As hundreds of people flooded into Peninsula Park in Portland, Oregon, last weekend despite the pouring rain, they brought a level of energy that few would expect months into an unending protest in the city. While the city braced itself for dueling rallies between an influx of far right Proud Boys on the one side and anti-fascists on the other, instead, the latter triumphed in a celebration of the strength they have found in continually taking a stand against the far right and police violence.
The Proud Boys have become a key part of Donald Trump’s base, with Trump even ordering them to “stand by” in case of accused election interference in November during Tuesday night’s presidential debate. This prompted Proud Boy organizer Joe Biggs to say that Trump basically gave the group the green light to fight anti-fascists.
“For years, this anti-fascist coalition has built a community of people who pour their creativity into community defense. And the uprising has built an anti-racist, anti-capitalist community of greater strength and resolve,” says Evan Burchfield of the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a 1,600-member chapter that has a history of getting involved in anti-fascist coalition efforts in Portland.
Portland DSA was one of several organizations that came together on September 26 to counter a far right rally that threatened to menace the city just three miles away, while tensions remain high during nightly anti-police protests.
September 26 was day 137 of nearly continuous protests in Portland, with protesters heading out into the streets nightly to confront police violence. The protests began on May 29 in response to the killing of George Floyd. Portland Police, and eventually the federal officers Trump ordered in, attacked protesters, reporters and legal observers with terrific amounts of force, helping demonstrators to make the case that the protests should continue. Within that dynamic, a third party emerged: the white vigilante. Around the country, far right groups have made their presence known as they come to attack anti-racist protesters and “re-establish order.” This has resulted in dozens of car attacks on protesters, incidents of vigilante patrols and even high-profile extrajudicial killings, including two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, by 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse.
Members of far right groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have gathered in Portland a number of times since 2016, culminating in an August 22 “Back the Blue” rally, where attendees attacked Black Lives Matter protesters with batons, shields, pepper spray, and pulled firearms, all with impunity while police refused to intervene. After a Patriot Prayer member was killed during another confrontation on August 29, the Proud Boys promised to return, citing Kyle Rittenhouse as their inspiration.
September 26 was this flashpoint, and a coalition of Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist organizations had to figure out how to continue the protests against the structural violence of the police and against far right vigilantes.
“We want to live in a safe community. The Proud Boys and other far right gangs have used our city as a staging ground for violence for years,” Burchfield told Truthout. “We hold these events to contain them, to keep our city safe, and to demonstrate what kind of community we are.”
This was how the event Bloom/Pollinate came together: a coalition effort that would bring together those opposed to the presence of the Proud Boys at an afternoon event that included anti-racist organizations from around the city offering a unified message against the far right and police violence.
While counterdemonstrations have become an expected prelude to the arrival of far right groups to Portland, for Bloom/Pollinate, the organizers decided to move it some distance from the Proud Boys rally location. The Proud Boys first headed to Terry Schrunk Plaza in the center of Portland, but after their leadership decided the anticipated crowd was too large, the Proud Boys decided to move to Delta Park, a large open area north of the city that does not have the same gun restrictions as Terry Schrunk Plaza. It is also the original site of Vanport, a historically Black neighborhood that was built during World War II when Black workers came to work at shipyards. It was destroyed by a flood in 1948 and has continued to serve as a historic reminder of racist policies in a city often touted as a haven for progressive politics.
“Our state’s racist exclusion laws kept Black people largely out of Oregon prior to 1940, but as Vanport became a hub for wartime industries, Black residents migrated to find work in this partially desegregated area,” says Effie Baum of Pop Mob, a Portland-based anti-fascist group. “When Vanport experienced a catastrophic flood, Black residents were abandoned, betrayed, lied to and offered no support. Vanport remains a poignant reminder of Oregon’s racist history. The silence from Proud Boys about this history indicates a deep ignorance or indifference about their presence in this area.”
The dynamics of holding a counterprotest at Delta Park created challenges for anti-fascist organizers, according to one member of Rose City Antifa who wishes to remain anonymous for safety reasons. Because of few entrances, a lack of visibility and an inability to easily get in and out of the park, it would have created problems for activists if a group of armed Proud Boys decided to engage in violence. After the August 22 rally, where the police stood three blocks away as protesters were beaten with batons and threatened with guns, it did not seem to the demonstrators that this was going to be a particularly safe dynamic.
Instead of holding their counterprotest against the Proud Boys in Vanport, organizers decided to gather at Peninsula Park, three miles away from Delta Park and a frequent starting point for the nightly protests because of the park’s proximity to the Portland Police Association office.
“It seemed appropriate to focus our attention on a celebration of the community that the people of Portland have created in opposition to these far right incursions, and to not deign to enter whatever trap the Proud Boys think they’re setting,” Baum told Truthout.
At noon, both rallies converged on different sides of North Portland. The Proud Boys, led by the group’s international chair, Enrique Tarrio, descended into the middle of the grassy field of Delta Park, staging people in militia gear at checkpoints entering the space. Many of the Proud Boys came armed, ranging from baseball bats to firearms, and as people flooded into the space, they began to swarm on media they considered “antifa.” This led to hairy moments as they threatened to attack several journalists, often brandishing their weapons and creating a fear of impending beatings or worse.
More than double that crowd gathered in Peninsula Park as a series of anti-fascist speakers led a rally that was surrounded with organizational tents inviting people to get involved in different forms of activism. In an effort to undermine the presence of the Proud Boys, Pop Mob reinstituted an idea they had started last summer when the Proud Boys flooded hundreds into Portland. Supporters could pledge a certain amount of money per Proud Boy that appeared across town; the more Proud Boys members that arrived, the more money would be raised for the chosen progressive organization. Last year, Pop Mob raised money for an immigrant rights organization, and this year, the money went to the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), a legal organization that provides legal support to marginalized communities. At last count, there was around $70 per Proud Boys participant pledged by supporters, and since around 300 people were in attendance at the Proud Boys rally, this equals to around $21,000 for OJRC.
“We know that fascism is not inevitable — never convince yourself of that. As long as we’re fighting, it’ll never happen, and we have to keep fighting,” says Juan Chavez, a project director and attorney with OJRC. “We need anti-fascism in our mind every day…. We need to be an anti-fascist every damn day.”
The OJRC is currently suing several people for their alleged assault of anti-racist demonstrators on August 22 for over $1 million.
Toward the close of the antiracist rally, a caravan snaked through the streets adjacent, each car pasted with the names and faces of people killed by police officers.
“Things got to change. My grandson should have been alive today,” says Donna Hayes, the grandmother of Quanice Hayes, a 17-year-old who was killed by Portland police in 2017. “Until the police change, it’s gonna be a whole lot of more people [dying].”
While there was concern in the air that the Proud Boys might head to Peninsula Park, it never materialized, and instead, the anti-fascist rally acted as a positive center for community bonding. After months of violent dispersals on protests by police, months of lawsuits and criminal charges, and months of violent attacks by far right vigilantes, the approach for healing and support challenged the atmosphere of tension that had started to mark the city.
While the Proud Boys continue to present a threat to the city, as do far right vigilantes across the country, anti-fascist organizations will continue to create opposition events and focus on keeping people safe. That night, as people returned to the streets to protest police brutality, they were met with possibly some of the most aggressive violence of the uprising from law enforcement. Protesters were shoved and hit with batons, and many demonstrators and members of the press suffered injuries.