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Ned Flanders, one night in Portland, banana bread
I was in Portland last week when both the new abortion restrictions in Texas took effect and the Portland City Council, in response, voted to ban commerce with and travel to Texas.
Let’s break this down a second: Five members of a local government decide to flex for… what purpose? It will have an eyelash’s-worth of economic impact. It will do nothing to change the Texas law. It will not get a woman across a state line, if that’s what she chooses to do. As I noted on Twitter, this "action" on the part of Portland strikes me as something a teenager would do, make a big show of appearing compassionate and committed, meanwhile, their room is a wreck, the homework undone, forgot to put gas in mom’s car. It's a thumbprint of "solidarity" with zero intellectual heft or industry.
It seems also of a piece with doing things for appearance rather than taking on vital, complex work. And while I’m sure many people/institutions are guilty of this, Portland has been doing it for a while, has maybe settled into the bad habit of preening in public as opposed to addressing the issues in its own backyard…
… or addressing them in ways you think make you look like a take-action hero but which in fact are dependent on mushy feelings and stoking people’s fears. (I can’t decide whether to take or give all the points to Gov. Brown for the black leather vest-with-pearls ensemble.)
Look, Portland’s had a rough 18 months. I get the craving for something fresh and goofy…
Still, this strikes me as superficial cuteness, a “look over here and not over there!” feint. You’d think people would tire of it, and maybe they have. I have an upcoming interview with someone who’s been strapped in for the Portland ride that started last summer and has had to sway and pivot more than most. Stay tuned for that.
Speaking last summer, I came across the below yesterday, the start of a book proposal I (probably) punted on. The lead paragraph was included in a feature for Reason but otherwise, yours are the first eyes on a prismatic view of July 22, 2020. Pics/vid by me.
It is unknown whether July 22, 2020 was the night federal forces – also known as “Trump’s goons” and “the Gestapo” – shot the most military-grade CS gas at protestors launching objects at the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland, Oregon. Tear gas is a hard thing to quantify, plus protestors were shooting off their own fireworks as well as setting fires, including tipping a barbecue over the temporary fencing the feds had set up around the courthouse, now undergoing its 57th night of frontal assaults. But let’s say there was a lot gas, each volley sending protesters back from the courthouse and into unlit Landsdowne Park, past the rib tent that had been feeding people since June, past the homeless and the stoners and the black bloc boys revving gas-dispersing leaf-blowers and the girls with “MEDIC” written somewhere on their clothing and asking if they could wash your eyes and, on this night, a guy on his knees vomiting onto the asphalt. Tear gas can do this; it can also, despite your intention to stay until the end of the night’s confrontation, have your body start walking itself back to the car, your cloth mask, after five rounds of gas, useful mostly as a repository for tears and snot and also as evidence that the young people you’ve seen swaddled in enough headgear to look as though they might be going scuba diving, seem to know something you do not.
Andy Ngo was not at the federal building on July 22. He had barely ventured out in a year, not since being attacked in June 2019 by what was thought to be members of antifa. Since the protests began on May 27th, two days after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, Ngo had monitored what was going on in Portland from a desk in his childhood bedroom.
Where Ngo had once been able to employ an extremely sharp nose for news, showing up at every city council meeting and playing the gadfly, or, in the words of one detractor, practicing “busybody journalism,” he now mostly relied on the tips and clips of others. This had its advantages. He had a wider variety of sources from which to craft the narratives he dispensed to his 762,000 Twitter followers. And while COVID-19 prohibited him from again testifying before the Senate, this time about how “antifa is not a myth,” he had in fact become only more visible since the pandemic, conservative outlets relying on his coverage of the chaos, which he hash-tagged #PortlandRiots. Posting mugshots of the newly arrested became one of Ngo’s trademarks, he was extremely here to expose the bleary-eyed, improbably smiling faces of those he saw tearing down the city.
“I recognize a lot of the so-called ‘moms’ as the same antifa women who dressed in black as recent [sic] as a couple days ago,” Ngo tweeted on July 22, accompanied by a video of masked women linking arms and raising fists. “They just put on a yellow shirt now for optics. Most of these people aren’t mothers & many don’t even identify as female #PortlandRiots.”
“Don’t even identify as females” was the sort of comment that drove Ngo’s opponents around the bend. Wasn’t he himself gay? Didn’t his parents immigrate from Vietnam on a boat? He should be the poster child of what Portland was fighting for, equality and equity and room at the table for the traditionally marginalized, as well as making the city a safe place for people of color and the trans community. Instead, he was appearing on FOX News and having Ted Cruz – Ted Cruz! – talk about Ngo’s “brain hemorrhage.”
Ngo’s tweets on July 22nd included “MOMS FOR DEAD COPS” scrawled on a wall and a video of a fire being set in front of the courthouse, since George Floyd’s death a near-nightly occurrence in Portland and, if less often, in Minneapolis and DC and Chicago and Los Angeles. Fire had become the language of people who could not or did not want to figure other ways to express their grief and anger, or whether they were feeling grief and anger, and in the meantime and whether you meant to or not, would turn fire into a fixture and then a commodity, one whose uses were flexible, fire was liberating, it was weaponry, it was cover; that burning building, the reporter standing in front of a conflagration in Kenosha told us, was not what you thought it was.
Less ambiguous were the #fuckandyngo messages punctuating various Twitter posts, some of which included Ngo’s home address. This hashtag could also be seen on dumpsters around Portland, pictures of which Ngo himself reposted.
Megan Mitra Smith crawled out of a tent in Lawnsdowne Park. It was just after 6am but the volunteers at the rib tent and at the tables that offered bottled water and energy bars were already prepping for the day. So, too, were two guys in dirty jeans, park regulars who offered to blow a joint with Smith, still in her fluffy yellow sleep-suit complete with hood.
Smith had been coming to the park since June 7, after having watched a friend’s livestream of the protests and thinking, damn, I gotta get down there. After leaving her two-year-old daughter with her parents in Northeast Portland, she parked her car two blocks from the park. It was still daylight, not much going on across the street at police headquarters or the federal courthouse, though each were graffitied and all kinds of molested, windows gone and faces ply-boarded over. The people who had done this were for the most part younger than Smith, who was 36. Still, the destruction excited her and she wanted to know how she, as a Latina woman, could take part in it. Her first arrest, for chasing police she believed had been harassing protesters, came the following night. She was released immediately and decided to help the movement in any way she could. She drove people around and told them to stay in pairs for safety. She shouted in cops’ faces that they should quit their jobs and kill themselves. It was after 2am by the time she got back to her car, and as the energy of the night effervesced in her blood she knew, she would not be going home.
Six weeks later, Smith showed what she’d found on the ground the night before, florescent-colored paint ball pellets, rubber bullets that looked like dusty blueberries, and a silver metal canister marked “SKAT-SHELL SAF-SMOKE 40 MM Multiple Projectile.” A few young people shuffled from a nearby tent and stood near Smith. Whether they were waiting for a hit off the joint or just to be near her, was unclear. Some of the younger ones in the park called her, “Mama.” Smith liked that. There were so many teenagers here, kids from group homes and shelters who felt their parents didn’t care about them. They were fine, they told Smith, being on the front lines, being pepper-sprayed and shot with rubber bullets, “Nobody loves me, it’s OK if I die.” This shattered Smith and was one of the reasons she stayed, why she insisted everyone in the park was “gang-gang.” And while it was true that her being here kept her from her daughter, Smith told herself fighting fascists and the police would make for a better world, and that as soon as she had enough money, she would get a place for herself and her daughter, someplace safe.
“A top commander with the U.S. Marshals Service peered out a window facing the Willamette River and watched the sea of humanity sweep toward him. It was going to be another long night.”
Benny Ortiz [a pseudonym] read the AP article with interest. Until five days ago he’d been one of those people peering out a window, wondering how long the protesters would keep it up; wondering if, like some dystopian version of Groundhog Day, the Battle of Portlandia would repeat indefinitely.
“A Deputy U.S. Marshal who has been protecting the courthouse for weeks, he requested anonymity because protesters have identified him and posted his personal information online.
“I can’t walk outside without being in fear for my life,” he said. “I am worried for my life, every time I walk outside of the building.”
It wasn’t that Ortiz feared for his life. As part of the US Border Patrol Special Operations Group – or, in media parlance, “the unmarked fed storm troopers” - he’d seen way worse danger. He spent most of his time in life and death emergencies, deploying to Houston after Hurricane Michael and spending days rescuing people in 150 mph winds and sleeping on the street, or battling narcotic and human smugglers on the border near El Paso. As one of his bios read, “If we meet in person, you’re probably having a bad day.”
And still what he saw in Portland rocked him. He was unaccustomed to this level of hatred, from young people in seemingly no danger but screaming that they were under constant threat of being murdered by the police. In reaction, hundreds and sometimes thousands of them rampaged nightly in front of the courthouse, setting fires, hurling tubs of shit, shining high-powered lasers at officers’ eyes in an attempt to blind them. Ortiz appreciated the politics of the situation, appreciated that Portlanders did not want the feds in their city. Still, he sensed he could have handed protestors a basket of warm puppies and been met with the level of antipathy.
It was stressful, but stress was normal and the people he was deployed with handled it well, to a point. When Ortiz felt himself stretched tight a week before, he’d driven to Mt. Hood and climbed the 11,000-foot peak. It didn’t quite do the trick and he’d gone back to Texas, where he was now, reading the AP article and texting with a different reporter, who was asking what it was like inside the building and how he handled it.
This was a nice change, to be looked at as a person rather than a faceless goon. Not that there had not been some bad scenes in Portland, scenes that made the feds look like black ops, dragging protesters into unmarked cars and firing less-than-lethal munitions that nevertheless caused serious injury, including fracturing one guy’s skull. The anger over these incidents, Ortiz thought, was justified.
Which was one of the reasons he was telling the reporter, who was asking if she might get inside the federal building, that it might not be safe for her. He didn’t worry about what federal agents might do to her but what the protesters might if they suspected she were humanizing law enforcement. He also knew his own commander would probably not be so hot on his communicating with the press.
And yet Ortiz kept texting with her. He didn’t know why. He told her he did not see himself as some tough guy at all; that he spent most of his time in rescue emergencies, that his team being portrayed as brain dead stormtroopers was propaganda. They were a mobile field force, trained to perceive threats and to get those threats under control. He could not see how normal people raising families in Portland could not see the protesters and their escalating assaults, not just on the federal building but on the city, as a threat.
“I am a simple man; I do my job and want to be home with my loved ones,” he texted the reporter. “If people want to protest and clash in downtown, go ahead. But if anything like that were to come into my neighborhood, I would perceive it as a threat and would get extremely hostile and borderline violent, if not fully violent.”
JG had other things to think about besides the protests, though god knew if her restaurants were open, her employees would have been marching until three in the morning and claiming Defund the Police was more important than getting to work on time. JG had no problem with people throwing themselves headlong into things; she’d been one of these people herself and had the crash-landing scars to prove it.
But her restaurants were not open, not since COVID. Yes, she was serving snacks and to-go cocktails from the window of one of her places, and it was going okay, mostly because she busted her ass. Twenty years earlier, young people who knew their way around a kitchen, and some who didn’t, had catapulted Portland into the national food scene. JG was legit one of the superstars, which meant she’d had to transcend the backbiting that comes with celebrity, people digging into your business, people saying you are not all that, people hoping your latest gambit (or the one after that) will be the one that brings you down, will cause you to lose momentum and shine.
JG had not lost these things as she created the next thing, and the next. Along the way she’d been happy, more than happy, to bring others with her, including the woman who’d started a fried chicken outfit and who earlier in the month, as the riots played out and businesses struggled to survive a fucking pandemic, decided that now was the time to publicly accuse Portland restaurateurs of sexism, of racism. This was apparently what some local food people did in 2020, they worked toward the ruination of others, campaigns as lunatic as leveling death threats against a couple of twenty-something non-Mexican girls for making homemade tortillas.
How a region where you could grow and cook the most beautiful foods had grown so embittered, JG wasn’t sure, maybe young people believing Portland would deliver on their dreams only to realize that hard work was required; that no matter how enlightened you believed your ideals, you still had to get to work at 6am. But also? JG sort of didn’t care, not when, per usual, she would just do what needed to be done.
It was after midnight when she picked up the phone and called the chicken lady…
Did you know: Of the 1000+ people who read these posts, only 53 pay for them? You can be number 54! Subscribe below (or Venmo me!), I need some new pie tins and maybe a loaf pan, as tomorrow I will bake a Nigella Lawson recipe for banana bread with rum (or bourbon; what do you think?) and serve it to Matt Welch as we put the finishing touches on the Paloma Media website and record a new episode of the podcast for you, you, only for you xx
Bonus outro because why not?