The moms shuffled into position on Sunday night, arms linked, backs to the fence in front of Portland’s federal courthouse. The sky had darkened. Behind the fence, anonymous federal agents in fatigues leveled their weapons at the women’s backs. The human shield was in place, a barrier against the secret police. The “Wall of Moms.”
These weren’t looters or rioters or the “anarchists” President Donald Trump says hate our country. They weren’t the “violent extremists” that acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf has vowed to put down, nor the fabled “antifa” bogeymen who keep Tucker Carlson up at night. They were just moms, worrying ― as moms tend to do ― about kids being beaten and shot and black-bagged in unmarked vehicles. Ready to put their bodies on the line to defend the U.S. Constitution. About 100 of them. Some had never been to a protest before. Some were pregnant.
Outside the federal courthouse, which has become a flashpoint for conflict in the city, they were tear-gassed.
Scenes like this have played out repeatedly since Trump urged governors to “dominate” protesters speaking out against racism and police brutality after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis nearly two months ago. Anti-racist protests have persisted in many U.S. cities and remained largely peaceful, but the administration’s response has been anything but — and nowhere has state violence against civilians been worse than in Portland, a city Trump has promised to “quell.”
During the last two weeks, federal law enforcement agents in Portland have terrorized peaceful protesters by bundling them into unmarked vehicles without probable cause and pulling masks over their faces — a development experts say is a “a classic way that violence happens in authoritarian regimes” and that has deeply alarmed several members of Congress.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) called it “the activity of a police state.”
“This is what dictators do,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) tweeted.
On Saturday, federal agents in Portland attacked Christopher David, a 53-year-old Navy veteran with health problems, with batons. They broke his hand after David, upset about what he considered “Pinochet-type behavior from our own government,” showed up at a protest to tell the agents he felt they were violating their oath to the Constitution. The previous weekend, Trump’s forces almost killed 26-year-old Donavan LaBella by shooting him in the head with a “less-lethal” round that fractured his skull.
By unleashing his secret police in Portland — against mostly peaceful citizens — Trump has turned the progressive city into what local journalist Robert Evans calls a “bellwether to see what this administration can get away with.” And a clear throughline exists from what Trump is getting away with in Portland to Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., where last month Attorney General Bill Barr authorized the use of force against peaceful protesters so a president who reportedly kept a collection of Hitler speeches by his bed could hold a Bible upside down for a fascist photo-op.
“This is what dictators do.”
Trump stationed unidentified gunmen in Washington. The same is true in Portland, where Trump’s troops come mainly from within the Department of Homeland Security, wear no identification, have no clear chain of command and appear to operate outside the law.
“It’s as close up to the line as you can get to actual war without live rounds,” Evans told The New York Times about what’s happening in Portland. “It’s really hard for me to see how things go much further without people dying.”
Many of the federal agents in Portland are attached to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which has the authority to operate within 100 miles of any “external boundary” ― an area where 2 out of 3 Americans live. The quasi-military agency has a history of racism, criminality and violence and is shot through with far-right extremism. With CBP agents operating anonymously in American cities, far-right groups could easily disguise themselves as federal agents to sow further chaos and target protesters with violence, according to Castro.
“It becomes more likely the more that this tactic is used,” he told The New York Times. “I think it’s unconstitutional and dangerous and heading towards fascism.”
He is not alone.
“This is a serious escalation that the entire nation should be paying attention to right now,” said Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, a Portland-based civil rights organization that monitors extremists and works to strengthen democracy. “The Trump administration with this action has moved from an authoritarian-leaning administration to a fully fledged authoritarian government.”
“If we don’t stop this here, your community is next,” he added. “I guarantee that.”
The specter of federal jackboots has often animated right-wing fears under Democratic presidents. The standoff at Waco and the bombing in Oklahoma City were products of those concerns under President Bill Clinton, as were radicalizing incidents for white nationalists and the so-called patriot movement. Glenn Beck’s FEMA concentration camp fever dreams, the armed standoff at the Bundy ranch, and the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge happened in response to Barack Obama’s presidency. But while the right-wing press tends to make martyrs out of Cliven Bundy characters, casting them as rugged iconoclasts and victims of federal overreach who are fighting for state and local rights, they have extended no such empathy to anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters in local communities around the country.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson has called the protesters “thugs,” “vampires” and “domestic terrorists,” and has described the Black Lives Matter movement as a “challenge to Western civilization itself.” On Monday, his Fox News colleague Sean Hannity defended the practice of federal agents abducting protesters in unmarked vehicles. And Jesse Watters, yet another Fox News host and Trump loyalist, said on Monday that when “you come in and take some [protesters] away in a van. … That’s how good policing is done.”
Far-right militias shut down the Oregon statehouse in June 2019, and Republicans didn’t blink. (These militias were also involved in the standoff at Malheur.) Now Trump has put actual jackboots in the streets of an American city, and many Republicans seem thrilled at this erosion of freedom.
Which raises the question: Does the party of “law and order” really only care about order, even when it’s the kind imposed under a heel?
The encouragement of state violence from the political right has also laid the groundwork for further escalation from the Trump administration ― and Chicago is next. Around 150 federal agents are set to be deployed there this week and, possibly, to other Democratic-run cities such as New York soon thereafter, according to media reports and a White House news conference on Monday, during which Trump railed about the “radical left” and likened Chicago to Afghanistan. (Trump has previously promoted fake crime statistics about Chicago that are often circulated by white nationalists.)
As Trump and his proxies bang the war drums against regular Americans and trample on states’ rights during one of the largest civil rights mobilizations in history, the country finds itself in a full-blown constitutional crisis that at least some in Congress are trying to stop.
“Our nation is at a crossroads, and as Americans across the country exercise their First Amendment rights, the Trump Administration has repeatedly deployed federal law enforcement officials to try to silence them,” Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Monday in a statement after Trump’s forces continued to use violent tactics against protesters in Portland over the weekend.
“The Trump Administration continues to weaponize federal law enforcement for its own agenda,” they said. “Like we saw in Lafayette Park, rather than supporting and protecting the American people, we are witnessing the oppression of peaceful protesters by our own government.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) plans to introduce a bill this week that would require federal law enforcement officials to clearly identify themselves, according to The Nation.
But Republicans in Congress are doing worse than nothing ― they are cheering on the state violence. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) argued in June for using military force against Americans exercising their constitutional rights. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has demonized protesters as “antifa terrorists” and elevated Andy Ngo, a far-right propagandist in Portland who collaborates with fascists and endangered journalists and activists, to a de facto congressional tribune.
All this ― back through Trump’s endorsement of white nationalists after their violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia ― has led to what’s happening in Portland.
“Donald Trump picked the worst city in America to target,” Ward told HuffPost, explaining that many thousands of people who haven’t even been protesting ― “the folks who go bowling and fishing and work in our gardens and barbecue” ― are now outraged.
“And if we let him get away with this, it’s probably the biggest misstep that could happen in modern American democracy,” he said. “We all have to stand up, whether we are Oregonians or reside in other states in this country.”
This weekend, the moms stood up.
On Saturday, they took to the streets for the first time after finding each other on Facebook the previous night. Bev Barnum, a 35-year-old mother of two, told BuzzFeed she organized the event after watching a video of unidentified federal agents manhandle a protester into an unmarked van.
“Feds stay clear! Moms are here!” the moms chanted when they got to the courthouse. “Leave our kids alone!”
Trump’s secret police lit them up with tear gas and flash bangs.
On Sunday, the moms returned. There were more of them, defiant, some toting baby wipes to counter the chemical irritants.
“This is what democracy looks like,” they chanted.
The secret police gassed them again.
On Monday, Barnum’s “Wall of Moms” Facebook page erupted with talk about organizing moms in other cities. And in Portland, the moms came back again, marching on the courthouse in one of the biggest crowds of protesters the city has seen yet. They came with dads. They sang a lullaby.
“Hands up, please don’t shoot me,” they sang.
Trump’s secret police shot flash bangs at them and gassed them again. This time, however, the unidentified federal agents, after charging out of the courthouse to treat American citizens like hostiles in a combat zone, beat a retreat back inside.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misstated that the Ruby Ridge siege happened under Bill Clinton. George H.W. Bush was president at the time.