The flurry of violence from far right street gangs and militias in cities like Portland, Oregon, have become so common in the years since former President Donald Trump’s rise that they have become an expected part of the U.S. political theater. Groups like the Proud Boys regularly descend into liberal cities to attack counterdemonstrations, notably when the Black Lives Matter protests erupted around the country in 2020 in response to the killing of George Floyd.
Rather than being able to depend on the police for protection, activists have regularly pointed to the inability or unwillingness of police to intervene in these attacks, often seeing police standing far away when the far right readies weapons, only to return to policing when it’s only anti-racist demonstrators left. This has been seen in the dozens of confrontations that have happened between the far right and anti-fascists in Portland, including on August 22 of this year, when activists pushed a Proud Boy rally away from the city center.
One year earlier, on August 22, 2020, a “Back the Blue” rally was held in Portland in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center, the legal building that had been the center of abolitionist protests for months. There, Proud Boys and other far right groups led a string of assaults on counterdemonstrators, including hitting them with batons, shooting them with paintball guns and mace, and even drawing loaded firearms. Police stayed several blocks away, asking all protesters to “police themselves” over their megaphone, yet were heavy-handed with nonviolent anti-racist protesters later that same day. With the far right groups allowed access to the city and leaving without intervention, it seemed as though they simply were given impunity to attack the anti-racist protesters.
That was until one of the leaders of the group, Alan Swinney, was arrested and charged with multiple violent felony counts stemming from his behavior during the protest. Over a year later, the guilty verdict has been handed down, making a clear statement to the community about what kind of violence these figures are capable of.
Swinney had become a staple of these far right rallies that often sought out left-wing activists for attack. With a large Proud Boy tattoo on his arm (though the Proud Boys claim he is not a member), and an imposing height, he often made his presence known through aggressive confrontations while livestreaming.
On August 22, 2020, he led a crowd that inflicted numerous assaults and was even photographed pointing a handgun at a protester, finger on the trigger. He was eventually arrested under numerous charges related to his violent behavior on that day, and he also faced a $1 million lawsuit from people who say they were victimized by him. Swinney’s trial brought the question of his guilt to the forefront of the community.
Jury selection began by asking potential jurors how they felt about key political issues, such as the left/right divide, gun rights and the police. “D,” who asked to be identified by an initial due to fears of retaliation from Swinney’s supporters, is a juror who sat on Swinney’s trial. D tells Truthout that during jury selection, court officials asked them questions about their views on gun rights, whether D owns a firearm and whether they have ever been a victim of assault.
The court seemed to prepare for potential violence from the start by holding three court rooms for the proceedings, D says: one for supporters of Swinney, one for people not clearly identified as his supporters and one for the actual proceedings. This allowed the jury to remain anonymous to the public and disallow Swinney’s supporters to potentially intimidate them.
D told Truthout that Swinney’s attorneys continually argued he was acting in self-defense, claiming Swinney was feeling nervous and fearful in response to each new piece of evidence put forward by the prosecution. “[The prosecution] showed a lot of Parler and social media posts where [Swinney] literally said, “This is civil war, we’re ready to fight…. This is where we attack,” D tells Truthout.
The prosecution also played a leaked video from Swinney’s body-worn camera that was previously published by this reporter in a Bellingcat story. The leaked video was dropped August 22, 2020, and contains private conversations from multiple prior rallies in which Swinney appears to plan for acts of violence. In one audio portion, he suggested that his comrades should videotape counterdemonstrators with the hope that they can catch anti-fascists engaging in violence so that they can legally justify their violent retaliations. “Everybody needs to have their cameras rolling in case anyone gets an assault, just like yell out, ‘Got one’.… We need to make sure we’ve got assaults on video,” Swinney says in the leaked footage. “If we’ve got [an assault] on video and stuff, and we know we got it on video and we have several on video, then nothing is going to happen because we just show the judge the video.” In other videos, captured by Swinney himself, he admits to macing dozens of anti-fascist activists.
This made an impact on the jury in revealing that Swinney had planned attacks ahead of time and simply viewed claims of self-defense as a ruse to justify violence against anti-fascist demonstrators. In the same leaked footage, Swinney says that bear mace, an extremely volatile form of mace, is “worth every penny when you get to spray antifa with it,” and that supporters who provide money for the mace “get a lot of satisfaction knowing they were responsible for that pain.”
Swinney’s public defenders tried to cast both Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-fascists as equally responsible for violence. Swinney himself took the stand during the trial to try and build up the claim of self-defense, but this did little to sway the jury’s decisions. The leaked video, which clearly showed Swinney pulling a firearm and assaulting multiple people, was clear.
“You see the juxtaposition as a really tall guy with all of that … gear, versus someone who looks like they just walked up off the street. It was impossible for me to think that he genuinely felt scared with all of that evidence put together,” D tells Truthout.
D voted along with the other members of the jury to convict Swinney on 11 of the 12 counts against him, including one count of assault in the second degree, two counts of unlawful use of mace in the second degree and pointing a firearm. (He was found not guilty on one assault charge.) Swinney is now awaiting sentencing, which could lead to a lengthy prison stay.
“Convictions like these reinforce the idea that the Proud Boys are a violent street gang,” says John Tilly, a local Portland activist who alleges he was assaulted by Swinney on August 15, 2020, and who has faced numerous other assaults while photographing Proud Boy events.
Many activists question whether this verdict will actually effect lasting change, or, despite getting one violent figure off the streets, will allow the conditions that created Swinney to continue.
“I think that [the verdict] might dissuade some non-long-haul fascists. [But] I don’t think we’re suddenly going to see folks open their eyes to the violence that is deeply rooted in these groups,” says “A,” the person who originally leaked the video used as evidence at the trial. A is also using an initial due to fears of retribution from Proud Boys or their supporters. “While I personally object to a carceral system, I feel that looking at the ‘justice system’ as it exists right now, this was a very favorable outcome for anti-fascists.”
These mixed feelings were shared by a number of people who are survivors of violence by Swinney and other far right groups.
“Verdicts like these are incredibly rare,” says Melissa Lewis, who says she was attacked by Swinney and supporters on August 22, 2020, and witnessed him brandish a revolver. “The verdict means very little to me, which I’m sure will surprise a lot of people. [I am] an abolitionist, and I know prison will only make people like Swinney worse [when] he will be released in a few years…. But I don’t shed any tears for fascists who go on the stand and make absolute fools of themselves.”
D had similarly mixed feelings even while voting to convict, which they said was the only accurate verdict given the evidence that was presented. “On the one hand, the prison system is awful, and it is not anything I necessarily agree with. On the other hand, Swinney definitely should not be able to have such a large audience and should not be able to move as freely as he does. He literally travels the country to go to these events. He’s violent,” says D. “[It’s] one less violent white supremacist on the street. However, I know he is going to come out of the prison system even more radical than he is…. This is a victory for the left in a way, but it is not a cure. It is hitting at a symptom of the system, rather than an overhaul.”
While the Swinney verdict does appear as a bright spot for those who have been concerned that groups like this are able to operate with impunity, it is not a real solution to the issue. Instead, deeper reforms and community accountability are necessary to unseat the conditions that allow groups like the Proud Boys to flourish in the first place. This is part of the role that anti-fascists see themselves playing: creating a solution to community protection that relies on solidarity and mutual aid rather than the carceral approach that police present.
“Even though the cops and media would like folks to believe otherwise, anti-fascism is self-defense. These groups want us dead,” says A. “People need to see for themselves any time there is an opportunity to expose them.”
That exposure is a key part of anti-fascist strategies, which are only continuing in the post-Trump years as the far right continues to descend on city after city. In that reality, there will likely be more court cases like Swinney’s, yet the limitations of this legal approach to public safety are glaring and many radical organizers are looking to build up alternatives.