PORTLAND, Oregon – In the hours after U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, hundreds of people gathered for a series of events across the liberal city of Portland, Oregon — not to celebrate, but to mobilize for the struggles to come.
At one demonstration, speakers denounced Biden as a “feckless puppet of the centrist Democratic establishment.” At another, crowds of anti-fascist and racial justice protesters made their doubts about the new president even more explicit, burning a Biden flag in the street. At a third event, several people smashed the windows of the local Democratic Party headquarters. “We are ungovernable,” the group’s banner declared.
While Biden has vowed to try to unify the nation and urged Americans to “stop the shouting” after a bitter election campaign, a U.S. Capitol riot and a year of unrest over racial injustices and pandemic restrictions, the first day of his presidency concluded with a scene reminiscent of many under his predecessor: Federal agents in camouflage and riot gear moved into the streets of Portland, unleashing thick clouds of tear gas.
If people were wondering whether Biden’s presidency would ease the conflict, the opening hours of his tenure illustrated the daunting challenge he faces to bridge the lingering gulfs on both sides of the political spectrum — divisions stoked by Donald Trump during his presidency and, to the left, exacerbated by years of inaction over climate change, economic disparity and systemic racism.
Eric Schickler, co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said Biden was stepping into the White House at a time of such vitriol that opposing sides view each other as the enemy.
“He’s fighting against some pretty strong forces,” Schickler said.
Many conservatives, such as those who stormed the U.S. Capitol in the final days of Trump’s presidency, remain under the false belief that Biden won a rigged election and that his presidency is illegitimate. “Not my president” has become a common refrain on online message boards. Federal authorities have warned about the threats of far-right extremist groups.
But the demonstrators who mounted protests against Biden in Portland on Wednesday hailed from the left — and their skepticism about what lies ahead reflects the degree to which the new administration will have to build bridges in many directions.
In Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist rally offered a look at rising right-wing violence early in Trump’s presidency, those who have fought for racial justice said Biden’s unity effort also requires accountability for the perpetrators of racial violence, not just calls to come together in peace.
In Minneapolis, community organizer Marcia Howard said Biden’s elevation to the presidency meant that those who have hoped to create a world without the police need to double down on their efforts.
The president and his allies have paid “lip service” to issues of racial equity, police brutality and mass incarceration, she said. “And now they must be pressed to put action where their mouths are.”
In Seattle on Wednesday, a crowd of about 150 people marched through the streets chanting both anti-Trump and anti-Biden slogans. One member of the group handed out flyers that said: “Biden won! And so did corporate elites!” The flyers argued that a “Democratic administration is not a victory for oppressed people” and “Biden will not save us.”
“I came out here because no matter what happens, Biden and Kamala aren’t enough,” said one of the protesters, Alejandro Quezada Brom, 28, referring to Vice President Kamala Harris. He said the new president needed to know that “the pressure’s not off” for progress on immigration and policing reforms.
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, said she had met with members of Biden’s transition team and held initial conversations with Merrick Garland, the attorney general nominee, and Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary nominee. They agreed to sit with Black Lives Matter organizers for more formal meetings once the administration was in office, she said.
She said she believed that Biden was off to a good start with the executive order he signed on racial equity, which included things her group had discussed with the transition team around eradicating white supremacy and discrimination in communities and government agencies.
But that was hardly enough, Cullors said. She said Black Lives Matter would be pushing the administration hard in areas where some of Biden’s past positions have not always aligned with the movement’s goals.
“We’re going to really push this administration to look at ending police terror and mass incarceration,” she said. “And that can’t happen through body cameras. It can’t happen through more training. We actually have to look at the budgets of police departments at the national level to the local level. And we have to look at the budgets of everything else, every other social aid program and social service program.”
At one of the lower-key events on Wednesday in Portland, about 200 people gathered under the lights at Irving Park, sharing pizza and visions for the coming four years.
Ray Austin, 25, was the one who described Biden to the crowd as a “feckless puppet,” declaring that he “is only president because of his ties to corporate interests” — a proclamation that brought clapping and cheers. “My friends, the fight has just begun,” he said.
A series of speakers laid out urgent goals ahead where they said Biden seemed unlikely to lead the way: a Green New Deal to fight climate change, a “Medicare for All”-style health insurance system, overhauls of police departments to address racial disparities.
Reese Monson, one of the leaders in Portland’s Black Lives Matter movement, said he welcomed the inauguration and Biden’s early promises. He also expressed hope about Harris, the first Black vice president. But he said activists would need to keep up the pressure to ensure that the changes enacted go far enough.
“No matter who is in political power, we’re not going to stop until we get justice,” Monson said. “And even then we want to make sure it’s real justice.”
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last May, protesters in Portland mobilized on the streets nightly, much of their ire targeted at the mayor and the police force that repeatedly used tear gas to subdue them. The crowds swelled during the summer after Trump issued an executive order to protect federal property and agents wearing camouflage brought a crackdown to the city.
On Wednesday night, one rowdy group of protesters gathered at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in the city, targeting the harsh deportation and detention tactics that the agency had used against immigrants. Biden began his presidency with executive orders on immigration that made it clear he would chart a much different course than Trump, but the crowd wanted more, calling for abolition of the immigration-enforcement agency. Some protesters spray-painted graffiti on the building: “Reunite families now.”
Minutes later, a line of federal agents in camouflage and tactical gear emerged from the building and began firing tear gas and pepper balls into the crowd — a scene that had unfolded similarly on dozens of nights in Portland over the past year.
The parallels were not lost on the crowd.
As one person held a lighter below a Biden-for-president flag, another chanted a phrase often seen on conservative message boards: “Not my president.”
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