Violent protests again draw attention to Portland, Oregon
By GILLIAN FLACCUS
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Viral videos of bloody skirmishes between right-wing activists and self-described anti-fascists have drawn national attention to Portland, Oregon — a city of storied political activism that has struggled to keep the peace at dueling rallies illustrating a microcosm of the nation’s political division.
Tensions erupted most recently this month when members of the so-called “antifa” movement showed up at a march organized by a right-wing group called Patriot Prayer.
As police tried to keep order, fist fights broke out in a string of downtown parks fringed with aspen trees and dotted with plaques honoring Portland’s founders and fallen World War II soldiers.
Videos from the conflict on social media show one man being knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly as he covers his head with his hands. In another, a man lying on the ground is dragged away from a group of attackers, his face bloodied. In a third, two men — including one wearing homemade body armor — take swings at a third man who is backed against a wall with his arms raised.
Police made four arrests June 3 in and around the parks, which have become gathering places for dissent in this liberal city already known for near-weekly protests.
And in this city that patiently waits out traffic jams caused by protests, residents wondered how free speech had turned so violent.
Protesters here traditionally have demonstrated together for their causes. But over the past year a different type of political activism has shattered the unanimity normally seen among demonstrators, said longtime Portland resident Jon Baldivieso.
“It obscures better forms of political speech,” he said. “It feels different when protests are more one-sided and not skirmishes between ideological factions. …I’ve got very low patience for physical confrontation.”
What is happening could be an expression of a deep sensitivity to a dark chapter of the city’s history that’s bubbling up as the rest of the country, too, becomes more politically polarized.
In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in the city and by the 1980s, Portland was a hot spot for white supremacist groups, earning it the nickname “Skinhead City.”
One of the most infamous attacks in Portland’s racial history occurred in November 1988, when an Ethiopian immigrant was beaten to death by three white supremacists from the California-based White Aryan Resistance in front of his apartment.
The city was also the home base for Volksfront, a now-defunct white separatist organization founded in 1994, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.
While Patriot Prayer isn’t considered a white supremacist or hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, its members march alongside right-wing groups promoting free speech rights by rejecting political correctness, said Ryan Lenz, an SPLC spokesman.
Those marches have drawn a forceful reaction from a left-wing movement known as the antifa that is dedicated to rooting out neo-Nazis and white supremacists, he said.
The 10-year-old group Rose City Antifa is one of the most organized of these loosely affiliated groups in the nation and also one of the oldest.
Individual antifa members remain anonymous, but the group’s public Facebook page issued a call for members to show up June 3 to confront the “rising tide of fascism and the forces of structural and insurgent white supremacy” in Portland.
“If you think about it, Portland is home to this extreme leftist perspective … but at the same time it is home to very hardcore racist groups going back to the skinhead groups,” Lenz said.
Patriot Prayer has also held marches and rallies in many other cities around the U.S. West that have drawn violent reactions. But the Portland events have taken on out-sized significance because of the stabbing deaths a year ago of two men who came to the defense of two young black women — one in a hijab— who were being harassed on a light-rail train by a Patriot Prayer sympathizer.
The man charged in the deaths, Jeremy Christian, was filmed making the Nazi salute at a Patriot Prayer rally a month before the killings.
Christian, who has pleaded not guilty, later told investigators he was not motivated by racism but was drunk and wanted to “do his free speech thing” when he shouted racist and anti-immigrant slurs on the light-trail train before the stabbings.
In the aftermath, Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson organized a pro-Trump free speech rally that attracted thousands from both sides to downtown Portland.
The ensuing chaos shut down much of the city’s core and police arrested more than a dozen people amid widespread fighting.
Gibson, who is half Japanese and lives in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, said his followers are not racist but want the right to express themselves safely in a city that’s very liberal. He hopes to put on another rally as soon as next month in an attempt to promote confrontation.
“We’re way more diverse than any of these far-lefters, who are mostly white men,” Gibson said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. The marches are intended to “stir the pot. It’s to get people to oppose us, to violently oppose us.”
Many Portland residents say they love their city’s reputation for political dissent but are dismayed it has become a spotlight for violence.
At a park dedicated to a city founding father, accountant Mack Stilson used his lunch break to run through a set of bluegrass songs on his mandolin as a tour group strolled by snapping selfies and bike commuters whizzed past.
“This is sort of like an arena for their battles and I have a lot of trouble putting any weight behind it,” he said of the protesters.
He added: “You can say whatever you want to say, whether you’re extremely conservative or extremely liberal, and I think this town should be open to both. That’s kind of what this town is all about.”
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus
Who Benefits from the “Booming Economy”?
By Lawrence Wittner
Although the U.S. mass media are awash with stories about America’s “booming economy,” the benefits are distributed very unequally, when they are distributed at all.
Buoyed by soaring corporate profits and stock prices, the richest Americans have reached new and dazzling heights of prosperity. As of May 2018, the growing crop of billionaires included corporate owners with unprecedented levels of wealth like Jeff Bezos ($112 billion), Bill Gates ($90 billion), and Warren Buffet ($84 billion). Some families have also grown fantastically rich, including the right-wing Koch brothers ($120 billion) and the Walton family, owners of Walmart (nearly $175 billion). Together with the rest of America’s richest 1 percent, they possess nearly 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.
But a great many Americans are not doing nearly as well as the nation’s super-wealthy. That 40 percent of the wealth, in fact, constitutes twice the total wealth held by the bottom 90 percent of the American public (about 294,000,000 people). On May 17, 2018, the United Way released a study indicating that nearly half of American households could not afford basics like food, housing, and healthcare. Many of the wage earners in these households were child care workers, home health aides, office assistants, and store clerks―people who had low-paying jobs and minuscule (if any) savings.
Furthermore, according to U.S. government statistics, some 41 million Americans live in poverty. Of these, over 5 million reportedly live on $4 a day or less―at least as long as they continue living. Life expectancy in some parts of the United States, for instance in Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, is lower than in Bangladesh.
Employment income in the United States serves as another example of extreme economic inequality. Drawing on information provided to the federal government by 225 Fortune 500 companies with total annual revenues of $6.3 trillion, a Congressional study released this May reported that the CEO-to-worker pay ratio―which stood at 25 to 1 in the 1965―has now reached 339 to 1.
In some well-known firms, the ratio is much larger. Consequently, their employees would have to work considerably more than a thousand years to catch up with their bosses’ income for one year. These companies include Mattel (with a CEO-to-worker pay ratio of 4,987 to 1), McDonald’s (3,101 to 1), Gap (2,900 to 1), Manpower (2,483 to 1), Hanes Brands (1,830 to 1), and Kohl’s (1,264 to 1). Walmart, owned by the nation’s richest family and with 2.3 million employees, has a CEO-to-worker ratio of 1,188 to 1.
Somewhat later this May, the AFL-CIO came out with its own report, revealing even greater economic inequality. According to the labor federation, government figures revealed that CEOs of S&P 500 Index companies received, on average, $13.9 million in compensation during 2017―a 6.4 percent increase over the preceding year. By contrast, the average production and non-supervisory worker received only $38,613, producing CEO-to-worker pay ratio of 361 to 1.
As might be expected, corporations vigorously resisted providing this kind of information and reacted angrily to suggestions that there was anything wrong with the extreme disparities it disclosed. “People have decisions to make as to whether they want to improve themselves and get higher paying jobs,” observed a CEO of a multi-billion dollar company. “Some people decide to do that and others don’t.”
This pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps philosophy has long served as a top rationalization of privilege by the privileged. And, indeed, corporate executives are very numerous in the ranks of today’s wealthiest Americans, now heading up about two-thirds of the households of America’s richest 1 percent. But this philosophy should provide little comfort to American workers, whose share of the national income has been shrinking for decades.
American workers are not only extremely unlikely to ever amass riches comparable to those of the wealthiest 1 percent, but even to see their incomes improve significantly through wage increases. Median real wages rose only one-fifth of 1 percent in the United States during 2017. Furthermore, despite nearly full employment and the “booming economy,” the same pattern has persisted right up to the present.
The failure to share equitably in rapid economic growth has been a common feature of American history. In “the roaring twenties,” a surging economy, characterized by economic expansion and a dizzying rise in stock prices, was accompanied by significant income and wealth disparity. Although the rich got much richer, average workers experienced no more than a slow rise in income. Indeed, workers in some industries suffered from falling wage rates.
Thus, soaring wealth and incomes for the few do not automatically translate into better lives for the many. Centuries ago, American slaves understood this as they labored under the lash in booming economies―economies that included their full employment, but served only the interests of their ever-richer masters. We should understand it as well.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).