Hard facts about Portland’s May Day “riot”

May 4, 2017

Wael Elasady writes from Portland, Oregon, about the lessons to draw after a protest in which police used the actions of Black Bloc activists as an excuse to go on the attack.

PORTLAND WOKE up on May 2 to headlines about a "violent May Day riot" with images of newspaper stands lit on fire in the middle of downtown Portland and scenes of police clashes with Black Bloc activists.

The official story, repeated without question by the media, is that the May Day demonstration turned into a riot, which forced the Portland police to revoke the march permit and then attack the marchers with tear gas and percussion grenades--all to quell the violence of protesters and return order to the streets of Portland.

What's left out of the news reports and statements by city officials is the fact that the Portland police were the ones responsible for the escalation of violence and for the resulting chaos that engulfed downtown Portland.

At the same time, the confrontation on May Day again raises questions the left needs to confront: about the actions of the Black Bloc that give the police an excuse for attacking protesters and that undemocratically put everyone involved in a demonstration at risk.

Riot cops at the May Day demonstration in Portland
Riot cops at the May Day demonstration in Portland

This question was even raised beforehand with Black Bloc activists because of the particular danger at a May Day march involving immigrants and their families, but with no different result.

THE PORTLAND May Day events began as a lively celebration, with a rally of 1,500 people, including performances and speeches by members of a wide variety of organizations involved in the planning, to celebrate International Workers Day and oppose attacks on immigrants.

The rally then marched off on a planned route for which May Day organizers had applied and obtained a permit from the city.

About halfway along, as marchers started to return to Shemanski Park, police announced over their loudspeaker that, due to projectiles thrown from the back of the crowd, the march permit had been revoked, that this was now an "unpermitted assembly," and that anyone who stayed in the street would be arrested.

This, of course, sowed confusion as march organizers attempted to steer 1,500 people onto already crowded sidewalks in downtown Portland on a late weekday afternoon. The marchers continued on--half fitting on the sidewalk and half still in the street--as we tried to return to Shemanski Park.

Then, within five minutes of announcing that the permit was canceled, police began to shoot tear gas and percussion grenades to disband the protesters. This caused fear and chaos, as hundreds of people, including families and children, began bolting down side streets to try to escape.

While the bulk of the march scattered, the police and about 100 Black Bloc activists engaged in a street battle that moved across downtown Portland.

The police, dressed in full riot gear, sped through a crowded downtown area, firing more tear gas and percussion grenades, while the Black Bloc smashed the windows of several downtown businesses, hurled smoke bombs at police, and attempted to set up barricades by pulling down newspaper stands and plastic construction cones, which they set on fire.

The running battle between police and the Black Bloc trapped hundreds of protesters--as well as Portland residents who happened to be downtown--making it difficult to leave safely.

UNSURPRISINGLY, THE local and national media laid the blame on protesters for a march that had "turned violent," leaving the police no choice but to break it up. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler denounced the demonstration and defended police, stating that he wanted to "thank the Portland Police Bureau for doing a tremendous job under very dangerous circumstances."

But it was the Portland police that created a dangerous situation for protesters and residents. It is difficult to imagine a more reckless response to the acts of a few irresponsible individuals, who appear to have thrown Pepsi cans and other objects at cops from the back of an otherwise large and peaceful march.

The Portland police were fully aware that this march included a children and youth contingent at the front, as well as a contingent of disabled persons, not to mention the dozens of families with young children who were present throughout the march.

It was the police who decided to suddenly outlaw this crowded march in the middle of downtown Portland--and then, within five minutes, fire chemical munitions and sound grenades into a dense crowd, causing the panic and chaos that ensued.

It was the police who decided to charge through Portland's streets afterward to engage in a street battle with the Black Bloc, further escalating the situation.

If the Portland police had shown even a modicum of restraint and responsibility, the march would have ended within 20 minutes without incident. Instead, the police used the behavior of a few protesters to justify an all-out militarized attack on the entire May Day march, and then painted the whole demonstration as a riot.

The cops' behavior should be compared to their actions a few days earlier during a pro-Trump rally in Montavilla, east of downtown, that drew a hundred right-wingers. Among the crowd were neo-Nazis looking for a fight--they carried metal poles and baseball bats, gave the Nazi salute and yelled "fuck all you n****rs" at nearby counterprotesters.

Yet the police response to this ugly provocation was to escort the right-wingers and then provide Trimet public buses, free of charge, so the bigots could return to their initial starting point safely.

WHILE PORTLAND police bear the blame for the dangerous escalation on May Day, the actions of Black Bloc protesters, who threw projectiles at police and later set barricades on fire and vandalized downtown stores, were also incredibly irresponsible.

We know that the police will use any provocation to paint left-wing protests as violent and attack them. We know the state will take any opportunity to criminalize protest, and we know the media will oblige it in reporting its version of events.

So why do some activists continue to engage in tactics that give the police and the state exactly what they want?

And to what end? Not only did these tactics open the May Day march, which included undocumented immigrants, to police attack, but they also isolated the left from the vast majority of people who we need to mobilize to our rallies and marches. They aren't likely to do so if an unaccountable minority of protesters is intent on starting fights with cops.

The actions of the Black Bloc aren't intended to win over larger numbers of people to the struggle. In truth, those who participate in the Black Bloc seem to view the majority of people with disdain. But it's going to take more of us, not fewer, in the streets and organizing in our communities and workplaces to fight back against Trump's attacks.

We have to ask ourselves: After May Day, are the people who might have been on the fence about showing up to a future demonstration or taking part in some kind of action more likely to come out or stay home?

What makes all this worse is that, prior to the May Day march, organizers had made democratic decisions about the events of the day, with the intent of making the march safe and accessible to all.

With that in mind, they coordinated with Black Bloc activists about the decision for the march to be a space where undocumented immigrants, children and families felt safe to attend, not a space to confront police.

The organizers communicated that if the Black Bloc was going to pursue any confrontation, they should first break away from the march. For this reason, they were located in the rear of the demonstration, so they could do so easily. Instead, the Black Bloc used the rest of the march as a cover for their provocations.

AS A group of us were weaving our way through downtown, attempting to leave the area and avoid the battles between the Black Bloc and police, a dozen black-clad activists came running down a street, with police vehicles speeding in pursuit and shooting percussion grenades at them.

One of the activists ran by our group and said, while laughing: "Isn't this the best May Day ever?"

No, it was not.

2006 was the best May Day in recent memory--when several million people, led by immigrants, came out for a day of demonstrations. Many people were on strike or stayed away from work that day, and they showed the real power of workers and the undocumented in this country.

This massive show of working class power is what defeated the draconian Sensenbrenner bill that would have criminalized all 11 million undocumented people in the U.S., along with anyone who aided them in any way. We are going to need a mobilization on this scale to turn the tide against the Trump administration and its reign of terror in immigrant communities.

Marching on May Day in 2006 among millions of people was historic. What this Black Bloc activist was doing in Portland on May Day 2017--running down the street after irresponsibly provoking a battle with police--was juvenile.

And because of what happened, it must be said that May Day in Portland, despite a lot of incredible organizing by many people, ended up being more of a setback for our side in terms of our future ability to build a fightback against Trump's racism and reaction.

Some on the left have been hesitant to publicly criticize the Black Bloc, despite disagreeing with their actions. This is understandable considering the manipulation of events by the media and police to discredit all dissent.

But this is a question that has to be discussed. We have to be able to both expose the inexcusable actions of the Portland police and challenge the mainstream media narrative--while also talking about what strategies and tactics will help build our side's confidence and organization, and what will not.

We need to have an open critique of activists who ignore the democratic decisions of the movement to its detriment and who defy openly stated appeals not to put at risk a demonstration involving people who are especially vulnerable to police repression.

We need a left that can connect with the anger of millions of people and draw them into struggle and organization. This is the starting point for beginning to cohere the social forces necessary for our side to begin to advance even basic reforms in this country, let alone carry out a revolution. We don't need reckless and unaccountable actions of individuals that hold us back.

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