In a victory for mass protests in downtown Portland and in defense of democratic rights, the federal government has agreed to “phase out” all Customs and Border Protection and ICE officers from the city starting Thursday, according to Oregon Governor Kate Brown. Similarly, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced late Tuesday night that federal troops were leaving Seattle.
Although Trump’s acting Secretary of Homeland Security, former Republican lobbyist Chad Wolf, states that some forces would remain in Portland to protect Federal buildings, this marks a sharp turning back of Trump’s attempt to portray Portland and other cities as urban hellscapes taken over by violent anarchists. At the same time Trump is continuing to send forces to other Democratic run cities, now including Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee, under the guise of helping to “fight crime” but not, apparently, to square off with protesters.
Federal Troops Descend in Portland
Trump’s popularity has been crashing under the combined weight of his mishandling of the pandemic and the economy. In a brazen attempt to position himself as the ultimate “law and order” president, he sent camouflaged Federal police to Portland in July. Long before federal police showed up, Portland cops had already used excessive force including huge quantities of CS gas, which is illegal in wartime but was used night after night against unarmed crowds of protesters. This was in keeping with the Portland Police Bureau’s history of attacking protests against racism while at other times aggressively protecting armed white supremacists and tolerating open racists and at least one open Nazi sympathizer in its own ranks.
Since the beginning of July, whether to distract from his criminal negligence towards the pandemic or to create the political illusion of a crisis of cities descending into anarchy, Trump has been using the 60,000 strong Department of Homeland Security — bigger than the FBI, DEA and ATF combined — effectively as his own private political militia. Trump and his hand-picked, unconfirmed appointees have sent or threatened to send these political police into a series of other Democratic-run cities, including Seattle, Chicago and Detroit, without seeking the permission of, or coordinating with, local authorities. This brazen and sinister authoritarian power play has gone on for weeks.
Federal Troops Terrorize Protestors
Until this Federal intervention, the protests in Portland were limited to a very small area around the courthouse and had done no significant property damage after the first weekend. The Trump administration claimed the legal justification that the troops were defending Federal property, but in mid July these camouflaged troops, wearing no insignia that would identify them, began to drive around downtown Portland in the middle of the night, kidnapping protesters. Multiple videos posted online showed them driving up to individuals on the street and without identifying themselves, pushing them into unmarked vans and driving them away.
The initial response of activists was an intensification of the nightly protests, but as videos of the troops’ excessive force were circulated, more and more middle and working class Portlanders became involved in a swelling resistance movement of thousands, with a series of hastily organized groups coming together to defend the youthful protesters and to turn back the frightening over-reach of Trump’s secretive federal force.
This has been a creative, non-violent movement which began with the courageous “Wall of Moms” forming a human shield between Trump’s violent cops and the demonstrators. It has since branched out to include the “Leaf Blower Dads” using landscaping equipment to blow away CS gas and now the veteran-led Wall of Vets and very significantly, groups of workers organized by profession – green-shirted Teachers Against Tyrants, the pizza-box carrying ChefBloc, health-care workers in scrubs and Lawyers for Black Lives, who turned up at the protest in suits and ties.
Elected officials in Oregon made it clear since these troops’ arrival that they were not wanted. Numerous constitutional law experts and even Republican Tom Ridge, G.W. Bush’s first Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, agree that the way they have been used is unconstitutional. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against their presence but far from backing off, this produced an explicit threat from the White House that other Democrat-run cities could expect the same unconstitutional invasion.
Alarmed experts pointed out that what has been happening “looks and sounds like the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General going through a back door to create an internal-security service that Congress explicitly rejected eighteen years ago, and has not authorized.” (Carrie Cordero, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a CNN contributor, interviewed by the New Yorker).
As the New York Times pointed out, “Trump provokes outrage in a cascade designed to blunt alarm. He deadens reactions through volume and repetition. But something about the recent use of unmarked cars and camouflage-clad federal agents without clear identifying insignia detaining protesters shattered any inclination to shrug. …In wartime, the Third Geneva Convention, to which the United States is a party, requires even irregular forces to wear ‘a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance.’ When paramilitary-style units have no identifying insignia, there is no transparency, no accountability — and that means impunity.” (“American Catastrophe Through German Eyes” New York Times opinion column 7/24/20)
How Far Can Trump Go?
To top it off, Trump has doubled down on previous threats that he might not recognize the legitimacy of the November election if it doesn’t go his way. On the official White House web page Trump is quoted saying:
“Well, I’m going to do something — that, I can tell you. Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these — Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country. All run by liberal Democrats…this is worse than Afghanistan, by far. This is worse than anything anyone has ever seen. All run by the same liberal Democrats. And you know what? If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”
Trump may indeed be fantasizing about a coup d’etat. His authoritarian tendencies have been on full display from the time he entered the White House. But the U.S. ruling class as a whole, including most of the military brass, does not appear interested in going down this road. Capitalist democracy has served them very well as a means for maintaining their class rule and Trump’s threat to outwardly thwart capitalist democratic procedure would likely not be welcome. However, their views could change as we head deeper into the worst depression in a hundred years and as social unrest develops further. Trump is an extremely ominous preview of what could be on the horizon if we do not build a mass workers party with real teeth linked to a fighting labor movement in this country that can represent the interests of all the oppressed. As it stands, Trump and the Republicans will use every conceivable form of voter suppression to prevent a fair vote in November.
We Need Mass Action to Stop Trump
Trump deployed troops to Seattle, which, combined with a federal judge overruling a city ordinance banning police use of crowd control weapons, set off a weekend of sharp clashes. As before, the Seattle Police Department used excessive force and targeted journalists and legal observers, this despite past rulings specifically banning these behaviors. In the last 24 hours Trump has had to walk back the federal occupation of Seattle as well.
He has threatened to send federal troops to Chicago, something that could reignite protests despite the statement of its Democratic Mayor, former Federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, that she would welcome Trump’s police if they helped reduce the flow of illegal guns from Indiana.
Threats from Trump have also come down in Detroit where federal troops are preparing to go in. This has sparked several protests where protestors can be seen holding signs saying, “we need federal funds, not federal agents!”
Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Trump’s actions. But if the last three and a half years have proved anything, it is that the courts will not restrain Donald Trump. His first defeat was at the hands of mass direct action at airports, started by the Muslim-led New York Taxi Workers Alliance against his Muslim ban in January 2017.
This action inspired airport occupations throughout the nation including at Seattle-Tacoma airport and it stopped the Muslim ban dead in its tracks. Tragically the movement then yielded to the pressure of the ACLU and the Democrats who guided it into the safe channels of the legal system, which ultimately agreed with Trump and allowed the ban.
Three and a half years of ineffective Democratic and legal opposition have seen Trump win repeatedly, emboldened to carry out his program of massive tax cuts for the rich and massive attacks on the rights of working class people. He has specifically targeted immigrants, Black, indigenous and other people of color, women, LGBTQ+ and trans people. His administration has attacked union rights and ripped up environmental regulation.
Until the mass uprising for Justice for George Floyd, Trump’s most significant defeat was also at the hands of workers’ mass action, when exhausted air traffic controllers and flight crew heard the call for strike action from flight attendants’ union leader, CWA-AFA President Sarah Nelson, ending the Federal shutdown in January 2019.
A year later, Trump’s popularity was already weakening when the coronavirus pandemic struck, but today he is widely seen as responsible, through his criminal politicization of the pandemic, for a skyrocketing death rate that has already passed 145,000 with over four million infected and no end in sight. Together with massive damage to the economy, this has reduced his support to the point where every poll shows him losing to the generic Democrat Joe Biden in November.
The videotaped police murder of George Floyd sparked the biggest and most sustained protest movement in U.S. history leading to a major breakthrough in mass opposition to racism, forcing the ruling class to make concessions, including prosecuting his murderers but also some limited commitments to reallocate resources from bloated police budgets. In Seattle, where the pressure of the movement has been strengthened politically by the presence of Socialist Kshama Sawant on the city council, the council has moved to slash the police budget and has also passed a measure to tax Amazon and other billionaire corporations to pay for affordable housing and social services. Kshama Sawant’s office also led the charge on the first-in-the-nation ban on police use of crowd control weapons. All over the country, racist symbols such as statues to the Confederacy and to slave trader Christopher Columbus have been taken down because of this mass movement.
Trump’s use of Federal troops is an attempt to reverse all that.
Where is the Labor Movement?
What is inexcusably missing from this growing mass movement to defend democratic rights is the leadership of organized labor. The workers’ movement has the power to shut down key parts of the economy. Its organized presence on protests would also act to stay the hand of the federal and local police forces.
As we’ve pointed out above, and as even the New York Times admitted at the time, the turning point in ending Trump and McConnell’s Federal shutdown was a call from a leader of organized labor.
On a smaller but still significant scale, at the very beginning of the protests for justice for George Floyd, unionized bus drivers in Minneapolis refused to transport arrested demonstrators and this was followed by bus operators in New York and other cities, backed by their national union, the ATU.
Only mass working class action was able to put an end to the standoff in the streets of Portland and prevent it from spreading to Seattle, Chicago and other cities. This can point the way forward to defending our right to vote in November. Concretely in other cities faced with the threat of federal occupation, there should be immediate discussion about strike action, building up to local general strikes demanding the withdrawal of the federal forces and immediate action to defund the police and fund education and other necessary social services.
Labor leaders and organizers complain endlessly about the lack of “union density” in the USA, which is down to just over 10% – even less, if you include the vast number of undocumented workers and others in the gig economy and informal sectors. But the officially recognized unions still represent more than 14 million workers, many of them organized in key sectors of the economy. The example of transit workers, without whom most cities would grind to a halt, has already been given but there are many more. The massive towers in downtown Portland and every other city can only function because of the labor of electricians, elevator operators, building maintenance, cleaning and security workers. These workers are overwhelmingly unionized as are the workers who construct these buildings – and construction has continued throughout the pandemic. The way to rebuild union density and union power is to demonstrate, in real time, the enormous power of organized labor.
Portland has been a testing ground for Trump’s use not only of unidentifiable federal police to kidnap and intimidate protesters, but also to create a narrative that the country is out of control and will not survive without a strong leader.
In the face of this threat the Democrats file lawsuits while union leaders are leaving the defense of Black lives and of democratic rights in the hands of youthful protesters and suburban parents.
This is unacceptable. Union leaders have a duty to organize strike action to end the assault on democratic rights.
Tens of thousands of working people are desperately looking for the way forward in the fight against capitalism and racist policing. The working class is the only force in society to deliver on these demands.
As Minneapolis Socialist Alternative pointed out at the end of May, just days after the demonstrations began:
“To win #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd we need mass, coordinated protests and days of action which are prepared to resist attempts by the military to suppress the demonstrations. The wider working class, and especially the labor movement, should fully mobilize its membership to these actions… Unions should also make immediate preparations for a one day general strike, which would enjoy widespread sympathy from the wider community and even small businesses that are already expressing solidarity with the movement.”
Building on the withdrawal of troops in Portland and Seattle, in every city that is threatened with federal intervention, union councils, locals and regional labor federations should urgently discuss calling local general strikes to defend democratic rights against Trump’s unaccountable police.