Anarchy in the USA
Published by The Mail on Sunday (25th October, 2020)
John Jackson was relaxing at home a fortnight ago after a day’s work in his cafe when he received a call shortly before 10pm to tell him the premises in downtown Portland had been vandalised.
‘Two windows had been shot out, which was really shocking, and another one broken,’ said the businessman and former Marines officer, who found the floor littered with glass when he went to inspect the damage.
His chain of four Heroes American Cafe had received a threat three days earlier that it dismissed as a crank call.
But it turned out they had been targeted by hard-Left activists after social-media postings falsely claimed his profits went to the police.
‘We were identified as being against Black Lives Matter but this makes no sense since I am a black business owner,’ said Jackson, 55, who supports the movement.
This fiercely patriotic entrepreneur set up his firm six years ago with a mission to help veterans, public servants and local communities. Three weeks ago it hosted a barbecue for firefighters attended by the actor Jim Belushi and it sends sandwiches into hospitals for nurses.
Jackson said the perpetrators appeared to be antifa – an umbrella term for far-Left and anarchist groups that fight the far-Right – whom President Trump wants to designate a terrorist organisation.
‘Antifa stands for anti-fascist, yet it was a fascist act,’ said the businessman. ‘This was domestic terrorism. It was designed to send a message: we can shoot out your windows any time we like – or you if we want.’
Jackson said such chilling actions reminded him of the Deep South in its darkest days. Yet it was just one more ugly incident in the protests that have engulfed this famously liberal Oregon city over the past five months.
As America steels itself for election day, events in Portland expose the bitter tensions that blight the world’s richest nation and how they are being fanned by political extremists and inflamed by a divisive President.
The situation is so serious that the mayor’s office told me a curfew might be imposed if violence breaks out during or after the election, while police chiefs and prominent civic leaders discuss the dangers of armed uprisings.
‘As we get nearer to the election, we may have to consider extreme measures,’ said Jim Middaugh, spokesman for the mayor, Ted Wheeler. ‘We are considering anything. It is not a happy situation.’
Welcome to the world’s most important democracy.
Portland is known as the whitest big city in the United States, a famously liberal enclave in a rural state with a history of white supremacism. Now it has become a battleground for far-Left militants fighting the police and a backdrop for armed far-Right fanatics to stoke fears of civil war.
Both sides are exploiting peaceful Black Lives Matter protests sparked by a police killing in another city that shone a painful spotlight on the abuse of state force against black Americans.
The assault on Jackson’s cafe took place on a ‘Day of Rage’ in support of indigenous peoples. Similar actions have taken place almost nightly in Portland since the death in late May of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a white police officer sparked a nationwide eruption of fury over lethal police brutality and systemic racism.
An orgy of looting and vandalism in Portland a few days after the death has left a strange vibe in the city, with windows of many downtown shops still boarded up and painted over with graffiti. The Apple store alone must spend more than £2.3 million repairing its glass damage.
This is compounded by the pandemic emptying streets, plus a tide of homelessness that has led to tent encampments dotting the urban landscape.
Statues of former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, widely seen as the finest leader in the country’s history, were toppled during that ‘Day of Rage’. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington monuments have already been torn down.
The headquarters of the Oregon Historical Society were also targeted. The sole display item to be damaged was a quilt sewn by local black women to honour the nation’s African-American heritage – it was later found dumped on a street in the rain.
‘It was the saddest night of my nine years here – there was so much broken glass,’ said executive director Kerry Tymchuk.
This fifth-generation Oregonian also told me of his pride in the society confronting a racist past as the only state to legally ban black people from its terrain.
How tragically ironic then to have a business run by a black man attacked. An artefact made in a labour of love by 15 black women four decades ago defiled. And a museum that challenged a state’s white supremacist past left vandalised. All in the avowed name of fighting racism.
The Black Lives Matter movement has inspired hope of real change. ‘This is a seismic moment for the US,’ said Margaret Carter, the first black woman elected to Oregon’s legislature in 1984.
She lives in a state, after all, that had exclusionary laws written into its constitution, that once included a demand to flog African-Americans every six months until they left and had a police chief who posed for pictures with hooded Ku Klux Klan members just a few years before her birth.
But then this veteran civil-rights campaigner, now aged 84, told me of her sorrow at seeing how peaceful protests have been usurped by extremists intent on vandalism and violence.
I joined two of these late-night protests last week. Flyers shared online identified meeting places in parks for activists.
Most were young, clad in black and wearing helmets. Some also wore body armour, while many carried gas masks and I glimpsed one baseball bat in a backpack.
One 23-year-old student said he had been radicalised joining his first protest in the wake of the Floyd killing when he saw how police reacted so violently with gas and rubber bullets. ‘I wouldn’t say I enjoy it but it’s definitely an adrenaline rush,’ he admitted.
The first night’s group voted for action over ‘arrest training’. Accompanied by hip-hop music blasted from a sound system, they set off through residential streets chanting ‘All cops are bastards’ and ‘Wake up, wake up, wake up motherfucker, wake up’.
Unsurprisingly, some residents were unsympathetic as a couple of hundred noisy protesters marched past. ‘This is a neighbourhood where families live and people work but some people have had to leave their homes,’ said one 33-year-old man.
He was furious since he works 70 hours a week to hold down three jobs and had to get up at 4am the following morning. ‘Why do they have to be so late and so loud? Surely they’ve made their statement?’
His neighbour was similarly angry. ‘I served in the military for 25 years so they had the right to do this but this ain’t peaceful protest,’ he said – and the protesters quickly proved his point.
The march’s target was a police association building, which was rapidly covered in abusive graffiti such as ‘Cops are murderers’ and ‘Kill the President’, then a poster site was burned down.
The crowd dispersed soon after midnight, the police staying away to avoid escalation.
The next night followed a similar pattern, except this time the target was the federal agency enforcing Trump’s immigration crackdown, which provoked a furore over his cruel policy of deliberately separating migrant children from their deported parents.
Paramilitary-style police fanned out to protect the building and – after constant barracking by protesters – ran into the crowd to make a couple of strong-arm arrests. Three days earlier, tear gas was fired after rocks were allegedly thrown during far more serious clashes at the site.
It is clear the police, after being criticised for failing to intervene over the initial May disturbances in a city with a long history of radical protest, have been over-zealous in their response at times – as one senior officer admitted to me.
Last week it also emerged that the highest-paid police official was a captain who earned £203,000 thanks to overtime over the past year and was notorious for erecting a public shrine to Nazi soldiers. It is understood the officer has since retired.
Yet it was also evident that these groups of mainly youthful militants set out for confrontation. One protester claimed that by provoking tear gas and baton charges in response to the spraying of graffiti, they proved the police’s inherent brutality.
‘What is being called “protest” has become something else,’ said Chris Davis, deputy chief of Portland police. ‘It is the more anarchist mentality you are seeing, which shows up with criminal activity and violence, especially directed at the police.’
Following George Floyd’s appalling death, activists around the US have been pushing the idea of ‘defunding the police’ to disperse cash into other public services such as health and housing.
Some are calling for complete abolition rather than reform. ‘The police are agents of capitalism,’ said Olivia Katbi Smith, co-chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America movement in Portland, which claims 2,000 members. Almost all have joined since the election of Donald Trump.
This fan of Bernie Sanders, who was again defeated for the Democrat Party nomination, argues that ‘militarised’ police and federal agents are the real extremists in American society. ‘It has never been about protecting safety but about protecting a racist, capitalist system,’ she says.
When I arrived in Portland, the front cover of a respected weekly newspaper showed a boarded-up shop with the headline: ‘Can Someone Please Clean Up This Mess?’
Meanwhile local businesses, battered by pandemic and riots, face a 41 per cent rise in taxes next year if a raft of ballot-paper measures are passed by voters next week.
Historical society boss Tymchuk – who was once a speechwriter for Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, before quitting the party in disgust at Trump’s takeover – argues that the disruptive events in Portland play straight into the President’s hands.
‘Unfortunately, the vandals and the violent protesters are helping Trump by letting him grab the law-and-order mantle,’ he said.
And there is no doubt Trump has made the most of the turbulence in Portland, with another barrage of aggressive tweets earlier this month about the ‘radical left fools’ running the city that he cites as an example of his opponent Joe Biden’s liberalism.
He overruled local leaders to send more than 100 agents into Portland in July, supposedly to protect federal property. They stayed for more than one month, inflaming violence but ensuring national focus on what Trump termed ‘anarchy’.
Yet while Portland is a liberal stronghold, it sits within a conservative rural region and the tensions have been stoked by nasty far-Right militia that have emerged from the shadows since 2016 with sinister encouragement of this divisive President.
‘There is a movement on the American far-Right that wants a civil war since it believes government has been ceded to a Leftist cabal,’ said Randy Blazak, a sociology professor and expert on extremism, who partners with Portland police on hate-crime issues.
‘Now a lot of people think that Portland has been taken over by antifa mobs and that is the way America is going. Portland is a caricature of what the Left wants to do to the country – and this brings out the far-Right.’
Blazak believes the 45th President ‘legitimised’ such forces. Soon after his election, a group called Patriot Prayer was formed in the area by Joey Gibson, a prominent local Trump supporter, to confront Left-wing groups.
One man who stabbed two people to death after they intervened over his racist abuse of teenage girls on a Portland train in 2017 had attended a Patriot Prayer event. Other members post online videos of street clashes with antifa activists.
Last month, another man associated with the group was killed during the Portland protests after a pro-Trump truck caravan advertised on social media drove through the city.
Police shot dead the suspect, who was linked to antifa and claimed to have been acting in self-defence.
Then several hundred activists turned up at a provocative ‘free speech’ rally in support of Trump led by the Proud Boys, another allied far-Right group. Some strutted around Portland openly displaying guns along with their body armour and military-style helmets.
Deputy police chief Davis admitted the arrival of such Right-wing extremists is a new development since 2016. ‘I get very nervous when I see people on either extreme arming themselves and engaging in rhetoric about using violence for political goals,’ he said.
Now throw into this combustible mix a hotly contested election and a President who refuses to confirm that he will quit the White House if defeated. ‘I am scared,’ said Blazak. ‘My wife is Mexican and we have thought about leaving the country.’
Whatever the result on November 3, one side will be incensed and fanatics on both sides have fearsome weaponry. ‘We have to arm ourselves because the fascists are heavily armed,’ said Katbi Smith, the local socialist leader. ‘We’d be fools not to be ready.’
Welcome, as I said, to the world’s most important democracy.