Portland protest war zone, open city

Tim McCormick
9 min readJul 17, 2020

“War is the health of the State,” wrote Randolph Bourne in 1918; and perhaps here in Portland, we see how protest & occupation uprising can be the health of the multi-State or post-State. It’s a scenario where quite a range of actors might deploy and gain physical or media territory. It’s war playing out prefiguratively, in space that are highly representational — the intensely media-covered focal point of the “Justice Center” in downtown Portland; or a Tahrir Square, or Tiananmen Square. Here the vibrant, revived urban stage fulfills ancient historical functions, as catalyst and focalizer for powerful symbolic conflict, creation, drama; for revolutionary foment and imperial display.

For example, in that “green and pleasant land” of Portland, my birthplace, and on-and-off and current home, these days reprising its Reagan-era identity as “Little Beirut.”

The story of a now 50-day-long running confrontation in Portland between protesters and uniformed forces, blew up today nationally and internationally, after reports of unidentifed armed agents pulling protestors off the street.

When several men in green military fatigues and generic “police” patches sprang out of an unmarked gray minivan in front of Mark Pettibone in the early hours of Wednesday morning, his first instinct was to run.

He did not know whether the men were police or far-right extremists, who frequently don militarylike outfits and harass left-leaning protesters in Portland, Ore. The 29-year-old resident said he made it about a half-block before he realized there would be no escape.

“I was terrified,” Pettibone told The Washington Post. “It seemed like it was out of a horror/sci-fi, like a Philip K. Dick novel. It was like being preyed upon.”

He was detained and searched. One man asked him if he had any weapons; he did not. They drove him to the federal courthouse and placed him in a holding cell. Two officers eventually returned to read his Miranda rights and ask if he would waive those rights to answer a few questions; he did not.

And almost as suddenly as they had grabbed him off the street, the men let him go.

Pettibone said he still does not know who arrested him or whether what happened to him legally qualifies as an arrest. The federal officers who snatched him off the street as he was walking home from a peaceful protest did not tell him why he had been detained or provide him any record of an arrest, he told The Post. As far as he knows, he has not been charged with any crimes.

What is going on here? Pulling back from the typically breathless, national parachute journalism, below is 10-min scenography of downtown Portland in a lull between battles, as seen in the classic, haunting Roberto Rosselini neorealist docudrama, Portland città aperta. Just kidding! it’s footage from this month, not 1945 Rome.

This video, unlabelled and from an unnamed poster on YouTube, is interesting to me for, among other things, its visual poetics of persuasion. Vacant, gaping streets and boarded smashed-up doors and windows, going on and on for miles, silent! Shades of Arnold’s Dover Beach elegy:

“Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.”

But also, it’s like the trope of great armies of troops in Westerns, which turn out to be just a few people running past repeatedly. In this video, as non-locals or less concerned watchers might not realize, the apparent long sweep across the desolate city plain for 10 minutes of runtime is mostly just passing across one 2–3 block area, over and over, assembled in overlapping and varied-length segments. Like waves lapping on a shore, sadly lulling us.

Nonetheless, this is devastation at the city’s core, where

We are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night

you might with Arnold say, in sadness. Shutting it down, closing all the businesses, why endure this from “the small minority that commit crimes of looting, arson, and vandalism” as the unidentified author on YouTube grimly intones? The Police Bureau, Mayor, then national media in turn did not turn away from naming names here, reporting the $23M in losses to downtown businesses from the Vandals sacking our Rome — surely, the civil Disease affronting us.

Except, it wasn’t $23M in vandals’ damage. That figure turned out, in the little-disseminated correction story The Oregonian’s Everton Bailey sleuthed up, revenues lost from all causes, largely from Pioneer Square mall, mostly shut down since early of Covid-19 lockdown, well before the protests. Very little of it, apparently, could be attributed to protests or vandalism. But no matter, the story must go on! Whose story, well that’s a lesser concern, it depends on who has greater power at the moment or current context.

It’s a bit like the ironies in the title of Rossellini’s landmark Roma città aperta. The film was begun in August 1944, just after the Allies had forced the Nazis to evacuate Rome; the city was ‘open’ because evacuated and devastated. Further, the title refers to Rome having declared itself “open city” on 14 August 1943 — meaning that it was ending its self-defense and accepting the Nazi occupying army. The films’ events occur in 1944, under Nazi military lockdown.

In a nice piece of symbolic happenstance, Roma città aperta was shot on leftover short-end or scratched film rolls discarded as unusable by the US Army’s Signal Corps, thanks to an American friend of Rossellini’s who worked there. “Confused alarms” of unreliable scraps of film assembled, depicted the confused situation during and after the German occupation of Rome.

The Geneva Conventions and other traditional war-arena terms attempt to straighten out such signals — de-urbanize, re-State, re-binarize them, you could say:

Once a city has declared itself an open city, the opposing military will be expected to peacefully occupy the city rather than destroy it. The concept aims to protect the city’s civilians and cultural landmarks from a battle which may be futile.

According to the Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, it is forbidden for the attacking party to “attack, by any means whatsoever, non-defended localities.”

So, what we might call the violent protestors — as figured in official & media reports but of mostly unknown identity — in a sense require a defending force in order to legitimately attack. Say, local police and Federal armed forces arrayed around Federal buildings. Likewise, for a military force to ‘attack’ an occupied city, rather than peacefully occupy, they need there to be an armed force ‘defending’ the locality.

Either of the two, or possibly more and undetermined ‘sides’, in any such violent conflict, for their purposes need the other; or at least, need some one party who might be the ‘other’ to apply force. The heterogloss, urban space is helpful in resolving a potential collective-action problem that you might have with just two clear sides needing to play their roles right, on a less darkling plain: it allows various other and unidentified parties to catalyze the useful conflict.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your view, neither most of the apparent civilian protestors nor many of the uniformed apparent government forces downtown now are identifiable. Or even operating with unified chain of command, of course with the amorphous ‘antifa’ etc participants, but more surprisingly, with the local and Federal forces, because the Feds are not there by request or (officially) in coordination with city government or police, they are unilaterally occupying under the justification of defending Federal property. As in so many later-modern situations, it may be a puzzle what sort of ‘State’ or state conflict we have here. Is it more a Hobbes-ian Bellum omnium contra omnes, war of all against all?

frontispiece image from Hobbes, The Leviathan (1651). The body of the State is..other people.

Ironically, in this latter-day war of all against all there can be many winners.

  • Protesters get a good center stage to communicate with; it’s even convenient to get to/from by transit and bicycle.
  • Independent media entrepreneurs who specialize in protests (a sort of sine qua non of news ‘eventness’ and news-event production) can build portfolios, even careers, quickly. Disorganized violence offers opportunities to receive wounds of honor, like German dueling scars, which are particularly effective in building one’s self into a “from the streets,” authentic personal story, media property.
  • Protestors, protest blocs, and particularly the media freelancers all tend to offer easy and many ways you can donate to them online, often to a personal account. This is helpful for low-barrier entry and scaling up of dissent/media operations, and also helpful for any outside party wishing to fund, coopt, or incriminate any actor taking funds that way. What if your friends the Portland Justice Committee turn out to be or connected to a CIA- or Koch-funded front group? It could be complicated to explain to the homies; or perhaps you find that you’re better off going with the new, more financially sustainable comrades, given career considerations and the difficult times. Or perhaps those were your homies all along.
  • Mercenaries, and overtime armed forces and law-enforcement, in for 1–3 week rotations from all over the US territories, can earn a lot of money quickly. There’s pretty ample free parking now downtown, for service members, at the garages in and around the Federal buildings. Sometimes you don’t even have to do the shame walk past the protestors’ video unit to get inside your unit’s HQ building.
  • Perhaps best of all, for both ‘protesters’ and occupying official forces, it’s a lot of fun to sample the food-trucks everyone mentions. Despite the lockdown, there’s still many nearby good and diverse take-out/delivery options downtown, to ease the drear days of daytime peaceful protest, while waiting and prepping for the evening main events where you can try out the latest gear. Many a cross-ideological comradeship is forged in the shared, impassioned, critical locavore discussions in the food-truck lines. Food brings us together!
  • a wartime-powers-seeking President can justify, prototype, and rehearse the unrestricted, uninvited use of Federal and perhaps militia armed forces, in a mediagenic, politically unsympathetic city which his followers love to hate and his allied TV networks love to cover. Like other cities which might, say, show signs of unhelpful early electoral returns in the next presidential election. Or which might protest moves to take/sustain power by an Administration after a disputed election outcome. Or which are the homes and electoral districts of leading opponents and troublemakers in Congress such as Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.

Many of the wartime ‘damages,’ in this low-level, high-symbolism war are actually quite good, as war damages go. It’s mostly graffiti on buildings and graffiti/murals on the pervasive, artist-friendly wood planels protecting building windows & entrances — these are easily added, replaced, or sold for fundraising efforts like Banksy or Basquiat street art pieces. Critics are especially praising the family-friendly, diverse, daytime art happenings in the Protest Zone, and the quality of mural walls particularly those shuttering the vast, panoptic glass fortress of the main Apple Store. That great creative center and symbol for the new Creative City and Think(ing) Different has actually flourished in lockdown mode, as focal point, a wounded city’s healing , shared canvas. George Floyd / BLM -themed layered murals on wood riot-boardings covering the facade might be the new brushed metal and glass! an opportunity for another aesthetic-political rebirth of the city and Apple’s urban presence.

“I Can’t Breath” mural, initial stage, at Apple Store in downtown Portland

Apple seems to have thoughfully painted most panels BLM black with a sort of chalkboard finish, facilitating changing, peaceful chalk art over smelly aerosol graffiti. So we can all Breathe.

The loser in the meantime, perhaps, is the peaceful civil state — itself a regime of ‘open’ i.e. unobstructed State power, which you might experience as violent or peaceful, depending on your relative marginality.

The “open city” continues to play out its ironic and conflicting meanings as, a stage for heightened social drama, an occupied city, an undefended city, or perhaps a devastated and vacated city. This low-level war is both the death and the health of the central city zone. As in Roma città aperta, the city endures another generation of Vandals and occupiers, and lives to tell the tale, even provide the means to tell it out of the ruins; the State may be collapsing or usurping, but the city lives on, a better place in which to place our faith.



Tim McCormick

editor, @HousingWiki; lead organizer, @VillageCollaborative; organizer/editor, @PDXshelterforum. Portland, OAK, LDN, nomadic. tmccormick at gmail.