Dispatch from Portland

The smoke-hazed view from the streets of Portland, blurred by nights of tear gas and then the devastating fires in the foothills east of the city caught at the center of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Smoke-filled, yellow hazy view of downtown Portland
Downtown Portland, September 2020 Photo by Emily Chenowith

Those of you not living on the West Coast may not fully comprehend the magnitude of what happened here in September. I’m not sure we do yet ourselves. Between August 16th and September 15th, over a million acres of Oregon forest burned. That equals in the neighborhood of 200 million trees. In California, five million acres burned, and continue to burn as of this writing. The smoke and ash released in Oregon alone, born of pyrocumulonimbus clouds, or fire-generating rotating thunderclouds, was equivalent to that of a multimegaton bomb hitting our rain forest. Put another way: in September 2020, we basically nuked the Cascades.

It’s a brutal thought, almost enough to make you forget what was happening before September wasn’t so great, either. Here in Portland, as readers surely know, we spent the summer locked in a rolling street fight, racking up 100 plus nightly melees between police and protestors, with frequent appearances by cadres of fascist thugs from the hinterlands. At the center of the drama has been the civil rights agenda of Black Lives Matter, but in many ways the ritual street-fighting has resembled the classic fascist/communist brawls of the 20th century. Our Little Beirut has become Little Weimar this year, and we’re holding our own private Spanish Civil War. The ideological schismatics are fairly similar, with anarchists, syndicalists, chauvinist nationalists, drunks, and romantics playing their roles, and the death drive inherent in the confrontations has been obvious from the start. Someone’s going to get killed, we’ve all been saying.

On August 29th, the death wish came true. That night, a Trumpist named Aaron “Jay” Danielson was shot and killed on the street. On September 3rd, the man who shot him, Michael Reinoehl, was assassinated by a death squad in Lacey, Washington. It might have been easy to miss in the slurry of shit news flowing through our devices, but I hope everyone out there understands what happened here: the killing of Michael Reinoehl by US marshals was a straight up death squad hit. That was William Barr putting on his Pinochet boots. Maybe someday the historical record will state plainly what occurred, but as we know, that all depends on who writes the book.

So the summer was bad to begin with, but those nine days spent sitting in a cauldron of poison smoke brought us to a new low (thus far). Sitting in our houses facing walls of flame on every side, watching the collapse of Nature as our parents and our parents before them had understood it, plunged us into profound, existential fear. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one staring out the window at the tree smoke thinking: where do we go from here? How the fuck does a person have any hope?

Black Lives Matter protesters sitting on the roadway of a Portland, Oregon bridge
BLM Protest, June Photo by Jon Raymond

There was some hope back in June, if you can remember that far. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the BLM uprisings swept through Portland like everywhere else, breaching the dam of Covid and flooding the streets with a righteous, enraged citizenry. Among all the protests I’ve attended in my life, the gatherings in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the others, were unlike anything I’ve seen. It was what I imagine the Velvet Revolution felt like, or the first moments of the Arab Spring: a mass carpeting of humanity come to smother a system it could no longer tolerate.

I have a funny story from those days. A few nights in, I went down to Pioneer Courthouse Square and spent some time in the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen gathered there. People were sitting on the roof of Starbucks, flowing out into the surrounding streets. I ran into a few masked friends in the crowd, and eventually texted my way to my pals Kyle and Lucy who I’d seen the day before on the Burnside Bridge, and who’d become my kind of barricade buddies in those early days. We spent a little while adding our bodies to the count, and at around dusk we decided to split, knowing it was the hour when things tended to take a turn for the more gnarly.

As we headed for the Hawthorne Bridge, a contingent of more aggressive, direct action people broke off from the main crowd, too. They were on their way to the Fence, we could tell, which was a barricade erected nightly by the police around the Justice Center, and the main site of the nightly confrontations. People would show up, shake the cage, and at some point the gassing would begin. We walked with this group for a few blocks and watched them disappear into a box canyon and continued on our way. But we’d only gone another block before coming upon two riot trucks barnacled with cops in full armor. The cops were already starting to climb from the idling rigs, preparing to rush the group we’d just left from behind.

A handful of protestors had started berating them, telling them to burn in hell. “Fuck you, pigs!” “I hope you die!” I don’t usually participate in that kind of shouting. It makes me uncomfortable, though I sort of understand the motivation. In any case, I assumed we’d just skirt the mini-confrontation in front of us, and continue our way to the river and home to bed as planned, but midway through the intersection I suddenly realized Kyle and Lucy were no longer with me. I turned around to find them standing at the crosswalk with their bikes braced in front of them, blocking the path of the incoming police. Somehow, without my noticing, they’d decided to hold the ground. They were pulling a mini Tiananmen.

I was like, what? That wasn’t what I’d expected. Now what was I supposed to do? I hadn’t come downtown for this kind of action, not at all. I’ve been tear gassed before and I don’t enjoy it, and the idea of getting clubbed in the head didn’t appeal whatsoever. I’m inspired by the BLM movement, and hate the fascist culture that stands in opposition, but I also think of the larger civil rights struggle as a long-haul commitment, with many forms of solidarity and support built in. I doubted this particular confrontation with the police was a major inflection point in the greater arc toward freedom and justice. I rationalized, basically. The inner tabulation took about four seconds before I came to the unsurprising conclusion that, no, this was not the time to sacrifice my body.

A man and woman in downtown Portland using their bicycles to try to block riot police
Kyle and Lucy trying to block the armored police Photo by Jon Raymond

But then I had a new problem to figure out: namely, how do I tell my friends I’m abandoning them on the barricades? Here was a form of etiquette I’d never encountered before. Should I go over and sound apologetic? Matter of fact? Should I slink off without saying anything at all? Would they notice one way or another? I took a minute to wander around the edges of the intersection, trying out different phrasings in my head, as all the while the tension grew.

“Fuck you, pigs!”

“Eat shit and die, you fucking pigs!”

At last, I sidled up to Kyle and put my hand on his shoulder. “I’m going home to my kids,” I said, playing that card. He and Lucy seemed okay with my choice, or else too concentrated on the moment to really notice what I was doing, and I began my retreat, but just as I started walking away came the sound of glass breaking.

A lot of glass had been broken in the last few days in Portland. One jewelry store had been thoroughly ransacked and looted. Most of the storefronts in a four-block radius were now sheeted with plywood. The Apple Store, diabolically, had hired professional artists to paint elaborate BLM-themed murals on their plywood, effectively turning the imagery into a brand-forward advertisement. Although the sound didn’t seem like a very large pane breaking, it was loud enough that everyone in the intersection paused. The cops looked around. The protesters looked around. Soon enough, everyone’s eyes landed on the culprit. She was over on the sidewalk, near the street walk signal. She wasn’t a vandal, it seemed. She didn’t even seem to be a protester. She was a middle-aged white woman on a bicycle who’d accidentally dropped a mason jar of kombucha. How Portland could a riot get?

“No no no,” one of the protestors said, bending to start picking up the broken glass. “That was an accident! We’re cleaning it up!”

“Anyone have a broom?”

For a second the intersection seemed to hang in a balance. Would this ignite into yet another bonfire of violence? Or would this unfold into a moment of surprising humanity? Or maybe something in between? Some strange experience that confounded any preconceived notions? But no, it turned out, there was never a question of what the cops would do. They were already flipping their plastic masks over their faces and climbing off the trucks, lumbering through the intersection and tossing Kyle and Lucy aside like kindling. They pulled out their tear gas bazookas as they went and began bombing the crowd. People began running and screaming. We stumbled off a few minutes later, eyes starting to burn.

For a second the intersection seemed to hang in a balance. Would this ignite into yet another bonfire of violence? Or would this unfold into a moment of surprising humanity? Or maybe something in between? Some strange experience that confounded any preconceived notions?

The summer rolled on from there, all well documented. The Feds came, we kicked the Feds out. We marched in many formations, along many different routes, chanting, doing our call-and-response. We did kid-friendly events, and not so kid-friendly. And all the while, only one conversation dominated the town. I heard it passing by the front porch, in the parks, and on my devices, all variations on my conversation with myself in that intersection. What are we supposed to do? What’s the right response to these times? Some people were opposed to the battles going down in the streets every night. They considered the street-fighting a Trump ad in disguise. This is just Trump’s bizarro rally we’re holding, they said, sending inflammatory images straight to his base. Others believed this is just how you crack a police union: you keep showing up, night after night, and take the abuse. Others said, true, but to burn down the union office? Which is next door to some apartment buildings? How is that winning any hearts and minds? Others said, hey, too bad mutual aid doesn’t make the news.

I have a friend whose dad is a cop. She objected to the "All Cops Are Bastards" chant. Bastardy? That’s what we’re saying? That’s not only corny but idiotically patriarchal, too. Another friend goes down and protests most nights and states vehemently: you don’t understand, these cops are truly awful, rotten people. They instigate violence every night. They plant evidence. They’re deranged. Another friend, a veteran of ACT UP, asks, "What’s the goal again?" Public protest is tactical. There’s a point at which one translates direct action into policy. When is that going to happen? And then there are the ultimate, hard-core believers, intelligent, interesting people who I’ve heard argue we shouldn’t just abolish the police, but abolish private property, and abolish the individual, too. As a thought experiment, I think, sure, that’s cute. But ask someone who survived Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot how the abolition of private property worked out. As for abolishing the individual, my argument is one word: Prince.

For all these swirling reasons, I stopped going down at night after the Feds got booted. My policy became: when the masses go, I go. When the vanguard does its thing, I stay home and monitor the action via the live feeds. I can sit in my little war room, watching the protests in compound vision, understanding at least some fraction of the reality pulsing underneath the daily performance of normality in my city. Some nights I might see a kid throw a Molotov cocktail and set a buddy on fire. Another night I might watch a kid chase down a former Navy SEAL who just pipe-bombed a demonstration. I can check in on Minneapolis and Louisville, too. Sometimes while I’m watching, the LRAD [Long Range Acoustic Device, or "sound cannon"] voice of the police sound system floats to my porch from the sheriff’s office a mile and a half away, followed by distant concussion grenades. Occasionally, we hear daytime car horns from a passing protest caravan. I feel a little guilty for not participating in the mutual aid scene, but we give money, we do what we can. If I were twenty years younger, I don’t know what I’d be doing. But like I told Kyle, I have kids. I can’t be out doing that shit all the time even if I wanted to.

Male protester throwing a tear gas canister back towards the police
Portland street protest

And then the fires came. For all the stress of daily life, we were managing to have a fairly old-fashioned summer alongside the politics. We’d head to the river some days, and the kids would drift around the neighborhood, unbothered by adults. We had picnics and porch drinks. The kids even had some backyard sleepovers. The lack of indoor options forced everything into the open, and the weather was nice, and work was scant.

I can’t remember the moment the whole world changed. We were driving to Hood River the first day, and met the smoke halfway. We spent the afternoon swimming in a haze of gray grit. It was maybe a day later, back home, when we understood what was really going on, the unfathomable quantity of fire in the mountains. The little cabin we’d rented a couple weeks before on the Santiam River was gone. Opal Creek, among the last stands of pristine old growth in the region, gone. Bagby Hot Springs and the old growth surrounding it, gone. The I-5 corridor is my homeland. I’ve driven this road all my life. Increasingly, I’ve driven past charred landscapes, cresting the Siskiyous to find smoldering stumps and blackened ground. Now, I began to realize, I’d be driving through ruins all the way down.

For a couple of days we worried the fire would actually raze our city. In the nearby suburbs, the fear of evacuation took hold. Knowing the geography around here, I didn’t see how the worst case scenarios were physically possible, but then again, why not? Everything I’ve assumed was impossible has happened the last few years, always to the worst imaginable end. Who would imagine, for instance, that within hours of the evacuation notices, unregulated militias of fascist hillbillies would be setting up armed checkpoints on the public roads? But they were. And so these dumb, pindick Cossacks became another worry. And then came the scenes of terrible human misery, people stumbling from their blighted homes covered in ash. One man didn’t recognize his own wife as she emerged from the flaming brush, she was so soot-covered and burned. I couldn’t read that whole story.

The highways were clogged with displaced families. The mall parking lots became refugee camps. The Antifa kids turned to humanitarian aid. The Proud Boys, not so much. And while I was sad for all the suffering people, and proud of the grassroots outpouring of charity, I’ll admit, my deepest sympathy was for the trees. The destruction of the trees was utterly demoralizing. By some measures, more trees burned on the West Coast in September than in all of the 20th century combined. This is beyond imagination.

There’s nothing I can tell you that you don’t already know about trees. But I’ll say this anyway. At this point the forests of the American West are man-made monuments as much as the Hagia Sophia or Notre Dame—a human-circumscribed architecture that we’re tasked with caring for, and passing down to our children’s grandchildren if we have the will. The trees here, as everywhere, transcend human generations. They are a thing that binds us, collectively, to the past and to the future. When the Cascades burned, ignited by our downed electrical lines, a fundamental covenant with life itself was broken.

During those days, sitting in a fog of poison gas, watching the ghosts of 200 million trees pressing to the windows (if you were lucky, and had windows), we could barely comprehend what was happening. The birds were gone. The bees were gone. We’d walk outside to find not even a breeze, just this still, hot, shadowless fog.

During those days, sitting in a fog of poison gas, watching the ghosts of 200 million trees pressing to the windows (if you were lucky, and had windows), we could barely comprehend what was happening. The birds were gone. The bees were gone. We’d walk outside to find not even a breeze, just this still, hot, shadowless fog. We’d walk back inside and check the air quality indices and look at the maps on the computer. Personally, I couldn’t even look at the fire maps down the whole chain of mountains, only the fires closest to the city. I watched the fire’s cordon touching Silver Falls, where a path leads visitors along a ring of seven waterfalls. We’d walked that path only days before, and now the fire was battering the park’s gate. On the screen, fires were bleeding into fires. I was watching every stupid apocalypse fantasy of my life proving true.

I’m not a person prone to apocalypse thinking. In fact, I bet my life on the apocalypse never happening. I’ve avoided learning how to do a goddamn thing. During the rise of the off-the-grid survivalist fantasies in the 90s, I never understood the appeal whatsoever. Over the years, I’ve watched the apocalypse literature grow and grow. The movies and books pile up, one after another, as authors and directors imagine mass death in every conceivable fashion. Arguably, the destruction of the earth is the single, greatest narrative trope of American popular culture in the last fifty years. I have plenty of friends who love the genre and friends who write the genre, and yet I’ve never been moved by it. The fantasies always strike me as more Christian end-times bullshit, a religious diatribe by another name. Or, even worse, a form of emotional withdrawal. What is most apocalyptic literature and cinema but elaborately stylized forms of the radical selfishness that defines our national mentality, a way of slipping the yoke of responsibility for other people in the here and now? Talk to my grandfather about the end of the world, I say. Talk to someone from Rwanda. Is the apocalypse coming? It already came. Confronted by visions of the eschaton, I’ve said in my mind, after Sun Ra: “We’re already living after the end of the world, don’t you know that yet?”

But during those days I walked out on the porch into air that was unbreathable and urinous yellow. The sun was gone. It was nuclear winter. The smoke was seeping into my pores and triggering some deep, animal anguish. I couldn’t smell the earth. Inside, the furnace fan was running to circulate the air but the filter was shot. The smoke was creeping into the house. My kids were in there on their computers, doing school. I’d walk back inside and sit and stare out the window again, watching the smoke, wondering: When will the rain come? They said the rain was coming. And where the fuck are my kids going to live?

On September 18th, the smoke blew away, and immediately, the memory shrank down into a hard, little ball, a yellow cocoon of trauma. What happened? I can barely even remember anymore. Life resumed and the future opened again, albeit in a grim, foreshortened form. Within days another fascist gathering was happening. I spotted an Antifa cell in full street-fighting regalia patrolling the street with shotguns and rifles. That’s where we’re at now. As anyone paying attention understands, our nation’s Troubles are just beginning. We’re entering a long period of Antifada, if you will. Meanwhile, down south, the trees are still burning.

The fires here are mostly out, but the jarring after-effect remains. For a week, we saw very clearly the end chapter in the story of our planet’s demise. We flashed forward to the final scenes of conflagration and death, or, more specifically, our collective expiration of breath. The motif is ubiquitous this year. An invisible virus invades our nation, seizing people’s lungs; protective masks become a symbolic battleground for insane shouting and spewing; George Floyd suffocates under the knee of Derik Chauvin; tear gas billows in the streets, baking into the pavement until you can smell it in the daytime; megafires erupt, sending massive chimneys of smoke over the Pacific; the president contracts Covid and starts breathing with his neck. The author of this novel is laying it on pretty thick, I’d say. Even writing this short essay feels like a contribution to the toxic storyline, yet another thin filament in the spreading plume. What can I say that hasn’t been said ad infinitum? How is this not just another article confirming everyone’s worst hatreds and fears, and even worse, stoking their rising panic? Reading this sentence isn’t going to do you any good. It’s only robbing you of your precious time and energy, stealing your breath.

That said, I’m glad you’ve come this far with me, all the way to the end. To those of you reading this deeply, following these lines all the way to the base of the column, I say, thank you. If you’re here, sharing these thoughts, I probably know you personally. Hi, Mom. Hi, Tony. And as we come to rest at the bottom of this pit, I feel like I should leave you with some kind of positivity, though I’ll admit, I’m struggling for what that might be. On the one hand, I want to encourage you to some kind of political action, but I don’t want to just give you yet another list of chores. You all know the drill: Vote. Plant trees. Call home. I’m tempted to go cosmic, but I don’t want to post a picture of a cloud or a sunset, either. The spiritual turn becomes fatalism, or surrender, or lobotomized cheerfulness so quickly. The universe is eternal, we all know, but that won’t help us right now.

In these final moments together, down here in this collapsed mine, I’ll just say what I’d say if we you were really here. It’s what we’ve all been telling each other all along: Stay strong, dear friend. Stay sane. I’d turn to you in the darkness and, whether I believed it or not, I’d say: Take heart. There’s air up there. There’s light. If we keep digging, we might still make it. Let’s keep working. We’ll never hurry. We’ll never rest. If we get out, we’ll need our strength, because up on the surface there is still so much to do.

Change the frequency.
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