The Portland Military Policing Model Isn’t the Beginning of a Trend — It’s the Culmination of One

In Portland, federal agents have been snatching up protesters while hyper-militarized police crack down on demonstrators. It’s a frightening display of state repression — one with roots in the attacks on the anti-corporate globalization movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Federal police clash with protesters in Portland, Oregon. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

In recent days, activists in Portland have been abducted off the streets and brutally beaten by police and military personnel. And Donald Trump is insisting he will deploy these paramilitary groups to still more cities.

For many, this brutality can conjure up images of foreign dictatorships, hellbent on suppressing any form of dissent. Yet we don’t have to look so far afield. Trump’s cops are a homegrown phenomenon, the culmination of three decades of increasingly militarized police that have made it a point to crack down on leftists — beginning with the global justice movement of the late 1990s.

A useful starting point is the 1990 creation of the 1033 Program, a Department of Defense initiative that puts surplus military equipment in the hands of state and local police departments — stuff like grenade launchers, assault rifles, bomb-detonating robots, body armor, machine guns, bomb suits, and forced-entry tools. Though the program was originally intended to fight a “drug war,” Bill Clinton expanded it in 1997 to allow “all law enforcement agencies to acquire property for . . . purposes that assist in their arrest and apprehension mission.”

Then Seattle happened.

For several days in November and early December 1999, students, community activists, trade unionists, and others fought the Seattle police in the winter to gain control of downtown and disrupt the World Trade Organization, meetings that critics decried as a symbol of corporate oligarchy. Police cleared intersections with armored vehicles, stun grenades, and tear gas, first used by US troops in Vietnam. They established a fifty-block “no protest zone” that immediately became the target of days of mass protests. Images of armored tanks rolling through streets against non-violent demonstrators went viral, energizing the global justice movement.

Then came September 11.

In the aftermath of the 2001 attacks, George Bush’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) broadened the concept of terrorism, granting the agency the authority to control political dissent it deemed sufficiently terroristic in nature. So defined, terror became: “any act that is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources…appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation…or to affect a government by mass destruction.”

The upshot: crimes before and after 9/11 were dealt with very differently, because the “terrorism enhancement” protocol of the Patriot Act made terrorists out of ordinary activists. The Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992, for example, became the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006, expanding the federal government’s legal right to combat animal rights “extremists.” Similar laws were amended to specifically target environmental activists — to the point where activists began speaking of a “green scare” and asserting that “green is the new red,” a reference to the repression of “reds” during McCarthyism.

In the wake of Seattle, police departments across the country armed up, the first wave of just-in-case militarization. By the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit in Miami, DHS agents were going undercover as “snatch squads,” abducting protesters right off the street, and working in tandem with local law enforcement to corral the anti–corporate globalization protests. A legal research team found that “the Miami Police Department ‘spearheaded’ a multi-agency taskforce, which included the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Broward County Sheriff, and 23 other local law enforcement agencies, 7 state agencies and 7 federal law enforcement agencies, in carrying out a deliberate plan to disrupt political protest.” The “Miami Model” — where cops intimidate political dissidents, infiltrate activist groups, and preemptively criminalize protest — had been born.

Shortly after the Miami summit, the Bureau of Justice Affairs introduced a federal grant program that allowed police departments to acquire more military-grade gear — department laptops, weapons, body armor, and sound cannons. Through this grant, today’s police departments have a clear pipeline and near-infinite amount of money and opportunity to outfit their agents with high-grade military equipment and tactical assault training.

This proved useful at the 2009 Pittsburgh G20 Summit protests, which the DHS designated a “National Special Security Event.” An estimated 2,000 uniformed police, 2,500 national guard troops, and several thousand private security guards swarmed the city. In addition to on-the-ground surveillance, the US Secret Service had access to highly “enhanced video wall system using high resolution cubes and interactive display software which provided a wide variety of video displays and feeds which significantly enhanced the situational awareness of the events and all related sites.” For good measure, police raided the homes of suspected protest organizers before the summit had even begun.

Building on tactical lessons from Seattle and Miami, law enforcement upped the ante by bringing a new LRad (Long-Range Acoustic Device) purchased with a federal grant of over $100,000. Deployed against a protest of only two thousand people, the military-grade weaponry supported a strategy of catch and release by on-the-ground police. “People were being grabbed if they just got too close to the cops, observed T. J. Amick of Pittsburgh. “It didn’t matter what they were doing, what they were saying. They were just asking what was going on, and they were being taken off the streets to God knows where.”

These early experiments against global justice activists taught law enforcement valuable lessons they would later use against Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the movement to defund the police.

When BLM entered the national stage after Michael Brown’s murder in 2014, Ferguson, Missouri police were already prepared to go to war. On the first day of protests, police had on hand armored vehicles, sound grenades, shotguns, rifles with M4 carbines, tanks so strong they could withstand landmines and IEDs in Iraq, rubber-coated metal pellets, and tear gas. They also had dogs that had been trained, according to the Department of Justice, almost exclusively on black residents. By the time protests erupted in Ferguson, the 1033 Program had transferred a staggering $5 billion of tactical military gear to US police departments.

What’s happening in Portland, then, is the continuation of a long trend — activists were snatched off the streets by quasi-military cops under Bush and Obama, too. And if history is any guide, that kind of repression won’t automatically end with Trump’s removal either.

Despite the onslaught of police violence, Sunday marked the sixtieth straight day of protests in Portland. Night after night, facing down a heavily armed and poorly trained force, veterans have joined seasoned activists, and moms and dads across the city have poured into the streets to fight the wanton brutality. They’re winning not only national hearts and minds, but have beaten back the cops on numerous occasions. Strange as it might seem, perhaps it’s a good idea after all to bring a leaf blower to a gun fight.