Big Trouble in Little Beirut

As Mr. Trump goes to Washington (state), we revisit the legendary Bush protests.

This week, Donald J. Trump is coming to—well, not to Portland.

The nativist Republican learned his lesson about holding a rally in the middle of a large liberal city when he aborted a rally in Chicago where his supporters were totally outgunned. But Donny is coming to Vancouver, which is close enough to Portland to likely see vigorous "direct action."

There's a chance this week's Trump appearance will be the most intense protests in a quarter century since the series of Portland protests that earned the city the nickname "Little Beirut." The Little Beirut protests happened between 1989, the year Taylor Swift was born, and 1991, the year Nirvana released Nevermind. At the time, Oregon was still friendly to Republicans—disgraced Bob Packwood still held the Senate seat Ron Wyden has occupied for the last 20 years.

Sometime during these protests, a member of George H.W. Bush's administration dubbed the city "Little Beirut." When, exactly, is hard to say—every time Bush or Vice President Dan Quayle came to Portland, protests erupted.

The most intense protest—and the one that's the most famous today thanks to being described by Chuck Palahniuk in Fugitives and Refugees—was in September 1990.

Quayle came to Portland for a $2,500-per-person Republican fundraiser at the downtown Hilton on Monday, Sept. 24. While the vice president was raising money and support for Republican representative Denny Smith (not re-elected) inside the hotel, 300 protesters gathered outside. Flags were burned. A man took a shit on a photo of Quayle.

Suit-wearing Reed students swallowed colored food dye and vomited red, white and, unintentionally, green.

This was just one of four protests that greeted Bush and Quayle. The first, in 1989, was "the only [protest] that disrupted [Quayle's] schedule," the vice president's press secretary David Beckwith bragged to The Oregonian.

And yet, the Little Beirut legacy lasts—it's unlikely Trump will dare get any closer than Vancouver.

It may be 25 years in the past, but many of the city's residents have embraced the nickname with T-shirts, bumper stickers, a compilation of Portland punk called Anarchy in Little Beirut and the group B.E.I.R.U.T. (Boisterous Extremists for Insurrection against Republicans and other Unprincipled Thugs).

There's even a property management company named Little Beirut—by a veteran of the protests who now runs a successful business.

"We didn't want to name it 'Swanson Management,'" says John Swanson, owner of Little Beirut Properties. "We wanted something more representative of the city's iconoclastic and rebellious history. It's just a shame more people these days don't know about that time."

Here's what he means.

The Chiles Center Protest, October 1984

Ronald Reagan was one of the first Republican presidents to receive Portland's hospitality when he stumped at the University of Portland's Chiles Center en route to one of the most lopsided re-elections in electoral history. Per Oregonian accounts, political activists lined up outside with coffins, a replica of a cruise missile and photos of victims of El Salvadorean death squads. Oh, and someone spilled a quart of human blood over the entrance to the arena.

A few protesters bought tickets and infiltrated the arena, only to be escorted out by members of the Secret Service.

The Shipyard Protest, September 1988

Four years later, Reagan's vice president made a stop in Portland on the campaign trail. Republican nominee George H.W. Bush was greeted by more than 1,000 booing union workers when he visited the Northwest Marine Iron Works on Swan Island. It was the most hostile crowd he encountered on the campaign trail, but merely a prelude to what Portland had in store for the nebbish WASP once he was elected.

Little Beirut I, September 1989

The first Little Beirut protest took place when Vice President Quayle came to Portland to defend the Bush administration's inaction during a failed Panamanian coup and to make it harder for victims of statutory rape to access federal funding for rape victims. Unsurprisingly, he was greeted by 150 protesters.

"Out of respect for the office of vice president, there should have been at least 500," Quayle reportedly joked.

Where other protests had a singular goal, these protests were over a grab bag of issues ranging from the U.S. government's despicable policy in Latin America to abortion to the government's despicable handling of the AIDS crisis. The crowds were a healthy mix of political protesters and good, old-fashioned anarchists.

It was the largest protest Quayle had encountered during his first nine months in office, and the only one to disrupt his schedule as protesters blocked his way to the Hilton downtown. Over 20 protesters were arrested and a police van transporting several protesters crashed into a pickup truck on its way to the precinct—this appears to have been an honest error and not a rough ride.

Little Beirut II, May 1990

The following May, President George H.W. Bush himself came to town to help raise funds for then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Dave Frohnmayer. Three hundred protesters greeted the well-heeled Republicans with eggs, fruit, spit and purportedly some explosive devices, along with burning American flags. The protest ended in a brawl as 75 police officers in riot gear descended on the crowd. Twenty-five were arrested.

Little Beirut III, September 1990

Quayle returned in September of 1990 to help raise funds for Oregon Republican candidates and to support an education bill. (This was two years before the American public found out the incumbent vice president couldn't spell "potato.") As if hearing his taunt from the year before, there were twice as many protesters outside the Hilton this time.

A group of 24 Reed students, including Igor Vamos of the Yes Men fame, dubbed themselves the Guerrilla Theater of the Absurd. They put on their finest suits and ties, swallowed food coloring and ipecac to vomit up red, white and blue—their plan was thwarted because their stomach acid turned the blue food coloring green. This agitprop art display was dubbed the Reverse Peristalsis Painters.

Guerrilla Theater of the Absurd from Daniel Levin on Vimeo.

Fifty-one were arrested at this protest, including art gallery and coffee shop owner Anne Hughes, who wound up winning a $25,000 settlement from the city due to her treatment at the hands of the Portland Police Bureau. This event led to Mayor Bud Clark writing a strongly worded letter to the police department.

Little Beirut IV, September 1991

By this time, the nickname was known—The Oregonian's preview article asked if Bush was ready for "another day in Beirut."

Wild protests having become popular in the city, a group decided to give them live-ish coverage.

In Fall 1991, President H.W. Bush came back. A new group called "Flying Focus Video Collective" and Portland Cable Access teamed up to provide live coverage of the protests outside the Oregon Convention Center. Portlanders were finally able to see one of the Little Beirut protests. An anchorman in shorts introduced it as such: "It's a beautiful day in Portland. It's a beautiful day for a protest."

The broadcast was mostly hamstrung by its need for access to cable, but people were delivering footage by bicycle from all around the protest.

"This was actually our first and only live broadcast because of the unintended consequences," says Dan Handelman, co-founder of FFVC and Portland Copwatch. "Portland Police contacted us afterwards, asking us to turn over the footage. We thought they were just going to use it to find more people to arrest."

After consulting with their lawyer, Flying Focus didn't turn over any footage. But they also decided against another live protest broadcast. The Portland Police Bureau arrested 30 protesters according to Oregonian accounts at the time, including one person arrested for throwing a muffin.

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