By David Rovics
August 7th, 2020
The liberal landed gentry dripping with multi-generational wealth and entitlement, as represented by Tear Gas Ted Wheeler, has made a pronouncement: the good folks trying to burn down the police station there in outer east Portland the other night were guilty of “attempted murder,” as twenty defenseless, though heavily-armed, police officers inside cowered and shivered and called their mothers to say their last words before meeting their terrible fates. I made the last part up, but he did say the attempted murder part, and there were twenty heavily-armed cops inside the building at the time of this latest attempt to take the building. He also referred to the police inside the building as “trapped,” although they could easily have rolled up their garage door and exited, guns blazing, at any moment. Maybe their riot gear would have gotten a little burnt, but they would have made it out OK from the looks of it. Unlike Tear Gas Ted, last month was not the first time in my life I’ve ever been to a protest that got messy, so I have some familiarity with these things.
I’ve long been a very cowardly anarchist, preferring to play music at protests and write articles about them, rather than throwing projectiles and setting fires. I have too many friends who have been killed, badly wounded, or sentenced to years or decades in prison because of carrying out actions like these, to want to participate in them myself. I make no illusions about it – I stay back from those situations because I don’t want to face the consequences myself.
But, having said that, some of the folks in Portland throwing those projectiles and setting those fires listen to my music and follow me on Twitter, and they already know how much I appreciate their efforts and admire them in general. As the shrill noises coming from foolish people like our mayor grow louder here and across the country, distinguishing between so-called “violent” and so-called “nonviolent” protesters, with the latest line of alleged reasoning being that any white people participating in efforts to destroy or take over a police station must be provocateurs, and if they’re not provocateurs then they must be trying to usurp center stage away from a Black-led movement, let me be one more voice to point out the following, whether or not the media takes notice: none of this discourse is new, and no one needs anyone’s permission to burn down a police station.
A little recapitulation of recent and less recent history seems very much in order here, for context. Much has been said in alternative and corporate media in recent months about the racist history of policing in the United States, about the history of slave patrols, and about white mobs who committed massive and terrible massacres, killing hundreds of Black people and burning down thousands of buildings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and so many other similar horrors. Much has been said about many other such atrocities committed by racist white mobs, as well as the even more tremendous atrocity of institutional racism, in all the many forms this has taken since and before the Civil War. It would be impossible to overstate how important it is that these things are being talked about, particularly if all this talk might actually lead to fundamental changes.
But the history of policing in the United States is not just about racism. This fact is being innocently ignored by people who don’t know much about history, or have just learned about slavery, but have never heard of the labor movement – or it’s being deliberately obfuscated by people who do know about history, and are intentionally using that knowledge to do exactly what the social construct of race was designed to do in the first place: to divide us from one another, and to set up a caste system through which we can then see ourselves as superior or inferior to other members of our society, to pit us against each other through impossibly unfair contests, with one side forced through unspeakable, daily brutality to work for free, with everyone else forced to compete with them or starve trying.
The standing armies of police forces in Boston, Lowell, Lawrence, New York, Paterson, Chicago, Milwaukee, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and so many other cities across the United States were not primarily there to police the Black population specifically. They were there primarily to serve the interests of landlords and industrialists – to serve the capitalist class. To keep the enfranchised enfranchised, and to keep the disenfranchised disenfranchised. This process involved committing acts of violence against a vast array of members of the working class on a daily basis, for centuries. Certain types of people have always been especially targeted for beatings, torture, exile, death, trumped-up criminal charges, trials with kangaroo courts, and filling the ranks of these people have been anyone who has dared to speak up for the interests of the suffering working class of this country, of this state, and of this city.
Oregon was founded as a white homeland, with exclusion laws both on the books and actively enforced. The state did not have a significant Black population until the labor shortage during World War 2. But Oregon most definitely was a class society, with the Timber Barons and real estate speculators on one end, and those hapless people living short and brutal lives in the timber camps or working in the mills on the toxic Willamette River on the other. And were there police? You bet. What were they doing? They were attacking anyone trying to organize any kind of serious resistance against the savagely unequal and exploitative status quo.
The police beat people with truncheons in Portland for speaking on the sidewalk. They savagely assaulted people for marching on the streets. They did their best, on a city level and ultimately, with the formation of the national police force known as the FBI in the early twentieth century, on a national level, to destroy the radical labor movement. This was their first and primary enemy. They lynched union organizers, hanging them under bridges. They fired into crowds of protesters, killing many, in repeated cases across the country. The paramilitary, anti-union and virulently racist American Legion burned down union halls in Portland and across this country.
And did everyone among the working class in Portland and other cities in the US take all this lying down? No, some did not. They fought back. The Industrial Workers of the World organized campaigns of resistance. Not just organizing workplaces, publishing newspapers and carrying out free speech campaigns, but they organized riot squads. These brave fighters for this proudly, self-consciously intersectional union movement physically attacked boat loads of scab workers on the Willamette, and drove them out of the city. They physically attacked the railroad bulls who had been constantly beating and intimidating organizers who traveled by hopping freight trains, in order to get the bulls to back off.
A lot has changed over the intervening century since those times, of course. The country now is more unequal than it has been since that period, but the labor movement is anemic, and doesn’t have any riot squads anymore. After destroying the radical labor movement with a concerted campaign of terror, arson, mass arrests and deportations a hundred years ago, the FBI moved on to destroy other radical social movements, and they’re still at it today. They love it when members of current social movements or remnants of past social movements, in some cases, argue with each other, and the argument over violence vs. nonviolence, and which forms of oppression social movements should focus on most, and how to have a truly ecumenical social movement, how to make real change – all this is very important, and none of it is new.
In the past few months an uprising began, in Trump’s extremely failed state, in the midst of an out-of-control pandemic, sparked by a classically horrible, racist police murder in Minneapolis.
There have been other horrible, racist police murders captured on film in recent years. ICE has been kidnapping children and never returning them to their parents. A year ago there was a racist massacre committed by a white supremacist in El Paso, with 23 dead. There are, unfortunately, any number of horrendous events that could have set off this uprising, including several other vicious, racist police murders that were committed in the days preceding George Floyd’s murder. It may be that the murder was particularly spectacular in its brutality, but leaving Michael Brown, Jr’s body in the hot sun for hours after he was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 is offensively gruesome to a possibly similar extent, and then there are those cages they’re putting the children into in Texas.
As supremely horrible as the constant killing of Black people by police is, this reality was not the only relevant context in which to put the uprising that began at the end of May. It also began with mass unemployment and mass uncertainty about the future, where 1 in 4 children in the country are going to bed hungry, with tens of millions of people dependent on unemployment checks that often never arrive or have just been cut off, with tens of millions of renters facing the specter of their own eviction and the evictions of many of their neighbors. The society was in multiple states of crisis before the pandemic hit – crises which, as always, have class and race intimately intertwined. If most of those people in Portland facing eviction might be white, it’s only because most of the Black population was already forced to leave the city because of the forces of gentrification represented by people like the mayor, and represented by the last mayor of Portland, not to mention the governor, and the liberal gentrifier-in-chief in the White House prior to the billionaire, during whose tenure our rents in Portland doubled.
The Portland police are, statistically, with the statistics sliced in many ways, one of the most racist, murderous police forces in the United States. But it is also the police force that is presiding over the rapid gentrification of the city, that sweeps the encampments of the evicted, the armed representatives of the corporations and banks increasingly taking over the city, who are always protecting the opposing side in any demonstration anyone has ever been to. They are a violent gang bent on repression in the name of plutocracy. And many people know this – it’s kind of obvious.
So when people accused of being “outside agitators,” but who were somehow simultaneously present in every city in the country at the same time, spent several days smashing up downtown Portland, they were not committing acts of violence. They were destroying corporate property, and property of the forces of state violence. Property of the very corporations, and their armed defenders, who are actively causing such misery, imprisoning us on ridiculous charges, killing us, or “just” making us move back in with our parents or go get a second or a third job, and ruining any hopes that so many of us in this society might have once had for a decent future.
Oh, but you say there was an independent store damaged, too? Advice to the capitalists: if you want people to know you’re an independent business, don’t buy a fancy building in the most expensive part of downtown and call it One World Trade Center. People might mistake you for an evil capitalist, who knows why. In any case, this destruction of corporate property and police stations is what got people’s attention in the first place, along with taking over highways and bridges – not the people standing in parks with signs, making speeches.
And now, with the voices of the wealthy, liberal elite and some of their allies denouncing what they call “violence” and “attempted murder” on the part of the young people intent on liberating this city of its occupying army that they call the Portland Police Bureau: while I don’t speak for the folks who were at the police station in question the other night, the murderers are your police force. This is well documented. The attempted murderers include the yahoo who drove a truck into protesters just, what, two nights ago? The attempted murders are every eviction your thugs carry out and every tent encampment they destroy in the interests of your real estate speculator friends. Any system that does those things is a violent, brutal, murderous system that is desperately crying out to be destroyed. If you don’t want your police stations to be burned down, one thing you can do is heed the will of so many of your constituents and abandon them. Hand in your badges and your guns to the Youth Liberation Front or Black Lives Matter, whichever you want. I’m sure no one will need your help figuring out what to do with the building, either — whether it becomes a squat, a garden, or just an artistic pile of burnt-out rubble – which would, in any case, like the broken windows, plywood and spray paint adorning most of downtown, be very good for the property values around here, which are way, way, way too high.
David Rovics has been called the musical voice of the progressive movement in the US. Since the mid-90’s, Rovics has spent most of his time on the road, playing hundreds of shows every year throughout North America, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Japan. He has shared the stage regularly with leading intellectuals, activists, politicians, musicians and celebrities. In recent years he’s added children’s music and essay-writing to his repertoire. More importantly, he’s really good. He will make you laugh, he will make you cry, and he will make the revolution irresistible. Check out his pamphlet: Sing for Your Supper: A DIY Guide to Playing Music, Writing Songs, and Booking Your Own Gigs