What is Happening in Portland?

22nd October 2018

When most people hear about the city of Portland, Oregon, they typically think of rainy weather, quirky tv shows, or basketball superstar Damian Lillard. Historically, it has been a safe and vibrant west-coast city with a welcoming reputation.

But over the past several years, and especially in the last month, it has undergone several shocking, anarchic episodes. From a black woman instigating a mob against a bakery for not being served after their posted closing time – an altercation she blamed on the “racism” of the white employees – to the violent, virtual occupation of an immigration facility by leftist agitators, the situation in Portland appears to be further deteriorating every time the city’s name shows up in the news.

The most recent string of incidents began several weeks ago, when the far-left group Antifa took to the streets, without a permit, to protest the death of 27-year-old black man Patrick Kimmons, who was shot and killed by Portland police. The facts of the case are still not readily available, but one crucial detail that is known is that he was suspected of shooting two people before police confronted him.

This was far from a peaceful protest. With audible screams of “stop racist police terror” and the like, Antifa members shut down an intersection outside a nearby courthouse and proceeded to direct traffic. Anyone who expressed disagreement with their demands was chased down and threatened with or subjected to violence – some in racist terms.  Police stood by within sight of the chaos, unable to respond because of orders from department officials.

Portland’s mayor Ted Wheeler, who also is the police commissioner, responded to criticism stemming from videos taken of the unrest by saying he was appalled by what he saw and heard about the incident, but also expressed his continued support of the decision for officers to stand down.

The following Saturday night, ostensibly in response to the lack of police action against Antifa, the right-wing organization Patriot Prayer posted on their Facebook page calling for a “Flash March for Law and Order in PDX.”

The marchers, some armed with batons and bear spray, made their way to a vigil set up in downtown Portland for the deceased Kimmons. This is where they encountered a mass of counter-protestors. While most were peacefully resisting what they saw as far-right extremism in their city, others had more sinister motives. There were several violent skirmishes that night, and it is not abundantly clear which side was at fault for initiating any of the confrontations. To the credit of Patriot Prayer, several members along with their leader Joey Gibson attempted to make peace with the counter-demonstrators at the Kimmons memorial, but apparently to no avail.

Portland police, this time being given the green light to act, were able to manage the situation before it got out of hand. As of today, Portland police say that they have not yet made any arrests but are still investing the incident.

A pat explanation of the volatile situation in Portland is that it reflects the accession of  Donald Trump to the Presidency and the resultant supercharged polarization of U.S. politics. But blaming President Trump is fundamentally unproductive, and it is especially pointless in a case like this where nuance is so necessary.

Extremist groups like Antifa must be condemned in the strongest possible terms by those on the left. They have time and time again shown their propensity to play fast and loose with the term “fascist” by targeting prototypical right-wing figures in the name of anti-fascism. And even when they do target those who could be fairly categorized as fascists, it is typically by violent means: a tactic which completely de-legitimizes whatever causes they may have been championing, no matter how noble.

On the other end, those on the right must disavow violence in their ranks as well. We have already witnessed firsthand how difficult this is for our current President, with the prime example being his controversial speech in which he was unable to unequivocally condemn the neo-Nazi riots that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer and injured many others last summer in Charlottesville.  

If we are to reject this sort of moral relativism on the right, the same rule should apply to  those on the left in relation to Antifa. It is just as important for those people who happen to fall on the same side of the ideological spectrum as the perpetrators to speak out against their behavior, if for nothing else then to reassure the reasonable people on the other side that they still hold dear a fundamental commitment to civil disagreement.

One of the most difficult aspects of opposing extremism is deciding on what exactly defines an extremist point of view. The answer you will get varies greatly depending on who you ask. Some people would consider it extreme to support protection for assault rifles under the Second Amendment. Some would say the same about advocacy for single-payer health care. These disagreements are deep and far-reaching, and people can have alternative perspectives with good-faith intentions. But we should all, at the very least, be able to unite around the idea that the definition of extremism should include acts of physical violence.

Part of what it means to live in a constitutional republic like the United States is to share a understanding that we are all members of the same tribe. Therefore, it should be the view of all American citizens that violence cannot be considered an acceptable alternative to discourse under any circumstances.