On the evening of January 17, members of the far-right groups Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer surrounded a small house-turned-office on the busy East Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon.
The building houses a rotating door of nonprofits and community organizations, each renting small office space, anchored by the Portland Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). It also houses the Portland branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose massively growing membership has made the group a major player in just about every social movement in the city.
The DSA’s high-profile activism in the city has made it a target of both far-right groups. In particular, Haley Adams, an “internet celebrity” allied with the Proud Boys, decided to organize the group to retaliate against the DSA after DSA members denied her entry to their Queer Caucus meeting on January 10 because of her threats and racist remarks against leftists.
Adams is known for her aggressive targeting of leftist groups at protests and for bringing the so-called “#HimToo” movement to Portland, where she alleges that there are a large number of men falsely accused of sexual assault. (The statistics on sexual assault reporting, however, do not support her allegations.)
While Adams said she was at Portland DSA headquarters on January 17 to discuss her effort to recall Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, DSA and IWW organizers say that this is the latest attempt by the far right to disingenuously stoke discord in front of a popular social media livestream.
A History of Provocation
The Proud Boys, a street gang that saw its peak riding the coattails of the “alt-right,” has been at the center of a two-year campaign of attacks in liberal cities around the country. Building a narrative about “protecting the community” from anti-fascists, members have patrolled urban centers and are accused of initiating gang-style assaults that have left dozens hospitalized. In Portland, this has been especially persistent since the Proud Boys linked up with Patriot Prayer, known for its Trumpian rabble-rousing and public instigations of violence.
This has resulted in almost monthly confrontations in the streets. Yet, even as the two groups’ ability to draw public sympathy wanes, they have only ramped up these provocations by trying to move into left-wing political spaces to instigate conflict.
On January 17, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, Haley Adams and Cole Strong — a group of Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer supporters — joined several others surrounding the East Burnside building, calling it the “antifa trap house” on their livestream. They were there supported by “copwatchers,” a loose network of livestreamers often accused of cozying-up to the far right, including registered sex offender Robert West. The General Defense Committee (GDC) of the Portland IWW was waiting to de-escalate the situation, having anticipated the visit after it was announced online.
“The DSA and IWW GDC safety teams were there, including trained de-escalators, to keep everybody safe so [the DSA] could have their [caucus] meeting,” said Effie Baum, an organizer with the Committee. “They will show up and find a bunch of leftists having boring organizing meetings, and they will get bored and leave.”
That’s just what happened: Though they engaged in some targeted yelling and threats against DSA members, after about an hour of theatrics, the “alt-righters” started heading out. Despite this, other anti-fascist community members came out in response to the groups’ livestream. The “alt-righters” then pulled over their vehicle, and a fight ensued. Police responded but ended up leaving without search or arrest.
According to a video later put out by Adams (now taken down), one participant, James Edward Johnson, had a head injury and had to get four staples. Meanwhile, another participant, Reggie Axtell, supposedly had a broken rib and punctured lung.
“This marked one of the many instances of Haley Adams and company trying to force their way into leftist organizing spaces in order to photograph and threaten people,” said David Rose, an organizer with Rose City Antifa. “We’ve seen a pattern of the far-right groups attempting to intimidate and attack leftists.”
In the days that followed, Proud Boy and Patriot Prayer media exploded with angry rants, including one from Tiny, who claimed a fellow participant had brought and displayed a firearm.
On January 19, the same day as the nationwide Women’s March and a Portland counter-demonstration to the anti-abortion “Right to Life” protest, a group of about 30 Patriot Prayer and Proud Boy members returned to the IWW office, this time vocally ready for a fight.
“I was really just worried about the building itself. Were they going to come up onto the porch? Was my car outside going to be okay?” said Sam Esse, an IWW member who was working quietly in the building when the groups surrounded and began yelling through a megaphone at the door.
When they got no response from the union hall, the “alt-righters” began parading up and down the street, playing the “Imperial March” from Star Wars on portable speakers and heckling people in local businesses and apartments.
William Anderson, an organizer with the Portland libertarian municipalist community organization Demand Utopia, and Portland resident Robert Dunn headed over to the growing crowd when word of the confrontation spread on social media.
“I thought, if I kept my distance, they wouldn’t attack me for simply dissenting against their narrative…. I was wrong,” Anderson told Truthout. He and a friend were surrounded as Joey Gibson, Patriot Prayer’s founder, yelled at them about “beating up Black people” after they approached the “alt-righters” who were yelling into the megaphone. This was a reference to the fact that one of the Patriot Prayer supporters injured in the confrontation in front of the union hall was Black.
“When I started to be assaulted by the larger crowd, the fervor and hatred in their demeanor was shocking. I was very much afraid for my life at that point. If it wasn’t for [a] community member pulling me into their store, I think I would have received very serious bodily harm,” said Anderson.
The two groups honed in on Dunn especially, threatening to get physical while trying to provoke a reaction they could get on camera. “They demand[ed] I denounce the DSA because some skinheads beat up some of their people the day before. I hadn’t heard of it and wasn’t associated with it, and I rightfully assumed they came looking for a fight, so I refused,” Dunn told Truthout, referencing the idea that anti-racist skinheads had been involved in the conflict with Patriot Prayer.
The confrontation between Patriot Prayer’s group and Anderson and Dunn was confirmed by cellphone video taken by the Patriot Prayer contingent, which showed them crossing the street and planning the confrontation while Adams stated that, “We don’t want it to look like we’re fighting them.”
Gibson was seeking retaliation for the fight that took place in front of the union hall on January 17, but since he could not find anyone responsible, his crew of supporters headed across the Willamette River into West Portland, where the Right to Life march was taking place.
At the march, several of the “alt-righters” donned masks and then looked for (likewise masked) counterprotesters to confront. Far-right members surrounded several counterprotesters, taunting them with threats and demanding accountability for what happened to the “alt-right” participants who were injured on the 17th.
“[It was] like a loud argument with a bunch of them yelling their points” said Jonathan Acker, who was one of the counterprotesters Gibson and his contingent encircled. “[They were] accosting several people [and] making threats while blaming them for the attacks on Thursday when … it was clear [the counterprotesters] had nothing to do with it.”
Videos from the march show the Proud Boys contingent leading a group of a couple dozen supporters from person to person, singling them out with sexist and homophobic slurs while Adams brandished a stun gun.
Unlike many previous confrontations, there were no injuries after the march, even though multiple bystanders witnessed a series of verbal assaults that could have easily escalated into gang violence.
Proud Boy Nation
The Proud Boys have seen one of the most dramatic shifts in size and perception of any group associated with the “alt-right”; the group has been able to grow at a time when white nationalist organizations are shuttering members and money. This has led to a massive upsurge of Proud Boy-led street attacks, especially in Portland, where they have been regularly caught on social media stomping opponents on the ground.
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) documents have identified the Proud Boys as potential “extremists” due to their penchant for livestreaming their gang attacks while they laugh and make racist jokes. Bureau agents, however, have since publicly retracted this position.
The crackdown, as well as the subsequent prosecution of New York City Proud Boys after an attack in front of the New York Metropolitan Republican Club, prompted Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes to leave the group late last year. Since then, strong personalities began fracturing the organization and vying for control, leaving the Proud Boys’ future uncertain.
“The Proud Boys have had a dramatic reversal of fortune since the summer,” said Spencer Sunshine, associate fellow at Political Research Associates, who researches far-right movements. “I think the violence will definitely continue. The group has constantly deployed demonizing narratives against oppressed and progressive elements of society, coupled with a glorification of gang mentality and physical violence. The violence may even get more intense as the group’s marginalization has the potential to increase members’ frustrations.”
This is exactly the pattern that both the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have followed over the past several months: resorting to more extreme behavior as their organizations lose steam and movement leaders become less successful in bringing participants out into the streets. Indeed, the groups’ unprompted and targeted series of attacks over the past couple of weeks in Portland may be playing a part of this miscalculated shift.
Still, left-wing activists argue that instead of garnering support, these far-right groups have only sparked the surrounding community’s anger, damaging their inability to effectively counter leftist organizations and rendering them outsiders scrambling for attention in the public eye.
Jonathan Steiner, the secretary of the Portland IWW, says that they are happy that the community has supported them so fully. “We were focusing on de-escalating the situation and making sure that everyone in the neighborhood was staying safe,” Steiner told Truthout. “[The alt-right groups] don’t really understand who we are or what we do, but we refuse to get drawn into their efforts to derail the work of the organizations in this office.”
The Portland IWW has had recent victories in its campaign to unionize the Burgerville fast-food chain, and organizers remain committed to making sure that the East Burnside office continues to function without interruption from the far-right groups targeting it. However, the IWW is still meeting right-wing resistance.
On the morning of January 24, organizers found the IWW hall spray painted with “Antifa House” and “Smash Communism.” Cider Riot!, the local cider brew house that often hosts fundraisers for anti-fascist organizations, was also found vandalized. “Alt-righters” in town, however, have called the incident a “false flag” attack, meaning that the unionists did the vandalism themselves to garner community sympathy.
“[T]his was not an isolated incident, and the hall has been the target of Patriot Prayer and far-right extremists for the past week,” said Steiner. In any case, though, he continues to be moved by the community’s response to the vandalism. “People have donated resources and time to help repair our home. Folks brought by cards, flowers and pastries, and are stopping by to tell us how much they care about the work we do, which means so much to us.”
Gibson and his crowd returned to the IWW building the night of January 24 to mock the organizations inside and analyze the text of the vandalism to prove that it was the leftists inside who were responsible.
“We are going to keep going until you disavow antifa and disassociate yourselves,” Gibson yelled during a video later posted online. “We are going to keep going and keep harassing, and we are going to expose every single one of you…. You see a mask, you pull a mask! Get a picture; it’s like a trophy. We are going to see who gets the most.”
Tiny announced that Gibson and others are starting a new “movement” called “demasking antifa worldwide,” where they plan to attack and reveal protesters wearing masks and post their photos on social media. One Patriot Prayer supporter, Skylor Jernigan, also threatened increased violent attacks on area leftists in a separate video.
“You’re going to be getting knives put into your throat. You’re going to be getting bullets put into your heads, if you don’t stop this shit with us,” Jernigan said, pressing his face close to his cellphone camera. He can be seen at many of Patriot Prayer’s events, trailing behind the movement’s leaders and dancing during choreographed sessions.
Gibson is suggesting that his movement’s forceful removal of masks from protesters will be “nonviolent,” though he has been unable to explain how these confrontations fall under the description of nonviolence.
While the far-right groups have difficulty pulling out the crowds they once did and continue to falter nationwide, it remains to be seen what their local affiliates will do as their movement becomes increasingly desperate. With Gibson remaining committed to continued attempts to attend DSA meetings, such behavior is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.