Portland unrest reflects leftist history but also racist past

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Los Angeles (AFP)

For Portland, social strife and street clashes are nothing new. The city of Oregon has a long history of pro-worker activism coupled with an anti-fascist culture and contempt for the authorities – but also, further back, a dark history of segregation.

So Portland, despite its small black population, was not entirely a surprising location for weeks of anti-racism protests that have garnered national attention, prompting President Donald Trump to send federal agents in a highly controversial move.

Protesters have rallied almost every night since the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a black man, below the knee of a white policeman.

But the city of 650,000 began to forge its reputation as a far-left activist years ago, during the ferment and unrest of the 1960s, as did Seattle to the north and San Francisco to the south.

And since the 2016 presidential election, the city has come to symbolize fierce opposition to Trump and his Republican Party.

“Anti-authoritarian leftist politics… have been part of Portland’s true protest culture for about 30 years,” said Joe Lowndes, professor of political science at the University of Oregon.

– ‘Little Beirut’ –

The town earned the nickname “Little Beirut”, a reference to the war that lasted for years in Lebanon, after then-President George HW Bush was encountered there with barricades, burning tires and hostile slogans.

“More recently, there has been a lot of anti-fascist work that has been done on the streets of Portland,” pushing back far-right and white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, Lowndes said.

The protests and “violent attacks” on Portland residents by such far-right groups after Trump’s political emergence in 2016, he added, have spurred the development of an “active network of anti-fascist activists, which has grown in recent years ”.

In November 2016, a protest against Trump’s election escalated into three days of riots and clashes with police.

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of this year initially helped restore calm to the streets.

But by that time, scenes of shaven-headed white supremacists and neo-Nazis confronting black-clad, hooded “antifa” anarchists had become commonplace.

“It’s kind of a battleground for extremism,” Lowndes said.

– Feedback loops –

“Because Portland has gained this reputation of being sort of liberal, radical (and) progressive, that draws in people who share those views, and it becomes… almost a feedback loop,” making the city even more radical, said Steven Beda, regional history specialist at the University of Oregon.

A mirror-image feedback loop in parts of rural eastern Oregon, Beda said, attracted militias and far-right communities from the 1960s.

Despite Portland’s current reputation as a left-wing haven, the city and state were the product of fundamentally racist institutions, Beda said.

The Ku Klux Klan “had a huge presence in Oregon in the 1920s. It actually had the most membership per capita… and there was a very, very close relationship throughout the 1920s between the system politics and the Klan, ”he said. .

As late as 1926, local laws prohibited blacks from entering the state on pain of whipping – a punishment to be repeated every six months if they stayed.

– A story of racism –

So, according to Beda, “Any conversation about radicalism in Portland, I think, has to coexist with this other conversation about the history of exclusion and racism in Portland,” where only 6% of the population is black.

The long-standing relationship between some residents and Portland law enforcement, Lowndes said, has contributed to the residents’ strong crackdown on federal agents sent by Trump to the city in recent weeks.

“The last two or three years of police protests in Portland have created a rift with the community,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent now at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.

“The more assaults the police gave, the more assault was returned,” he told the Washington Post.

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