Portland. Oregon. In the beginning, we were many. We were thousands. Exploding into the street after watching a video of horror both strange and all-too-familiar: a video of a nine-minute murder, of a killer indifferent to the pleas of the bound man he choked and crushed to death. Broad daylight, on film, unprosecuted. Another police murder. Another black person dead.
As the video circulated, things began to shatter. Hearts. Trust. Restraint. Patience.
We marched through these streets–our streets–to the sound of shattered windows. We screamed the names of the dead to the heavens as though they might be able to hear, as though we might rouse them and reverse the brutality that ended their lives. From above: silence. Some crimes are unforgivable, irreversible. But the future is not yet written: we could stop this from happening again, we must stop it by any means necessary. Voices united in a pledge, a pact: “No Justice, No Peace.”
There was no justice, and so there was no peace. The police quickly set aside their PR platitudes and came for us in force. The cacophony of flash bang grenades rattled windows, nerves, teeth. Thick, sputtering clouds of tear gas choked downtown and incapacitated passersby as the protesters scattered, terrified by this sudden brutality. The pain is unbearable. Your eyes swell and burn: you become blind. Fire in your lungs, your mouth, your stomach. You retch and spit. Every instinct screams that you are dying, panic fills you: you flee.
We could not withstand it, at first. Mass protests disintegrated into terrified individuals, scattered to the winds.
“We have to do better,” we told each other, clothes rank with mace and sweat. Sheltering with a friend, a stranger, a new comrade. Sharing a beer, watching Hong Kong YouTube videos. Thinking. Learning.
Not all the protesters returned, but the ones who did learned quickly. With one voice we sang our lessons. “Slow in the front, protect the back!” we chanted as we learned to march at a steady pace. “Walk, don’t run!” we called out as we learned to fight back panic and remain calm in the face of fire. “Stay together, stay tight!”: a song we knew from the start, soon augmented with a second line: “We do this every night.” Same shit, different day. Nothing to be afraid of.
We learned to ride the terror. “Be Water,” we said to each other as we regrouped after the police broke the group with gas and fear. We learned painfully that debates on direction had to be conducted carefully to avoid splitting and quickly to avoid police attention. Hand signals I had learned in the Army discovered again by an army of Gen-Z warriors: stop, regroup, left, right, quiet down.
After a week of this, the city passed an ordinance against tear gas. The cops now needed new tools to hurt us and so we learned the brutality of the police line. Of charging cops with batons. Of an entire canister of crowd control mace emptied into the faces of protesters. We learned that cameras save lives and so every phone became a weapon. The police knew this too. They began to target journalists.
The police made the mistake all authoritarians and cowards make: because they are driven by fear, they believe others are too. We learned to ride the fear, live with it, transmute it into rage and commitment. We learned in lock step, we learned together.
As we became accustomed to their tactics, the police tried new ones. Every time they escalated, we learned to become more resilient, creative, unpredictable. We went to their police union. They instantly declared a riot and drove us away with batons and thick clouds of gas. We went to the North precinct. They drove us into the residential streets and claimed we tried to burn them alive. Lies and lies and lies, mainstream media eating it up; we existed in a world no one seemed to know about or believe, we were alone but we had each other. We did not stop
And then the feds arrived.
DHS. ASI. Border Patrol. God only knows. They wear no identification, they wear desert camo and bulletproof armor. Some carry M4 assault rifles with live ammunition. At their hands, we learned a new kind of terror. Tear gas so thick you couldn’t see through it. Rubber bullets that shattered a young man’s face, sent him to the hospital half-dead for the crime of holding a speaker above his head in a public park. Protesters beaten, protesters arrested, protesters brutalized at the hands of so-called police indistinguishable from soldiers. Monsters in gas masks, emerging from the smoke to beat and push and maim.
Protesters snatched into unmarked vans by men in body armor, interrogated, released without paperwork. Kidnapped. Disappeared. No rule of law. No protection. No recourse.
You’d have to be out of your mind to stand up against that kind of terror. Luckily we’ve all been mad for weeks now. Sleepless and wide-eyed. Tear gas addicts. Can’t sleep unless our skin is burning.
These protests are our world now. You take a break and spend all your time glued to Twitter feeds and livestreams, furious at yourself for letting your comrades down with your pathetic need for rest. It is the madness of the military, the camaraderie of the enlisted: we do it for the cause but more than that we do it for each other. You learn that it’s easier to keep going back night after night even while every other facet of your life falls to pieces. Your appetite withers. You flinch at sirens and fireworks during the day, but barely blink when flash bang explodes five feet away. Your ears ring and your teeth grind and you can’t sleep but when you hit the ground it all falls away and you are awake, alive, alert, ready.
What did the police state expect, when they trained us every night to withstand them? What did they think would happen when they taught us that flash bang is nothing but light and noise? When they carved their caustic lesson into our lungs: the gas is agony but it does not last: in five minutes you can be ready for more, roaring back into the fight?
Did they suppose fear would deter us when they taught us, night after night, that their response has no correlation with our actions? Set foot into the street and be subject to mass arrest and beatings one night, pry off the boards over the windows to light a massive fire with no police response the next? When violence is arbitrary it loses its coercive power. Violence is coming: may as well have fun while we wait.
And when the stakes are high, other considerations fall away entirely.
It was the night after the first kidnappings–June 17th, 2020–that the city used metal fences to close the parks where we’d congregated for weeks. 600 madmen with bolt cutters, told they could stand on the sidewalk but not in the street or the park. What did they think would happen?
The fence fell in an instant, then rose again as a barricade in the middle of the street. A line of feds emerged almost immediately. One of them swung a burning cauldron of gas on a length of chain like a medieval nightmare as his fellow soldiers fired into the crowd with rubber bullets and pepper balls and cans of mace.
The protesters, who two months ago broke under 1/10th the provocation, returned almost instantly. The barricade had fallen but the pieces of fence remained: strewn about the park like legos in an anarchist’s playground.
And so we constructed new shapes, playing until the feds launched tear gas canisters from the murderholes cut into the side of the district courthouse. Retreat. Wait. Return. Repeat
Something different in the air that day. A total lack of fear. Not because we felt ourselves safe, but because we knew we were not. Because we’d done this already for 51 long nights, and because we knew now retreat was no longer an option. Stand strong now or live forever in a world where unmarked vans can snatch you from the street at a moment’s notice. Anyone bold enough or mad enough to be out at midnight on a Friday barricading the feds into their own building would not live long in the society such kidnappings promise. Stand strong or die.
Which, perhaps, is why two protesters had the audacity to charge that murderhole with a segment of fence. To secure it so that the mesh blocked the opening and made canister fire impossible. The crowd erupted into a roar of approval as others rushed to enforce the barricade. Fences against the doors. Zip ties to secure them.
Behind us, a speaker blasted Rage Against the Machine and the crowd began to scream along. “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” Voices rising into the dark, primal scream of the people, ancient as oppression. Defiance, even in the face of pain or death.
Standing in that crowd with tears in my eyes I knew, suddenly, that they could not hurt us in any way that mattered. In a very real sense, we were already free.
Of course they cleared us out eventually. They always do, in the end. Tear gas thick as vomit, rubber bullets and pepper balls and mace and God knows what else. Running as a group, staying together, helping those who fell. Something wet struck my leg and it was only later that I realized the wet thing was my own blood, soaking through my pant leg and slapping against the wound as I ran.
Every night, we lose the battle. It is inevitable. We are beaten back, we are dispersed.
But every night, we return. Wild-eyed, laughing, waiting, ready.
We are many. We are learning. We are free.
You have watered us with your violence.
You will reap what you sow.
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