She seemed to say: “I dare you.”

Entirely naked, she was entirely new. Portland has seen more than 50 days of unrest, filled with peaceful protest sometimes and dumpsters up in flames other times — with local police loosing tear gas on curfew-breakers, and with the federal government’s little green men driving vehicles as unmarked as their uniforms, snatching civilians off the street. Until the wee hours of Monday morning, however, Portland hadn’t seen a barefoot, bare-chested, bare-all-the-rest-of-it (except for her stocking cap and mask) woman.

Legs splayed across the pavement opposite an exquisitely equipped line of officers, she was everything they were not: natural where the camouflage-clad cops were unnatural, vulnerable where they were armored. Perhaps at a loss for how to contend with an unclothed female body, they shot rubber balls at her feet — and then, dumbstruck or defeated, retreated. No one seems to know her name yet; the Los Angeles Times described her as an “apparition” emerging out of a hazy night. You might have thought the story-spinners would have called her some sort of nymph. Instead, they named her Athena, goddess of war.

Naked Athena bursts into the national consciousness as one of those symbols that provides convenient moral clarity at a time when, otherwise, things might be hazy. She’s the sleeker version of this week’s Wall of Moms. These mothers made a human-link fence around protesters to shelter them from harm by supposed peacekeepers — and they were pepper-sprayed just like the rest.

“Calling all moms,” their organizing Facebook page reads. “Let’s do what we do best — protect people.” Certainly it’s tougher to justify your own violence by claiming you’re trying to prevent violence when your victims have explicitly cast themselves as society’s nurturers.

Athena, of course, wasn’t especially motherly, and she didn’t even have a mother herself. She’s supposed to have sprung from her father, Zeus’s, head fully grown and fully outfitted in the garments of a fighter. Which is why the mythology the activists have revived packs a punch. They’ve bestowed the mantle of a famous warrior on an anonymous figure who never took up any weapons at all — who eschewed not only the trappings of the battle but any trappings at all.

We’ve seen symbols like this before. Occasionally they’ve stepped into starring roles, as Rosa Parks did when she refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., public bus. You could cynically cast a man defending his rights as aggressive, and convince a racist nation, but it was a harder sell with a bespectacled middle-aged woman. Occasionally our symbols have never sought attention, and earned it only after terrible suffering, as a 9-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc did when she ran screaming down a South Vietnam road as napalm burned her back. No longer was it possible to see the United States on the side of the angels.

The Naked Athena, bending into ballet poses as her armed adversaries stand stiff-limbed yards away, gives the rest of us a prism through which to understand what’s happening in Portland. Badge-less authorities and warrantless arrests are indefensible, though some may try to defend them. But even people sympathetic to protesters’ goals have shrugged at the riot gear, and shrugged at the gas, because somehow order has to be maintained. Because these people’s job is to protect not only the populace but also property, and the windows of a federal building are reduced now to shards.

Admittedly, there’s ample gray in this world, and there’s ample gray in today’s uprisings. It’s understandable that people whose ancestors were treated as property would target property now — challenging their fellow Americans to defend bricks-and-mortar more vigorously than they defend darker-skinned citizens’ lives. And it’s understandable, at the same time, that police would attempt to prevent looting.

Yet when some things are gray, the gray threatens to swallow up even what should be black-and-white. This is where symbols can help us. They throw reality into relief, and let everyone see what ought to be obvious. That tossing a brick isn’t the same thing as tossing a half-eaten apple; that violence from some isn’t a reason to assume violence from all; that city streets aren’t combat zones to start with but become combat zones when those with the biggest guns treat them that way.

These forces the president has dispatched to defend a city that hasn’t asked for defending, dressed up to take down an enemy army that barely exists, are doing exactly what the utterly exposed woman was doing right back at them: putting on a show.

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