PORTLAND, Ore. — I’ve been on the front lines of the protests here, searching for the “radical-left anarchists” who President Trump says are on Portland streets each evening.
I thought I’d found one: a man who for weeks leapt into the fray and has been shot four times with impact munitions yet keeps coming back. I figured he must be a crazed anarchist.
But no, he turned out to be Dr. Bryan Wolf, a radiologist who wears his white doctor’s jacket and carries a sign with a red cross and the words “humanitarian aid.” He pleads with federal forces not to shoot or gas protesters.
“Put your gun barrels down!” he cries out. “Why are you loading your grenade launchers? We’re just standing ——”
And then they shoot.
Dr. Wolf, an assistant professor at Oregon Health Sciences University, helps at a medic stand operated by volunteers from the medical school. Could they be radical-left anarchists? No, they’ve imposed order on the anarchy of the street by establishing qualifications for field medics and a hierarchy among them, so that any badly injured protester will immediately get the right kind of care.
Accomplishing all this while tear gas is swirling and impact munitions are whizzing by, without even asking for insurance cards — that seems the opposite of what fanatical anarchists might do.
Maybe the rioting anarchists were in front of the crowd, where there are discussions about Black Lives Matter? I found musicians and activists and technicians, who were projecting a huge sign on the wall of a nearby building — “Fed Goons Out of PDX” — that seemed a bit geeky for anarchists.
Oh, wait, there was a man using angry language about the federal “occupation” and calling it “abhorrent.” Lots of protesters don’t seem to like him, so could he be a crazed anarchist rioter?
Oops, no, that’s just Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, sputtering after being tear-gassed by the feds.
Then I heard someone calling for the overthrow of Portland’s “leadership,” and I’d figured I’d finally found an anarchist. But it turned out to be Maria Bartiromo of Fox News, asking Chad Wolf, the acting head of homeland security, “Why can’t you just arrest the leadership in Portland because of their ignoring what’s really happening on the ground?”
She may be a crazed anarchist trying to topple legitimate authority, but I doubt she’s the kind Trump meant.
OK, I’ll fess up: Sure there are anarchists and antifa activists in the Portland protests, just as there are radiologists and electricians, lawyers and mechanics. Report on the ground here and any single narrative feels too simplistic. The protesters aren’t all peaceful, nor are they primarily violent. They’re a complicated weave, differing by time of day.
In the evening, the throngs are entirely peaceful, listening to speeches about Black Lives Matter, and the authorities do not intervene. Then, as if following a script, about 11 p.m. some protesters begin to shoot fireworks or set small trash fires. (No, they’re not trying to burn down the federal courthouse, as Wolf suggests.)
Some of these late-night protesters try to provoke the federal forces, partly to show how federal agents overreact with indiscriminate force. Meanwhile, Trump is deploying federal forces to provoke protesters into using violence that he can campaign on.
Provocateurs are found in both the streets and the White House.
We see dueling narratives. One is Trump’s, and it portrays Portland and other cities with protests against police brutality as teetering on the abyss and requiring his Lincolnesque hand to hold America together. The other is — well, shall we call it reality? Yes, there’s violence and vandalism, as well as opportunistic looting, and it’ll be a challenge to manage it, but local officials are much better placed to do so than the White House.
Oregon and Trump administration officials on Wednesday announced an agreement to reduce tensions around the federal courthouse. But the timing and extent of the withdrawal of federal forces was unclear.
I’m against all violent attacks on officers, and I worry that Trump’s provocations are succeeding in seeding violence — as we’ve already seen in Seattle, Oakland and elsewhere. Every time angry progressives burn a building down, they win votes for Trump.
That’s what this is about: politics. The big threat in Portland and across America is not anarchists but Covid-19, so Trump welcomes street clashes to change the subject. If he actually cared about the defacement of the federal courthouse in Portland, he would remove the graffiti; instead, he leaves it there for photo ops. It’s the protesters, not the federal authorities, who deploy teams each night in Portland to clean up the area around the courthouse.
It also must be said that while there’s violence from both sides, what I’ve seen firsthand is that the most violent behavior overwhelmingly comes from the federal agents, and indeed the most serious injuries have been suffered by protesters. Your federal tax dollars paid to shoot a man in the face with a “less lethal” munition — an unprovoked assault that left him with a fractured skull and possible brain damage.
If you want to call one side “rioters” or “anarchists” working to create tumult in Portland, it’s the uninvited feds who qualify.