"The Police Van Abductions": A Response
The protests in Portland in summer 2020 were complicated. Why not depict them as such?
I woke up this morning to someone having linked me a piece in The Verge called, “The Police Van Abductions.” If I found the title provocative, I nevertheless had no idea what it was about. Then I saw the bylines, Sarah Jeong and Sergio Olmos, and figured I did know, it would be about the protests in Portland in 2020 (leaching over to 2021), which both Olmos and I (and maybe Jeong) spent a good deal of time covering. I met him once or twice in front of the federal building as it was being pelted with rocks and having flaming barbecues tipped over the fencing installed after Trump sent in federal troops. You likely recall the time and if you don’t, I can direct you to 28 pieces I’ve written about it, a number I suspect Olmos can match or surpass.
I read the piece before I was out of bed and found some things I agreed with. No one should be pulled after midnight (or any time!) into an unmarked van. This would be terrifying. I might quibble with the article’s “Who, me?” depiction of the activists alone on the streets during the nightly actions, albeit there is truth to the spooky aloneness one sometimes encountered. While the situation on SW 3rd Avenue, where the federal courthouse and the police station known as Justice Center have their front doors, was mayhem, chaos, hundreds and sometimes thousands of demonstrators screaming and both causing violence and fending off violence from authorities, one block east on 2nd it was often a ghost town, truly it was eerie, and the site of at least one of the abductions mentioned in the piece. I further agree with this characterization of the city at that time:
As the news of the van abductions spread, the Portland protests would metastasize. The crowd had dwindled to under a hundred in early July; by July 20th, thousands had taken to the streets. The new protesters tended to be older and more staid than the ones they were joining. They didn’t necessarily believe in abolition or the defunding of the police, but they hated Trump with a passion, and more to the point, they were outraged about the vans.
Or partway agree, as I don’t believe Portlanders at that point needed the van action to inflame them, people were so, so hot for this moment. As Jeong and Olmos note in the piece, “[A]t the start of the summer of 2020, Portland was, in one respect, the same as it had always been: severely overshadowed by Seattle.” By July 2020, the city was centerstage, and as I wrote in “The Dream of the 90s Died in Portland”:
The city had not been No. 1 in anything since the Trail Blazers won the NBA championship in 1977, and here it was now on TV every night. There was frisson in that; there was relief—from the COVID lockdowns, from the bars and schools being closed, from the fact that what jobs there still were now seemed to be in jeopardy. With not much squinting, Portland activists and those who supported them saw selflessness in trashing the courthouse; in setting fire to Justice Center and trapping employees in the basement; in erecting a guillotine on the roof of the police union; in squeezing little piggy toys in the faces of officers and yelling, "KILL YOURSELF!"; in dancing around a street fire set in front of the mayor's condo and demanding that "Teargas Ted" resign. Not wanting to inconvenience his neighbors, Wheeler moved out.
But I am also going to push back on the article, not on what happened to the people shoved into vans, but in the framing. The piece seems to me to be another entry into the “activists are blameless” category, axiomatically blameless because other factions are always worse and thus any action on the part of the activists is justified. This is reductive thinking but you should remember that the protests were not so much driven by ideology as they were by an abundance of emotion, sometimes an overabundance that tipped over into mob mentality. We do not get any of this from the piece; it’s ever an “us versus them,” and if we are going to do better - as cities, and citizens - we need fuller depictions.
I have already stated that the van-abducting is bullshit. But here are a few points the article declines, in my opinion, to paint accurately
The Portland police rarely if ever showed up during the nightly scenes in front of the courthouse. Yes, there were many altercations with protesters in other parts of the city. But the courthouse? No. Even though the police station was next door. It was noticeably weird.
I don’t understand why the activists are rarely portrayed also as provocateurs. Why do they always want to be seen as playing defense, which in many cases they absolutely were not. Anyone with eyeballs or earholes that was on the ground knows this. I wrote about this for Reason, in “You’re Not Allowed to Film!” and was roundly criticized, people did not like the prevailing narrative muddied. Too bad. I report what I see.
The depiction of the murder of Aaron Danielson is problematic. Here’s how it’s framed in the piece:
Patriot Prayer cruised through town again, wielding bear mace and paintball guns. In the ensuing clash, Michael Reinoehl — a man who openly identified as antifa and had a black fist tattoo on his neck — shot Aaron “Jay” Danielson dead on the street, four blocks away from the park blocks.
Well, not exactly. Reinoehl, whom I think of more as a disturbed person looking to be celebrated by a cause than a member of antifa - hid behind a door and then ambushed Danielson. This is documented on video. It is further true that several days later Reinoehl was ambushed and killed by authorities in a murky and problematic incident. Still, unless you consider Danielson’s being a member of Patriot Prayer provocation enough, it’s clear he was targeted and murdered, and I think it attendant on reporters to state as much. I wrote about this, about depicting even murder as something other than it is.
I am at the moment writing about what happens downstream when people see the small picture, when they trim facts to fit the theory, in this case, the murder of a woman in Portland who was all but delivered into her abuser’s arms. It’s a long and complicated story but let me ask you: If you knew of a man who’d been arrested multiple times in 2022 for domestic abuse, who’d been charged with strangling the mother of his children, who’d ripped off his ankle monitor so he could strangle her again, is this the person you’d feel was a good bet, the one you wanted to make sure was on the streets and not in jail as he awaited trial? A bunch of people in Portland did, and apparently still do. If the killing of George Floyd sparked furious demand for change, with no bigger players on the world stage than Portlanders, the murder of a 36 year-old woman, also black, as her children slept in the next room, has the local press wondering instead whether the private bail fund that sprung her killer will continue. There is barely even a mention of the victim’s name, which was Rachael Abraham.
Maybe people have empathy fatigue. Maybe the BLM signs have been replaced by Ukrainian flags. Maybe an article about van abductions in 2020, while an unspeakably bad act, nevertheless feels a little stale. And yet the city is reconciling now with the overabundance of emotion of then, when a murder wasn’t really a murder, when mayhem was for the common good, a seepage that lets us whistle past the murder of a mother of six, to not chant her name in the streets.