The Portland Protests Are a War Zone—but Only on the Internet

Criticism of Portland’s protesters hinges on denouncing them as militant anarchists, communists, and “antifa terrorists” destroying their own city, so actual Portland protesters are careful to label themselves clearly and sympathetically. Lawyers march together in suits, holding signs that say things like “Free My Clients.” School teachers and healthcare workers huddle together in color-coordinated clumps. Most virally, Portland has made sacrificial lambs of its sacred cows: Moms, grannies, dads, nurses, and veterans form human walls between peaceful protesters and federal agents. The tactic has won continuous media and social media attention, largely because for many people the only one socially acceptable response to a video of a federal agent shoving, pepper spraying, and tear gassing a mom or a veteran is to say, “How could you?” That, and to share.

President Trump, however, is not one of those people. “The ‘protesters’ are actually anarchists who hate our Country,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “The line of innocent ‘mothers’ were a scam.” To be clear, the moms are no scam. Within the heaving crowds, they’re legends. “It’s the moms,” said a young woman near me, her voice soft and full of wonder as she watched a string of yellow-shirted women link hands in front of the steel fence and quickly moved to stand behind them. To deny the moms is pointless, so most detractors don’t try.

Pro-Trump, pro-feds social media focuses on a different set of images guaranteed to come out of the Portland protests: shadowy figures with shields and hockey sticks running through clouds of tear gas, black-clad hordes pressing at the fence, graffiti and detritus-strewn streets, all of which is taken as proof positive of violent anarcho-communism. They indict media outlets for downplaying violence. Some outlets, like Breitbart, have begun pushing the notion that even Democrats (OK, mostly Lanny Davis and Joe Scarborough) have turned against the protests. They tally injuries to law enforcement officers, including those made by the roving laser pointers, which US Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott calls “assault” on Twitter. “Yeah, okay, we’ll wait until that precious communist is done hurling explosives at police officers and then we’ll say ‘sorry’ for violating their ‘human rights,’” tweeted conservative commentator Wayne Dupree. For many on this side of the battle for the protests’ global reputation, law enforcement seems to be as sacrosanct as moms are for their opposition, second only to Black Trump supporters, one of whom, Drew Duncomb, was stabbed at a protest in the wee hours of Saturday morning. The culprit, according to Duncomb, was an “antifa pedophile,” a phrase so loaded and unprovable that it’s only purpose is virality.

The aggression is real, which is why right-wing netizens can lambast lawmakers like US Rep. Jerry Nadler for saying that antifa violence is a myth. Which it is, because the violence is not antifa, but that kind of nuance isn’t exactly social-media friendly. By 11pm on Friday, the crowd directly in front of the fence had changed. No more casual milling. No more munching ribs. It grew younger, whiter, more male. They carried hockey sticks, batons, and shields, but nothing to suggest they were antifascists. The tear gas didn’t start until after they started throwing firecrackers. Thousands of people began retreating away from the fence, away from the gas, but they stayed. Standing among them made the back of my neck prickle.

By midnight, I was a block away from the fence, where the teargas clouds diffused into a fog and the protest still retained some of its apocalyptic block party atmosphere. People screamed for medics as they dragged protesters who had gotten a prolonged faceful of gas away from the front, gagging. People were organized. People were kind. People were calm. People were helpful. The gas kept coming. “This feels like something that will never end,” a protester named Eliza said. “Everyone thinks they’re right.”

Leave a Reply