Portland – What Do You See?

As I watch the videos and still photos of the chaos in Portland and read comments on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, I am driven to ponder: how does what I see differ so much from what others see? And why?

To a large degree, we see what we expect to see. Powerful psychological forces, largely if not entirely unconscious, control what parts of a visual field actually register as “seen” in the conscious mind. You likely have experienced this a few times. You didn’t “notice” something that someone else did notice and thought was obvious. Maybe you went looking for something in a room and didn’t “see” something else; you were puzzled when this was pointed out.

So, some of us see the videos and photos of camouflaged, unidentified “soldiers” of an unidentified federal force beating, tear gassing, pepper spraying and generally assaulting protesters who have been on the streets of Portland in the vicinity of the federal courthouse for approaching two months. Two months! Two months and no apparent plan by Portland political leadership to address the concerns that led the protesters to the streets in the first place. Based on videos I have seen, it appears that Trump’s Storm Troopers have committed multiple crimes against Portland residents: unlawful search, assault with a deadly weapon, battery, false arrest (no probable cause) and kidnapping.

Others don’t see that at all. They see only rioters trying to destroy federal and private property, anarchists and enemies of America. Communists and/or fascists and/or socialists. OMG, antifa! So, they post video of fires being set and photos of people wearing what seem to be anti-American insignia or slogans.

As an interesting aside, I think, the president of the United States does not see “fine people … on both sides,” as he did when the neo-Nazis and white supremacists/KKK marched in Charlottesville with torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Trump sees only enemies. He also sees opportunity – a chance to deflect attention away from his catastrophic failure of leadership regarding the coronavirus pandemic. Trump is likely quite happy that Portland is such a visible powder-keg – it’s tailor-made to draw media attention away from the pandemic and the as-yet-unaddressed issue of Russian bounties to the Taliban for killing American soldiers.

To some degree we all have an agenda, perhaps not the same as Trump’s, but an agenda nonetheless. That agenda moderates what we tend to focus on from the multitude of images, accusations and claims emerging from the tumult in Portland.

At this late stage, this alignment is not likely to change. The mayor of Portland probably realized that last night when he joined the crowd to talk with the protesters, many days late and dollars short. He got tear gassed for his effort and, of course, that garnered the biggest headlines.

Step back,  on either side, a moment from the emotional engagement that is triggered by Portland and ask the question: why would all those people, mainly young but now joined by large numbers of women (calling themselves Momtifa), some of whom are pregnant, why would they behave as they are? Does any rational person think those people in Portland are all just hooligans who have been waiting all this time for an excuse to engage in violent activity, risking arrest and serious personal injury? Why is there so much anger in this group that some of them try to physically engage police and try to burn down a courthouse?

It’s easy, and entirely simplistic and simple-minded, to call them a “mob” and other names that have become popular on right-wing talk shows. Don’t those of us who are also angry, on either side, have a responsibility to address the underlying issues rather than just reacting emotionally to the video of the moment? Does anyone really approve of the violence as a long-term viable strategy for effectuating change? If you don’t, then you know that something must be done to address the reasons for the anger that led to the violence.

So, what now? Trump is sending his federal strike force to other cities to beat, tear gas, pepper spray and assault other American citizens, again on the pretext that the (usually Democratic) leadership of those cities cannot sufficiently dominate the streets on their own. We are thus likely to see Portland-like images from these other cities, as the protesters, already frustrated by the customary excuses and inaction, boil over in rage against what seems like, and almost certainly is, a gross and unconstitutional abuse of federal power. I can’t predict the future any better, and perhaps worse, than anyone else, but it’s hard to see how this is going to accomplish anything good.

The main consequence of Trump’s approach is going to be feeding more red meat to the most ravenous segment of his political base that is at once racist and hungry for new “enemies” to hate. Trump actually may benefit politically with his base by keeping the pot boiling over in the “Democrat-run cities” but at what cost to those cities and the country? He continues gaslighting the nation about imminent cures for COVID-19 with his renewed “daily briefings” while promising to suppress violence in cities that “can’t take care of their own business.” In reality, this will just produce more violence.

What, then, is the answer? I believe it must lie in a program somewhat similar to the one announced a while back by Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the outpouring of protests across the country and the world, Cuomo told the cities/towns of New York State: get your act together, enlist the interested parties, sit down with a blank slate and redesign your public safety/public health services in a way that makes sense to you in the local affected community and submit your plan with a budget by April. OR, lose state funding. Cuomo’s approach respects local autonomy, creates strong incentives for joint action and has a definitive timeline for outcomes. Whether local political and other leaders have the skills needed to negotiate new arrangements remains to be seen, but this is a model that at least makes sense as a path forward.

I don’t have enough information about why exactly Portland has become the hotspot for protests, but it seems that the reform process has stalled there. It was good of the mayor to finally come out to engage the protesters, but photo ops among the tear gas are not a solution to what ails the police force in Portland or elsewhere. Recognizing the additional challenges that comes with the pandemic, we cannot have this be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Local governments must rise to the occasion or risk mass carnage inflicted by both angry citizens and federal storm troopers led by unhinged politicians looking to exploit the situation for personal political gain.

The longer the protests go on, the greater the frustration at the lack of progress and the greater the risk of more violence. Unlike prior cases, these protests seem unlikely to punch themselves out. It’s time – well past time – for political leadership to step in, displace the over-reaching of the president and start the process of real and powerful reform. The people are not going to accept the routine continuation of police brutality as the norm in American society.

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