Conspiracy Theories by Cops Fuel Far Right Attacks Against Antiracist Protesters

On August 22, a far right confederation of Three Percenter militia, Proud Boys and Trump Republicans confronted Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters in Portland, Oregon. They came armed to the teeth: open-carried rifles and handguns, shields paired with pipes and batons, and body armor with heavy-duty bulletproof helmets. They formed a shield line, many emblazoned with far right slogans like “Save the Children,” a reference to the conspiracy theory that Democrats are running child sex-slave rings. After an hour of taunts, they charged into the crowd. They swung metal pipes, beating people to the ground, breaking bones and leaving serious injuries.

Among the crowd was Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, a Proud Boy recently convicted of assault on anti-fascists, as well as Ethan “Rufio” Nordean, who became famous when InfoWars repeatedly replayed a video of him knocking out a protester two summers ago. The far right crowd continually reformed to attack the anti-racist protesters, beating the “snack van” that has been used to deliver food to anti-brutality protests, and spraying an almost constant stream of pepper spray while firing paintballs indiscriminately. Far right protester Alan Swinney pulled his sidearm and aimed it at the crowd, and one reporter had his hand broken by the swinging batons.

While the police had been heavy-handed with protesters the preceding 87 days, on that Saturday, they stayed several blocks away.

“It is hard to see [August 22] as anything other than business as usual for the [Portland Police Bureau (PPB)],” says Effie Baum of the organization Pop Mob, which co-organized the counterdemonstration. “The PPB [has] been violently attacking demonstrators at BLM protests on a nightly basis for three months, so it should come as no surprise that they would allow their buddies to join in.”

In their press release, the PPB says that its “members have been the focus of over 80 days of violent actions directed at the police, which is a major consideration for determining if police resources are necessary to interject between two groups with individuals who seem to be willingly engaging in physical confrontations for short durations.”

While “protester violence” has been condemned recently in the press, this commentary has mistaken where the violence is coming from. These demonstrations have indeed been incredibly violent, but it is clear the vast majority of the violence is coming from either the police or right-wing vigilantes, not the protesters themselves.

This Is Portland

The anti-racist movement has exploded since the killing of George Floyd on May 25, with millions pouring into the streets for perhaps the largest protest wave in U.S. history. Portland has had one of the largest sustained protests, with no sign of slowing. The Portland police have been notably aggressive with both protesters and press, leading to a series of lawsuits and injunctions on police use of force. Trump then ordered in federal officers, who had no such restrictions. Soon, violence against demonstrators was marked by the indiscriminate use of aggressive “less-lethal” weapons like tear gas and flash grenades.

Outrage over the federal intervention swept Oregon, and the protests, which had slowed, exploded with energy. Eventually, the state’s leadership was able to negotiate a federal withdrawal with the White House, offering them the local officers as the alternative. Many people expected this to tamp down the aggressiveness of the demonstrations, but in the days that followed, the Portland and state police used aggressive dispersal tactics, beating protesters with batons, charging crowds and chasing demonstrators through the streets.

The police have been the loudest voice denouncing “violent protesters.” Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell penned an op-ed for The New York Times suggesting that protester violence escalated the situation, rather than the violence clearly visible from his department. Far right commentators have blamed the violence on the protest crowd, presenting an alternative reality of the protests as orchestrated by a cadre of antifa determined to overthrow the government.

These allegations miss a fundamental dynamic of the protests: The anti-racist demonstrators, in their most extreme actions, are culpable for little more than vandalism. The protests against police are not about the kind of violence that results in broken windows, but the kind where people end up dead.

Analysis from The Oregonian showed that of the 40 people killed by Portland police since 2003, a disproportionate number were Black. Of the 65 police who had fired their guns in these incidents, none were grand juried or faced discipline.

The capacity for violence during police dispersals is vastly uneven. The protesters are breaking the law when they vandalize buildings or light fires. In one case, a group beat up a man who drove his truck into a pole nearby, but the attackers were immediately disavowed by protest organizers. The police have used chemical weapons, tackling and beating people with retractable batons, spraying people with pepper spray, and causing mass trauma. This police violence has been so profound the city’s Independent Police Review is now investigating more than 40 allegations of police abuse. There are also allegations of sexual harassment coming from protesters.

A clear example of this disproportionate use of violence is the case of Donovan La Bella, who was standing across from the Multnomah County Justice Center before he was shot directly in the head with a police munition. The young man’s skull was fractured and he has a long recovery ahead from such a disastrous injury. There is no comparable case on the police side, because they overwhelmingly control the use of force. The police focused their ire on homemade shields used by protesters, but when video captures the police raiding crowds with batons or shooting exploding weapons, it is clear why the protesters bring the shields. The tear gas itself, which has apparently caused defoliation, has led to reports of menstrual irregularities. The tear gas has been used so heavily in Portland that there are fears that it could contaminate the water system, and though it was formally banned by the Mayor on September 10, it is unclear how long the ban will last.

“It has been getting more dangerous. [The PPB] is just using physical force on anyone — nonviolent protesters, local residents just watching, press and legal observers,” says Jovanni Lopez, who has been documenting protests and says he wears goggles, a helmet, a gas mask, and keeps “chemical wipes” handy. “I have seen officers kick, punch, throw and pepper spray protesters for not moving fast enough.”

The Vigilantes

On August 15, a “patriotic” rally was held in Portland, organized by far right activist Haley Adams, known for leading crowds of Proud Boys into fights with anti-racist counter-demonstrators in Portland the past few years.

As the right-wing demonstrators were leaving a public parking garage in downtown at 1:45 pm, far right activist Skylor Jernigan allegedly leaned out of a blue sedan and fired off several rounds.

“Obviously, everyone was pretty rattled by this…. There was a worry that more armed far right people were still in there,” says Laura Jedeed, who was live-tweeting and taking video when the shots were fired. “This thing where they’ve now fired live rounds kind of breaks the seal, so to speak. They’ve gotten over the taboo of not shooting at people. I fully expect them to shoot more rounds.”

This was just minutes after BLM protesters allege that a pipe bomb was tossed at them, the second in just a few days.

A new wave of far right vigilante violence is rising, sparked by the paranoid conspiracies that right-wing media and police unions are pushing about protesters.

In Kenosha, Wisconsin, as protests erupted over the shooting of Jacob Blake, Kyle Rittenhouse joined white nationalists to take arms against the protesters. Rittenhouse eventually shot three protesters, killing two of them, before walking away through the police line without intervention.

In counties far removed from protests — from Canadian County, Oklahoma, to Pinal County, Arizona — sheriffs have called on citizens’ posses to end civil unrest. Police posed for selfies and collaborated with vigilantes in cities like Salem, Oregon and Olympia, Washington. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the local GOP openly supported a militia facing a lawsuit from the state after a vigilante shot a protester during a counterprotest. On August 24, a nonviolent marcher was shot in Bedford County, Virginia. This makes sense given the historic crossover between police departments and far right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, and, according to recent studies, members of far right groups have intentionally moved into positions in law enforcement.

An investigation of the spatial distribution of incidents tracked on social media and data available in the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project database reveals discernible hotspots. The highest concentration of vigilante intimidation and violence occurs in the Southwest and Northwest U.S.

Population density does not determine where the violence happens, so it can occur in rural areas or in cities, and while Portland leads the pack in vigilante incidents, cities with higher populations have far fewer incidents. The list of 15 counties with the most incidents include mid-level cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, as well as Salem and Eugene, Oregon

This is a kernel density map of number of incidents of vigilantism—namely harassment, intimidation, or assault against BLM protesters and minorities in the U.S.
This is a kernel density map of number of incidents of vigilantism — namely harassment, intimidation, or assault against Black Lives Matter protesters and people of color in the U.S.

In Portland, violence has been ascendant. Before the drive-by pipe bomb attack on August 15, there was an earlier protest on August 8 during which multiple explosions were observed. Police are now investigating Louis Garrick Fernbaugh, a former CIA contractor and Navy SEAL, for the attack. On August 4, a truck plowed through a protest crowd, narrowly missing people as sparks flew from a motorcycle caught under its front bumper. On August 17, a man wielding a bat went through Portland, attacking businesses that had Black Lives Matter signs up. Proud Boys have attacked protesters in Michigan, and in Philadelphia, there were vigilante squads armed with baseball bats patrolling the streets looking for protesters.

This pattern has been repeated across the country. In Austin, Texas, a far right soldier who had tweeted about his hatred of protesters drove into a protest, shooting and killing a protester. Police arrested him, released him within 24 hours, and he emerged the next day to harass and terrorize a vigil for his victim.

Between May 25 and July 7, there were up to 66 attacks on protesters by people wielding cars as weapons. Most recently this occurred in Times Square on September 3. The University of Chicago’s Chicago Project on Security and Threats has been tracking these attacks, tracing the violent tactic back to “Run Them Over” memes popular in right-wing circles.

What the Danger Looks Like

On August 29, a caravan of Trump supporters careened through Portland, spraying anti-racists with mace. One of those people was shot and killed by what many allege was an anti-racist protester, and now the far right group the Proud Boys will return for a rally on September 26. As the police ramp up violence against protesters, with increased support from Oregon’s governor, there does not seem to be an end to this violence in sight.

On Monday, August 7, participants at a Trump rally in Salem, Oregon, which included Proud Boys, attacked Black Lives Matter counterdemonstrators, hitting an independent journalist in the back of the head with a baseball bat, ripping off his protective gear, and spraying him with pepper spray while he was on the ground in the fetal position.

“Thirty-seconds after turning my back all I know is I was on the ground and I couldn’t move and once they tore off [my protective equipment] she walked up and all I could feel was the mace on me,” said Joe Smothers, the journalist who was at the demonstration to livestream. Smothers alleges that he was singled out for his journalism work, and the assault resulted in a second concussion in a couple of weeks, the first being from the August 22 rally when he was struck in the head by a rock.

The violence is only on a path to escalation, and even as the forest fires make outdoor demonstrations hazardous, there is no reason to believe that they are taking a day off. “When we come, we don’t really come armed. We barely come with shields … but they bring like bear mace, batons. I feel like once the police start holding their own side accountable, and themselves accountable, then it will end,” says Smothers.

While it is the anti-racist and anti-fascist protesters who have faced the brunt of criticism, the math simply does not add up. While the protest movements are demonized with hyperbolic allegations of malfeasance (such as their supposed responsibility for the forest fires), Department of Homeland Security officials now report that they were instructed to downplay the frightening threat of white nationalist violence. If we are looking at the numbers and seriousness of the attacks, the far right and the police are responsible for the lion’s share. If we want to bring the protests to a close and end the violence, then this means a commitment to de-escalation and nonviolence from both the police and right-wing agitators.