Commentary: I saw what happened in Portland this summer; it could happen anywhere

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When I was 4 years old in 2001, my family and I marched in a peaceful demonstration in my hometown of Wallingford, Connecticut, in response to a white supremacist speaking at the public library.

This is one of my earliest memories. I distinctly recall images of police in riot gear confronting black-clad protesters from out of town who were clashing with supporters of the white supremacist. In a letter to the editor published in The Courant, my mother condemned these violent anti-racist protesters as instigators, claiming that Wallingford residents were perfectly capable of expelling and resisting hate peacefully.

Having spent five weeks in Portland, Oregon, earlier this summer, I see parallels to my childhood experience in my hometown. What happened in Portland this summer isn’t unique to Portland. It could happen anywhere, and the lessons that can be taken from protests across the country should inform the way we deal with our differences in our own communities.

While in Portland, I filmed the protests and interviewed protesters. I can attest that the vast majority of them turned out night after night intending a peaceful demonstration. But I also saw groups of mostly white anarchists dressed in black deliberately causing chaos near the Justice Center downtown. In the same vein, I witnessed and heard firsthand accounts of right-wing groups intimidating protesters and looking to cause a stir. If you go looking for a fight, you’re probably going to find one.

The police also bear responsibility for the violence in Portland. I remember being on the front lines of the Justice Center filming as police in riot gear stood in formation behind a barrier, while protesters chanted and gave speeches in front of the fence. Police escalated the confrontations by threatening protesters with violence if they so much as touched the fence, putting on gas masks with the implication of using gas, hiding in bushes with rubber bullet guns at the ready and pepper-spraying people on the front lines unprovoked. All it would have taken was one protester out of 5,000-plus to throw a water bottle over the barrier for the entire block to be filled with tear gas, the sound of flash-bang grenades and the dull pop of rubber bullet guns.

After I left Portland, President Donald Trump sent federal agents to assist law enforcement. News reports and videos depicted unmarked cars filled with federal officers snatching activists off the street with no explanation. Not only is this type of policing unconstitutional, it does nothing to quell tensions or mitigate the protests. If anything, it furthers the divide between law enforcement and its citizens and gives demonstrators another grievance to rail against.

Escalation breeds escalation. This unnecessary chaos and volatility steals the spotlight from the issues at the core of the protests. In Portland, for example, residents of color are fed up with the gentrification of their neighborhoods and the racism they experience at the hands of police. I heard dozens of personal and emotionally charged accounts of racial profiling and police brutality in Portland and its surrounding suburbs. I interviewed not only protest leaders but also moms and dads who had brought their children out — as my parents had brought me — to stand up for their community. These were everyday Americans sacrificing their time and energy to peacefully march every night in spite of work obligations in order to create change on a local level.

Unfortunately, Portland devolved into a media spectacle as violent clashes between protesters and police dominated headlines and stole the narrative. One would think, based on the media coverage and political grandstanding, that what’s happening in Portland can be dismissed as a bunch of fringe anarchists on the West Coast.

To the extent that all major cities in the United States have deep-seated racial issues, we are more like Portland than we would like to think. The people of Portland don’t want their right to assemble to be hijacked by violence from outsiders and escalated by irresponsible policing — local or federal — and neither would we.

One leader stated to me in an interview, “Don’t listen to the people in black. Listen to the Black people.” I say: Don’t fall for the media spectacle. Consider the events in Portland — and demonstrations everywhere — through an introspective lens. The issues at the core of the protests in Portland are universal. They are about equality and justice in our communities. They are about the right of people to advocate for change in their own towns and cities without being threatened by law enforcement. They are about the right of everyday citizens to feel safe in their own neighborhoods.

These are things all of us can identify with. I wonder what would have happened in Wallingford on that day in 2001 if the political climate were as combustible as it is today.



Aidan Cobb is a teacher, filmmaker and poet. He is a Wallingford, Connecticut, native who currently teaches in Bridgeport and lives in New Haven.


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