“Well, thank you for a most pleasant arrest experience so far.” I said. The petite cop in riot gear smiled. We stood in a line of detainees, each with his own police escort on arm. My flex cuffs were mercifully loose. We chatted a little as we waited. She was holding me firmly by the inside of the arm above the elbow. Nothing at that moment could have distracted me from my gloom but this: I wondered if my arm felt as good as her hand. Male physical vanity never rests. “Be careful out there” I said as I got on the bus. More vanity. It was sometime after midnight, Sunday morning.
In Portland anti Trump protests began on election night and by Wednesday protesters were closing roadways and besieging city hall. Faced with massive demonstrations and guided by a progressive mayor/police commissioner, police adopted a light, even helping hand, closing a freeway on behalf of marching protesters not once but twice. This despite protesters turning away the first time police halted rush hour traffic for them ahead of their path. As a police response, it probably represents a first.
Marchers managed to ditch their chaperones and close a freeway down once more all on their own that first Wednesday, nicely capping off the hat trick. So far protests had been peaceful and evenhanded in their distribution of misery among thousands of commuters, and no delayed emergency vehicles were reported.
But by Thursday the initial shock had worn off, the radical element had shown up and the self-feeding hysteria was picking up steam; the mayor’s room to annoy strategy became untenable. From a demonstration reported in the thousands antifa youths in masks emerged, some armed with bats, vandalizing a nightlife district. Police dispersed them with tear gas and flashbang grenades, arresting twenty-five. The city claimed a million dollars in damages the next day.
But I missed all that. I had set out that night, having determined after Wednesday’s remarkable events to witness whatever happened next–and to stream it online. I checked to find one demonstration was set for somewhere in the northwest and another for the nearby riverfront park downtown. The weather was dry and warm for fall, with scattered picturesque clouds moving under a near-full moon. The demonstration at the park it was.
Crossing the bridge toward downtown I was startled by an antifa flitting across the street at an angle in the other direction, off to my ten o’clock as if to go around me. He negotiated train tracks that run down the center of the road with affected grace. His backpack was stretched and molded around the handle of what looked like a racquet but was probably a club; a type of kit common among them, I suspect, as I saw a few more. At the downtown waterfront park I found a candlelight vigil underway. I approached; a man addressed the small crowd:
“…Donald Trump was not elected. Donald Trump had the power and influence to put himself inside the White House…I hate to be the conspiracy theory guy, but when states that were blue four years ago all of a sudden magically turn red all over the map that is power and influence…I want you to know that your rights, your surgeries, your papers, everything you need as a trans person is not going to disappear. I will fight for that shit! I will die for that shit! I will go to jail for that shit! You will not be without what you need under my watch, under each other’s wach, we have each other, our allies have us, and I want us to take a moment to think of the people we need to be allies to. If you’re from this country you need to be allies to immigrants.
We need to be allies to children. Children do not have the capacity to articulate their feelings, they do not have power over their own beings to come to the rallies…they are not in control of their own destiny. They need to see you, transgender children need to see you, transgender children, even those who are not out yet, need to see you, they need to know that you are there and that you will fight for them and that they can talk to you.
Immigrant children, and children, I work with children, I work with children who are homeless in the city, I work with children who face food insecurity in the city, I work with children who come up to me every day and tell me they’re hungry, I work with children who do not have a bed to sleep in at night and it is the last goddamn thing that breaks my heart that the one thing in this world that keeps these children going, their parents, they now fear will go away. It’s heartbreaking.
Lastly, I want to say, take good care of yourselves. Can we take a minute? Can we breathe? Can we all just (inhales and exhales deeply). Look a the moon. It’s beautiful. Look at nature. Feel the air. Feel, what if feels to be okay. It is okay to take a moment to be okay. Remember that. Thank you.”
A young lesbian hesitated nervously.
“We believe in you!” Someone shouted over encouraging cheers.
“So. I cried. I cried a lot. You know I’ve been seeing a lot of quotes from my conservative friends on Facebook, about how we’re all a bunch of crybabies. You know what? I am a crybaby! I’m crying, because every time I hear that man’s voice, I hear someone saying,
‘what’s your cup size?’
‘damn you’re looking beautiful today honey’
‘you’d be a lot more beautiful if you smiled’ “
Sympathetic boos followed the last one immediately, as if a crescendo had been reached.
“Every time I see his face I see the face of the men who grabbed me–“
The group cheered as she choked up.
“And the fact that, you know, he doesn’t just remind me of those people, he is one of those people. It shakes me to my core, and makes me so scared, and threatened, and I feel like–“
She choked up a little longer; someone came forward with a tissue; scattered laughs and applause followed.
“…but, I woke up yesterday morning, after sleeping for three hours, because that’s what my mind would allow me to do and I thought of this poem, oh, you know, most of you might recognize it and even know it by heart, it’s very famous, it’s by the president of my soul, Dr. Maya Angelou, and, uh, every time I feel like this country thinks that I’m less than a person, every time I feel threatened or scared, as a woman, as an American, I think of this poem and it really helps me…”
She gave an impassioned reading of Still I Rise.
“…I also work with Catholic Charities, with their Refugee Resettlement Program; we have refugees coming in still, we have a lot, because we have to get them in before something happens, so we have a lot of work that needs to get done…we need as much help as we can get so if you’re into that please look into volunteering with Catholic Charities…”
A “bisexual Jewish woman from the South” followed him.
” want to share with you my experience today a work. I was sitting around a table, with my boss who is a Muslim Somalian refugee…alongside a queer white woman from Portland Maine…another Somalian…an immigrant from Nicaragua…all of us sat together today and cried, but also we wrote on a board what we can do, what we can do in this community to take action; and we need to align our white allies with communities of color, with the LGBT community, and I don’t see enough of that…”
Despite all that, in nearing her close she offered, and with genuine feeling, what used to be a standard trope, that she’s been all over the world and America is still the best country on earth. Crickets.
Less political types spoke as well; the more measured the sentiment the more difficult it was to express, for all the necessary hedging and stumbling to avoid offending the heightened sensitivities of the assembled; and always the speaker having to double back and denounce Trump, like a runner having to stay close to first base. A boy of about five clambered about in a rainbow tutu as they spoke. The eternally wise eight-year old made an appearance. I didn’t linger too long before going home.
At home about an hour later I learned rioting had been going on in the Pearl District. Heading back downtown I found a police line cordoning off a boulevard down which police were driving demonstrators. A crisp voice over a loudspeaker commanded people off the street, repeating what became the boilerplate of the campaign, ordering demonstrators off the street, warning of arrest, threatening “the use of riot control measures.”
The standard engagement of the week became police pushing demonstrators down a city block, lessening their numbers as the less committed bail out via cross streets, until the last few die-hards were boxed in by police lines all around and dealt with. Still, the papers had only reported a few arrests and I would only witness two myself over the week. The last I saw–or rather heard via police loudspeaker–Thursday night of the protesters they were being ordered out of a parking structure near the courthouse.
They returned downtown that Friday, taking over the oft-occupied city hall of this progressive city. The road-blocking strategy yielded its first injury, when a pair of toughs–law and order’s last defenders in this skewed order–stopped their car and order demonstrates to clear the roadway. After an impromptu debate on civil disobedience, they contented themselves by shooting someone in the leg before speeding away. They were caught two days later. The suspects are black, the alleged shooter just fifteen. The shooing victim’s name is Hispanic. The quick-reacting cops and paramedics were, probably, white. As a narrative vessel, this one was unworthy from stem to stern.
By the time I made it downtown Friday night things were in full swing already; protesters were occupying a hotel district on Broadway. Police were massed across an intersection of harrying, disorganized protesters; the loudspeaker repeated the drill. Autos weaved their way slowly through the mass of protesters and hangers-on; “Broadway is open to vehicular traffic” the loudspeaker explained at points, ordering everyone else to take to the sidewalk and move south. I joined the mass of protesters already engaged in the with riot police in the squaring off phase of the now standard cycle of standoff-chase-standoff.
I waited behind the front line of protesters facing police across an intersection. Occasionally a shrill taunt emerged from them. Someone from behind threw a plastic bottle of water toward the police; it landed without making it past our own front line and rolled slowly toward the cops. This was the only act of aggression toward police I witnessed. Eventually the loudspeaker went silent. The protesters went mostly silent, pensive. The cops, a mass barely distinguishable in the smoke-dirtied mist, were silent. I heard a rattling on the ground; a flashbang went off under my feet and we were off again, running a block south before stopping and turning back. The police kept coming. A lone protester held the line to the end, and the cops walked right through him. Again we were running. Again we stopped. I almost knocked over a girl.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” We said in unison, even reaching over to pat one another on the shoulder in nearly identical motions. The police didn’t pull up, but kept coming, firing another round of flashbangs and driving us farther down the street.
Farther up the street some were trying to create a barricade with the paltry few articles they could find: some plastic newspaper vending machines, traffic cones, some of those wooden sawhorse-style street construction signs. I passed on bailing out to the west for one more block.
Coming out of the mist of smoke upon a cross street I saw those ahead of me raising their hands before a wall of waiting cops. I turned around; the wall of cops that had been pushing us down the street were upon us now, their line melting as the street filled with police in riot gear. “You’re under arrest!” One barked, pointing at me. “Sit down.” I meekly sat on the pavement. I had been on the street about an hour.
Another hour on the street and a commandeered city bus showed up to collect us. A cop guided a small female toward me and watched as she approached nervously. I made as meek as I could as I turned around and offered my hands. She seemed relieved, and took her time ensuring the plastic handcuffs weren’t too tight.
Five of us were crammed into the back row of the bus. On my right a kid, biracial, with a woeful look under pleading eyebrows. He had been complaining of getting pepper sprayed since an hour before on the pavement. Now he had to piss too. He alternates between begging and taunting; occasionally he makes jokes, crude in subject matter and cruder in construct, all in the torturous plaintive, questioning tones of modern generic ghetto pidgin.
“Gotta piss yo. Hey yo, gotta piss.”
To my left was a veteran activist, older than the others (but still far younger than I, the oldest by far, it appeared, in the lot), bristle-bearded but clean-cut, with the earnest probing face of a Midwestern evangelical. He is helpfully calm. On the other someone I couldn’t make out, another biracial type, all menace coiled up in the corner. In a low voice that carries he begins taunting the cops immediately, with the worst insults. They’re pussies, they’re faggots.
A skinny kid with acne started in, emboldened perhaps, a classic post-adolescent high-pitched whine, to go with Pepper Spray’s mumbling middle register and Menace’s. Like Pepper Spray he appeared to be an apolitical type, like many I would see that night. Nobody had done anything wrong, and everybody was pleading their case to the indifferent cops stationed at the bus doors.
“How long do you think they’ll keep us?” Someone asked.
“It all depends on whether or not they want to fuck with us.” I affected an experienced air, but surmised as much was true.
The Veteran and I tried to calm them–I pretended to know what I was talking about–by assuring them we’d probably be quickly processed and released with a ticket.
The menacing guy in the corner started calling out cops individually, using their names if he could make them out. They returned only hard, sometimes uncomprehending–is he serious?–stares; he redoubled his efforts. He too had to piss now. He and the pepper spray victim traded bad jokes about having to piss. Acne whined in. I was sure a supple enough legal mind could easily construe this as “cruel and unusual punishment”.
“They’re all faggots.” Menace said. “Fucking pigs.”
An effeminate young man with a painful looking under-bite squirmed in his seat. My glasses had been sliding at a glacial pace down my nose, resting precariously at the tip. The pepper spray survivor joined in, egging him on and providing his own milder insults. Even Acne was emboldened. Cops shuffled on and off the bus continually, peering into the darkness at us before moving away.
“Oh look at them.” Menace said. “They wanna kick some ass now.”
A pair of cops got off the bus.
“They’re gonna go suck each other’s dicks.” He slurred.
“I don’t know about this homophobia” the effeminate boy said, looking away nervously.
Menace paused. Was he caught up?
“It’s not homophobia.” He hissed.
“It is. And I just can’t take–“
There was another pause.
Someone suggested we’re doomed. No, there’s hope, the Veteran offered. Two short years of prolonged demonstrations and resistance up to the midterms, yielding a Democratic sweep, would save us.
“Gotta piss yo.”
They led us inside in pairs to a row of chairs covered in plastic garbage bags. Menace, somehow he got in there ahead of me, despite having offended every cope he saw, was still growling about having to piss. They sat me next to a short stout guy with a pink Mohawk–he reminds me of Sam Hyde. He’s been in there all day, or he’s been in there twice in the same day, or something; whatever it is, the cops all seem to know him by name, and some stop by to engage in lame banter. He laughed good naturedly, explaining he had pissed someone or other off, thus here he was. His good cheer wore better than the cops’ passive aggressive comedy.
They brought in the pepper spray victim. He had been allowed to pee, but this only unleashed a new fury.
“Yo I think I got some of that shit on my balls yo.”
“I told you to be careful.” One of the cops said. “I warned you about transference. I told you not to touch your eyes.”
“Yo you didn’t tell me about my balls yo.”
“I would have thought you’d make the connection.” The cop said with satisfaction.
“Seriously yo. If you’ve got any milk.”–milk is an agent for relieving pepper spray–“You could just put that shit in a dish and I could, you know, like squat in it…”
“Sounds like a fetish to me.” I said. Mohawk erupted in laughter. A cop–round-faced, bald-domed and cheerful, who had been engaged in cheerful, if lame banter with Mohawk moments before, came over and directed me to the other end of the row of seats.
“Was it my material?”
Pairs of plainclothes cops sat at folding tables in an impromptu interrogation room. I was dealt two women who looked like very tired schoolteachers. We chatted amiably. They determined I wasn’t an out of town radical, or particularly political. They read me my rights. hey discern I’m from town and apolitical. I probably revealed too much, or would have revealed too much if there was anything to reveal, in my exhaustion.
They sent me along. I watched the guy ahead of me at the searching table, so when I went through the drill I might be spared the bluff, dismissive treatment of the young cop patting me down. It was no help. His boss, a female, is better. She seems to be staring at my midsection with perplexity. My vanity kicks in again. What is that look? But she looks like a lesbian. Is she a lesbian? Boy cop handed me my jacket and sent me off to be photographed.
A band was affixed to my wrist and we marched down the hall to a waiting area, where banks of chairs faced a television showing Back to the Future Part III. On another wall a screen showed our mugshots, each with its own status bar underneath, indicating those ready for release and those awaiting “housing”, or jail. We watched and waited.
This screen alternated with a public (prison) service announcement, satisfying an act of Congress regarding prison rape, and advising us of the resources available to us should we suffer from sexual abuse while in incarceration. An old con came on to tell his tale. He looks tough enough; indeed, he says he assumed he could defend himself, but he couldn’t…
Grim statistics drove the point home.
After some months he was able to get someone to listen, and to get help (shot from across a medical examination room, a blurred figure is being attended to by a nurse). It’s not easy, but you can do it. I imagine some scrawny kid awaiting “Housing” watching this. Lurid nightmare daydreams of getting drawn into the system due to some slight mistake–or mistaken slight of some figure of importance–come to mind. Vanity takes many forms, like Dracula.
From here we were drawn in twos and threes, as we had been through the process all night, and marched down the hall. I was relieved to see my status go yellow–no Kafka-esque nightmare so far. I relaxed a bit when they called me up. Down the hall we went, following the broad black line on the floor and around a corner. It was about seven o’clock in the morning.
“I almost wish you guys had let me out later.” The guy behind me said to one of the cops. “I was going to buy some champagne.” All relaxed confidence now.
“Oh, you’ve got a little more time.” The cop said, without, I would soon note, a hint of irony. They halted us in front of a cell door. No, I thought, no…
Into the holding tank we went, along with all our companions we had thought were being marched down the hall to freedom.
At ten o’clock they finally let me out into a dim overcast day that was nonetheless blinding to my eyes. My first weekend in Trump’s America.