Tolerance versus Fascism: What We Can Learn from the Portland Demonstrations

Voltaire wrote that “’tis much more Prudence to acquit two Persons, tho’ actually guilty, than to pass Sentence of Condemnation on one that is virtuous and innocent.” Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, and later Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Benjamin Vaughan, increased Voltaire’s number of guilty persons from two to ten, and then from ten to one hundred, respectfully. See https://www.bartleby.com/73/953.html

In a moment, we’ll be applying that principle to the situation in Portland, Oregon. First the facts.

For the past two months, triggered by the brutal death of George Floyd, demonstrators have flocked the streets of downtown Portland. As reported by local media (the Spirited Reasoner is headquartered in nearby Vancouver, Washington, where the TV news comes primarily from Portland) the nightly reports have been rather consistent. Sometime after sunset, hundreds of marchers approach the federal courthouse to voice sentiments including Black Lives Matter, Defund the Police, and related messages. Then, at some point much later in the evening, usually well after midnight, what began as a peaceful demonstration is hijacked by a small group of rioters, intent on tearing down fences, spray-painting the federal courthouse, and setting off fireworks.

At one point, approximately ten days ago, these evening demonstrations appeared to be waning. The typical Pacific Northwest approach to this type of outburst—i. e., the approach a bewildered parent might take in response to an adolescent tantrum—was to allow it to burn itself out, even if that process might require weeks, if not months. That approach was seen most clearly in the reaction Seattle’s city government took when demonstrators occupied a portion of downtown—the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone—in a manner that seemed quasi-permanent in nature. Only when shootings occurred, followed by the inability of responders to assist the victims in a timely fashion, did government officials finally move in to reclaim the area.

Unfortunately, just as government officials in Portland were deciding how best to interact with their own waning demonstrations, President Trump decided to send in federal troops. Unlike the tolerant approach suggested by Voltaire, Blackstone, and Franklin, his message goes something like this: “Better to inflict violence on hundreds of innocent demonstrators than to let a handful of anarchists go unpunished.” Just to emphasize the vindictive nature of that point, federal agents deployed teargas in a manner that thoroughly doused Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who had announced in advance that he would be speaking to the demonstrators this past Wednesday.

Although the Seattle approach, and now the Portland approach, may seem to outsiders to stretch patience to the limit, it accomplishes one vital task: demonstrating that the proper boundary of tolerance should be expanded as far as possible, up to the point where human life needs to be protected. Better to allow hundreds of peaceful protestors to voice their messages in safety than to harm the innocent while seeking out the guilty.

What is particularly galling to people who live in this region is the fact that the anonymous federal troops sent here by President Trump do not share this region’s notions of tolerance. Nor do they appear to be trained in riot tactics or in the basic tenets of constitutional law. When we see armed soldiers bearing no insignia and whisking random individuals into unmarked vans, we recall the thousands of citizens who “disappeared” from the streets of Argentina between the years 1976 and 1983. Where did they go? Who took them?

Sometimes democratic tolerance can seem ugly. One need only look at the face of the federal courthouse in Portland to see the graffiti and broken glass left by those “after-midnighters” whose rage against the system exceeds the bounds of spirited dissent. But that form of ugliness can be endured and patiently cleaned up in the days and weeks that follow. The face of fascism, on the other hand, as the world has witnessed not only in Argentina but also in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, is far uglier, more painful and powerful.