The Black Lives Matter movement has provided courageous leadership forcing all of us to confront the ugly specter of social injustice. We have an obligation to express our gratitude, to support that leadership, and to act. In that spirit, I offer these heartfelt thoughts, motivated by a concern that the crucial narrative at the heart of the movement is at risk of being hijacked for political gain.
As the protests in Portland continue, as crowds grow larger and violent confrontations more pronounced, some community members are asking whether the current process is advancing or hindering the goals of justice and equality that sparked the protests in the first place.
Consider three converging factors colliding on the streets of Portland: peaceful protests, a divisive president, and the deployment of federal agents in our city.
First, outraged by the senseless murder of George Floyd, thousands of people have taken to the streets in peaceful protests demanding an end to police brutality against Black Americans, and an end to systemic racism and the growing disparities that scar our nation. And this extends to all groups that have faced historical discrimination and injustice.
These protests represent an important and lawful exercise of constitutional rights, and have exposed anew the depth of the inequities and class divisions within America—problems that have been with us for centuries, churning just below the surface, often out of sight but always present; stark conditions of injustice that weaken the fabric of our society and diminish our nation.
These protests must continue to keep issues of racism and injustice at the forefront of the public mind and the political agenda. This activism compelled the recent special session of the Oregon legislature to shift its focus from the looming budget shortfall to addressing questions of accountability and transparency in law enforcement. Peaceful protest should always be respected and protected.
The second factor in this collision is a divisive president, with falling poll numbers. He knows he cannot be reelected this November if the national narrative is about high unemployment and his administration’s stunningly incompetent management of the COVID 19 pandemic, which has wrought havoc on our economy and claimed the lives of almost 150,000 Americans and over 280 Oregonians. Desperate for a reelection strategy that will shift the national focus from his failed presidency, he has chosen “law and order.”
This becomes apparent from his rhetoric and that of his enablers. The president has referred to Democratic mayors as the “radical left” who “wouldn’t mind” having their cities “blown up” by terrorists; and he has vowed that “[t]his bloodshed must end.” Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf speaks of executing “a shared mission of protecting the homeland and bringing justice to those who threaten it.” The launch of “Operation Legend,” which will send a “surge” of hundreds of federal agents into American cities to “fight crime,” should leave no doubt that “law and order” will be the centerpiece of the Trump reelection campaign. But that strategy only works if there is widespread violence and lawlessness on the streets of our cities. That strategy needs confrontation.
This brings us to the third converging factor: the arrival in Portland of federal agents on the pretext of protecting federal property – in this case the federal building which has, in fact, been defaced and damaged in recent weeks. The damage to federal property, while perpetrated by only a small subset of the protesters, provided the Trump Administration with the opening it needed to direct Acting Secretary Wolf to deploy federal agents to Oregon, citing the Homeland Security Act as the legal justification for this action.
A provision in this Act gives the secretary the power to deputize other federal agents to assist the Federal Protective Service in protecting federal property, such as the courthouse in Portland. Those agents can carry firearms, and arrest, without a warrant, those they perceive as committing a crime. This action, not surprisingly, has heightened tension and increased violent confrontations in the streets. In the process, the protest movement’s emphasis on racism and injustice has been effectively replaced by a manufactured narrative of “law and order”—playing directly into the hands of the president’s reelection strategy.
To further complicate matters, millions of Americans and tens of thousands of Oregonians will most likely lose federal support payments next week because of inaction by Senate Republicans to extend unemployment benefits before the current support lapses. Adding to the current environment of protest and frustration, the potentially dark social consequences of panic, blame and desperation that haunt those who cannot meet their most basic needs of food and shelter and see no hope for tomorrow creates an unstable and increasingly dangerous situation. This has been made even more dangerous by increasing inflammatory rhetoric from all quarters.
What kind of plan could help de-escalate the situation before it spirals out of control? If the protests in our state since the murder of Mr. Floyd are about social justice—about putting an end to police brutality and increasing accountability and transparency in law enforcement; about ending institutional racism and addressing the inequities that exist in our state and our nation—then what we are doing right now is not working. The peaceful protest movement in Portland has been drawn into a reactive position, a defensive position, and is at risk of losing the true narrative and putting in jeopardy the very goals for which it has been so courageously fighting.
What kind of strategy can reclaim the justice narrative that holds the moral high ground, and connect the energy of the protest to tangible and measurable actions that can redress the legitimate and long-standing grievances from which that energy flows?
Possible steps in that direction could be:
1. Leaders of the peaceful protest movement—Black leaders in Portland, religious leaders, and those who love courageous but peaceful advocacy for change—call for a short moratorium on the protests for five to seven days and urge their followers and those who seek only to exercise their right to peacefully protest, not to congregate in downtown Portland during this time. This is not a call to end the protests, which must continue. It is an intentional tactical decision to separate, for a time, peaceful protesters from those who seek violence and anarchy and from increasingly provocative and confrontational actions by federal agents. This moratorium would pause the momentum of escalating violence, and stop playing into the hands of those who want to mask the racism and inequality in America with an authoritarian narrative about law and order.
2. During this moratorium, call for a summit that would include Black leaders, protest leaders committed to peaceful change, business and labor leaders, Oregon’s governor, Portland’s mayor, members of the city council, legislative leaders of both parties, the attorney general, and the U.S. attorney for the District of Oregon. Given that the summit will necessarily be virtual, former President Obama might be invited to moderate. Considering the importance of this issue, and the amount of national coverage Portland has received over the past few weeks, the president would be likely to accept. This summit would seek two goals.
First, develop an action plan for short and long-term steps and commitments to address, in intangible and measurable ways, the issues of transparency and accountability in law enforcement, and the conditions of injustice that have marred our state and our nation for far too long. Second, develop a strategy for how to resume the protests at the end of the moratorium in a way that will (a) keep the narrative focused on the conditions of injustice we are seeking to address and the actions, outcomes, and commitments developed in the summit; and (b) minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the likelihood that peaceful protests will be hijacked again by those who seek violence and anarchy.
3. Also during the moratorium, secure a wide perimeter around the federal buildings, perhaps deploying the Oregon National Guard for this purpose, to make it very clear that the state of Oregon is capable of and intends to protect federal property—just as it intends to protect state property and private property—thus eliminating the only legal justification the Department of Homeland Security has for sending these agents to our state in the first place. Not only would this perimeter protect federal property, but it would also create a buffer, once the moratorium has ended, to protect peaceful protesters from violent and provocative actions taken by federal authorities—a task that should not be left solely to the courage of the “Wall of Moms.”
The course we are now following puts control of the narrative into the hands of those who seek to further divide our state and our nation. We should not facilitate that, we should not allow it, we must take steps to prevent it. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the focus of the protest is not on the legitimacy of laws that protect public buildings and private property from vandalism and damage. The protest is and should remain, focused on racism, injustice, and inequality. We cannot allow that focus and that narrative to be co-opted by either a handful of violent protesters in Oregon or by a national strategy that seeks to fuel and exploit violence and confrontation for political gain.
The protests of the past two months are set against the backdrop of perhaps the most challenging set of problems in our state’s history: high unemployment, a daunting budget deficit, and a public health crisis. We are only six weeks away from when Oregon public schools have traditionally opened and the uncertainly about how that will be managed has put huge additional stress on parents, children, teachers, and other school employees. The ongoing, but necessary steps to bring COVID 19 under control, including the closure of many businesses and childcare centers, has added another layer of stress and uncertainty.
At this point in time, the combined leadership of Oregon’s public, private and civic sectors—and the energy, talent, and creativity of each and every Oregonian—must be engaged, with single-minded determination, to hold our state and our communities together. Now is the time to develop and implement a five-year strategy to create the kind of change rooted in social justice that we have been unwilling or unable to make in the past; a strategy to put Oregon back on its feet and lead us—all of us—through to a brighter time. By taking back the narrative, as well as the tone and focus of the important protests going on in Portland, protest leaders can help ensure that social justice, equity, and opportunity are built into the foundation of that strategy.
Somewhere in America, during this difficult time, a state needs to demonstrate that we can weather this storm without losing our sense of community, without losing our commitment to one another, and to emerge stronger and more unified than when we began. Let’s make that state Oregon.