(Originally published 04/30/07, Portland IndyMedia)
This May Day the downtown streets of Portland promise to be a vibrant mix of demonstrators protesting everything from the Iraq War to corporate capitalism to immigration restrictions to US-sponsored terrorism. Portland Police will no doubt be out in force to crack down on the willful jaywalkers, unpermitted marchers, disobedient youth, and unruly peaceniks that decide, at least once a year, to take the First Amendment at face value.
What all the bike riding, horse mounted and riot helmeted gendarmes may not yet fully appreciate, however, is the real possibility of dark-hearted predators prowling those same chaotic pavements looking to cause serious bodily harm, particularly to the radical antiwar crowd.
Anyone who regularly consumes the independent as well as the corporate media is well aware that during the last big antiwar rally in Portland, on March 18, a group of black bloc anarchists put the torch to an effigy of a US soldier. Now, flaming American flags have been a staple of innumerable antiwar rallies and marches in Stumptown since before the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, with burning Old Glorys as commonplace as peace placards. But the March 18 effigy burning, and its ever-glowing digital pyre courtesy of a posting on YouTube.com, has created an impact reverberating far beyond Portland’s lean and mean antiwar anarchist cells.
In response to the video, as well as the first images of the effigy burning posted by a local college student on her Facebook page, conservative wag Bill O’Reilly and Fox News, the progressive political site BlueOregon.com, and editorial pages and blogs of The Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, and Hillsboro Argus, in addition to countless other sites and blogs have all chimed in on this burning form of protest that’s obviously a new wrinkle in the nation’s anti-Iraq war movement.
Death Threats Posted on YouTube
That brings us to the 3-minute and 43-second YouTube video of the effigy burning still up and running at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecp8ZCC3tB8. As of a few days ago, the video had generated more than 10,300 viewings and at least 450 posted commentaries. Those commentaries (grammar and spelling unchanged below) run the expected gamut from “great video fuck american fascism” to “What a disgrace too all veterans who faught and died for those fecks, americans should unite against this scum and send them on a fast boat to cuba or china if they wanna be commies.”
With a close reading though, especially on the earlier postings some weeks ago, one discovers more than a few clear and obvious threats of bodily harm:
“I live in Portland, if I ever meet these piece of shit scum bags Ill fucking shoot them,” declared someone using the name of Shroomalator and claiming to be 26 years old.
“Time to do to these cock suckers what was done to anarchists in 1910. Start killing them!,” urges Dannavy85, a self-proclaimed 40 year old who followed up that statement with “They have the right to take a bullet for treason.” His personal page displays a link to a video “History repeats itself” exhibiting a disturbing still of apparently lifeless children.
And how about this extended denunciation and threats from a 44-year-old poster who goes by It5lee: “DEATH TO THESE LITTLE ANARCHIST BASTARDS,… I DO NOT GIVE A SHIT ANYMORE, THEY SHOULD DIE FOR THIS LEVEL OF SEDITION & TREASON.. LETS PUT THEM IN THEIR PLACE, 6′ UNDER WHO WOULD DO THIS. YES, I am serious, I ADVOCATRE FOR THEIR DEATH… AND I mean a Painful one!!! 5 gallons of gasoline is all I would have asked for!!!
Another extreme threat comes from a 15-year-old poster going by the name of alisouvannakhily who writes, “This is for all u who think this is patriotism . . . a soldier of our and our flag two of the most important things to our countries i would get my gun to this act of treson and shoot every single one of these guys.”
The Multnomah County District Attorneys Office was presented with these and other YouTube postings of a violent nature directed at the effigy burners. In response, Deputy District Attorney Laurie Abraham wrote, “It is our opinion that these postings that you cite in your email do not violate Oregon criminal law and are protected by the federal and state constitutional right to engage in free speech even though they contain what reasonable people would find to be offensive language.”
The Deputy District Attorney added that the DA’s office in fact was not the appropriate place to begin an investigation of this sort. “The local law enforcement agency within whose jurisdiction the allegations occurred would be responsible for the investigation of those allegations.”
Police Won’t Even Read the Threats
But when an attempt was made to turn over the written threats in hardcopy form to the Portland Police Bureau, Public Information Officer Brian Schmautz would not even take the time to glance over the highlighted threats during the course of a face-to-face encounter. “You mean something someone posted on a blog?” he asked dismissively, and claimed that anything written on the Internet would fall under free speech protections. “If you had a specific person who’s making a specific threat to a specific person, individual towards individual, it’s potentially possible that we would take those e-mails to the DA’s office and say, ‘Okay, what do you think?’ The victim has to file a police report, and say ‘I am in fear based on this information.’ We would take the police report, and then we would get some direction as to whether on not somebody in the DA’s office believes there was a crime.”
When reminded that these threats are made not against an individual, but toward any one in a group of people taking certain public actions, Schmautz replied, “These are generalized threats, I’m telling you that, our understanding, based on the definition that we’ve given, these would be protected by free speech (laws).” Keep in mind that Schmautz still had not even reviewed the written and posted threats.
The officer went on to repeat that police would certainly take and file a report from an effigy burner who planned to do so again, and felt threatened as a result of these written statements. But any further action would most likely not occur. “Under the circumstances that you’ve given me, with the facts you’ve given me, I don’t believe even if we found the person that wrote those e-mails that the DA’s office would believe that person had taken a substantial step toward committing a crime.”
Though Schmautz was correct in his assumption that the DA’s office felt the written threats did not violate Oregon criminal law and are protected by the federal and state constitutional right to engage in free speech, Abraham did add that “This does not mean that our office finds that these postings are not serious. We are concerned about the allegations made in these postings and do take them seriously.”
According to Schmautz, Oregon free speech protections go so far as to allow direct face-to-face threats of death, just so long as no other “substantial or overt step” is taken. Having a gun or knife in hand when making such a threat, for example, would constitute such a step, he said. Crimes also are committed if threats are made over the phone, he remarked, due to an exception in the current law.
So when directly asked if the YouTube death threats rise to the level warranting an investigation, Schmautz replied, “No. Free speech crosses all ways. Just because someone is offended by what someone else says; because Oregon is a very liberal state, the free speech laws are very expansive in Oregon.”
For a viewpoint beyond legal and law enforcement realms, Jerald J. Block MD chimed in. He is a full-time private practice psychiatrist in Northwest Portland that is a Board Certified Diplomate in Adult Psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and since 2002 a Medical Student teacher at Oregon Health Science University, Department of Psychiatry. Block is a prolific writer and speaker whose recent topics have included “Lessons from Columbine: Virtual and Real Rage,” “Omissions and Errors in ‘Media Violence and the American Public’,” “Borderline Personality Disorder: Current Treatment and Theory,” and “Prevalence Underestimated in Problematic Internet Use Study”.
“Burning Effigies are Likely to Incite Others”
Concerning the YouTube video, Block commented via e-mail, “I found it very, very disturbing and provocative. Such actions as burning effigies are likely to incite others . . . This is toxic, meant just to create chaos and generate rage. It helps no one except those so filled with anger that they don’t know better.”
During the video effigy burning, people off-camera can be heard singing a number of anti-military chants while a life-size dummy dressed in camouflage is doused in lighter fluid and set afire. “Bye, Bye GI’s / In Iraq You’re Gonna Die.” Another includes the lines “Build a bonfire, build a bonfire / Put the soldiers on the top / Put the fascists in the middle / We’ll burn the fuckin’ lot.” They continue with “Fascist Bush and the soldiers, too / Fascist war is nothing new.”
When asked about the written threats accompanying the YouTube video, though, Dr. Block backed off somewhat, stating “if someone posted a comment indicating a specific plan, time, or clear intent, I would be more concerned. In my opinion, the first comment from the Portland resident comes the closest to this but still seems too vague to be actionable.” Keep in mind Block sent this reply before viewing the YouTube video.
To be fair, Block also offered the following prior to viewing the video: “Here, the threats are comments, responding to the YouTube content. It would be far more threatening if someone created their own website and posted such comments there. This is what we saw with Eric Harris and Columbine. Thus, if someone can simply reply and post a comment, the ease and immediacy of such verbiage causes one to discount its significance. If, on the other hand, someone goes through more substantial effort to threaten or malign, the danger needs to be taken more seriously.”
Still, apparently believing the initial correspondence regarding the YouTube threats came from someone involved in the effigy burning (they did not), Block thought enough of the threats to advise, “Did you ask the police for their ‘official comments’ or did you file a complaint? If you filed a complaint, you have done the appropriate step.”
“A Statement from Some Effigy Burners”
Unsuccessful actions were taken to contact the effigy burning protestors for their reactions to the posted death threats. Even so, on April 5, 2007, a manifesto of sorts was posted to Portland Indy Media ( http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2007/04/357105.shtml) entitled “A statement from some effigy burners” anonymously authored by “Veterans of Future Wars.” Though impossible to verify, it’s the most credible statement appearing to date regarding the actions behind the March 18 effigy burning in Portland. In part, the statement includes, “Most of us know soldiers personally, and many of us have loved ones and family members enlisted in the armed forces. The people who march in the streets under a “Fuck The Troops” banner may be antagonizing their brother, sister, or cousin. When we burn effigies of soldiers, we are not ignorant of the pain we may cause to our own families.
“But a soldier is trained to follow orders rather than her own guiding ethics; she has given up control of herself—placed herself in the hands of the state—for good or ill. The good soldier is part marionette, and what little initiative she is encouraged to have is funneled into activities that further only the agenda of her superiors. She is not the cousin that I love, when her arms are guided by another.
“There is no draft in the US at the moment, and although many are railroaded into the service by lies or economic hardship, it is still a choice and there are still options. To claim otherwise is to disenfranchise the poor. If you’re hung up about supporting someone, then support the would-be troops; show them options to enlistment and reveal the lies of recruiters. Support the ex-soldiers who refuse to serve.”
Whether Portland’s anarchist effigy burners are in any real danger should they decide to carry out their unique brand of public protest again is anyone’s guess. Whatever actions occur this May Day should go a long way toward answering that question. Regardless, it’s a pretty fair assumption that Stumptown’s anarchists will be out in force this Tuesday, not backing off their positions, not pulling off their masks, or putting down their lighters.
The final segment of the effigy burners’ statement concludes: “We will not support the troops as long as they remain troops. We will not support those who occupy foreign land by force of arms, and we will not deny them the responsibility of their actions. A person is responsible for the things that they do willingly, whether directed by another or of their own initiative. Fuck the troops.”
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