ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Officials in Oregon are hoping to defuse the tense situation outside the federal courthouse in downtown Portland. A new deal would have the state police protect the property instead of federal officers. The feds presence has stoked nightly confrontations. Some protesters have thrown objects at them and even pulled down the building's protective fence. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, such tactics have a long tradition in the Pacific Northwest.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: In the news lately, you may hear a protest described as mostly peaceful. What that usually means is most of the protesters were peaceful, and a few were not.
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KASTE: A barrage of fireworks launched at the federal courthouse in Portland early Tuesday morning. Police there reported a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the courthouse, too, while other people fed fires inside the protective fence. The people doing these things tend to wear black, so they're often called the black bloc, and in this part of the country, they're nothing new.
GILLIAN MURPHY: Their goal was to increase the conflict.
KASTE: That's Gillian Murphy recalling the scene, in 1999, when the black bloc appeared at the WTO protests in Seattle. She was a sociology grad student then, documenting how activist groups worked together - or didn't.
MURPHY: You know, they were not the people joining arms and being silent or singing or sitting down; they were running and throwing and breaking.
KASTE: Since then, the black bloc has been a feature of protests in cities all along the I-5 corridor - Eugene, Portland, Olympia. In Seattle, the annual May Day parade is often followed by a kind of after-party confrontation between black bloc and police. Sometimes they're called piggyback activists because they're accused of using destructive tactics to co-opt other people's peaceful marches. That's certainly the message of local Democratic politicians. Here Seattle's Mayor Jenny Durkan after protesters went on a Wednesday-night window-breaking spree.
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JENNY DURKAN: There is a distinction. Many of those people are from here; some, we believe, are coming from Portland and other areas. There has literally been posted on the Internet a call to the fight, with pictures of burning police cars. That's what we want to avoid.
KASTE: But Mike Andrews says that distinction is a false one. He's with the website It's Going Down. It's a media platform for anarchists and antifascists. He says black bloc is not a group; it's a tactic, and it's a tactic that's increasingly suited to the current state of the country.
MIKE ANDREWS: The class war in the United States is becoming much more naked at a time when people are losing faith in the institutions that exist and also becoming very angry at the police.
KASTE: He says politicians and police are just using labels, such as black bloc and antifa, to delegitimize the larger protest movement.
ANDREWS: They're not necessarily really concerned about the vandalism, per se, as the situation itself getting outside of their own control. Tens of thousands of people in the streets over a long period of time, basically realizing that the government is illegitimate and doesn't have their own interests, and people are trying to push back against that.
KASTE: But some activists do see a distinction between themselves and the black bloc, especially activists who've been working on police reform for a while. Andre Taylor runs a group called Not This Time. His brother was shot and killed by Seattle police. He says his cause is not helped by what he calls aggravation and violence.
ANDRE TAYLOR: The focus is not on Black lives anymore. The focus is like you're calling me now over what happened last Wednesday. So nobody's having a conversation about how to edify and uplift Black lives; now we're talking about people busting out windows and the like.
KASTE: Still, there is a generational divide on this. Black bloc protesters have picked targets that resonate with the larger Black Lives Matter movement - the federal court in Portland, a jail construction site in Seattle. They even looted a vintage clothing store that belongs to the wife of a cop involved in a controversial fatal shooting. Younger activists have been reluctant to publicly criticize these actions, and some say their movement needs, quote, "a diversity of tactics."
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.