Wow, its 2 a.m. as I am writing this and I still feel a little on edge. Today, May 1st, 2017 (actually technically yesterday since I’m writing this late at night) marked the first time that I found myself in a riot. I didn’t participate nor did anyone I was attending with but we experienced flash bangs, tear gas, and roving hordes of both destructive protesters and cops looking to arrest anyone that in any way looked like a “protester.”
Let’s begin with what the significance of what May 1st holds – there is the obvious pagan beginning of spring connotations but then there is also International Worker’s Day. A demonstration that dates back to 1904 advocating “the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” Basically that means “fuck all of those rich fuckers who abuse and use us and for one day every year we will all go on strike and protest for a better world.”
The date holds special meaning to me because of my grandfather (who is no longer with us). He was a union organizer in the coal mines and he participated in early May Day events that even included him having to fight the very violent and vile Pinkertons in the streets just for being able to organize for their rights to afford food and not work 80 hour weeks – things we now take for granted in the U.S. He installed in my very young mind a strong love and respect for labor movements and the knowledge that those rights unions fought for decades ago should be cherished because they could be taken away at any time in the right situation. Since I have been an adult I have participated in many May Day events knowing that my departed grandfather’s love for worker rights and social justice was living on in me.
That personal history for me and the terrible proposed policies of the Trump and GOP administrations meant I had to come out to join the protests. When I left my house based in east Portland I waited at the bus stop and four SUVs with masked cops went past me – I should have known something was up.
When I first arrived it was your standard intellectual anarchist rally. About a thousand people mingled in the park located in front of Portland’s art museum with signs, costumes, and noisemakers. People gave speeches against the President’s proposed immigration platforms and speeches in favor of increasing the minimum wage. There were about a dozen booths set up with information on political theory, worker’s issues, and activism groups – I signed up for a few mailing lists. At one point there was a pretty badass hip hop artist that took the main stage but I never caught his name.
Take a look:
Oh yeah, there were even clowns making balloon animals for the numerous small children in attendance (Portland’s protests tend to be family friendly).
And there was this badass guy playing guitar in the street. He was awesome.
But here’s the first sign that something was wrong and that some elements of the protest were extremely angry:
That sign might not make much sense but that’s because I need to explain something that happened this past Saturday, April the 29th. After receiving anonymous threats (at first attributed to a local anarchist group but now believed to be from a third party) a local Portland parade was canceled this year. In response, two groups not from Portland (that also had nothing to do with the parade in the first place) staged what they called a “free speech” rally in what is one of Portland’s biggest immigrant neighborhoods and also the same place I call home. The rally had nothing to do with “free speech” – it was a straight-up pro-Trump rally with a focus on “building the wall.” The right-wingers came with weapons (many that the police confiscated), wearing helmets and body pads, and ready to fight the dreaded left-wing menace of “antifa” (I don’t have time to explain the hysterics over that, how “antifa” isn’t really a real organization, and how long “antifa” has been around and it’s kinda hilarious they just noticed – google that or maybe I’ll explain some time later). But the antifa they were so scared of was just people who actually lived in Portland dressed up as Mexican wrestlers, jugglers, or just plain neighborhood folk like me who didn’t appreciate people from other states coming to our neighborhood to tell our neighbors to get out.
Their march was unpermitted but the police blocked a lane of traffic (and several intersections) over the course of two miles and at their ending point (a Burger King – seriously) offered city buses to take the demonstrators back to their cars – all things I have never seen at the very many left leaning protests I have attended. And before you say “they were following the rules,” remember, they had no permit, blocked traffic, and attempted to instigate fights with the counter protesters the entire time.
The point being is that some protesters were already angry at what they perceived as the city and police showing a bias for the out of town Trump supporters.
When the May Day march started the crowd had grown to around 2000 and I found myself near the back with my friends because we were walking very leisurely and also I needed to take a piss. What this provided us with was a first-hand view for all the shit that was about to go down.
The march was divided into loose groups (there was no enforcement of this) – families and those with special needs in the front, various local labor groups that followed, everyone else after them, and then the black bloc (which is the more common name for “antifa” in U.S. leftist circles) in the back. My friends and I found ourselves between the “everyone” group and the black bloc at the start of the event.
For the first fifteen minutes (roughly) everything went fine. People chanted, sang pro-labor songs, beat drums, and just chatted with each other – you know, normal protest shit.
But at some point I heard some loud bangs behind me. I turned around but couldn’t tell what I was hearing but I saw the cops (who to this point had only been on the lines of the march with the occasional one coming in to pass a message to one of the many official march representatives) looking pissed off at something.
“What’s happening?” I wondered out loud.
“Some guy is throwing cans of Pepsi at the cops,” said a woman next to me.
Right then a few blue tin cans went flying from the black bloc area at the cops.
That’s a really fucking dumb thing to do, I thought, someone’s getting arrested. Sure enough, some guy went running right pass me wearing a brightly colored shirt (I think it was orange – crazy day so not so sure), giggling, and clutching to his chest a half empty carton of Pepsi cans. I want to point out that this person was wearing no mask nor was dressed in any black clothing – he was not a member of the black bloc. Later in the night I wondered if he hadn’t thrown anything if things would have gotten so bad.
Police swarmed out and grabbed him and put him in cuffs. In response the black bloc rushed forward in anger to someone being arrest (the BB is like that). Parade organizers came over to tell everyone to move around and let the cops be – the unintended result of this, plus a corner the march was turning, ending up combining all the various groups.
When now the intermixed group of protesters came to a bridge protected by police in full riot gear there were more cans of Pepsi thrown along with red, white, and blue smoke “bombs” thrown at them. I put bombs in quotes because they didn’t explode or go bang, there was just a bunch of smoke. It looked like this:
What’s really interesting is that the riot cops kicked the “bombs” back into the marching crowd – a crowd including elderly and young children. Before anyone says “that’s what you get” – retribution isn’t the job of cops, that’s courts. Their job is to protect and serve. This becomes important later.
Within minutes there was a police announcement from speakers on a truck behind us that the march permit was immediately revoked and that all protesters must disperse. Sure, but behind us are cops saying to go move forward (that’s where the speakers are), the river to our right, and buildings with no space between them to the left (there’s not really alleys in downtown Portland). Ahead, where the march was supposed to be heading with the permit (with streets already cleared for us) riot cops moved in to block us off from moving forward.
This left one route, a side street before the wall of riot cops ahead, for all marchers to go through. Not really knowing what to do (I have my suspicions if the people in the front even knew what was going on) we just kept advancing as a group down the only street available.
As I turned to go down it a guy next to me pointed and said, “look, their moving ahead. They’re going to surround us.”
That was the exact moment I knew everything was going to go to shit. This is a technique known as kettling. Police justify it as a way to control mass groups of people. Those experienced in protesting know this is a way to block in protesters, antagonize the crowd, and then justify excessive use of force. The technique is also known for arresting more peaceful than violent protesters by grouping everyone together.
This is also about the time that I noticed black bloc members starting to run around with chunks of broken up concrete (where or how they got it is beyond me – it looked like pieces of street curbs).
So, yeah, not looking good.
The side street led to a much more main road that only had left or right choices due to the large buildings with no space between them. After rounding the corner the group headed left which was the direction of our gathering point and where lots of people had cars, stuff, etc. Halfway up the next block and talking with my friends about how we were going to get out of this, police blocked off the way the crowd was headed. Behind us, the direction the march didn’t choose suddenly was rush with riot cops and police vans.
Outside of the side street that we were forced into, we were trapped.
People milled about unsure of what to do. The police continued to make announcements about how we had to leave but there was no visible way to get out as police had us completely surrounded.
Then, the people that were still on the side street, began running and yelling “they’re using tear gas!”
Sure enough, a cloud immediately followed them around the building along with riot cops and trucks. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced tear gas but it smells and tastes fucking awful. Fortunately I was not close enough to the actual gas container as I have asthma and direct exposure to tear gas can be fatal to me.
My friends and I rushed forward, pausing to make sure that we stayed together – always remember the buddy system during protests. Then the police announced that everyone on the streets had to get on the sidewalk or would face immediate arrest. Everyone got on the sidewalks, still completely unsure of where to go. There were still children, elderly, and people with disabilities mixed in with the crowds. They got the safest spots against the buildings in case things ended up going very terrible.
While the police continued to make more announcements, flash bangs began going off ahead of us. If you’ve never experienced a flash bang – they are SUPER loud and flash very bright in the dark (but this was the middle of the afternoon was that affect was lost). And then more tear gas ahead of us.
So to be clear, we are trapped in a city block with riot cops on both ends, tear gas at both ends, and flash bangs. The police made ZERO attempt to allow time for children, the elderly, the disabled, or the peaceful (where my friends and I were) to get out of this situation.
I have no shame in admitting for a few moments I was very legitimately scared.
After being like, what the fuck do we do, we tried working our way to the front of the crowd where there was a row of riot cops and it turned out that if you went against the building the police would let you out at the corner of the block (not that they ever told us that – or if they did there was no way of hearing). But you did have to go past several lines of masked cops pointing rubber bullet guns and gas grenades at you. Not exactly where you feel inclined to go.
Once we got out of that area we could see that there had been other conflicts happening while we were trapped. A large bonfire of god knows what was burning in the center of an intersection a block ahead.
So we were out, all good, right? Not exactly.
Now all the protesters were spread out everywhere in downtown. As we started to head back in the direction of my friend’s car (I was offered a ride and no way was I waiting on the buses to get out). Police had blocked off seemingly random intersections and streets all over downtown so we had to constantly be rerouted.
At one point two protesters walking in front of us were suddenly grabbed by cops, cuffed, and thrown into the back of vans. No clue what that was about and we were concerned we’d be next.
At another corner we passed an organizer of the march talking on a walky talky about how there were protest stragglers all around but she didn’t know where to take them or where the main group was. We never actually found the main group again. We got completely cut off. That may have been a good thing for us.
Flash bangs kept going off in all directions and police kept blocking our ways out.
We passed a Target that had its windows smashed.
And a trashed cop car that is certain to appear on some future punk band’s album cover.
Finally, after a way too long walk we got to the car and got out of downtown without being arrested or gassed.
SO WHO’S RESPONSIBLE?
Really two groups.
Before I address them I already see right-wing groups talking about this as if they were there and beat the “antifa.” Unless they are saying they are directly working with police organizations, they are straight-up wrong or lying. There were zero counter protesters that I saw.
That out of the way – group one:
THE POLICE – They used tactics that are well known to escalate situations (like kettling) and offered no opportunity for us peaceful protesters to get out. They were eager to show force and did not hesitate to use it. If they would have acted calmer at the beginning of the incidents there’s a real chance that the protesters would have not escalated and the whole thing would have been a note in the paper like “Anarchists throw Pepsi and fireworks at police” at worst. And “fireworks” would have been a media exaggeration as they were just the smoke things I posted above. In other words, a non-story.
Instead they went straight to gas and flash bangs on large crowds in which the vast majority had been perfectly peaceful. This is exactly how one escalates a situation when in a position of authority.
Now, the second group, which I have a lot more to say about:
THE PROTESTERS – specifically the protesters that came looking for a fight. I understand their anger, remember that Trump march I mentioned at the beginning. They had no permit, were trying to incite fights, blocked traffic with police protection, and were given free buses from the city. There was a lot of anger that many felt the city government has sided with Trump and they no longer had a voice. Not saying that I agree with that viewpoint but just that I understand it.
But they came looking for a fight just like the Trump supporters but unlike the Trump people the protesters got it today and pulled in a lot of peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders.
The issue here is don’t pick a fight with a cop. Not because I respect them (most cops are shit and most of the good ones protect the shit ones – blue code and all) but because you can’t win. In a physical fight almost no punk anarchist is going to win against a cop. Let’s be fucking honest here.
There was a time that I didn’t believe this hippie-dippy peace-punk anarcho shit but I do now. You can’t defeat the system with the same tools it uses to hold itself up. Violence and anger will never win because that’s exactly the reaction that they want and they expect. So the key is what do you do when those tools are off the table?
I point to how we handled the Trump supporters in my neighborhood. The outside groups were posting on their Facebook pages about how they were looking forward to traveling to Portland to fight “antifa” and facedown the black bloc. So what the protesters did was we made ourselves extremely colorful and non-threatening. We were jugglers, lucha libre wrestlers, queer people throwing glitter with dance music on boom boxes, trans people, boring community members, and me – the type of people that don’t give any satisfaction if you beat them up in public with news media paying attention.
Those fucks that came into my hood had no clue what to do when confronted with us. They came out expecting a fight and we gave them a circus/dance party. Our goal was never to shut them down but just be a constant annoyance saying “no, we don’t fall in line and we don’t support these policies.” Hell, that was my go to line whenever someone asked why I was there. I quickly learned that Trump supporters just want to argue about a liberal strawman and have no answers when it comes to policy or spending issues.
When the Trump march ended and they didn’t get a fight the Trump supporters surrounded the protesters that were left (I was one) and screamed at us for about fifteen minutes with cops feet away and doing nothing. That was another frightening moment I’ve had in the past few days. I want to make it clear that at the end we had no signs, we weren’t chanting, we were doing nothing other than being a presence at the corner of the rally that they knew didn’t belong because we looked “weird” or “threatening” – there was one guy in all black with a handkerchief over his face that did more to protect us than the cops did. In fact, the cops did nothing when an obviously aggressive crowd surrounded peaceful protesters on the fringes of an event (that was on private property – Burger King – still confused over that as they were really focused on having the right to being on a “public space”).
But who won that day? No one. That wasn’t the point. The Trump people marched and expected and wanted violence but they had no clue what to do when we acted silly and ridiculous. The system and those that support it are prepared for violence and hate but they have no idea what to do when you don’t play that game. I watched someone that day point at and scream at a juggler with a big red nose and he just kept juggling. If someone is so hopelessly gone that they try to start a screaming match with a juggler it’s better just to let them go and just keep juggling.
So who won in the May Day riot? I guess the police, they got to play with their toys that the military keeps giving them.
Would the protesters have won if none of this happened? Also probably “no.” Here’s the sad fact about protests – if they don’t go violent or wrong, the media doesn’t give a shit and pays no mind.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE IN THE FUTURE?
I don’t know.
That’s the truth. We seem to be reaching an a point where now both sides of the political spectrum come out expecting violence and if you are always expecting violence, you’ll probably get it a few times. And that does nothing. Sure, both sides make memes and laugh at others who disagree with them being hurt but is that really where we want to go? Is that really your only way of thinking about and interacting with the world? Laughing at the pain of others? And does that mean if you are in pain, you have lost?
I don’t think that’s what I want.
At the Trump rally protest I told the juggler how much I loved what he was doing and he replied with, “I only want to bring the smiles.”
That’s the first new idea I’ve heard since November 8th that I can get behind.