Portland Riot, Part 1: On Revolution

They arrive in camouflage Kevlar vests from the surplus store. In Proud Boy polos. In tank tops, jeans, skirts. They come in motorcycle helmets, red MAGA caps, flag bandanas. They wave American flags, Thin Blue Line flags, Don’t-Tread-On-Me flags. They don’t wave confederate flags anymore — not here, not in Portland, not in 2018. But they come with the thickest flagpoles Portland’s finest will allow them to carry.

Standing opposite, across the police barricades, they come in black. They come with hammer-and-sickle patches, pride flag patches. They come in hoodies and bandanas covering their faces, skinny jeans and combat boots. They come with marching band instruments to drown the opposition out. They come with pockets full of fireworks and eggs, with sticks hidden in the bushes. They come with Nazis Go Home signs, Make Racists Afraid Again signs, on the thickest posts the police allow.

Both sides come with cameras. Medics come with backpacks full of milk, or milk of magnesia, for washing pepper spray out of burning eyes and mouths. They come with bandages and basic first aid. They have red duct tape crosses on their bodies so that everyone knows to grab them when the shit hits the fan.

Which it will. Why else did everyone come out today?

June 30, 2018. Bryan Colomo/via REUTERS

These two groups assemble with some regularity in Portland, Oregon, and have done so ever since Joey Gibson of Patriot Prayer began organizing conservative rallies and marches in Portland. They give speeches. They pray. They shout.

Groups like Rose City Antifa show up to oppose the presence of fascism in Portland by any means necessary. They chant. They play loud instruments or shout over megaphones while Patriot Prayer and their allies speak.

The two sides cross police lines, charging at each other, knowing the police will haul them back. Later, they march — separated by a road, or the police, or their own inhibitions. To a greater or lesser extent, they fight.

These events are small and relatively self-contained. One can easily live in Portland and be scarcely aware of them — periodic disturbances that sometimes divert traffic, easy to avoid. Patriot Prayer almost never attracts more than a couple hundred people, and usually attracts far fewer than that. The Antifa presence rarely exceeds three or four hundred.

Do Protests Matter?

One might fairly ask whether, given the vanishingly small percentage of America engaging in these types of protests/rallies/riots, any of this matters.

For every person who attends, thousands of people watch videos of these events online. “Battle of Portland — Antifa vs. Proud Boys” by Very Fake News has over 250k views on YouTube. Oregon Cop Watcher’s video has over 280k. Some protest videos have well over a million views. Most, if not all, of the most popular fight videos are shot from a conservative perspective that glorifies right-wing brawlers and demonizes the left-wing Antifa. These events also garner limited local and national news coverage that usually portrays the right as a violent menace.

For every person who watches these videos or reads these news stories, thousands more hear some version of truth about these two clashing groups in passing. They worry about violent communists beating Christians with sticks, or about Nazis attacking citizens on the streets of Portland. They know one side is degenerate and dangerous, and they suspect something ought to be done. As of 2014, 27% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans believed that the other party’s policies “threaten the nation’s well-being.”

I’ve been attending Portland rallies, on and off, for the past year. The rhetoric is changing. The brawls are becoming more violent and less contained. The potential for serious violence is increasing.

Last year, at Charlottesville, a self-described neo-nazi murdered a left-wing protester and injured 35 others. You may remember Trump’s astonishing comments on the matter.

Imagine, for a moment, what Trump might have said — or done — if the dead and injured had been on the opposite side.

History pivots around such moments. Mass movements do not always determine history. Sometimes, the actions of just a few people act as catalysts and transform the world.

Historical Catalysts

On February 27th, 1933, someone — or a group of someones — set fire to the Reichstag building in Berlin.

Hitler’s Belated Christmas Present. Source.

Historians aren’t sure whether the person/people who set fire to the Reichstag were communists, as the Nazis claimed, or whether the whole thing was a false flag operation designed to give Hitler the excuse he needed. We’ll probably never be sure. Regardless, the event was a godsend to the Nazis. Within 24 hours, Hitler persuaded President Hindenburg to invoke Article 48, an emergency measure that gave Chancellor Hitler dictatorial powers. He never gave them back.

History is full of events like this, in which an action perpetrated by just a few people provided pretext for catastrophic change. In our own recent history, President Bush used 9/11 as a pretext for the privacy-destroying PATRIOT act, not to mention the Iraq war. Almost a hundred years earlier, six Serbian extremists assassinated archduke Franz Ferdinand and set off World War I.

In all three cases, the political climate was ripe for the events that came afterwards. Yet Nazi totalitarianism, the PATRIOT act, and World War I occurred only after an event involving the actions of just a few individuals.

My public high school taught me that individual decisions don’t actually matter. History is inevitable. If Hitler had never been born, they told me, someone else would have risen to power and done the same things. The Holocaust was always going to happen. Without Lincoln, the civil war would have gone the same way it went with him. Had he lived, the Reconstruction would have failed in the same way it did under Johnson. And so on.*

There’s a certain comfort in helplessness and inevitability. It seems insane that the choices of a few could doom, or save, so many. It’s terrifying to think that the story of the world can pivot around just a few radicals — or our own deeply flawed and uncertain actions. Yet individual choices clearly matter. We see this on a smaller scale in our personal lives. Most people know someone whose decision to drink and drive ruined at least one life, possibly in the most final way possible. Most of us have experienced the way an unpleasant individual can poison an entire group, or the way an act of kindness can give us hope and transform our day. Individual decisions matter a great deal. One decision can change the entire course of a life. Sometimes — rarely — it changes the world.

Individual decisions aren’t the only things that determine history, of course. Certain types of political atmospheres makes it more or less likely that individuals will make certain political decisions. People are more exposed to popular ideas than unpopular ones, making them more likely to adapt the former than the latter. Previous decisions constrain choice today. Dumb luck plays an uncomfortably large role.

Yet none of this eliminates the role of individual choice. Crucially, choice remains the only factor we can influence in the short-term. We have what we are given. What we do with it is up to us.

Our decisions become most important when the other forces are strongest and the stakes are therefore highest. When the past returns to haunt us and dangerous ideas become popular. When isolation and loneliness spread like a disease across a culture, when the current seems to inexorably move towards disaster. When we are balanced at the edge of a cliff. A single decision can push us over that edge — or buy us all more time to pull back from it.

The world existed on such an edge throughout the Cold War. The United States and the USSR lurched from crisis to crisis, proxy war to proxy war. Nuclear holocaust seemed inevitable. One day, everyone knew, something would happen. Some mistake that would doom us all.

On September 26th, 1983, the mistake happened. A Soviet nuclear early-warning system reported that the United States had fired up to six missiles at the USSR. Stanislav Petrov — one man — believed this to be a false alarm. He disobeyed Soviet military protocol and refused to launch a retaliatory attack.

Petrov was right — the system had malfunctioned — but his decision was anything but inevitable. With his refusal to follow protocol, Stanislav Petrov single-handedly bought the world time to de-escalate. Six years later, the USSR collapsed and the world moved back from the precipice of nuclear war. Conditions changed because a single decision bought the time for them to change.

A gas leak makes fire possible. Yet it takes a spark to set the world ablaze.

As rhetoric ramps up, as protests become more violent, the potential for such a spark in America increases.

Time for Revolution?

I have friends of varying political beliefs who welcome the idea of revolution. They see deep, systemic flaws in our economic, social, and political establishments. Only fire, they say, can burn this monster down. Only fire will leave us with a clean slate to start again.

Historically, we have seen revolution effect positive change. America was born in fire. Though my nation was imperfect from birth in ways that have returned to haunt us again and again, I emphatically believe that the American experiment was a step forward in the history of humankind. Much of the world, especially Asia and Europe, was saved by fire in World War II. The slaves of Haiti destroyed their masters and became the first and only slave uprising to result in a free society ruled by people of color and former slaves. The Civil War cleansed America of that same slaver’s evil, though that fire burned imperfectly and left us with the baggage we wrestle with today.

Things don’t always work out this well — in fact, they almost never do. Successful revolutions are the exception, not the rule. The French Revolution did not bring egalitarianism, but the Guillotine. The Russian revolution did not bring utopian communism, but the gulag. The Chinese cultural revolution killed millions. The Khmer Rouge delivered pyramids of skulls. Syria still burns today.

Revolutions that fail to get off the ground produce their own problems. If the Reichstag Fire was not a Nazi plot, those who fanned the flames likely hoped for a revolution of their own and not the totalitarian nightmare of the next 12 years. The 2016 Turkish coup attempt not only failed to effect regime change, but strengthened Erdogan’s position and paved the way for Turkish fascism. Failed revolutions can lead to and/or allow existing regimes to consolidate power.

History is littered with such stories: misguided but sincere attempts at positive change leading instead to tyranny or chaos. The tiny percentage of revolutions that are successful sometimes create positive change. More often, they make things dramatically worse than they were before.

Loading the Dice

I don’t know all the steps that go into a successful revolution, but I’m pretty sure of two of them:

  1. A successful revolution must thoroughly displace the current government.
  2. After displacement, revolutionaries must establish a government that is able to provide stability and hold onto power.

Displacing the Government

Sometimes, as with the Nazis, displacement of current government occurs from the inside. In a democracy, this involves winning friends and influencing people. It involves a carefully-crafted message that unites rather than divides. Election interference can help, but only if the narrative of victory makes some sense — if Vermin Supreme wins in 2020, most of America will have questions. After achieving power within the government, revolutionaries slowly dismantle existing structures that prevent whatever revolutionary changes the group desires.**

Most people I know who long for revolution aren’t talking about a carefully-planned governmental takeover, however. They actively dismiss the system as broken beyond repair. This implies military displacement: a civil war.

Practically speaking, any group opposing a first-world military will need to use guerrilla tactics. Guerrilla warfare requires the support of large portions of the population, extreme physical and mental toughness, patience, resourcefulness, and specialized knowledge. In Afghanistan, insurgents have spent seventeen years doing things like scrounging scores of dead batteries from military trash piles, wiring them together to get one charge, connecting said charge to explosives manufactured from fertilizer, wiring the whole thing to a pressure plate system also constructed from trash, and burying the device in the middle of a road in the dead of night. The IED I just described cost almost no money, but think for a moment about all the things one needs to know to be able to pull that off. Guerrilla warfare is not easy, and it tends to come with very high civilian casualty rates.

As previously mentioned, failed revolutions — whether attempted from inside or outside of the system — strengthen the revolution’s enemy. Prolonged military revolutions — successful or otherwise — cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Failed internal revolutions weaken safeguards against tyranny from the opposition, should they come to power.

Would-be revolutionaries ought to be damn sure they can succeed before risking so much.

Establishing Rule

Successful revolution doesn’t end with a peace treaty or the elimination of systemic barriers. All this does is create a power vacuum. Revolutionaries must be ready to step in and fill the hole they have created.

The revolution must establish a strong government capable of, at minimum, ensuring stability and maintaining power. This means codified rules of some sort. This means a system for conflict resolution and military force to resist further revolution. Things don’t have to come together immediately — just look at America between 1777 and 1781. But they do need to come together quickly, before a would-be despot steps into that power vacuum and establishes a very different kind of order than the one the revolutionaries fought and died for.

I used to think that power was a thing you could be handed, like a piece of rank or a job title. Sixteen miserable months as a terrible non-commissioned officer in the United States Army, followed by a year as a decent one, taught me differently.

No one can give you power. Power is an intangible and difficult thing. At the most elementary level, power requires buy-in from others, which means persuasion and finesse. Even those who wish to rule by the barrel of a gun must convince others to wield those guns. Those who wish to rule in a more ethical manner have an even harder road ahead. Here’s a good video that describes some of the most basic problems of establishing and maintaining power.

Because of the difficulties of power, expertise is critical. A successful revolution requires people who know how to effectively wield power to construct a new society. One needs people with administrative experience. Bureaucrats who understand what structures best maintain order and facilitate justice. Lawyers who understand the nature of legal structure. Political thinkers to help draft laws that achieve their intended purpose. And so on.

This is a very different kind of group than the sort of group required to achieve military victory or system subversion. The revolutionary fighters and revolutionary thinkers must see more or less eye-to-eye, lest a second revolution begin.

This is a tall order. It’s why most revolutions fail.

Are You Ready?

Anyone who thinks they are ready to roll the revolutionary dice soon — anyone who looks out at America’s increasing unrest and thinks “good, it’s about time, change is finally coming” — should ask themselves the following questions:

  • Do I have a clear and specific view for the society I’d like to see in place of the one we have now?
  • Am I part of a large group that shares most, if not all, of that vision?
  • Does my group have a solid plan for implementing that vision?
  • Does my group have individuals with experience in government, administration, bureaucracy, and so on?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, the time is wrong for your revolution. You will lose and some enemy will win. The time is right to win friends, influence people, and plan.

I look out at America and I don’t see anyone ready for that kind of revolution. I see elements moving rapidly towards readiness. Elements that frighten me. The sort who’d prefer it if my sort stopped breathing.

I don’t see readiness from anyone I could possibly support. Not now and not soon.

With all this in mind, let’s talk about about Portland, Oregon, on June 30th of 2018.

Part 2: Fear

* I try to avoid conspiracy theories, but it’s hard not to observe the way the idea of individual irrelevance breeds the sort of helpless complacency that leads to a docile, if hopeless, population. Back to article

**Whether this paragraph describes something currently happening in America is left as an exercise for the reader. Back to article