Because my first career was community organizing, I might see social protests through different eyes than most journalists. What follows are some thoughts not often reaching the general media.
Public protests are often called demonstrations because they demonstrate power—people power seeking to exert political power. That is the essence of even peaceful, law-abiding demonstrations having a celebratory tone. They demonstrate that large numbers of people feel strongly enough to devote several hours to standing, walking, chanting and being seen in public among those who have a different vision for society or simply “aren’t going to take it anymore.”
They send a message to political authorities of rising public opinion and of the potential voting bloc that must be reckoned with.
Demonstrations also engender a sense of power among the participants, who are affirmed in their discontents and yearnings. Chanting in unison while marching with one accord transmits a sense of power similar to that practiced by armies since the dawn of history. Disconnected individuals become a unified mass projecting their views and goals as broadly held and irrefutable.
Even these “good” demonstrations are not anodyne. They grab public attention from other issues that previously held the stage. They may block streets, tie up public resources and cause public officials to put all else on the back burner while calculating their response.
In Portland, Westside crime prevention activists and those coping with street crime and burgeoning encampments that block businesses have had their calls ignored or appointments with city officials canceled. These consequences are acceptable when the causes for which throngs demonstrate are vital to society. Especially when they produce political and social progress otherwise not possible. That has been our community’s consensus regarding Black Lives Matter and calls for police reform.
But the local debate has turned to another kind of protest—the confrontational nightly events around the Multnomah County Justice Center. These predictably turn to violence as police forces attempt to set limits. Setting no boundaries would allow mobs to burn and ransack the city, an abdication of public authority unthinkable even in a“Little Beirut” as President George H.W. Bush dubbed us.
So an unwinnable theatric battle is waged, leading to violence on both sides. That is by design.
They have been called riots, but that ignores the planning and calculation going into maneuvers to put the police in an untenable situation wherein they either cede control to the mob or overreact and injure defenseless individuals in the crowd.
Instructions available online describe how people with umbrellas are put in the front line to deflect tear gas canisters, while in the rear are people who hurl projectiles and fireworks at police lines before retreating into the background. In between are peaceful protesters and the curious who absorb the brunt of advancing and heavily armed police, creating videos that will cast the demonstrators as victims.
As author-cartoonist Ashleigh Brilliant said, “If we all work together, we can totally disrupt the system.”
Protest organizers seek to incite a mob mentality in which individuals are swept into actions they would never take on their own. Radicals involved with the 1968 Democratic Convention “police riot” in Chicago celebrated the violence against demonstrators as a transformative experience that would radicalize young people, persuading them that the minor reform possible through the democratic process should be forsaken for some undefined utopian anarchy.
Our founding fathers were fearful of mob action and for good reason, as the French Revolution affirmed.
While violent demonstrations are not usually winnable, protesters and police may think they come out on top if the other side is seen as more out of control than they are or as responsible for more turmoil in the lives or the values of the populace remaining safe at home.
Even at the risk of mayhem and bloodshed, violent protests may be justified when the government is illegitimate and incapable of reform by other means. Such circumstances have arisen at points in world history, but Portland today hardly qualifies. Not when peaceful protests have proven the political system eminently responsive as elected officials issue heretofore unimaginably bold reforms with shocking rapidity.
The violent demonstrations around the Justice Center have clouded the righteous message of Black Lives Matter, have maimed innocents, destroyed businesses and wasted resources that will burden Portland for years. They appear to be totally counterproductive.
But if not for them, the federal government’s extreme overreach, crushing civil rights in a manner reminiscent of military dictatorships and against the will of local elected leadership, would not have been exposed. If such action is repudiated by voters on a national scale, perhaps even these ugly protests may have corrected our nation’s course.
Whatever else can be said about this year of protest in Portland, it is a lesson in political science we should study as if our lives depended on it.