The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The echoes of Hong Kong in Portland

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The protesters are defiant. They equip themselves with makeshift protective gear, donning bicycle helmets, gas masks and goggles while wielding umbrellas as shields. Some have repurposed household tools like leafblowers to help against tear gas and other projectiles fired into the crowds. Others assemble ramshackle barricades and shine laser pointers to disrupt the scopes of the heavily armed security forces. Authorities brand them vandals and “rioters.” But the crackdowns that ensued only galvanized further dissent.

That’s how the script read for months of unrest that gripped Hong Kong last year. But it has also been on view in recent weeks in the West Coast city of Portland, Ore., the site of an intensifying showdown between demonstrators and the Trump administration. Over the weekend, Black Lives Matter protesters marched in cities across the country, from Los Angeles to Omaha to Seattle. In some instances, they clashed with police and federal security forces, leading to arrests.

Portland, though, has become ground zero of a new phase in the United States’ summer of discontent. The city, as my colleagues noted, has “a long tradition of protest as a subculture of anarchism.” Petty street skirmishes there between far-right and anti-fascist groups have inflamed American social media in recent years. Their reelection prospects narrowing, President Trump and his Republican allies have seized upon the disturbances in the Pacific Northwest as a parable for what the American left supposedly has in store for the rest of the country. As a result, Portland has become the first battleground in an apparent nationwide surge of federal agents deployed to big cities with the White House’s prodding — and without local approval.

Senior administration officials “said the White House had long wanted to amplify strife in cities, encouraging [Department of Homeland Security] officials to talk about arrests of violent criminals in sanctuary cities and repeatedly urging [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to disclose more details of raids than some in the agency were comfortable doing,” my colleagues reported. “‘It was about getting viral online content,’ one of the officials said.”

Here, too, there are echoes of what transpired in Hong Kong. The autocratic regime in Beijing has moved to radically curtail Hong Kong’s special freedoms, justifying its implementation of a new national security law on grounds that it will pacify a troubled city. “We just want to put our house in order,” Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank, told the Financial Times. “Some countries may not see the benefits of this for the time being but they will see sooner or later a more prosperous Hong Kong and more stable China, which is of benefit to the whole world.”

Analysts also argue that Chinese President Xi Jinping may be keen to stir hard-line sentiment among ordinary Chinese by cracking down on the troublesome former British colony. “Taking strong action on Hong Kong stoked mainland Chinese nationalism at a time of declining economic growth and rising domestic frustrations over public health and safety,” observed Ryan Hass of Brookings.

But, as in Hong Kong, the heavy-handedness of security forces in U.S. cities has hardly calmed dissent. The sight of federal agents, some in unmarked uniforms, detaining protesters in Portland only led to greater howls of protest and a daily showdown outside a major federal courthouse. “The scenes of militarized federal forces on the city’s streets have stunned many Americans and unnerved former Homeland Security officials, but they have not quieted the protests,” my colleagues reported. “In many ways, the agents and the barricades they have erected have re-energized the demonstrators and have converted the courthouse into a proxy for the Trump administration itself.”

Yellow-clad “moms” took to the front lines. The mayor of Portland joined the throngs and got tear-gassed as a result. “This is a democracy, not a dictatorship,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) said in a statement. “We cannot have secret police abducting people in unmarked vehicles. I can’t believe I have to say that to the President of the United States.”

Of course, the echoes can grow fainter. Protesters in the United States aren’t arrayed against a single-party dictatorship bent on snuffing out their waning political autonomy. At the same time, some Republican politicians who have cast demonstrations in the United States as the work of troublemakers or rioters, using language jarringly similar to that of Beijing and its proxies, have made themselves champions of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

But as Trump raises the stakes in the nation’s cities, critics warn of the dangerous precedents he is setting. “We are watching the perfect and perhaps inevitable combination of a domestic-security superagency and a President who rejects all mechanisms of accountability, including the Senate confirmation process,” wrote the New Yorker’s Masha Gessen.

“For decades, conservative activists and leaders have warned that ‘jackbooted thugs’ from the federal government were going to come to take away Americans’ civil rights with no due process and no recourse,” observed the Atlantic’s David A. Graham. “Now they’re here — but they’re deployed by a staunchly right-wing president with strong conservative support.”

In Portland, some black activists fear the city’s overwhelmingly white protest movement is shifting the focus from their historic grievances in Oregon. “We cannot let teargas and rubber bullets define the moment that we’re in now,” E.D. Mondainé, president of the Portland branch of the NAACP, told the Guardian. “We must seize the moment and assure the world that this time racism will no longer live.”

The protests, meanwhile, don’t look like they’re about to fade. “We’re buying motorcycle armor so we can go out there,” Mac Smiff, a 39-year-old artist, told my colleagues last week. “This is not Fallujah, this is Portland, Oregon, and it’s like war games out here.”

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