1315, the Secretary of Homeland Security can use DHS personnel and deputize other “officers and agents” to “make arrests without a warrant for any offense against the United States” or for “any felony cognizable under the laws of the United States.” All they have to do is claim reasonable suspicion. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and Ron Wyden all voted for that law.