Phil Hearse examines Trump's attacks on the Portland Liberated Zone, its political meaning and some of its immediate consequences.
25 July 2020
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In an orchestrated campaign designed to whip up his reactionary base against a national threat of ‘anarchists’ and ‘violence’, Donald Trump has sent heavily armed agents in combat fatigues to attack the Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Portland, Oregon, and the Liberated Zone they created. Now he is despatching his new Gestapo to Chicago and threatening other US cities with the same treatment. The aim is not to suppress violence, but to create it, to give the impression of lawlessness in mainly Democrat-run cities.
The Trump repressive campaign is intended both to clamp down on and victimise young radicals who have led the Black Lives Matter protests, and to whip up a national hysteria about law and order, in order to boost his faltering poll numbers in preparation for November’s presidential election.
This is a new version of the ‘strategy of tension’, long used by the reactionary ultra-right, and recently successfully employed by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2017, when he blamed bomb explosions, probably the work of Turkish state agents, on Kurdish and other radicals to whip up support for his AKP party.
The federal agents who have descended on Portland are commanded by the Department of Homeland Security, and appear to be made up of US border guards (Portland is 374 miles from the Canadian border, so not much to guard there).
While Portland had banned its local police force from using tear gas, the federal agents have used it in abundance. They seem mainly intent on causing clashes and using snatch squads in unmarked cars to arrest demonstrators. The federal agents’ violence has caused a huge backlash in Portland communities, with hundreds of yellow-clad women creating a ‘Wall of Moms’ between agents and demonstrators. This Moms have now been joined by Dads.
At the time of writing it appears that 200 agents are on their way to Chicago, evidently with the aim of targeting Black communities. It is a provocation that could lead to widespread civil disorder.
Black Lives Matter protests have continued in Portland, near the country’s north west coast, for more than 50 days. Actions kicked off on May 27th, when a group organised by indigenous and other activists of colour occupied the steps of the Justice Centre. On May 29th the first mass demonstration took place, when several thousand people marched from Peninsula Park to the Justice Centre. A local group of radicals called the Youth Liberation Front, occupied to steps of the Justice Centre, that also contains the local police headquarters, for three days. On March 28 windows in the building were smashed by some demonstrators, and following ensuing clashes, demonstrators declared local parks part of an autonomous zone, and attempted to seal them off from police. The tactic of occupying parks as centres of organisation and resistance, was also employed in many cities during the 2010 US ‘Occupy’ movement.
The sudden appearance of heavily armed federal agents dressed in combat fatigues with no identifying marks, sent shock waves through the city – and much of US political opinion as well. The arrest and abduction of demonstrators by federal agents had echoes of the disappearances and seizures of alleged terrorists in the wake of 9/11. It is another step on the road to the militarisation of US policing, so that radical demonstrations, the occupation of a few parks and a small amount of window smashing, producing a military response.
The Trump regime is leading the charge towards a Global Police State, in which police and military forcers are easily merged and become indistinguishable. It is all of a piece with Trump’s threat to use the regular army against Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
The mayor of Portland, Ted Wheeler, has demanded the federal forces leave the city. And the threatened use of such forces in Chicago has been rejected by the city’s mayor Lori Lightfoot, like Wheeler a Democrat. Trump’s brand of creeping fascism is regularly clashing with city and state authorities, over policing, immigration sanctuary and climate change action. But the key tactic of the Trump regime is the attempt to close down all opposition, whether from radical demonstrators, city authorises or government departments, while generating a racist discourse and labelling protestors as ‘anarchists’.
Seven states have declared themselves ‘sanctuary states’, that will not – in whole or in part – collaborate with Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE) actions, in whole or in part, to remove so-called ‘illegal’ immigrates. Dozens ofc state counties and cities have done the same (list here). This is mainly a symbolic action and cannot in itself prevent the tide of racist harassment against migrant communities.
The governors of 24 US states plus Puerto Rico have rejected the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change agreement and said they will push ahead with its targets. States and cities are rejecting Trump diktats on a range of issues.
What of the Portland Liberated Zone tactic? Liberated territories have been crucial in many revolutionary struggles, from the Paris Commune to the Vietnamese and Chinese revolutions. The struggle over territory was central to the revolution and the civil war in Spain (1936-9) and many other revolutionary struggles. In the 2010 Occupy! movement, and it seems in Portland today, this can be seen as a mobilising and symbolic tactic, one which vividly dramatises the struggle. But it is highly improbable that radicals could take over a part of a major city in an advanced capitalist country, for a lengthy period of time, outside of an uprising of truly revolutionary dimensions, one actively supported by a significant section of the local population. To hold a liberated area, even for an extended temporary period, means the struggle being at a level where social life can be self-organised by the working class and other sections of the oppressed. Territorial ‘dual power’ also necessarily has a military aspect, if reactionary state forces are determined to close it down.
Nonetheless taking and defending ‘liberated’ zones can have a powerful mobilising effect, enabling broad community alliances to be formed over a range of tactics. Sit-in strikes – occupations – have been a standard ploy of student struggles, but students learnt this tactic from the history of working-class struggle, particularly the 1930s sit-down strikes against General Motors in Flint, Michigan, but also in dozens of other US plants in this period.
The fight over territory was also to the fore in the Dakota pipeline struggle in 2016-17, when youth from the Stanning Rock Sioux community blocked the building of the Dakota Access pipeline to carry oil through ancestral lands, threatening the water of local peoples. They were instrumental in mobilising the community to establish the Sacred Stone camp across the route of the pipelines. This is turn electrified the struggle and made it a national focus, mobilising many radical, community and even veterans’ groups to lend support.
Creeping fascism in America is proceeding bit by bit, brining institutions under central control, gnawing at the edges of democratic rights, and violently attacking all opposition, either politically as with the media, or with repressive force, as with Black Lives Matter street protests. The new Trump Gestapo, and his threat to use it in Chicago and other cities, shows the threat to basic democratic rights. Which goes together with Trump’s overt threats that he might refuse to leave office if he is defeated in November’s presidential election.
He is already preparing, claiming that Democrats and foreign powers are planning to forge millions of postal ballots, and create the ‘rigged November election’, which will be ‘the biggest scandal of our times’. He would need every bit of muscle from his secret police and other repressive forces, to enforce that hijacking of the vote – in a country where billionaire-dominated politics, a rabid right-wing media, and millions of poor and Black people are pushed off electoral rolls, makes democracy already a highly limited affair.
Phil Hearse co-authored Creeping Fascism and contributed to The Far Right in Europe.