- Lilith SinclairAfro-Indigenous local organizer in Portland, Oregon.
Heavily armed federal officers without name tags have carried out nightly attacks on antiracist demonstrations in Portland, Oregon, and snatched people off the streets into unmarked vans, sparking widespread outrage. “What we’ve seen is a continuous escalation in violence against our protesters,” says Lilith Sinclair, an Afro-Indigenous local organizer in Portland. They note the federal violence follows many years of “severe police brutality” from local police. “It’s left the people of Portland not only worried about their safety, but, even more so, justified in the fight that we’re engaged in.”
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Portland, Oregon, where militarized federal officers continued their nightly attacks on antiracist protesters Monday, shooting gas and projectiles at demonstrators outside Portland’s courthouse, in a scene that’s become all too familiar in recent weeks: camouflaged U.S. agents deployed by the Department of Homeland Security waging a campaign of violence against largely peaceful demonstrations in Oregon.
The harrowing scene in Portland has drawn increased outrage in recent days, with Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden demanding federal forces be removed from the streets, and an investigation into reports that unidentified federal officers have snatched protesters off the streets into unmarked vans and detained them.
On Saturday, Navy veteran Christopher David, who went to the site of the protests to question the officers about their use of violence, was hospitalized with his right hand broken in two places after the officers beat and pepper-sprayed him.
On Monday, Trump praised the use of unmarked cars and unidentified officers against the antiracist protesters and vowed to deploy law enforcement agents to more U.S. cities.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re going to have more federal law enforcement. That, I can tell you. In Portland, they’ve done a fantastic job. They’ve been there three days, and they really have done a fantastic job in a very short period of time. No problem. They grab 'em, a lot of people in jail. They're leaders. These are anarchists. These are not protesters. People say “protesters.” These people are anarchists. These are people that hate our country. And we’re not going to let it go forward.
AMY GOODMAN: Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli echoed Trump’s comments on CNN Monday.
KEN CUCCINELLI: We backed up the Federal Protective Service, which is responsible for protecting the courthouse there and other federal buildings, with other DHS law enforcement components. And that — and we’ve been there ever since, wearing, by the way, the very same uniforms every day, and the crowd has seen them every day. … If we get the same kind of intelligence in other places about threats to other federal facilities or officers, we would respond the same way.
AMY GOODMAN: But protesters in Portland say they won’t be deterred. This weekend, a group of mothers joined, formed what they called a “wall of moms” outside the federal courthouse to shield protesters. This is one of the mothers.
PROTESTING MOTHER: Their actions are terrifying. I mean, we, as a democracy, we need to stand up. I am 60 years old. I probably shouldn’t be here in public. But this is beyond acceptable.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Portland, Oregon, where we’re joined by Lilith Sinclair, an Afro-Indigenous organizer, along with an ASL interpreter.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Lilith, if you can start off by describing these last 50 days, why you’re out in the streets protesting, and what has been the response by not only the state but these federal officers that have not been — unclear who they are?
LILITH SINCLAIR: Thank you so much, Amy, I want to say first, for having us here and for helping us to provide accessibility to this interview, which is something that we’ve been really focusing on in Portland for the last 50 days, starting on day one and staring two years ago.
It’s hard to encompass the depth of what we’ve experienced in the streets here in Portland. This movement originally started with a single Black mom coming out to the streets and leading the call for an occupation here in Portland on the federal court steps to demand change. And what that has swelled into is a movement, thousands and thousands strong, that has really proven to unite so many of our people here.
What we’ve seen is a continuous escalation in violence against our protesters. But something that is important for us to understand is that here in Portland we’ve been facing severe police brutality, even from our local police force, for years, years, years and decades. The movement that we have right now, what is happening in response to, as you mentioned, an international, really, uprising against police brutality, racism and, I would say, even more than that, against oppressive structures, because this isn’t just a movement about police brutality.
And so, what we’ve been experiencing is a solid escalation. It started out with, as per usual, our local Portland Police Bureau engaging in a lot of not only intimidation tactics, but violent brutality against our protesters. We’ve had officers that have been deploying flashbangs after flashbangs after flashbangs, while simultaneously deploying CS gas and other munitions, tear gas and all of these different types of pepper spray bullets and new things that we actually haven’t even seen, once the federal government has come in. But this has been a long-term engagement with a militarized police force. And it’s important for us to recognize that the federal occupation has escalated it, especially because of the rhetoric that we’re seeing from those who hold office. But what we’re noticing is that the violence, as per usual, is continuing to rise.
We’re seeing these disappearances. I think it’s important to note that these unmarked cars that are going around in the street are unmarked rental vehicles. They are full of men in uniforms, no badges, no IDs. They refuse to even answer the question of “Are you or are you not law enforcement?” And it’s left the people of Portland not only worried about their safety, but, even more so, justified in the fight that we’re engaged in — a recognition that especially during an international global health pandemic, as you talked about these numbers rising and the continued push of normalcy in the midst of all of this, especially from not just Republicans but also Democrats, too, who are continuing to hold this pressure to reopen, like here in Oregon, where we created the new reopening and then saw people now, weeks later, experiencing higher rates in cases, being once again laid off from their jobs, being once again failed by the unemployment system.
And what’s happening in Portland is what’s happening all across the country. The people have a moment to understand and truly see the failures of this capitalist, white supremacist system, because they have nothing but time on their hands. And so, what we understand is that the movement continuing to go forward is only swelling. It’s why we see moms coming out to line up a wall. That was followed up last night with the dad bloc, a lot of amazing, amazing folks that came downtown last night after watching people get brutalized on a nightly basis.
We are spending our nights in terror. We can’t sleep on one side of the city or the other due to the flashbangs, due to the tear gas across the entire city. It’s affecting our houseless communities. It’s affecting our neighborhoods. And it’s gone unaddressed by both our state officials and also our local officials here in Portland, with nothing but well-meaning words, which is only further causing a very rightful sense of frustration, anger and a need for justice from the people here. It’s why we see these things continuing to grow.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Lilith Sinclair, can you talk about what you’re referring to, the elected officials? You have everyone from the state attorney general to the two senators, the governor. This is Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler criticizing Trump for deploying federal troops on the streets of Portland.
MAYOR TED WHEELER: President Trump has used our city as a staging ground to further his political agenda, igniting his base to cause further divisiveness, and, in doing so, endangering Portlanders. President Trump has gone so far, is vowing that federal law enforcement will, quote, “dominate,” unquote, protesters and mobilize federal agencies to operate in cities. This is an explicit abuse of power and places federal officers and Oregonians in danger.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Portland mayor and police chief [sic] Ted Wheeler. That might surprise some people that he occupies both positions. But, Lilith, can you talk more about what the elected officials are saying, your agreement with them in this particular case, but disagreements with them in others? The significance of them leading this charge, which now mayors are picking up all over the country, saying to Trump, “Do not send federal officers here”?
LILITH SINCLAIR: Yeah. So, I do want to make a slight correction, just because I heard you say “chief.” And Mayor Ted Wheeler is our police commissioner and also our mayor.
So, I’d like to break down a couple of things, actually. Thank you so much for that fantastic question. I think one of the most important things to understand is that our mayor here in Portland, Ted Wheeler, has one of the best PR teams — and simultaneously the worst PR teams — because as much as we can play the words that were just shared here on the broadcast today, it’s important to understand that, for instance, something that made national headlines this month was when federal officers fired at a protester holding a speaker over his head, clearly unarmed. That man is — sorry, it’s a little bit hard to handle because it made international news for our federal military officers to shoot an unarmed protester in the head and cause severe damage and hospitalization in that way. However, it’s important to note that a year ago, during protesting against white supremacy, which is really, really, really, really, really present here in Portland, as a city within a state that was founded on a history of white supremacy and genocide — and what we know to be true is that even a year ago, when we were protesting white supremacy, our local Portland Police Bureau officers were firing flashbang grenades at point-blank range. They actually hit a protester, wearing a very thick helmet, directly in the back of the head with a grenade. It concaved both their helmet and also resulted in very severe skull fractures. If they weren’t wearing a helmet, there’s almost no doubt that they wouldn’t be alive with us today.
And something that is important for us to understand is that Ted Wheeler is not leading the charge to anything except for his reelection campaign. What we know is that we’ve been fighting for steps forward in regards to change around policing for years, in regards to the union police contract that we’ve been discussing here in Portland, that our mayor has been dragging his feet on for weeks — or for, I should say, years, in tandem with so many of our city officials, who I and others have had the opportunity to meet with.
And, you know, I think that something that’s the most poignant about it all is something that Ted Wheeler told a group of us as we literally cried, cried and yelled and expressed our frustrations in the Rose Room of City Hall, about the tear gas, which is an abortifacient, which affects all of our community members, which is destroying the lives of our houseless members and our neighbors and residents in the middle of a global health pandemic. And Ted Wheeler’s response was to announce that they were considering doing an investigation. And when we asked him when or how long that would take, he told us that there were no decisions on this yet, despite the fact that the day before, the Seattle mayor had actually already declared that she was going to be halting tear gas use by her police force. And Ted, as the police commissioner, with the ability to do so, told us that he would not do so. And he told us that he hasn’t gotten tear-gassed because he doesn’t want to. And so, the recognition is that there is a disconnect. We can’t look a politician in the face who says that he hasn’t gotten tear-gassed because he doesn’t want to, as though the millions of people across the world getting tear-gassed fighting for our rights and our safety and security don’t want to get tear-gassed, either.
And that is — that sort of inaction has been really evident all the way up the chain in regards to what Kate Brown has done about, for instance, perhaps pardoning prisoners in a state where we held for the longest time the, quote-unquote, “right” to process prisoners with nonunanimous juries. That’s recently been overturned by the Supreme Court, and yet we still have prisoners that are sitting across Oregon jails and prisons that have been convicted with nonunanimous juries, wasting away, at risk of death of COVID.
And so, it’s an intersectional issue that we know is not centered on the police only, but when we talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s important that we understand we’re talking about an intersectional movement that’s focusing on not just stopping the police from killing us, but stopping the entire system from killing us, whether that means a lack of access for the disability community, who also is Black; for members of the trans and queer community, who are also Black and are experiencing these things; houseless people, who are also Black; women, who are significantly underbelieved and at risk of death by our health system. The issues are myriad and multiplied. And the root of all of these issues, that we know to be true, is that all of this is based on the same colonialism, genocide, capitalism and white supremacy that is the foundation that this country was built on.
And here in Portland, we’re really making sure that we’re prioritizing education. We’re prioritizing history. We’re prioritizing teaching our people how to take care of one another. And I think that that’s why it’s been so frustrating to consider what it is that our elected officials are or are not doing, because no matter what steps they take forward within — in regards to reform inside a system that is already broken and crumbling, we know that these, no matter what, are not steps that will save us. And instead, we need abolitionist steps forward, fighting for the abolition of the police department, the militarized police, looking for the demilitarization and defunding of the entire U.S. military budget, understanding that we also mean abolition of the prison system and abolition of ableist, white supremacist, homophobic, transphobic and all these other oppressive systems that are all combined together, including anti-Semitism and all of these other things.
AMY GOODMAN: Lilith Sinclair, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Afro-Indigenous local organizer in Portland, Oregon.
When we come back, we’ll look at the legal battle to protect protesters and remove the federal agents from Portland streets. Stay with us.