Trump Administration Misuses the Word 'Violence' to Justify State Violence in Portland

Illustration for article titled Trump Administration Misuses the Word Violence to Justify State Violence in Portland
Screenshot: The Sparrow Project

In early June, Donald Trump essentially declared martial law when he threatened to send “heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers” to any city or state that could not suppress its Black Lives Matter protests. Now, he appears to be making good on that threat in Portland, Oregon.

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Unidentified federal troops have descended on Portland in an apparent effort to stop city residents from protesting against police brutality and systemic racism, CNN reports. Terrifying video footage captured by protesters and journalists on the scene depicts what look like soldiers firing tear gas and stun grenades at demonstrators, beating them with blunt objects, and detaining them in unmarked vans.

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The mysterious soldiers went unidentified at first, as they bore no forms of identification, though BBC News now says that they are federal agents sent from the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service, Customs and Border Protection, and the Federal Protection Service.

Various figureheads from the Trump administration have attempted to explain away these horrific examples of violent state suppression by recasting the protesters as a “violent mob,” to quote Homeland Security Sec. Chad Wolf, that has forced the federal government to act through their wanton destruction of property.

“We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it,” the President said Sunday morning, per CNN. “Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect federal property and our people. These were not merely protesters, these are the real deal.”

And in a statement to CNN, Customs and Border Patrol said: “Violent anarchists have organized events in Portland over the last several weeks with willful intent to damage and destroy federal property, as well as, injure federal officers and agents.”

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In both of these statements, we see a willful misuse of the word “violent” to describe people who have damaged property—a deceptive rhetorical tactic that is then used to justify agents of the state commiting actual violence against actual people. It also obscures the very real violence that prompted Portland’s 50 consecutive nights of protest in the first place: George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25 and the countless other acts anti-Black state violence throughout American history.

Many news outlets are now parroting the Trump administration’s deceptive framing of the violence in Portland. CNN, for example, frontloaded its coverage with examples of protesters’ destroying property as if to frame the government’s violent response as necessary: lighting the Portland Police Association office building on fire, tearing down some of the fencing that surrounds the downtown Justice Center and Federal Courthouse, throwing “rocks and paint-filled balloons” at federal agents—who, again, have been captured on video bull-rushing and beating those protesters with weapons.

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Describing the protesters as violent is completely inaccurate, says Tuck Woodstock, a journalist from Portland who has been covering on the protests for weeks.

“I did not see any violence committed on human beings by protesters,” they tell me. “Meanwhile, protesters were pushed, shoved, tackled, thrown, and [tear-gassed] by the police. I saw one man thrown to the ground repeatedly by [Portland Police].

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The federal agents’ tactics are very similar to the kind of tactics used by local authorities over the past few weeks, Woodstock says—with one clear difference.

“The federal officers operate above the law,” they say. “They use copious amounts of tear gas. They fire gas and munitions without any kind of warning or seemingly any provocation. They abduct people off the streets and hold them without bail. And there’s no clear way to stop this. Protesters can’t call city council or defund their budget.”

Freelance contributor

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Hyperbolic Idiot Chamber