Secret Police on the Streets of PDX: Interview with a Member of Black Rose Portland

Art by @timeneedsme on instagram

by Members of Black Rose Anarchist Federation

Fifty days into the popular uprising sparked by the police murder of George Floyd and demonstrations in Portland, Oregon show little sign of abating.

In fact, Portland has now become a proving ground for the Trump administration to demonstrate its ‘law and order’ bona fides in the run up to the 2020 election.

Federal police, with little information available as to which agencies they specifically work for, have become more active in the repression of demonstrations in the city. A number of recent videos have captured this secret police force, members of which wear military fatigues, grabbing demonstrators off the street and shuttling them away in unmarked vehicles.

We caught up with a member of our Portland local to find out more about what’s been happening on the ground.

Black Rose / Rosa Negra (BRRN): Can you briefly describe the last few months of the uprising in Portland?

Black Rose Portland Local (PDX): Demonstrations have been happening daily in Portland, with activity including daytime gatherings that extend into night marches, oftentimes with multiple events happening on any given day. In the first few weeks, attendance numbers ranged in the thousands and in recent weeks numbers have dipped slightly, but remained consistently in the hundreds.

The demonstrations and marches have been organized by a variety of autonomous groups, including (but not limited to) new and existent BIPOC led groups, nameless affinity groups, the families of victims of Portland Police violence and murder, youth-led organizations and local striking sex workers. There have been 423 total people arrested since the uprising began, the vast majority of whom have been bailed out.

Some victories include: protestors set the Justice Center [building which includes courts and police precinct] on fire the first night. Nearly 50 days later, on the night of 7/18, the Portland Police Association (police “union” pig pen) was also set aflame. $15M has been cut from the city Police budget (the ask was $50k/year until total defunding); SRO’s pulled from Portland Public School District; Transit cops pulled from public transportation (though immediately replaced by Sheriffs). Strong abolitionist rhetoric has become popular among protestors, in local literature/resources being circulated, and in graffiti and posters going up around the city. A local nonprofit won a temporary legal ban against PPB using tear gas, though with the caveat that they can use it if officers “fear for their lives” or a demonstration is declared a riot.

Some defeats and struggles we’ve experienced include: Protestors choosing to kneel with cops early on, early liberal cooptation of certain aspects of the movement and the successful division of peaceful protestors and anarchists (though this has been pretty much turned around).

BRRN: In what ways has the pandemic altered how people are organizing and turning out?

PDX: Mutual aid seems to be a key aspect of resistance and protest; mutual aid projects that were initially started at the beginning of the pandemic were strengthened and revitalized by the uprisings in the response to the murder of George Floyd. There seems to be an increase in the number of street medics, supply vehicles, and the distribution of PPE and sanitizing equipment/supplies at protests.

Initially it had a major impact in re-configuring relationships in organizations and in people newly radicalized. People within existing organizations have had to reexamine what their role is in relating to their work while being overworked in jobs deemed essential, had to reevaluate workload while able to solely work from home, organizations and people have had to learn from disabled comrades as to how to make spaces more accessible, and new masses of people have plugged into existing structures that have varying degrees of capacity to accept the new influx of people.

The first protests began before Oregon began its reopening process, and Portland, OR is several steps behind the rest of the State on that reopening process. Large amounts of people being jobless and angry at pandemic conditions, plus protests being the only social space people can feel right about showing up in are likely contributing factors as to why there is still daily and nightly energy and presence.

Different pandemic vulnerability/comfort levels leading to more varied types of actions, in addition to mass actions: car caravans, bike rallies, small neighborhood protests of less than 10 people happening simultaneously.

Tens of thousands have come out in Portland since the uprising began. Photo by John Furtado.

BRRN: Over the last few years, Portland has become a flashpoint for physical clashes between the street level movement of the far right and anti-fascists. Have non-state reactionary forces tried to intervene or interfere at all during the George Floyd uprising in PDX?

PDX: Most of the right-wing organized street movements in the Northwest had gone into retreat prior to the pandemic, thanks in whole to organized anti-fascists. The most prominent of the cast of characters who led right-wing demonstrations in the city are currently embroiled in lawsuits, doxxing scandals which have resulted in the social consequences of bigoted behavior, and ironically, state repression.

While most of the actual street presence of fash has been limited to a few instances of less than a half dozen local reactionaries and “boogaloo boys” showing up, there have been a far greater number of unconfirmed sightings of the generic catch-all “Proud Boys”, which has locally become a way to describe any reactionary or fascist regardless of actual affiliation. While “Proud Boys” have become the “Kleenex” or “Coca-Cola” of fascism locally, the number of organized reactionaries from Patriot Prayer, Proud Boys, Portland Liberation or others has been severely limited. 

The number of unconfirmed sightings speaks to the justified paranoia and fear that years of duking it out on the street with these fascists has wrought. The sheer size of protests has made the risk of showing up as an out-in-the-open fascist too costly, and they are quickly run out.

However there has been a resurgence in the local doxxing of leftist protestors and arrestees, and high profile media stories on right wing media. We have some local right wing grifters posing as journalists who are frequently featured on Fox News.

Given this recent history and the fact that Portland has come to represent a clear example of organized resistance, we have drawn the ire of many high profile right wingers and liberals. This means the consequences of not wearing a mask or getting arrested are greater than ever.

BRRN: DHS secretary Chad Wolf issued a memo justifying the deployment of Federal secret police to Portland in order to put down the uprising. In total, the memo mentions the phrase “violent anarchists” 47 times. Prior to the uprising, what sort of organizing work were anarchists in Portland engaged in?

Anarchists in Portland engage in a wide variety of organizing work, notable local projects include the Portland Youth Liberation Front and the youth-led groups organization of the climate strike, the Free Lunch Collective’s meal distribution program, Budding Roses’ free summer education program, labor union organizing, Critical Resistance’s years-long campaign to abolish and defund the police, and various autonomously organized mutual aid projects like free stores, community fridges, grocery boxes, needle exchanges, and Narcan distribution.

Although some of the organizations listed here may not outwardly identify as anarchist, we recognize them to have values that align with Black Rose, horizontal power structures and abolitionist politics.

The membership of the Portland local are involved in a number of organizing projects, but most notably as a group we read books and miss meetings to discuss them, get yelled at by teens, eat hot chip, and cry. Very violent indeed.

Unidentified Federal agents in military fatigues patrolling the streets of Portland. Photo by Nathan Howard.

BRRN: Being outside of Portland, most of us only learned about the presence of the DHS secret police when images and videos emerged on social media of them disappearing demonstrators into unmarked cars. When did you first realize that they were present?

PDX: Years ago! 

A great number of people in our communities have lived in fear of getting snatched by Feds for many years, as ICE has a long history of pushing against our “sanctuary state” policies which are supposed to prohibit local law enforcement cooperation with Federal immigration authorities.

However, we know and have confirmed that DHS and local police have cooperated consistently despite the supposed illegality of such activity. The past few years have seen a lot of organizing around stopping ICE from grabbing people at the local courthouse where they were targeting people. 

DHS has also been deployed to Portland protests multiple times in the past. Including most recently during a “Charlottesville 2” rally where Feds and local cops gave out-of-town fash a nice guided tour of the city.

They were also present during much of the 2018 occupation of the ICE facility in Southwest Portland, where they pointed an assault rifle at a member of our local. They have guarded the federal park, Chapman Square, in downtown Portland where fascists and alt-right groups have been able to get permits to hold demonstrations.

Feds have been performing door-knocks in the since the beginning of the protests and even before. They have been closely monitoring BIPOC comrades from the start of the protests in particular and have had a visible presence guarding the federal building (across the street from the Justice Center). Their presence since early on in the protests has mostly been in the background guarding federal property, but in the last week they have shifted to a much more active and aggressive crowd control role with a much more visible presence and more Federal police being sent in. This is when the snatch squads started and when it got national media attention.

BRRN: On the topic of these disappearances: is there any indication as to what has happened to those who have been snatched off the street?

It appears that they are grabbed and stuffed into unmarked cars. At least one person had their beanie forcibly pulled down over their eyes for the ride. People say they were driven around and eventually taken to a cell in the Federal detention building or the Multnomah County Detention Facility (one of two county jails in Portland), both of which are right in the center of the protest action and probably very close to where they were initially grabbed. People report having been questioned by unmarked officers who refused to identify themselves, and then released after a few hours. That we know, everyone who has been kidnapped has so far been released.

BRRN: Can you describe what the presence of the Federal police has looked like? Does it appear that they’re fulfilling a different function than local police?

The Federal police have been seen dressed in full military uniform, although unmarked by any insignia which could indicate which agencies they belong to. Similarly they are not wearing any identification names or badge numbers. They have also been witnessed using CS gas dispersal methods that are more powerful than those utilized by Portland police, and unfamiliar to most protestors in the crowd.

Hitting the Feds where it hurts. [Chad Wolf is acting DHS Secretary]. Photo by @markwgraves on Twitter.

BRRN: How have demonstrators reacted to this hyper visible manifestation of state power?

PDX: Demonstrations feel re-invigorated by the hyper-visible federal presence, this past Saturday night (7/18) was one of the bigger nights of protest recently. New “respectable” groups are coming out and getting gassed, which is also adding fuel to the fire: last night a line of moms wearing Anne Taylor were very visibly tear gassed and flash banged and now there is a mom contingent coming back tonight. If the line hadn’t been crossed for some people (esp. older liberals) it’s been crossed now.

BRRN: Oregon’s politicians, both at the city and state level, have issued recent statements condemning the presence of Federal police. Do you believe they’re sincere?

Not at all. They are trying to save face because liberals see how inexcusable this sort of repression is. Blaming the Feds is a convenient way to shift blame away from local repression from the police. The mayor has tweeted that federal officers and Portland police have shared the same command center during protests. They are working side by side. These overtures are hollow and come from wanting to distance themselves from lawsuits and political ramifications.

If you liked this interview on the current uprising against white supremacy and police violence, we recommend the following article: How You and Your Co-workers Can F*ck the Police.