Portland's Voluntary Human Shields Bring New Kind of Solidarity to America | Opinion

As federal troops begin heading out of Portland, Oregon, one way to assess the violent clashes is by zooming in on the mobilization of human shields. It began with hundreds of mothers who wore yellow shirts, bike helmets and improvised goggles as they placed their bodies in the line of fire to protect the Black Lives Matter protestors. Mustering the institution of motherhood alongside what one activist called "white women's innocence," the "Wall of Moms" group wittingly deployed their privilege in an effort to shield demonstrators from federal violence. "Don't shoot your mother" the women chanted, while forming a human barricade in front of the city's courthouse.

The federal troops, for their part, were adamant about keeping the activists at bay and tear gassed the protestors, underscoring that even the vulnerability of white mothers can no longer serve as a deterrent against the violence of security forces.

In the days that followed, fathers joined the mothers. Dressed in orange and armed with leaf blowers to blow-away the tear gas, fathers formed a "Dads Bloc." But they, too, were unsuccessful in shielding the protestors.

Then came the vets. After watching a video of a disabled Navy veteran being beaten by federal troops, Portland's veterans organized a "Wall of Vets" and on the 24th of July joined the demonstrators. "Beating... moms, disabled vets, and minorities," said one of the veterans who helped form a human buffer around the activists, is wrong. "Enough is enough!"

Portland is not the first instance in which veterans have formed a human barricade to protect protestors. Four years ago, 2,000 of them travelled to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to serve as human shields after seeing footage of peaceful protestors brutally attacked by security dogs, blasted with water cannons in sub-zero temperatures, and fired at with rubber bullets, pepper spray, and bean-bag rounds. The veterans were determined to use their social capital to defend the indigenous water protectors from fellow uniformed officers.

The fact that ever more privileged groups have to use their bodies as human shields to protect protestors underscores several processes characterizing the contemporary American landscape.

It underscores just how militarized police forces have become. Indeed, in numerous cities police departments have procured Humvees, helicopters, and even tanks while their officers are being trained by former Special Forces soldiers, Navy SEALs, or Army Rangers. Such changes alongside President Trump's efforts to cast the protestors as enemies of the state and his decision to deploy federal troops to Portland are all crucial for understanding the high levels of violence being used against Black Lives Matter protests.

The introduction of warfare strategies into the civil sphere, including the use of flash grenades, rubber bullets, and riot teams in full military gear, however, has not merely resulted in an increase in state violence. It has also pushed citizens, even less politicized ones, to join civil protests and to adopt forms of defense that are often used in armed conflicts. In other words, as police officers have become more like the military, citizens have become more like civilians in war zones.

One could even say that the mothers, fathers and veterans who have voluntarily served as human shields in Portland are embracing strategies developed by transnational anti-war activists, like the activists in the Human Shield Action who travelled to Iraq in the midst of the Second Gulf War to protect civilian targets that were under threat of being attacked.

To be sure, drawing a comparison between civilians trapped in the midst of war and citizens who have been protesting in the United States elides the substantial difference in the degree of violence deployed in each setting. Yet, not unlike the civilians from the Middle East and Africa who have borne the brunt of the violence during the War on Terror, in the United States, citizens of color—and particularly indigenous Native Americans and African Americans—are the prime targets of state violence.

The appearance of Westerners as human shields in international conflicts and white human shields in civil protests illuminates quite clearly global racial hierarchies, where the lives of some matter more than the lives of others. Yet the fact that more and more white citizens are outraged by this hierarchy and are willing to put their bodies in the line of fire as they attempt to prevent attacks against black citizens suggests that anti-racist solidarity in the United States is assuming a new shape.

Thus, even as the images coming out of Portland are terrifying, they are also hopeful. They reveal how ultimately thousands of white citizens have come to realize that commitment towards racial justice ultimately requires joining hands in the frontline to form anti-racist human walls against state violence. The decision to pull the federal troops out of the city suggests that this kind of resistance is working.

Neve Gordon @nevegordon is a professor of human rights and international humanitarian law at Queen Mary University of London, and Nicola Perugini @PeruginiNic is a senior lecture in the School of Politics and International Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Their book Human Shields: A History of People in the Line of Fire is scheduled to appear on August 25.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.