These Invisible Wounds
If an officer beats you in the middle of Portland, and no one is there to see it, did it happen?
“I don’t know why I feel I’ve got to tell you this.”
Like most Portland protesters, she’s young and fully committed to fixing the broken world we’ve handed her. Brave enough to take to the streets despite the brutality of Portland Police and federal agents alike. She’s been protesting from the start.
Let’s call her W.
It is early August and I am not doing well. Four hours of sleep is a luxury I barely remember. It’s not nightmares exactly, just a failure to fall asleep and waking up wide-eyed three hours later. Benadryl isn’t working anymore and I’m reluctant to try stronger stuff. It feels like weakness. Not that this is strength, drinking beer at one o’clock in the afternoon and squinting at the computer screen.
W wrote me initially with a strange thing a cop had said to her — a response to a question I’d asked on social media about the police’s slipping veneer of professionalism. What I remember months later, however, was the way the conversation immediately, organically shifted to the night the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) broke her nose and snapped her wrist.
Or, more accurately, the strange and unjust way in which they didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong — W’s nose and wrist were broken, and the people who broke them were police. Factually speaking, there’s no question about what happened.
And yet, no record of the incident exists. The PPB did not, to our knowledge, report it. In a world of ubiquitous surveillance — of cameras on every street corner and in every pocket — we have no footage of the assault. No consequences will ever befall the officers who did it. We will never even know their names.
If an officer beats you in the middle of Portland, and no one is there to see it, did it happen?
Sometimes Portland itself seems to flicker in and out of reality. We suffer invisibly one week, then find ourselves flooded with cameras the next. National papers, big-name freelancers, expensive equipment. Out-of-town reporters approach members of the battle-worn Portland Press Corps like frat boys looking to score: you come here often?
Say what you want about the national press, when they come to town things happen loudly. Front page of the New York Times and Washington Post, CNN breaking news. Cops use excessive force. Federal agents gas Portland. More trouble on the streets of the Pacific Northwest. All eyes on us.
Yet even the national spotlight casts shadows. W’s brutalization at the hands of the Portland Police occurred in July, in the middle of the Federal occupation. Every journo that could hop a plane to Portland had their cameras pointed directly at DHS and Border Patrol agents as they filled the streets with tear gas and fired impact munitions point-blank into crowds of nonviolent demonstrators. No one paid attention to the Portland Police’s continuing penchant for violence. It complicated the narrative.
The darkest place on earth is surely just beyond the light.
When the spotlight shifts away from the City of Roses entirely, everything becomes murky. Local papers cannot afford to pay the liability insurance necessary for coverage in a de-facto war zone. The better ones pay freelancers to pick up the slack. The rest do what they’ve always done on the crime beat: wake up, read the police report from the night before, transform it into an article, call it a day.
So many things have happened in Portland that didn’t. Sometime in early August, at a protest in front of the Portland Police Association building, a truck plowed into a motorcycle, then gunned it through the crowd. The driver got out, brandished a pistol, then took off on foot. Miraculously, no one was injured. The police questioned the driver, then released him without charges. The attack never made the police report and therefore never made the news and therefore, in a very real sense, never took place.
The reverse is also true. That same report which didn’t mention the attempted vehicular attack identified three protesters arrested that night. First and last names, mugshots for Andy Ngo to share with his deranged and frothing followers. Whether the crimes the police wrote on the citations happened or not, those records last forever. Their mugshots still circulate. As long as this conflict lasts, they will never be truly safe.
“I don’t know why I feel like I have to tell you this,” W says to me and my fingers drift down to my still-healing leg, the scab where shrapnel pierced me to the bone three weeks earlier while I was filming. Too narrow and deep for stitches — the doctor didn’t want to risk infection. But there’s comfort in it. There will be a scar here for the rest of my life, and the scar will always say, this happened. It was real.
So much of what has happened leaves no trace. A beating in the dark. Mace that seeps into the skin, tear gas that chokes in the moment, then clenches my jaw and roils my stomach whenever I look at food — or was it psychological damage that prevented me from eating in those early-August days? What difference does it make? Whatever the cause, it was invisible. I couldn’t show it to anyone. I looked fine.
Injuries you can’t see are a tricky thing. We cannot make them manifest on the body. We cannot point to something and say, it happened.
But we can document the violence. We can film.
Cameras are a tricky thing. A large faction of leftists despise them, especially in recent days. Some distribute an infamous zine — ”In Defense of Smashing Cameras” — to protesters and journalists alike. The essay serves both as an argument and a threat.
The zine makes compelling points. It’s true that cameras can be dangerous to protesters. They can help police prosecute those accused of criminal acts. Malicious camera operators can use protest pictures to doxx demonstrators — reveal their personal information and make them targets of the far-right. Journalists and videographers can get in the way of action in the name of capturing that perfect shot.
And yet, the careful documentarian can avoid all these pitfalls while bringing the reality of protest into the light. The camera can reveal the things cops do when they think no one is watching. Beatings. Legal violations. Unjust arrests. The would-be murderers they release after friendly conversation.
Cameras make it harder for police to say, you’re a liar. We would never do such a thing. It never happened.
The police understand how dangerous cameras can be for them, even if some leftists remain skeptical. Throughout these protests, cops and feds alike have done everything they can to keep the cameras away from whatever it is they’re doing. They drive protesters into residential neighborhoods without lights or sidewalks. They corral the press, then bull rush along those blackout streets to smash into bodies, take them to the ground, beat them with batons: whatever they want. From mid-to-late August, the Portland Police barely arrested people. They simply beat them, then let them go. No paperwork. No evidence. Just bruises. Unless someone filmed it.
When the police dogpile some protester they’ve tackled from behind, their fellow cops place their bodies and shields between the cameras and their friends. If you stand your ground, sometimes you get to see what it is they’re hiding. You see the wide-swung fist slam into kidneys or faces, the restrained arrestee hauled up by bound wrists so their shoulders dislocate. The crime flickers into existence. Maybe it happened after all.
Two weeks after my conversation with W, I will record a police officer as he swings a large can of mace at a protester. The can will shatter her wrist. The protester will contact me the next day to ask for footage, and I’ll send it. Her whole family will reach out to me to express how much the video means to them. Because now there is no question. There’s evidence. It happened just like she remembered.
The people who message me for arrest footage, they usually tell me they want the tapes for court. This is true. But I often suspect there might be another reason, something unspoken: an attempt to return the thing that didn’t happen to the realm of the proven. An attempt to regain the narrative and some semblance of control.
“I don’t know why I feel like I have to tell you this,” W tells me, but I think I know exactly why.
Here’s what happened:
W tells me the Portland police accused her of throwing a projectile during the chaos of a bull rush. “You almost killed me!” the cop screamed, though the projectile in question bounced harmlessly off the road and did not strike him.
Her face slammed into the pavement when they tackled her. They wrenched her arms and zip-tied far too tight. W thinks this might be the thing that broke her wrist.
They dragged her to the riot van as blood poured from her broken nose. They set her directly in front of the exhaust pipe of the running vehicle. When she attempted to shift away from the fumes, they threatened her with their batons.
At no point did the police read W her Miranda rights.
They cut her backpack straps and went through her things in front of her. W remembers a cop holding up her gym membership. “Damn, you’d think she could have run faster!” Cowards often gloat when their perceived enemies are helpless.
But W wasn’t entirely helpless. Spirits are hard to break. “I made sure to blow blood out of my nose into the cop car,” she told me. “It’s the little things.”
She’d asserted herself before that, too, when police medics arrived. They asked if she’d passed out when their colleagues tackled her. W honestly wasn’t sure; it was all a blur and she was deeply concussed. But she knew she was injured and that she wanted to go to the hospital. “Yes,” she said.
The cops loaded W into the back of a cruiser. Drove her to the nearest precinct and a waiting ambulance. As the EMT filled out his mandatory forms, he asked the police for the names of the officers who’d injured her. The officers refused to provide that information, so the EMT left the field blank. Reality obliterated by paperwork.
Hours later, W emerged from the hospital with a cast, a swollen face, and an illegible citation with her name spelled wrong. Presumably she returned home to her family and her life. Everything probably looked about the same.
But it wasn’t.
There will be no charges. No officer will ever be held accountable for this excessive force. There will be no justice for W; there’s a real shortage of that these days. It’s why they march. It’s why they can’t stop marching.
The absence of justice. The absence of proof. The absence of scars.
These invisible wounds.