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Anarchist in a Security Culture: a New Day in Portland

Illustration by Steve Sack on Cagle Cartoons.

Truth be told, I should not be writing this to you now. It was part of the code I signed in order to do the behind-the-scenes protest mental health work that I would never contact “the media.”

Anarchists, I’ve learned, like most humans, are on a continuum of extremes. The anarchists I admire most would have to be street medics, who take self-sacrifice to new levels of altruism.

It was through them that I learned about the security culture of the Portland protest movement, through them that I decided to adopt a code name in the first place.

It made sense at the time.

I for one hope the anarchists will also join the conversation. For there to be true peace we need an end to secrecy, to toxic security culture, to violence.

Federal agents were on the ground, in unmarked uniforms, in unmarked vans, intimidating American citizens and violating our right to peaceful assembly. As a newly minted and naïve activist, I went along with security culture thinking it would help me build trust. It did not work. 

Advocates for equity and a cessation of police violence against unarmed people of color were attacked by police with chemical weapons in more than 100 US cities this summer. Portland is notable, but not alone. We are trying to learn. 

Anarchists operate without hierarchy and on principles of mutual aid and would honestly give you the shirt off of their back if you needed it, as they did during the wildfires Oregon experienced in 2020. I have and always will admire this incredible humanism and service, their willingness to literally run into battle to save lives of complete strangers.

If you are being tear gassed by federal agents, street medics clad in all black are exactly the person you want to see. 

As time went on, I began to see how this security culture also operated as a de facto method of shunning. It’s an age-old human trick--we want and crave acceptance, even by groups that are harmful to us. Those on the inside get to determine who is out with the language of betrayal.

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So and so is an infiltrator--facts are not needed, even the accusation is enough. So it is that I too now find myself on the outs, shamed for calling for peace and reconciliation, of all things.

George Lakey writes about this in How We Win saying, “Usually the effort to create a security culture increases fear--the opposite of what we want--and reduces the size of the campaign, thereby jeopardizing our ability to win.”

This is exactly what has happened in Portland. Brought out to the streets by the death of George Floyd but radicalized by what happened next, the movement swelled but we now find ourselves with an informal Black Lives Matter movement adrift, co-opted by infighting, toxicity and a lack of clear objectives.

It is also true that there are anarchists to fear among us. I wake at night sometimes thinking about the one I used to see walking around downtown Portland on my lunch hour--back when we used to have a lunch hour and people walking around downtown.

This is years before I knew that black bloc was a tactic, before I knew what an affinity group was. The black handkerchief covering the face frightened me then, and still does now, both in the lack of conformity to society and refusal to have even the most basic of human interactions--a non-verbal recognition of presence.

A recent article posted to Twitter by a local Portland anarchist group confirms my fears. Written in 2008 about the Greek anarchist uprisings, even the title makes clear what the point is: “Signals of the Disorder: Sowing Anarchy in the Metropolis”.

The article goes on to state, “The sensible thing to do is to attack Authority whenever we can” and ends with, “We will be safest from the right hand of repression and the left hand of recuperation when everyone is thoroughly confused as to whether we are frightening or lovable.”

With now months of smashed windows, fire-setting, personal intimidation and property damage--that is exactly where we find ourselves in my city--confused, anxious and wondering what it is that we as individuals and as a collective can do to stop these attacks on society itself. 

What wakes me in the wee hours is what might come next. The current administration plays right into the anarchist playbook by attempting to exert totalitarian control. This vacuum of stability lends itself to chaos, to true anarchy. And the statistics bear this out. Portland has seen a rise in crime unprecedented in more than 27 years. Shootings are up 123 percent in 2020 compared with 2019. 

Today Portland announced the consideration of a truth and reconciliation commission with our police bureau to address the historic mistreatment of communities of color, a bold move that is long overdue.

Saskia Hostetler Lippy MD Promo Image

But we will not win as a city unless all join this conversation. I for one hope the anarchists will join too. For there to be true peace we need an end to secrecy, to toxic security culture, to violence. Come out of the shadows and let’s speak face to face, as humans do.

Saskia Hostetler Lippy MD