A REPORTAGE COLLAGE OF THE PORTLAND PROTESTS
by JENNIFER ROBIN
Converging upon Portland’s city center for the past four days were people from too many walks of life—too many for the police—by which I mean elderly hippies who marched in the civil rights movement, teens so young that they don’t remember what occurred before the Obama presidency, veterans in wheelchairs, cooks and cab drivers, Black Lives Matter activists, black bloc anarchists with bodies obscured-yet-visible, their mouths behind bandanas, the women in camo pants and tank tops, the men pale, thin, moving like burned cigarettes in utility jackets and combat boots. I watched a drunk skater-dude in a Guatemalan poncho and college kids in chopper tees stumble backwards from flash grenades. I watched ladies with therapy pets who resembled their therapy pets advance and retreat behind the doorframes of closed cafes. I watched hardcore punks with hair a rainbow of colors careen in figure eights, their bicycles serving as steeds did in revolutions long ago. I watched priests and poets and soccer moms, Latinas in short-shorts and proud bared thighs. I watched drag queens prance with pride—and coursing around me like a ghostly river were lesbians, striding hand in hand, glowing with the kind of youth that makes me think of doll parts. There was SO MUCH YOUTH on the streets, and you know how those over thirty usually view youth:
“This marching is all for show! They are just having a big party. Statistics show that they didn’t even bother to vote! They just can’t wait to jump on cars and smash things!”
Shall I even begin to address why so many young people didn’t bother to vote, yet they have bothered to march? Can you blame them?
The kids, and many of their parents, are done. This country is in a deep economic depression, and to use the modern term “recession” is like a cosmetic airbrushing of the severity of the poverty in our nation. In both red states and blue states, the poor and middle classes are DONE with the system, but the system won’t go away. The 1 percent against the 99 is a machine set in place in ways it has never been before, because the world’s technology is at its disposal—cutting-edge, and highly-addictive technology!
But the plot only thickens! Our current opera of International Confusion is reaching a level of dissonance with mass extinctions, weekly MAJOR oil spills, robotic jihads, and a level of normalized paranoia that makes Wile E. Coyote on the old Roadrunner cartoons look sedate.
In America, we have permanently passed the point where we can pretend voting is enough. Voting was never enough to hold our elected officials accountable to their promises. This election has shown overwhelmingly that the “disillusioned” vote is the majority vote in this nation, one that must be captivated to secure a win.
Our nation is a cracked mirror. You stare into the glass, hoping to find solace, but you are delivered more cracks.
November 6th, Two days before the election:
The gay man and the drunk man stood in my living room and the drunk man asked the gay man who he was voting for.
The gay man said “Trump,” which made the drunk man tumble backwards in disbelief. He braced himself on the arm of a chair.
“No, who are you really voting for?”
The gay man carefully clasped his hands in his lap and gave a bashful yet determined smile. He repeated: “Trump.”
“You’re not serious!” The drunk man said. “Trump?”
“Yes.” Again that bashful yet determined smile. Like a slot machine, he repeated: “Trump.”
Randomly travel to any epoch of human history and you will find people collecting nuts, daggers, dried fruit…prayer beads and gas masks…in preparation for imminent apocalypse. I know many people who speak of buying property in the middle of nowhere, going underground, getting passports, having “getaway plans” for when a civil war starts after this election.
“Things will get back to normal,” pundits and popes say, “Things always do.”
November 9th, The day after the election:
Downtown Portland was a mournful stage today. People moved slowly, in trances, many seeming on the verge of tears, many with dazed expressions on their faces as if they simply could not believe that surreality supplanted reality last night with a palpable sense of finality.
Never in my life have I seen so many people clutching cellphones, not even bothering to look up as they crossed streets, got in and out of cars, ordered food, formed lines, oblivious to the mechanisms of leafblowers and cranes, oblivious to the sun as it burst through clouds and then sank in the west, riot helicopters starting to circle Pioneer Square, the commuters folding themselves into buses and trains, hungover from a night of drinking and the friction within their families, their marriages, their heads.
Never in my life have I seen people peer so intently into the glowing layers of Media, as if their phones might deliver unfolding scenes of disaster, or truth, or reassurance, or a different outcome, like a magic eight-ball shaken and through the dense blue liquid, a message emerges: Try again.
Not only is there sadness in the air; there is fear, and the howls of those who feel glee in a candidate endorsed by the KKK and the American Nazi Party being elected on the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Friends report the wagging of confederate flags, men yelling abusively at women, calling men “fags” with abandon. Rage is running high, and I don’t believe that we as a nation are going back to slumber.
The only person I passed this afternoon who seemed to be happy was a homeless old man who felt a deep imperative to serenade me with a Phil Collins song: ” I can feel it coooomin’ in the air tonight…” his front teeth missing, his dreadlocks wild.
The eve of November 9th, Downtown:
I emerged from a protest march that made me feel like a crying ghost. Seeing hundreds of people, mostly in their teens and twenties cry “not our president!” is intense, rouses a rare and intrusive sense of Reality in my blood.
WHAT? Wake up? Something is Real? The continuum is…interrupted?
“Hey-hey! Ho-ho! Donald Trump has got to go!”
“My body, my choice!”
“Fuck Trump! Fuck ‘im in the ass!”
A sign says: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
Women marched with bare breasts. People at bus stops joined the march. A homeless dude chanted, “Drop your wallets!” with a chuckle. A woman mostly obscured under layers of coats and a sleeping bag dozed through the whole thing. A marcher in a mask tried to set trash cans on fire and another marcher stomped on a burning shopping bag.
An hour later my boyfriend and I were at a Plaid Pantry minimart where he was buying a carton of cigarettes.
I could see through the window the clerk’s skinny frame, his animated pacing.
The man is gay, not in a subdued way. He is also a florist. He often breaks into song. He is wracked with so many forms of inner pain that it seems his veins have worked their way outside of his body. With almond eyes, shorn hair and a tweed cap, he assumes the Eternal Stage:
“You don’t look like you’re taking current events too badly.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“You look like you’re feeling okay.”
“I may not be expressing it in an obvious way, but no, I don’t think things are okay.”
I wondered if over the course of the day, this man had seen hundreds of crying faces, left-wing customers and loved ones expressing grief, some on suicide watches, no longer able to eat or go to work. I have absorbed the grief of many of these people in the past few days…
But me? Was the clerk assuming that because I was not in tears, I was FOR a Trump Future, replete with Creationist Placemats, Chastity Belts, Race Wars, and Oceans turned to Martian Canals?
“I never know with some customers. People you’d never expect come out for Trump!”
And this is where he got started with his speech. He said that he had a piece of advice after living on this earth for forty-six years:
He lived through Reagan and the Bush Dynasty. He lived through the grisly Portland of thirty years ago, when skinheads roamed the downtown blocks and would think nothing of breaking a gay man’s back with a tire iron. He lived through muggings and assaults and the passing of Proposition 8, which in 2008 outlawed gay unions in California, where he had a partner. Just this year he visited North Dakota:
“I was in the beating heart of Red State America, and I can tell you this: People ask, oh how did Trump happen? Because this bubble of liberalism we live in is so small that the rest of the nation can’t take it seriously. Outside of every city is the real America, Red Rage Nation. To pretend otherwise is to prolong a lie that keeps your life brittle and small. People all over the country are waking up to the idea that these two parties we keep electing are self-serving oligarchies made of shit, so when people say ‘How did we let Trump happen?’ I’m thinking, honey, it isn’t a surprise.
“But grief is NOT the answer. I just had my lowest point a year ago standing at the edge of the St. John’s Bridge, ready to throw myself off, but I yanked myself back from that brink because that is what a person has to do. This is what WE have to do right now. We’ve got to get right on our feet again and MAKE the future we want to live in.”
He said: “As a survivor, I speak with a burning desire when I say honey, you can’t survive by crying and pointing fingers. It doesn’t work that way. Trump may be the best thing that’s ever happened to us, waking us up to the necessity of revolution. This is our TIME to make powerful art, bring all of our splintered little subcultures together. Trump is our return to the underground.”
His hands mimed knitting needles in the air: “I feel like Norma Rae, ready to make hundreds of little mittens for the hands of every person who stands in the streets throwing bottle rockets! Off with you! Blow it up, little Billy! Because THIS…HAS…TO HAPPEN. Mark my words: In opposition we are stronger. In opposition we have the most meaning, allright?”
Trump was elected as the ultimate act of vandalism in a system where people feel that they can never catch up.
November 10th, An eerily warm fog, and flying crows:
My visions of this night start with an eerily warm fog, and end with flying crows. The night is too warm for the first week of November. For the past week, a rosebush has bloomed outside my door. The fog on this night has a strange quality, as if instead of moisture, it is composed from the candy-scented chemicals of a dance club’s smoke machine.
6 PM: Protests have been going on in Pioneer Square since 2. Marches organized by separate groups plan to converge in Portland’s Holladay Park, by the Lloyd Center shopping mall. I watch coverage on a live video feed set up by one of the most conservative stations in the city, and while the newscasters harp on the usage of spray paint and the kicking of windows, even interviewing the manager of a car dealership about how cars coated in spray paint cost twenty-thousand dollars in insurance each to clean—something hits me more-than-this:
Their sheer numbers startle the eyeball, the nose, the mind. On the live feed I see thousands of people on the move between the hours of 6 to 7. Their numbers are growing rather than subsiding. This is ON. To see waves of people on foot occupy streets that are usually filled with traffic jams—is electrifying.
I race out the door, knowing I have to be there. I guzzle tea. I dress in black. Through the fog the moon rises and looms strange, like the eye of a cat, a melting scoop of ice cream. I catch a bus downtown and watch a dying protest. Most of the march has moved to Holladay Park. I ride a train across the river to meet them. I chase branches of the protest back and forth, and this is what I see:
The crowd is a mix of people with different goals. The revolution can only be partially organized. Chaos is ever-present. Next to people with rainbow flags and candy, protesters in Halloween masks dance with baseball bats. Men in clown makeup stagger wildly. High school freshmen are dressed to the nines in what they feel is “military” and hippie gear. Kids in hot pants and baseball jerseys who just flew out of movies and the mall’s food court join the march, energized like bouncing balls, eager to be part of something exciting. People of all ages hold cell phones above their heads. Everyone simultaneously appears to be a journalist and a cast member in a film.
The marchers stop traffic at intersections. Drivers honk and yell. Tensions run high. Some marchers chant “Let’s get rowdy!” and others respond with their own chant: “Peace-ful pro-test!” It is clear that mixed in the crowd are men and women who are trying to escalate the protest to violence, and they climb posts, set off firecrackers.
When the march reaches Holladay Park, a man with a baseball bat beats an electrical box until the lights go out. The crowd responds by putting their phones on “light” settings, raising them in the air like lighters at an old-fashioned rock concert.
A man screams, “Are you gonna let Nazi Germany come to the United States? You gotta put some skin on the line and speak their language because that’s all these nuts can understand!”
A woman on the other side of the crowd starts her own speech, which is met with a resounding cheer: “It’s not about destruction; it’s about power to the fuckin’ people!”
“Whose streets? Our streets!”
A night before, the crowd successfully blocked the I-5 freeway entrance, walking, breathing, dancing and singing where streams of gas-guzzling cars have dominated for decades. Tonight the protesters attempt to re-take the freeway, but a solid line of 20-30 police in riot gear, backed up with sound canons, sting guns, pepper spray, and tear gas block the people’s entry to the freeway, a freeway that they and their parents’ and grandparents’ taxes paid for.
“Whose streets?” they chant, “Our streets!”
The crowd is restless. While some peel off and linger on this side of the bridge, at least a thousand make a turn to re-enter downtown to reconvene in Pioneer Square. Along the way, lovers of chaos kick in windows, spray paint “Fuck Trump” on random walls. Organizers with bullhorns attempt to talk down the rogues:
“This is not how to make change…Peace-ful pro-test!”
A couple men and women with lighters and road flares try to set recycling bins and random scraps of paper on fire.
“Don’t mess with the fuckin’ trees, man!” a woman cries, a voice of reason. But in this crowd of thousands, there are thousands of reasons.
I talk to teenagers, teachers, a guy in a trenchcoat bragging about his collection of knives. I talk to a man in a cape that says “Bernie Bro,” and an assortment of people feeling edgy, unable to smile about their run-ins with the cops, their suspicion of informers and plants in the crowd. I speak to one of the peaceful organizers, then to a stout woman in her sixties leaning on a cane.
Poking above the collar of her mackintosh, in a way I don’t notice at first, is a starched minster’s collar. She is with a number of Episcopal leaders uniting for a peace conference to discuss how their religion can publicly combat the values of a Trump Presidency.
9 PM, and Beyond: Broadcasts go out across the country and across the oceans, showing Portland as a “leading city” of the American Anti-Trump protests. Many of these broadcasts stress that the outcome of the protests is vandalism and violence, but on the ground, it doesn’t look this way.
To be honest, I don’t view a dozen, or even three dozen broken windows as violence. Broken windows and burned trash cans are vandalism, but violence, in my opinion, is what human bodies do to human bodies and other living things—not property. Violence is the experiment in 2014, where the Portland police’s use of a sound canon to subdue protesters not only caused sickness and hearing damage to Black Lives Matter protesters, but it also caused flocks of birds to immediately fall dead from trees.
Reporters mention the broken glass and the fireworks some of the protesters set off, but the reality I saw after being in segments of the march over the course of the evening is that even the most chaotic protesters, including the black bloc anarchists, told cars of confused people to roll up their windows.
Around 11 PM, several masked anarchists directed traffic during one of the road-block attempts. A masked woman in knee-highs and black cotton calmed a car of confused blondes who looked like they had just come from a bar, while her consort, a masked man who looked like he came right out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, warned pedestrians that “The pigs are about to unleash the pepper spray, so if you want to avoid that, you better get out soon.”
I watched one guy who looked like Hulk Hogan get so mad at a protester that he leapt out of his car to start a brawl. Between the hours of 11 PM to midnight, cops closed in on the remaining protestors, setting off flash grenades, using rubber bullets, and pepper spray.
Paddywagons and an ever-present stream of cops stood by, some of them taking phone selfies before they closed in on the crowd. Claims that this was an “unlawful assembly,” which the police bullhorns repeated, were ignored until the police’s flash grenades went off.
The thousands who had occupied the streets had by this point dwindled to hundreds—sliding in and out of the armored cordons, a motley and exhausted mix of what I can only call audience-members and concerned citizens, the gawkers and goons you would find in a Roman Coliseum, or at a football game.
The police and remaining protesters moved back and forth between a four-block radius of the city center like a tug of war for three hours, onlookers filming with a sense of mirth until the cops unleashed a rapid fire of flash grenades around 1 AM, and made mass arrests.
1 AM, the morning of November 11th:
The fog, it is beautiful. The trees are lit with Christmas garlands. Even the traffic lights glow like beacons of Oz, Turkish Delights, Tonka trucks in a Sears catalog, in this fog. Every time a flash grenade goes off, murders of crows are jolted out of trees, circling in the sky, further and further away from the action.
I follow the crows under trees of yellow maple leaves, the skyline made of sculptures, monoliths of progress; money; heat.
The crows gracefully circle, and then find each other after each bang—not unlike the people.
The fog thickens, now made more dense, more strange, by the release of fireworks, flash grenades, and pepper spray.
Blocks away from the paddywagons and the people, I pass one of the hundreds of homeless encampments that are now a natural part of the Greater Portland Metro landscape. If you live in Portland, you will understand that when I describe block after city block taken up with a contiguous stream of tents and makeshift shelters, this is not hyperbole.
I pass a man finessing the tarp of a lean-to roof, and he grinned to his tent-neighbor.
“Better Homes and Gardens should be doing a feature on this,” he says.
We smile at each other. The cadence of his words, of his humor, feels like a salve in a night broken open with conflict. Here in this tent village is temporary peace, a place where the crows fly from the sounds of war, a war that is surfacing and shows no signs of dying down.
Now, November 12th: While I type this piece, deep doo-doo is going down. Perhaps toxic sludge would be the more appropriate term for the latest developments. More chaos-bringers join the marches. Tonight, a car approached protesters on the Morrison Bridge. Several people emerged from the car and one shot a protester with a regular gun, not a toy with paint; not a paper airplane.
Protests are planned for every day of the coming month, with no end in sight. The actions of the police are met by the more anarchic elements of the public, and in turn, these are met by the entrance of pissed-off Portlanders, some of them Trump supporters, who are bandying around comments such as this:
“Come out to Clackamas (a rural zone south of the city, long seen as the homestead of the White Supremacist movement in Oregon) where we’ll kick your ass real good!”
Four More Years:
The Anti-Trump movement, following in the footsteps of Occupy, is made of several movements. The protests scheduled are of many natures: religious, secular, anti-corporate, some focusing on reproductive rights, some focusing on the rights of immigrants and people of color.
The organizers meet resistance—from Republicans as well as Democrats. Despite the Trump victory, both parties are raw, and licking their wounds after an embittered battle up until Election Day. Party stalwarts declare, with a tone that reminds me of some of the Irish nuns I knew in Catholic School, that one must strictly work through ballots and community service to make lasting change on our society.
Tell it to the youth. Tell it to the masters of monster trucks. Tell it to the men in masks. Tell it to the Latina woman wearing a flag, and the African-American man rapping “Dump Trump” to a line of cops in riot gear who resemble Darth Vader. Tell these protesters that all they have to do is “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” because our system of rags to riches works.
These protesters are attempting to tell the world that four more years of corporate rule is NOT going to work, endless war is not going to work, global warming is not going to work; and a slow starvation of the middle and lower classes until they are turned to the pumice of a crushed grave—is not going to work.
America doesn’t have four more years to pretend. The Earth, and all living things on it—are out of time.
JENNIFER ROBIN writes grotesque prose. She has toured the West Coast with a mix of avant-garde music and reading, including appearances at Bumbershoot and Portland’s NOFEST. Her book of non-fiction vignettes, Death Confetti, was released by Feral House in 2016. It features lost gods and twisted love through the eyes of an eternal voyeur. Find her musings and colorful sketches of Portland, Oregon life on Facebook and at deathconfetti.com