Is this the land of the free?

By Jenna Bowers
Reader Contributor

I am uniquely positioned to write this piece. I am a native of Sandpoint. I have deep roots and a strong connection to the people and place here. I am also a resident of Portland, Ore., so I have the perspective and experience of an activist from the city. 

There have been ongoing protests in Portland, around the country and the world taking place since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25. Floyd has become one of the faces of Black Lives Matter, a civil rights movement to end state-sanctioned violence, liberate Black people and end white supremacy. 

While BLM has been active for six years, it has reached new levels of visibility amid a combination of COVID-19 quarantine and news of several violent police murders of innocent Black people, such as Breonna Taylor and Elijah Mclain. 

Portland has taken center stage in the media, with nonstop protests happening over the course of 60 days and ongoing reports of police brutality. On July 4, President Donald Trump deployed secret federal police in an attempt to quell the demonstrations, and they have joined ranks with the Portland Police Bureau. So far it has served to escalate the violence as well as the number of folks showing up to protest. Several people have been captured and held without warning or cause. The federal agents seem to be accountable to no one. 

July 25 marked a nationwide day of solidarity with Portland. More than 30 cities and towns across the country organized protests to send a message to the president: “You have gone too far.” Oregon government officials have repeatedly asked Trump to remove his violent soldiers, but he continues to refuse, preparing to send more to other cities where he says “liberal Democrats” hold leadership in local governments. This is an unwelcome overreach of his power and he is using violence against peaceful protestors — people who are fighting for social justice under their First Amendment rights. 

As someone who has been protesting regularly for the past two months, I am here to tell you that what you are seeing in the news isn’t the whole truth. The protests and those who attend them are varied, of course, but overall they are peaceful and nonviolent. We march, we listen, we cry, we chant, we sing and play instruments, we dance, but we do not harm people. Everyone wears masks and keeps a respectful distance. There are dozens of organizations and individuals providing food, water, clothing and medical attention for free. 

Yes, the people are angry. We are confronting centuries of enslavement, oppression and violence. Yes, there has been minor property damage; mostly from a few outliers, mostly during the George Floyd riots, which were at the beginning of June, and mostly in the form of graffiti. Trump justified sending his troops to protect federal property, but does bodily harm and brutality seem like a fair punishment for minor property damage? 

The attacks aren’t targeted on those outliers. The police and the soldiers initiate the violence night after night. They show up and start firing “non-lethal ammunition” and throwing tear gas — a chemical weapon that has long been outlawed for use in warfare under the Geneva Conventions — into the crowds indiscriminately. 

As others have pointed out, the federal government is now using a chemical weapon that targets the lungs against its own citizens during a global pandemic of a virus that targets the lungs. Careless and dangerous at best.

This is blatant and unprovoked police brutality, occurring night after night. Moms and dads have been showing up, doctors and nurses and teachers and veterans have been showing up. Several women have caught media attention for disrobing completely, in an attempt to demonstrate that they are unarmed and therefore not a danger. Even Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has shown up. They are all getting gassed. None of them are destroying property or inflicting bodily damage on anyone. 

Many will ask, why keep protesting? Why not go home and stay safe? To that we say, we are supposed to be the best country in the world — a representative democracy of and for the people. A place of liberty and justice for all. If we the people don’t stand up for human rights and don’t hold the systems of power accountable, who will? 

Are we actually a great country as long as people are enslaved, silenced and murdered without cause? Take a look at our America and ask yourself, is this the land of the free?

Editor’s note: Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced July 29 that agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had agreed to withdraw from Portland beginning July 30 — provided that federal authorities believe no threat is posed to government property. As of press time, The New York Times reported that Oregon State Police will be handling security outside the federal courthouse while federal agents will continue to secure the interior of the facility, as they have in the past. Quoted by The Times, Brown said: “These federal officers have acted as an occupying force, refused accountability, and brought violence and strife to our community.”

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