An object lesson in the importance of peaceful protest

You always hope that you'll make the front page of the New York Times. Ideally, in this case, it would have been due to record numbers, or comment from the governor. No such luck.

I should say from the outset that I took absolutely no part whatsoever in any destruction, vandalism, hostility towards the police or violence. I condemn it in no uncertain terms.

I joined up with the protest near Halliday park in northeast Portland last night, around eight o'clock. The inverted American flag hung from handheld poles, signs clutched above shoulders reading "fuck trump," guerilla half facemasks from the bridge of the nose down, desperado train robber-style. Someone launched fireworks into the air from a slowly moving car before we turned left onto broadway, right near the Toyota dealership. Before my portion of the crowd turned, several people had already grabbed something heavy and shattered the windshields of brand new Camrys.


There were enormous collective cries of "peaceful protest!" Immediately following each window smashed, each blaring car alarm. The workers at the dealership hung back inside, taking videos on their phones of the protestors. What could they do? We marched along. A middle aged gentleman with one of the black lives matter contingents (easily the oldest person other than myself in my line of sight partaking in the protest) called "mic check! MIC CHECK!" Halting the protest around him. He roared that this is not how we protest. We are not trying to give the police reason to harm us, he yelled. This is not how we protest. Seemingly right on cue, we came upon our first line of cops in riot gear, near Williams street. They'd set up flares, squad cars behind them with lights flashing, blocking our entrance to the freeway. No interest in a repeat of the previous night, when protestors overtook I-5. 


I did not get the middle aged gentleman's name, though we were beside one another for a good portion of the night. He wore a suit that looked natural on him. I wore the suit I'd gotten married in. We seemed to have had the same idea about making it apparent that adults were protesting. He led many of the chants and single-handedly stopped the march on several occasions. A man with presence. Someone that people feel that they should be listening to. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of him, in a role of importance. 


This is not how we protest. The media is watching us, they're reporting on the protests around the nation. The one in Portland made the front page a continent away because it devolved into a riot. A shirtless young man, with his t-shirt tied around the lower half of his face, yelled "don't shame my activism!" As people all around him booed and shouted. "You don't want to break anything, then don't, but don't shame MY activism!" A fair point. But the eyes of the country are on us as we come together to do this. Our chants of "say it loud, say it clear, immigrants are welcome here!" don't make the news, broken windows do. 


Know who your enemies are. The broken windows of the Bank of America, the FedEx, the restaurants and businesses downtown, these bottom-rung employees are not who we're supposed to be protesting. They're just regular people like us, people who have these jobs to pay their rent and their student loans, people who are having a harder time working today because instead of their typical daily jobs, they're sweeping up glass, calling their bosses and managers to replace damaged displays, trying to assure their customers that everything will be fine, unsure of what's coming down the street again tonight. 

The police are not our enemies. They gave us every opportunity to proceed to the permitted protest areas, and some people who came to this protest spoiling for a fight rushed them anyway, in spite of the flash grenades, the threats of tear gas, the line of riot cops. The police are doing what taxpayers expect them to do when four thousand people storm the downtown area, breaking windows and setting dumpsters on fire. If there is a credible public threat, it is the police's obligation to respond. It is our obligation not to be a credible threat. The police are not a federalized National Guard. Were it to get to the point that they were, we would have no one to blame but ourselves for allowing a peaceful protest to get out of hand.

Not reported in the New York Times article: The cries of "When they go low, we go high!" as we collectively condemned the violent protestors. The member of the Black Lives Matter contingent who climbed a street sign with a megaphone and insisted that if you wanted to destroy and vandalize, you should go your own way, while the rest of us protesting peacefully would go another. The chants of "My body, my choice!" "Protect our Mother Earth!" "We're here, we're queer, we're fabulous, don't fuck with us!" "Abolish the Electoral College!" The people cheering us on in their work uniforms from restaurants we passed. The truck driver blowing his horn as we passed in front of him, leaning out his door with his fist in the air, chanting along with us. 

All of this is personally validating, highly encouraging, but it's not news. News is broken windows, spraypainted vandalism and injury. News is how most people are even aware that protests are occurring, long after they've dispersed. There were protests in New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, practically every state which voted blue and has a big city in it and not one of them made the New York Times this morning. Oregon got the headlines today because there were a very few people who, consciously or not, use the size of a protest as a smokescreen of anonymity, and committed the senseless acts of destruction that they were looking for any excuse to commit anyway. This is more than counterproductive. It's craven and cowardly. 

We have the opportunity here to control the narrative with how the media covers us. We can either be first-amendment activists, voicing our discontent and anger in a peaceful fashion and reminding the nation's victors that we're here and unwilling to give up the fight, or we're rioters. I refuse to be a rioter. Rioters get locked up or killed, and we have too much to do to allow that to happen this time. 

We've all come together here to say with one voice that the threats made by the incoming Trump administration will not stand. We came together to protest that the candidate who won the popular vote did not win the White House. That we do not believe that a sexual predator should hold the highest office in the land. But that's it. We did not come together to destroy a city which overwhelmingly agrees with us, to antagonize cops who would likely be on the line beside us if they were not in uniform, to punish those who happen to be nearby with disrespect and destruction for the sole reason that their businesses and property were close to us. No collateral damage. No senseless vandalism. It undermines everything that we are trying to say and all that the media will report is the destruction and the arrests. That is not their fault. It is not the job of a protest to make the news by force. It is the job of a protest, and all protestors, to be in a place together and collectively say "No."

Already, signs point to our protest's broader agreement on these points. The Portland Mercury today reported that, at the time of publication, over ten thousand dollars has been raised by the Portland Resistance to fund repairs for the damage that was done last night. This is our civic responsibility. The link to donate is in the article, incidentally.

This is work that needs doing. We need to organize, and focus, on what we actually want. Our right to free speech and organization will, perhaps undoubtedly, not look the same this time next year as it does today. We here have chosen a side, and we can't be worried about what lists we're going to be put on for having done so. This is, of course, a worst case, alarmist scenario, and perhaps one bearing little resemblance to what we can actually expect in the future. I'm cautious but making a game attempt to be optimistic, essentially. We have to be. 

I have said in the past to friends that peaceful protest accomplishes nothing, disillusioned as I was by the pointed but rudderless efforts of Occupy Wall Street. Occupy, in the very few times I was there, at no point devolved into rioting. It was a sit-in, and of course it accomplished nothing. We were criticizing the business practices of an industry which only does what we tell it when we force our representatives to see things our way. It was catharsis by protest, with no clear path to our myriad goals in sight. This doesn't give me cause to question the nobility of the broader endeavor of civilian protest, only the efficacy of that specific one. This is different. We are protesting what's coming, what's already happened, and we have a clear goal in sight. Stymie the efforts of the far-right at every turn, make evident that we want nothing to do with legislated bigotry and will not permit it to occur. We don't want a civil war. That is why our protests must, absolutely MUST, remain peaceful at all times. We have to be the adults in the room.

In the next two to four years, I would like to see people my age unseating the old guard in the House of Representatives and the Senate. I would like to see a unified progressive agenda, one that benefits everyone. I would like to see legislation that acknowledges how far we've come and moves forward, not backward. I think that needs to start now. President-Elect Trump might be the fire everyone needs set under their ass to start moving, because barring a stunning reversal of their duties when the Electoral College comes to vote on December 19th, or January 6th, 2017, when Congress comes together to count the Electoral votes, that is who we've got sitting in the White House. Honestly, even if they do alter their votes for the greater good, I'd like to see this happen anyway. We're all grown-ups now, and it's time we started acting like it.

I left the protests from near Pioneer square last night, the area we were last permitted to be. Most of us peeled off in small, tight groups once we'd reached the end. I and several others quietly walked past a line of riot police blocking access to Naito Parkway and the waterfront, faceless, shifting weight, clutching batons to their chests. No one shouted "Fuck the Police" this time, the security of the four thousand person mass gone. Sirens blared near and distantly. We had all clearly been part of the protest, and we were going home. The police made no move towards us. They will not antagonize you if you do not antagonize them.

Two young women walked nearby as I was leaving. One of them commented that this had been scary, that she hadn't expected it to be like this. Her friend agreed. Said this was not what she had signed up for. My voice was hoarse from yelling and it was plainly a private conversation. I did not tell them how much I agreed.

I finally made my way back to my car, which I'd parked at my in-laws house, shaken. Adrenaline still pumped through me, this long walk home notwithstanding, mixed with disappointment. The second time in two days that I thought I knew my countrymen better than this. But no, I think, this protest was overwhelmingly peaceful. Those who did not conduct themselves in a manner befitting the gravity of the situation were targeted, shamed and removed. I have to believe that we are the most inclusive, open-minded and forward-thinking generation yet to cast votes in the United States, and we protested in the most granola, progressive and borderline hippie-ish city anywhere in the nation. Our goal was set back last night, though. We came together to make our voices heard and this morning the only sounds heard by the rest of our county were glass shattering, the piercing cry of car alarms and sirens, and the police shouting that if we did not proceed to the permitted area of protest they would be forced to engage.