The Purpose of Disruptive Protest

On Friday, January 20th, a coalition of groups, coming together under the auspices of the new Direct Action Alliance, rallied in Pioneer Square and marched through downtown Portland in protest of Donald Trump’s inauguration. The rally began early in the day, with a student walkout and march leaving from PSU at 2 p.m. and meeting up with members of an anarchist block in Pioneer Square who were burning US flags.

What followed was about two hours of speeches by various organizations, though unfortunately the poor acoustics of Pioneer Square meant I was unable to hear most of them. The ones I did hear focused on the impact of Donald Trump’s positions and tied them to local issues. There was a focus on getting to work in Portland as a means of resisting the policies proposed by the new administration. I had been to the November protests, and the rhetoric at this rally seemed much more concrete in terms of what folks were resisting: there was a focus on the environment, the impact of immigration raids, and the rights and healthcare of women and others marginalized along the axis of gender. It was not merely a protest against the rhetoric or election of Trump at this point, but about the ability for Trump to turn his rhetoric into reality, and our ability to resist.

As it got closer to 5 p.m, folks in the square were starting to get restless. The energy and fervor that had marked the protests in November were starting to reappear, despite the fact that the crowd lacked some of the most energetic groups, notably Portland High School students, from the marches in November. It seemed the cops did not want this to happen. In November they were pretty hands-off, more hands-off than I had seen them at any previous demonstration in Portland. Usually taking a bridge was an accomplishment prior to November, while in November we took bridges and highways multiple times a night.

As the march started, the chants were indicative of the mood of resistance, with the chant I heard the most being “all cops are bastards ACAB,” “The Portland police voted for Trump,” and “ No Trump, No KKK, no Fascist USA.” Overall the chants were much less unified than in the past, though I can’t speculate as to why.

Folks in the march seemed excited to be disruptive. Within ten minutes of marching we were headed towards the waterfront, and there were lots of calls early on to take the bridges and get to the east side, so that the march could block highways. The anarchist block, in which there were about 50 folks marching, was one of the groups that was most interested in disruption, though there were lots of other folks wearing masks and presumably also ready for a confrontation with the police. The crowd tried to cross the Burnside bridge and was met, predictably, by a line of riot cops two deep, with chemical agents at the ready. I saw the black bloc move members with shields to the front, hand out goggles, link up arms, and run at the cops chanting “push, push, push!” Unfortunately the cop line didn’t break, and the police pepper sprayed the entire crowd, not just the anarchists on the left side of the street. Luckily, there were street medics among the crowd who were able to treat those who were pepper sprayed. It would be the beginning of a long night of police violence. This made it more galling to see posts on social media of people congratulating and thanking cops at the Women’s March on Saturday, as the cops showed no qualms about using violence against women the night before. The charge would begin two hours of cat and mouse with police, with marchers attempting to cross bridges and being forced back, until the entire march was dispersed later that night, following more police violence in Pioneer Square.

The goal of a protest for me is to cause disruption, and in a large sense that means that this protest was largely a failure. The purpose of disruption is to cause immediate consequences for actions that are causing us harm. As opposed to letter writing or a permitted march, a protest carries both greater risk to participants, but also greater potential for one’s voice to be heard. By doing things like disrupting traffic, highways, bridges, fighting police and causing property damage, protests are able to do more than simply appeal to the conscience of those in power - the principle action of letter writing, permitted marches, and phone calls. While at first glance, blocking highways and bridges, and destruction of property may seem inconsequential, and perhaps at most inconvenient, they are actually much more consequential than they seem. The police response alone should indicate that the police take these actions seriously. Blocking the ways that things move has, importantly, an economic impact, though this is difficult to quantify. While protesters in November did one million dollars in admirable damage to businesses, it is likely that their disruption of the flow of capital through highways due to delays and disruption also caused significant economic damage, which increases the longer a blockade is in place.

Relative to permitted marches, the difference should be clear: the goal of police in permitted marches is to keep them from being disruptive, because they are aware of the real impact this has–on lost work hours, delays in transport, and more. By keeping demonstrations confined to a smaller part of the city, to parks, or to sidewalks, the police keep the city, and the money within it, flowing smoothly. This is why Friday’s protest was different than the Women’s March and other actions of civil disobedience, like letter writing and phone zaps, which are minimally disruptive. The protest on January 20th intended to show opposition by causing both inconvenience and damage on a financial level.

Judged by this metric, the protest on Friday fell short of its goals. Still, it did show that there is a desire to disrupt and resist the new Trump presidency by more than just passive means. Despite the media’s acceptance of the police’s narrative of the protest, that it was peaceful and marred by a few bad apples, people showed through their actions that they are willing to stand up to the instruments of oppression, the police and will use more than just socially accepted measures of discontent to achieve their goals and spread their message.


Illustration by Ema Chomsky.