Last Monday night an estimated 200 people showed up outside Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler's home to sing happy birthday to him over a bonfire in the middle of the street fueled with furniture looted from a ground floor dentist's office in the same 114-unit building. They were also there to call for Wheeler's resignation. In the riot that ensued, police arrested 19 of them, finding many were carrying weapons.
Were these members of some right-wing militia, Proud Boys perhaps, the Patriot Prayer group that had participated in a motorcade through Portland over the weekend, the Hawaiian shirt-clad Boogaloo boys ? No, no Hawaiian shirts in sight. These were part of the same mob that have been rioting and marching through Portland for over three months. The media likes calling them “protesters.”
“Mob” is a loaded word, I know. I hesitate to use it. My purpose is not to stir things up. I prefer calm. I find jingoism and bombast boring. In an unusual time like this, over-the-top tribalism and partisanship are not helpful. Our responsibility to avoid excessive language has doubled, kind of like those fines we may get in highway construction zones.
When I think of mobs, the first picture that comes to mind are the mobs of the French revolution gleefully destroying statues, leaving behind graffiti, hunting down priests and nuns, delivering nobles to the guillotine. Our domestic mobs haven't reached that point yet, although some demonstrators have taken to trundling faux guillotines into their street parties for dramatic effect. Nice touch!
What was the beef this crowd had with Wheeler? Although he'd marched with them on earlier demonstrations, he hasn't yet agreed to eliminate Portland's police force. It seems that when some people say defund the police, that's exactly what they mean. Other mayors have had similar house calls from the mob. The mayor of Chicago has dozens of police protecting her home around the clock and has declared her entire block off limits to demonstrations after similar mob actions there. Last weekend the home of the mayor of San Jose was spray-painted and egg-splattered by a crowd that had brought along an American flag for burning.
I doubt the organizers of the demonstrations believe that even weak-kneed mayors will submit to demands they disband existing city police departments and replace them with something more to their liking. I think their primary goal is revolution. All their actions are calculated toward that goal. They know chaos is their friend. The first opportunity to exploit chaos dropped into their laps when COVID-19 arrived here and America and the rest of the world went into lockdown. Revolutions thrive on disruption, and this was a gift from heaven — or maybe hell. It was only a matter of time before some cop somewhere did something murderous or stupid, or easily demagogued into yet another example of racial oppression, and they could spring into action.
It's happened before. Remember Ferguson? After the dust cleared we learned that a policeman had killed a criminal charging at him after a scuffle to gain control of the cop's gun. The first thing most of us heard about the event was that a “gentle giant,” Michael Brown, had his hands up and his last words were, “Don't shoot.” Though false, it made for a good story. Many still believe it.
The story behind the death of George Floyd is even more convincing because we have video. It is appalling to watch. It was only much later (about a week ago ) that the coroner's report was at last released, and we learned that there was more to it than met our eyes. Floyd had enough fentanyl in his system to constitute a lethal dose, in addition to methamphetamine. His death was preordained even if the police had never arrived, and Floyd was complaining that he couldn't breath even before he was restrained. The knee to neck restraint employed is not unusual or illegal. The upshot is that the first story is not often reliable. Lies travel faster than truth. Bad ideas can be more dangerous than armies.
These are stories used to advance a false narrative. Part of the reason these first stories have so much power is that they reinforce erroneous presumptions. If you're convinced that public institutions like the legal system are contaminated by racial animus and perpetuate white supremacy, then that's what you'll see every time. Suggesting that there's evidence to the contrary will not always make you popular. The revolution depends on erroneous assumptions. It depends on people believing racism is systemic. It also depends on dissenters being silent. That's why I won't be. Popularity is so overrated.