A new word, doomscrolling, describes the way we compulsively tickle our phones into providing a nonstop stream of dire health and disease statistics, grim economic predictions, images of food lines and exploding emergency rooms.
With so much doom to scroll through, it’s hard to know when to stop and pay attention, but one story that jumped out at me—and, I hope, at many others—is the account of how demonstrators in Portland, Oregon, protesting racism and police brutality earlier in July, were tear-gassed, beaten, seized off the street by unidentified, masked federal agents in camouflage and fatigues, hustled into unmarked vans and detained for hours. The agents were reported to work with the US Marshals Special Operations Group and Bortac, the Border Patrol Tactical Unit.
Government-funded thugs, assaulting citizens, still conjure up repellent images of Hitler’s Brown Shirts stomping their fellow Germans, and the street kidnapping of civilians has been the hallmark of authoritarian dictatorships. That was how you wound up in one of Stalin’s labor gulags, in the helicopter from which the Argentine junta dropped its critics into the sea, or in a CIA black site. In a headline, an Esquire article on the Portland attacks used Pinochet (the tyrant who orchestrated the disappearance of thousands of Chileans during his 17-year regime) as a verb: “A Major American City is Being Softly Pinochet’d in Broad Daylight.”
One can track the violence to Trump ordering the governors to “dominate” their cities, of which, he claimed, they’d lost control. But the governor of Oregon, the mayor of Portland and other local officials insisted that they don’t want federal agents gassing their citizens. So who does?
A US Customs and Border Protection internal memo, obtained by The Nation and dated July 1, offers some answers. In response to a Presidential order “Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Activity, “ the Acting Director of Homeland Security has created the “DHS Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT) to provide an ongoing assessment of potential civil unrest and property destruction.”
The italics are mine, but the memo describes the formation of a paramilitary organization, reporting to the federal government and free from the laws, rules and conventions followed (even nominally) by police and the army.
In addition, the DHS has begun “coordination with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to establish information/intelligence sharing and resource coordination as outlined in the order.
“CBP will be supporting this effort by deploying personnel to provide support over the July 4th holiday weekend which has the potential for increased disruptive activity at specific locations across the country that could threaten our personnel and the Federal facilities and property they protect.”
Like potential, support is a questionable word, since Portland never asked for the troops’ support or presence. As for potential disruptive activity, two of the men whisked into unmarked vans were quietly leaving the demonstration, which was winding down.
The mention of the DOJ naturally brings to mind Attorney General William Barr okaying the use of tear gas and National Guard troops against the demonstrators in Washington, DC on June 20 to make way for Donald Trump’s St John’s Church photo op. The incident was a public-relations disaster, so why not do better in Portland, cut the awkward, upside-down Bible and Ivanka’s Max Mara purse and go stealthy? Cue the unidentified agents and the trolling unmarked vans. The Esquire article refers to the Portland arrests as a rehearsal; it’s one in a series of rehearsals. First DC, then Portland. Coming soon to a city near you.
Is all that manpower necessary to protect statues? Who knew White House was so invested in art, culture—or American history? These attacks are about exerting power, bullying dissenters, intimidating Americans into giving up their First Amendment protections, their Constitutional rights. Robert Evans, a Portland-based freelance journalist and conflict reporter, told the New York Times, “Portland is being used as a bellwether to see what this administration can get away with. And also what works to quell protest.”
How much clearer must it be? There are those who would like to see the establishment of an authoritarian state that despise minorities and immigrants, hates women and the poor, and in mid-pandemic, values money and profit over human life. This prospect intensifies the anxiety of many Americans who fear a stolen election, widespread voter suppression, further affronts to the rule of law.
Fortunately, there’s been pushback. The demonstrations in Portland have gotten larger and more impassioned. Portland mayor Ted Wheeler called the violence “an attack on our democracy.” The ACLU and the Portland Mercury are suing federal agents. The Portland City Commissioner asked the troops to leave. Oregon senators, Ron Wyden and Chuck Merkley, and Senator Chuck Schumer are demanding a federal investigation. Oregon Governor Kate Brown accused Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf of trying to “provoke confrontation for political purposes.”
Americans who care about our country and still hope we can fix our flawed democracy should pay attention. There are those, Trump and Barr among them, who would like to see our freedoms replaced by unflagging obedience to the needs of corporations and billionaires. What happened in Portland is an important story hiding in the shadow of Covid-19’s devastations. If we let the increasingly empowered paramilitary arms of the government deny our right to assemble and speak freely, to circumvent our legal system and eliminate the writ of habeas corpus, we won’t need to scroll down our phones to know that we are doomed.