Ted Wheeler, the Democratic Mayor of Portland, received a huge amount of press this past week after he was tear gassed by federal agents on the streets of Portland. This came in the midst of a revival of the Black Lives Matter protests in the city, protests which have become increasingly dynamic in recent weeks as protesters face-off against federal agents dispatched by Trump to Portland. The feds have been brutally repressive towards protesters, kidnapping them off the street, tear gassing a “Wall of Moms,” and arresting them on federal charges. Wheeler’s experience with tear gas is just another example of how the feds are repressing indiscriminately and doing whatever is needed to put down the protests.
However, Wheeler is not just another victim of police repression. Indeed, despite his performative “listening sessions,” Wheeler, like every other Democratic mayor of a major city, is no friend to protesters. Wheeler was in the streets that night to oppose the presence of federal agents in Portland, but only weeks before he was sending police forces to fire tear gas and arrest Black Lives Matter protesters en masse. Though he may have made the occasional proclamation banning this or that police tactic, many of those bans were lifted within weeks. Moreover, as Mayor, Wheeler has overseen a police department that disproportionately arrests Black people and has shown himself completely opposed to the aims of the movement he so publically joined in the streets. A perfect example of his total unwillingness to actually address the issue of policing came, in a moment that is reminiscent of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, when Wheeler was asked during a listening session if he supported abolishing the PPB and was booed by the crowd when he responded in the negative.
What Wheeler is doing is placing his physical body on the streets in “defense” of protesters while the political body that he heads is in ideological lock-step with Trump and his gang of federal agents in their attempts to quell the protests. The contradiction here is representative of the larger contradictions within the Democratic Party about how to respond to the anti-racist and anti-state violence movement. In their attempts to co-opt the movement for their own electoral gains, Democrats are seizing upon Trump’s escalation of force to rehabilitate their image.
One Hand Washes the Other
The current uptick in repression that is being spearheaded by Trump and his Federal officers is a dangerous escalation and also a political ploy that is being exploited by both the Democrats and the Republicans. As Trump’s position weakens both in terms of poll numbers and support from other members of Republican Party, he is attempting to use the uprisings as a means to appeal to his base. By deploying these federal officers to cities around the country, he is trying to fall back on the “law and order” rhetoric that has proven successful for him in the past. A key narrative for his re-election campaign is that Democratic governors and mayors have sat by while these violent anarchist ne’er-do-wells destroyed cities. Only Trump and his goons can restore peace and harmony. This narrative is very helpful for Trump because it will rally up his social base while also playing directly to the white middle class voters who put him over the top in 2016 — the same voters that he is in danger of losing to Biden and his more palatable defense of the capitalist state.
However, in the context of a movement that continues to enjoy widespread support from the public, this narrative is also helpful for the Democrats, who have so far struggled to find a sure way to co-opt the movement in the streets. Democratic mayors like Lori Lightfoot in Chicago and Bill de Blasio in NYC have received fierce criticism from activists for the way that they unleashed brutal repression on protesters. These criticisms are only augmented by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s horrific record on race and complete inability to engage with the movement in a positive way or show himself as a force against Trump’s ineffectual response to the coronavirus pandemic. The current moment is also happening when, after Bernie Sanders’s defeat, the hashtag #DemExit trended on Twitter, implying that people should leave the Democratic Party because it will never be a progressive entity. The current moment has threatened to further delegitimize the Democratic Party, pulling back the curtain to reveal them as the bad faith actors that they are when they spew progressive rhetoric while ordering the National Guard onto the streets to shoot and beat protesters.
Trump’s escalation provides Democratic mayors a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Now, they don’t have to be the ones to put down protests and they can speak out against the repression, without having to address the fact that they were doing the exact same thing just a few weeks ago. They can more easily paint themselves as the progressive lesser evil to Trump’s violent authoritarianism. Wheeler is the perfect example of this in practice. In addition to being the mayor, Wheeler also serves as the Police Commissioner of Portland. That means that all of the terrible repression that the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) have unleashed before and during the current uprisings were directly overseen by Wheeler. Indeed, late Saturday night the PPB declared a protest a riot and used CS gas to disperse them, only days after Wheeler was in the headlines for being hit with tear gas.
Wheeler is not unique in trying to have it both ways. In Chicago, Lori Lightfoot strongly denounced Trump’s intention to send Feds to Chicago, saying: “We can’t just allow anyone to come into Chicago, play police in our streets and neighborhoods when they don’t know the first thing about our city. That’s a recipe for disaster… what you’re seeing playing out in Portland on a nightly basis, we don’t need that here. That’s not a value add, it doesn’t help enhance our public safety.”
This statement is a slap in the face to Chicago protesters who have, for weeks, been the victims of violence at the hands of the Chicago Police. Videos show police punching a teenage activist in the face, assaulting a reporter who was holding up his press badge, and using tear gas on protests since the beginning of the movement. Given all this, it is hypocritical to the highest degree for Lightfoot to now be painting herself as someone defending “public safety.” Indeed, in the same interview on Sunday she acknowledged that she was allowing federal agents to come in, as long as they coordinated with local officials, saying:
Let me be clear, this is not about working with the Trump administration. For decades now in major cities across the country, FBI, DEA, AFT, those agents have been in our districts and do work and work in concert with local law enforcement to help support a number of efforts, not the least of which is violence in our cities… unlike what we saw in Portland where the administration parachuted in these additional federal agents without consulting anybody locally and ignoring the local U.S. attorney, very different circumstance here in Chicago.
This quote is indicative of exactly what Lightfoot, Wheeler, and other Democrats — like Nancy Pelosi — are trying to do: shift all of the blame to Trump without taking responsibility for their own part in the repression of protesters. Democrats and Republicans are united in their desire to get protesters out of the streets. Both parties are dedicated to the preservation of the capitalist state and that means defending the police force. While the Democrats may talk, especially in election years, about the need for “accountability,” “reform,” and — in recent weeks — “defunding” the police, they will never actually do anything that meaningfully challenges the power of this enforcer of the capitalist status quo. This is the double-bind that Democrats consistently find themselves in: they have to seem like the friend of the oppressed at the same time that they facilitate that same oppression. Donald Trump’s escalation of force against protesters from the Feds allows Democrats a way out of that contradiction.
From Anti-Racism to Anti-Trumpism
The co-option strategies that Democratic politicians are currently employing not only re-position themselves from enemies to allies but also shifts the entire focus of the movement. The movement sprung up following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officers and was explicitly against racist state violence. The demands were against the police and other state apparatuses of oppression. Protests have also taken up demands against other injustices, including trans* oppression, evictions, and ICE. In certain localities, protesters have even raised the demand that their specific mayors or governors resign. The Democrats are trying to shift the movement from being one against racism and state violence (a systematic critique) to a movement against Trump specifically (an individualistic critique). This shift is very dangerous and could destroy the movement by putting further hopes in the Democratic Party.
Since 2016, the Democrats and their allies in the media, non-profits, and union leaderships have tried to present Trump as being the cause of all of America’s inequities and injustices rather than an expression of them. They have done this to both strengthen their own position — allowing for a strong lesser-evilism pressure to emerge — and to cover up all of the ways that the capitalists state has been designed to oppress a wide swath of people. In the present moment, this has led to a push to get the movement out of the streets to the polls. As we draw closer to the election in November it seems a surety that this pressure will only increase.
Donald Trump is, of course, a racist who is increasingly using authoritarian means to put down the protests and uses thinly-coated dog-whistles to appeal to members of the Far-Right. However, the conception of Donald Trump as the sole problem, rather than a symptom of the problem erases not only systematic issues but the system itself in favor of fighting against a single man. That the Democrats are doing this is unsurprising — they are, after all, known as the graveyard of social movements — but it is also incredibly disappointing that activists and radical thinkers such as Angela Davis and Noam Chomsky are joining in this same futile exercise of replacing one capitalist oppressor with another.
The current movement is among the largest and most dynamic in American history. Across the country, people are becoming both politicized and radicalized. With the racial justice movement, the pandemic, and the economic depression it is certain that we will continue to see more class struggle as the crisis deepens. In this light, it is important to understand both who our enemies are and also that each individual injustice is part of a larger system of injustice. It is a system of exploitation that has left poor Black and Brown communities to die of the coronavirus, that is cutting extra aid to the unemployed in the midst of the worst economic crisis in generation, and that is forcing workers to return to work in unsafe conditions. The fight against racist police violence is a fight against the capitalist system and a fight against the politicians who prop that system up. The Democrats are, and always have been, some of the strongest defenders of the capitalist system. Be it Ted Wheeler, Jacob Frey, Bill de Blasio, or Joe Biden, these Democratic leaders are not our friends, are not our allies, and will do (and have done) the exact same things to protesters that Trump is doing in Portland. They are two sides of the same coin and we will win with neither.
Trump’s unleashing of federal agents on the streets of major cities is something that must be fought. But we won’t prevail by putting our faith in Democratic politicians who will and have done the exact same things. Instead, we will fight back these escalations by building a large and powerful movement. We must also struggle against co-option attempts at every turn. We are in the midst of the largest uprisings in American history and we cannot let the energy of the current moment be channeled into the Democratic Party. Trump and his feds are our enemy — but so to are Democratic mayors and their police departments. We cannot fight one by siding with the other.