RICHMOND — Americans have little experience with soldiers in the streets. Even career military people apparently shed their work clothes quickly when they're home on leave, get out civvies and look like everyone else in town. So it's a shock to watch video of armed, uniformed federal agents in liberal Portland, Ore., as they hustle someone into an unmarked car and drive away.
The first time we ever saw soldiers in a public place was when we landed in the Dominican Republic for a week's vacation. It was 1977, a year easily verified on the internet because it snowed in Miami while we were in the Caribbean, and some travelers escaped that phenomenon to sit near us at a pool. We were taken aback to see soldiers with formidable guns posted throughout the airport and, later, on city streets.
The next time we saw on-duty military everywhere was in 1985 in Northern Ireland, the very month that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was meeting with the IRA (Irish Republican Army) at Hillsborough Castle, not far from where we were staying. In a couple of days, we adjusted remarkably to a labyrinth approach to our hotel, which had been bombed 30 times by the revolutionaries. We stopped mentioning the ominous military vehicles in the streets, the searches at stores, the car stops on the highway. But unlike the citizenry, we often looked over our shoulders.
Now we must beware, amazingly, of adjusting to military force being imposed on an American city. Portland is setting a good example by not taking this unasked-for military "help" for granted, even for a minute. Women, arms linked, calling themselves the Wall of Moms, lined up to protect protestors from the militarized federal agents sent by the president. The organizer of the mothers, Bev Barnum, said she could not stand still while the civil rights of protestors were being violated with arrests and tear gas.
But Portland wasn't done with its sturdy resistance to the unwanted troops. A group of men calling themselves the PDX Dad Pod arrived to help the Wall of Moms at the federal courthouse. Wearing bicycle helmets and orange shirts for group identity, they used leaf blowers to send tear gas canisters back toward the soldiers and to clear the air of chemicals. One man used a hockey stick to flip gas canisters to the senders. Among the signs they carried was "Fathers Against Fascism."
When Mayor Ted Wheeler, who has asked the White House to withdraw the feds — sent, by the way from Homeland Security and untrained in crowd control tactics — came to the courthouse to talk with demonstrators about their protest against police brutality, he was gassed by the president's agents. Various observers, including the mayor, have commented that insertion of the feds has exacerbated rather than improved the events surrounding the protests for black rights in Portland.
It doesn't take a genius, stable or not, to know that people who itch to make trouble come out from under their rocks when they see a scene they can invade. That's how angry citizens legitimately exercising their "right to a redress of grievances" are infiltrated by those who thrive on creating chaos with fire and looting.
But Portland is one of the beautiful cities of America, many of its first white settlers coming from New England at the start of the 19th century It was my sister's home for decades, a place where people dangle their feet in city fountains, spend a day getting lost in the world's largest bookstore and remember to carry an umbrella pretty much year-round. It's a city threaded by the Willamette River, a city of neighborhoods, with views of the mountain giants of the Pacific Northwest. It's where my nieces went to preschool at a zoo. It's a city in a socially progressive state with mail-in voting and decades of attention to human rights. All in all, it is quite likely Portland can work out its problems without tear gas from the East Coast.
Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.