There’s a debate being waged over protest tactics, with the side in support of escalating tactics, or at least of not standing in the way of escalation, making their case along the lines of this article, In Defense of Property Damage, published in The Nation. The debate is largely academic in the sense that it addresses questions of theory and principle, not strategy and tactics in the context of specific struggles. What’s the difference and what does it mean in regard to how we answer the question, how far should we escalate tactics before we go too far? The situation in Portland, Oregon, where Trump has sent federal agents to terrorize and repress peaceful protests may offer us some answers.
By now we all have read the news or have first hand experience of the violation of constitutional rights going down in Portland and other cities where Homeland Security agents have been deployed. What’s has occurred there is chilling, to say the least, with peaceful protestors being accosted, assaulted, sometimes even briefly disappeared by officers without identification moving through the city in unmarked cars. It was a taste of the kind of repression that is more characteristic of right wing dictatorships than liberal Portland, even with that city’s terrible track record when it comes to police violence directed against Black people (not to mention homeless people, mentally ill people, political radicals, and the list goes on). But, the question remains, why? Why Portland?
Portland is a very white city. Eric Ward, the Executive Director of the Western States Center, reported that there were more Black Lives Matter signs being displayed on yards and in windows in Portland than there are Black people living in the city’s core neighborhoods. So certainly the deployment wasn’t a targeted crack down on Black protest leaders. Portland also wasn’t already in the news cycle when the agents were sent over, so the whole story, as represented in mainstream media outlets, revolved around the question of constitutionality where the federal deployment was concerned. The protests that were already underway had resulted in some property damage, but all committed by a small minority of protestors, so the deployment wasn’t in reaction to violence or wide scale unrest. And, Portland, known in the national media as “Little Beirut” for the escalation of protest tactics there in the later part of last century, has continued to earn a reputation for upping the ante when large protest demonstrations occur in this one, and especially when raucous protests result in police brutality. Why such a white city? Why rile people up who are involved in peaceful protests in such a volatile situation?
Here’s my theory. Trump went after Portland precisely because of its rich history of very white protests gone awry thinking his actions would elicit what he could characterize on the campaign trail as “violence” in order to rile up his base. Moreover, maybe, he hoped to justify the baseless Antifa scare he’s been driving to lay the groundwork for deployment of federal agents in key states leading up to the election by inciting violence on the streets of Portland where the antifa faction has been especially active. And, importantly, taking action in Portland would not land his agents in news stories featuring large numbers of black people getting hailed with rubber bullets at a time when public opposition to police violence toward Black people is growing.
The idea of raising the cost of repression through militant protests that may include property damage is one that has some utility some of the time. Right now, however, opposition to Trump is at an all-time high. He appears to have lost control of the narratives concerning the Covid-19 pandemic, and what the public is, quite rightly, characterizing as racially motivated police violence resulting in the deaths of people who should have been treated with greater care under any circumstances, but whose victimization is all the more shocking because they were not involved in the commission of violent crimes when they were targeted. Increasingly, people see him as a bully, and are starting to react negatively to his bullying at a time when we all feel cowed, scared, and anxious. Maybe we need to put the bullying on blast by taking a page out of the playbook of non-violent civil disobedience and the ideal of civil protest popularized by leaders like Ghandi and King.
Now, to be clear, I am not referring to direct action to take down confederate monuments and other public commemoration of resistance to the abolition of slavery, celebration of genocides, and perpetuation of racist ideas, though I feel pretty strongly that winning action on the part of governments to take them down as gestures of state affirmation of protest demands would be better. Those acts communicate something specific to the public. They’re targeted, widely legible acts of resistance. I’m talking about seemingly random acts of vandalism, like the breaking of store windows (especially of small businesses), looting of luxury items, and starting fires on public property.
I have no problem with The Nation publishing that article. Civil debate over strategies and tactics is good for movements. But, protest activists should, I think, recognize the difference between what’s good for the discourse, and what’s effective on the streets. In politics, we should always think in these terms: ideology, strategy, tactics, and position. We should ask ourselves, what is the ideology that may drive and unify mass movements that will bring us to our goals and how is it intersecting with the flash points, like the George Floyd killing, that are driving public protest? What strategies are the right ones in any given time, with consideration to a strong assessment of threats, opportunities, and the strengths and weaknesses of ourselves and of our opponents? What tactics do we have the capacity to deploy that best support those strategies? And, always, all of these considerations should also include an assessment of how we are positioned relative to other movements, institutions of power, and our opponents. Positioning determines strategy and tactics just as strategy and tactics should be informed by the need to improve our position so we are best able to exercise influence with key sectors of the public and institutions of power.
When we lose sight of the big picture – what social movement grey heads like me often refer to as the underlying conditions – we devolve to a situation in which strategy and position become the victims of ideology, and we think only in terms of ideology and tactics. This opens the door to danger.
For every season there’s a tactic. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and certainly not all the time.