A Woman In Portland

What are the rules of engagement for a mob of highly-equipped men, with layers of protective clothing, against a woman wearing no clothes?

That was the situation in Portland on July 18. The woman was as unidentifiable as the men, wearing only a mask and a knit cap. She appeared, danced, and then sat to expose her vulva to the men. Photo showing nudity after the fold.

The men shot pepper balls at her feet, in contrast to the rubber bullets and teargas they have shot at other protesters. About ten minutes after she arrived, the Portland Oregonian says, the men left.

What are the rules of engagement? We have seen the pseudo-military mob attack a man in sweatshirt and knee-length shorts for speaking to them about their presumable oath to the Constitution. We have seen them attack the Wall of Moms and Leafblower Dads, seemingly without provocation. A clothed woman who danced with flowers was roughly taken into custody.

The contrast between the heavily armored and equipped men and a woman covering only her hair and nose and mouth echoes the disparity between police bodies and black bodies that the Portland protests have commemorated – in particular, the death of George Floyd, who was wearing ordinary clothes while the armed and armored police crushed out his life and breath.

Clothing protects. Layers of Kevlar, pads for elbows and knees, breathing apparatus against the irritants they intend to deploy, rip-stop fatigues, helmets, and heavy boots and gloves protect easily injured human skin and bones.

Protection is necessary for anticipated violence. But anticipating violence often prepares the way for it. The woman’s nakedness said that she anticipated no violence, and those anticipating violence directed little of it her way.

Do the Rules of Engagement for the armed mob say anything about attempting to de-escalate tensions? To mediate where possible? Do they list appropriate and inappropriate actions in response to “the enemy,” aka citizens in the streets? Do they take into account the power difference between agents of the state and ordinary citizens?

The difference in physical power between a naked woman and men dressed for combat is absolute. But there are other kinds of power. The men left the area without assaulting and detaining her. Another photo, from two years ago, also speaks of a physically vulnerable woman’s power in contrast to heavily uniformed men.

A demonstrator protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling is detained by law enforcement near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S. July 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

In the older photo, the woman is lightly clothed and impassive. She seems in control of the situation. Her strength and lack of fear are similar to that of the Portland woman. She was taken into custody just after the photo.

The women’s legitimacy lies in their existence and their lack of fear. The men have a physical legitimacy in their gear: expensive, provided by the state, protective of their physical person. The legitimacy of their behavior has not been validated by the authorities, who have gone to some lengths to make the men unidentifiable and who have not made the rules of engagement public.

The Portland woman may be calling on another sort of legitimacy. Femininsts have rediscovered the Sheela-na-Gigs carved in churches in the British Isles. They take the same position that she took toward the men, which may be a position of power and protection for those behind her. That is the interpretation that some feminists have taken of the Sheela-na-Gigs, but we don’t know their meaning.

Once again, the Trump administration has mistaken violence for effectiveness. The Portland woman reminds us there is another way. We need to ask whether restraint and mediation are any part of the protected men’s rules of engagement.

Update: Another

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice