This afternoon, I decided to go down to downtown Portland to celebrate worker culture and solidarity with my fellow workers on May Day, the traditional workers’ holiday everywhere in the world but here. There were a couple thousand people in the Park Blocks downtown, and, ominously as it turned out, legions of Portland Police Bureau employees. I ran into some fellow workers from the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical union that I belonged to at one point.
They were interesting people. They knew how to sing the Internationale, which created a bond. They gave me a balloon. So I decided to hang out with them for the demo. None of my friends were around since this was a sort of spontaneous decision on my part.
The crowd was full of an enormous variety of folks. There were families with kids, ladies and gentlemen of a certain age, even this guy remembering worker movements of long ago:
That’s the flag of Poland, with the logo of the Solidarity labor union that helped bring down communism there. I didn’t get to talk to the guy but it was interesting to see this echo from the past. There were a bunch of labor unions represented – I saw SEIU, ILWU, there was even a union of Burgerville employees (a local, and very nice, fast food joint).
Anyway, after a number of speeches that I couldn’t hear on account of the lousy PA system and enormous crowd, we filed out and paraded through the financial district and in front of city hall, the federal building, and so on. We were a colorful assembly, accent on the red and black.
As we were marching along, there were a few insulting chants directed at the police. I had noticed parade organizers, including some of the many “antifa” young folks with the black hoodies, talking with the police earlier so I did not anticipate any trouble. I was towards the back of the march, and there were a bunch of those kids with the anarchist flags and black hoodies behind me, but I saw no evidence of violence among them until all of a sudden police bullhorns started up calling on us to disperse. We marched on, gesturing rudely at the police in some cases and starting the insulting chants again. As we passed the Burnside Bridge we saw a phalanx of armored policemen on the bridge approaches.
The march continued for six or eight blocks with parade organizers urging us to keep together and avoid violent reactions. Some people left the march but my IWW comrades kept walking so I did too. Maybe 15 minutes passed with increasingly aggressive shouts from the police behind us. Again, I saw no sign of violent reactions from the crowd, and I was surrounded by black-clad anarchist types. They looked as nervous as we did. They had a parade float of a huge spider and seemed most concerned to keep it from getting smashed by the crowd. At one point we rounded a block, down just north of Burnside, and the word I heard was that we were going to go directly back to the south Park Blocks and disperse. Then, a final bleat from the bullhorn behind us, almost inaudible at this point due to all the crowd noise, and a line of policemen began pushing forward.
At this point I stepped up on the curb, having no desire to be shot or beaten. The police passed by me and the other demonstrators, now mostly on the sidewalks. I noticed this guy in particular seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to push some folks around.
And, of course, the assault had the predictable effect that all the young black-clad heroes had to prove their radical credentials by standing up to the police. As I was walking west back towards the park (on the sidewalk) I passed an improvised (rather polite) barricade that they were trying to set on fire.
I checked out – I was way late to pick up Jeneba Diane from her rehearsal anyway – but I understand that several hundred people are still roaming around downtown as I write this about 20:00 busting windows and raising hell. The local news show calls it a riot. Several people on my Facebook feed have complained about the damn anarchists and how they mess things up for everybody.
To reiterate: I was there, close to the back of the march where the violent incident broke out, and I saw no violence by demonstrators until the police began pushing people around and deployed the riot gear. I don’t imagine that the police totally made this up, no doubt there was some incident that triggered their response. However, the police response made things far worse than they otherwise would have been. If they had arrested one or two individuals who actually did something, or if – even better – they had just taken their pictures and waited until later to pick them up, the march would have proceeded without incident. Almost everybody was there, like me, to celebrate and show solidarity for the labor movement. In my opinion, the police handled this quite badly and deserved all the insulting names that people (including me, by the end) were raining on them. If you are a downtown businessperson and you got your windows broken tonight, don’t blame me and my fellow demonstrators.
At other demonstrations I’ve been at, the black block anarchist folks are somewhat unwelcome. The middle-class protesters like me often feel that they are spoiling things for everybody and inserting their own more radical agenda while not allowing us to say our piece. This time, I’m totally in solidarity with them and I think most other people on the march today were too. I have a friend who is somewhat obsessive about stories of police misconduct. He has told me many times, “hey, the cop is not your friend. He is the guy who used to beat you up in high school, now empowered with the authority to beat you with impunity.” I always replied that I know people who work in law enforcement and that’s not the way they seem to me. I still know and respect those people but I wonder if there hasn’t been some cultural shift in law enforcement towards a more aggressive attitude. I went away with my eyes a lot wider open than they were when I got there.