After federal forces leave Portland, peace returns—but white nationalists don’t want it to remain

Every night that federal forces were deployed in Portland, the crowds grew larger. And every time those federal forces showed their lack of experience with law enforcement—and willingness to use violence even if that meant shooting peaceful protesters in the face—more people came forward to show that they wouldn’t be intimidated. There was a wall of moms. A wall of dads. A wall of veterans. But mostly there were just a wall of people unwilling to step down and hand over their city to paramilitary forces in camo who came over the express wishes of citizens, city officials, and the state government.

But on Thursday night protests were peaceful. On Friday that pattern repeated as the number of people around the federal courthouse decreased and the “walls” came down. Protesters who came dressed to face tear gas and billy clubs, instead ended up sitting in the grass together, listening to speakers, sharing songs, and celebrating. The reason: those camo-wearing federal forces packed up and left.

Trump’s makeshift mix of ICE, Border Patrol, and Marshall Service forces haven’t completely departed town for the moment, but they are off the streets. They’re no longer randomly firing impact weapons into people’s faces, deploying tear gas in the middle of a hymn, or grabbing people off the street and slamming them into unmarked vans. Instead they’re camped out a few blocks away, waiting to see what happens over the weekend.

Amazingly, despite the warnings of acting DHS director Chad Wolf, the federal courthouse was not burned overnight, buildings were not looted, and Portland did not descend into anarchy despite the lack of people on hand to point weapons straight into people’s faces. As The Washington Post reports, a few protesters lobbed rocks into empty space, symbolically bashing the place where the armed invaders had been on previous evenings. For now … that’s about it.

Still, there are reasons for concern. For one thing, the withdrawal of federal forces doesn’t end the racist violence on the part of Portland police that initiated protests in the city following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It also doesn’t resolve the often heavy-handed response taken by those local police in response to protests.

Some in the area are also concerned that there actually be violence initiated by agitators who want nothing more than to justify Trump’s invasion of the city. After all, it’s already clear that white nationalists have been engaging in violence and vandalism at cities where protests are taking place with the express purpose of “sowing discord and racial unrest.” 

In Richmond, Virginia this week, police arrested 23 people after weeks of peaceful protests suddenly “turned violent.” Flyers in the area called for attacks on police “in sympathy with protesters in Portland,” and the calls appeared to be met with damage to a local university, burning vehicles, and bricks hurled at local police. “There were white supremacists marching under the banner of Black Lives Matter, attempting to undermine an otherwise overwhelmingly peaceful movement towards social justice,” said Mayor Levar Stoney. 

There are concerns that the same kind of efforts could be organized in Portland. After all, Trump wasn’t just using claims of violence at that location to justify keeping forces on the ground in Portland, he was promising to do the same in a number of other cities. Portland is both the beta test and the flagship. For those who want peace to fail, undermining the piece in Portland could be the best bet to see far more camo wearing troops on American streets.

“The mission is simple,” said Mayor Stoney. “To undermine the months of peaceful, community-driven protests that this city has seen.” That was certainly true in Richmond. 

What happens next in Portland may be decided in the next two nights. 

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