Hundreds of anti-fascist protesters wound through the busy streets of Portland’s downtown commercial district on June 29, following tips about where the far-right Proud Boys had set up shop. The hate group had returned to Portland, Oregon, for a rally they labeled the “Battle for Portland 2,” referencing a violent street attack from 2018 in which several anti-fascist counter-demonstrators were beaten on the ground and hospitalized.
The anti-fascists, organized by a coalition of community organizations, came up Yamhill Street on the south side of the historic Pioneer Courthouse Square. On the same day, a group affiliated with Portland’s Liberation and Patriot Prayer, both far-right national populist organizations that work with the Proud Boys, were rallying in the square against what they labeled as leftist “domestic terrorism.” As the groups came closer together, the Portland Police Bureau created a line of officers separating them, broadcasting a notice of dispersal to the much larger anti-fascist crowd.
It was at this moment that a truck of anti-fascist counter-protesters made its way up Yamhill and into the crowd. Now the road was effectively blocked, no dispersal was happening.
The group Pop Mob (short for Popular Mobilization) organized a “milkshake” dance party theme for the demonstration and later after-party; participants were encouraged to dress up, dance and drink milkshakes while blocking the Proud Boys from moving through the city.
“At Stop the Hate last August, some of the best moments were the spontaneous dance parties that broke out,” Effie Baum, an organizer with Pop Mob, told Truthout. “We decided we wanted to capture that kind of fun energy, but instead of having it be isolated moments or affinity groups, to build the entire event around it.”
The dance party protest was just one of many different tactics employed by the coalition that had formed to stop the Proud Boys and their ilk from roaming Portland — others included street marches, street theater and more confrontational protests.
A Fractured Far Right Fighting for Relevance
The Proud Boys have seen one of the bumpiest rise-and-fall cycles of any group that has gained prominence after Donald Trump’s election. The Proud Boys used the white nationalist “alt-right” as a recruiting ground while firmly cementing their rhetoric in the hard-right world of internet shock jocks. Created by Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, the Proud Boys use neo-Nazi skinhead-style gang formations, complete with joining rituals and Fred Perry uniforms to act as street enforcers for the “independent Trumpist” movement. While much of the alt-right took a hit after Charlottesville, the Proud Boys continued on, building up a huge national base with chapters across the U.S., supporters in the GOP, and even their own magazine.
However, Proud Boy leadership proved unable or unwilling to halt the brutal violence of the rank-and-file, which usually amounted to unprovoked street attacks against counter-demonstrators or community members, which led to the growth of an anti-fascist counter-movement that refused to let them organize publicly. Arrests followed the Proud Boys’ gang-style beatings in front of the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York, and eventually McInnes quit the group in disgrace, replaced by a series of increasingly incompetent foot soldiers desperately trying to hold their disparate clique of angry men together.
Members from around the U.S. often flew into Portland, Oregon, to stand with Patriot Prayer in rallies intended to, more than anything, create a venue to attack leftist Portland residents. Throughout 2017 and 2018, there were high-profile skirmishes in which Proud Boys led attacks on counter-demonstrators, sometimes in such brutal fashion that they left blood flowing in streams down the streets.
Over the last year, both Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys have experienced a dramatic decline due to anti-fascist organizing and internal organizational combustion, and when the Proud Boys announced their return to Portland, it was hard to tell who would show up and why. As with most far-right movements, moments of retreat also become explosions of impulsive barbarity, which is why community organizations created such a large counter-mobilization.
Dousing the Far Right With Milkshakes
Protests are intended to create a counter force to objectionable political actors, but they are also moments of energizing community-building. There is joy in people coming together in common cause, a small snapshot into what the world could be instead. A dance party theme for the weekend’s counter-protest seemed perfectly matched with the newest meme on the block: the use of milkshakes against the far right. After English Defence League founder and far-right Islamophobe Tommy Robinson was doused with a milkshake by an angry passerby, the tossing of milkshakes became a nonviolent protest tactic to annoy and disrupt far-right political leaders.
With this in mind, Pop Mob and the organizations involved created a vegan milkshake stand in Lownsdale Square where the rally took place. With temperatures in the 80s, this was a welcome addition for many, and lightened an otherwise tense situation.
The Pop Mob coalition involved a number of organizations, including several whose mission would not immediately suggest they would join an anti-fascist mobilization. For instance, Empathy Riot is a group of mental health professionals who came together in light of the growth of the far right and the election of Trump in an effort to provide support to those experiencing trauma from the institutional oppression many face.
“As therapists who work with marginalized populations, we have seen firsthand how capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and other systems of oppression generate mental and emotional distress,” said Kirk Shepard of Empathy Riot.
“As many of us know, the election of Trump didn’t usher in something new. It did, however, uncover a veil which has allowed the most militant white supremacists to come out of their shadows,” said Shepard. “We joined the coalition to counter the Proud Boys, because it is only in coalition with others, united around a diversity of tactics, that we can truly push back against these systems of oppression that threaten all life on Earth.”
The Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) marched into the park with over 100 members in tow, bringing with them their trademark red shirts and flags. The DSA, which has become a political force in Oregon, has been forced to reckon with Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys on a number of occasions, as those groups have shown up at DSA meetings looking to antagonize members on social media livestreams.
“They incite violence. And if even one person listens to the words that they say and acts on it, that can be fatal,” Olivia Katbi Smith, Portland DSA’s co-chair, told Truthout.
Rose City Antifa was also a part of this coalition, leading a militant bloc of protesters running parallel to the milkshake event and leading the march that eventually looked to block the Proud Boys from moving through the city.
Street Clashes and Misinformation From the Police
At Pioneer Courthouse Square, things were much more somber, as Haley Adams, a far-right member of Patriot Prayer, tried to lead a disparate group of three dozen people in quiet conversation since megaphones had been banned in this busy commercial space. While the Proud Boys were supposed to have a large contingent amassing across town, only a small handful joined Adams. They leaned against the edges of the park, standing in anticipation as they heard anti-fascist protesters heading their way before they saw them.
Protesters first wound through blocked roadways to the Tom McCall Waterfront Park that banks against the Willamette River, where the Proud Boys were rumored to have congregated, but when they were nowhere to be found, protesters headed to Pioneer Courthouse Square, where police lines caught them.
Once police had dispersed and protesters were near to each other, several Proud Boys began yelling at protesters. One pulled out a baton to attack them and an altercation between the groups resulted in several injuries, though relatively small for the size of the crowd. Three people were then arrested under suspicion of second-degree assault and interfering with police activity.
It was at this later point in the afternoon that the Portland Police Bureau tweeted out the unproven allegation that there was quick-drying cement in the milkshakes that Pop Mob had been distributing. These milkshakes were prepared in full view of the crowd, and with multiple journalists recording them, and no one has found any concrete or has shown any injuries resulting from contact with the 750 milkshakes served.
Far-right journalist Andy Ngo, known for trolling others online and his campaign to disprove the legitimacy of hate-crime allegations, had a confrontation with protesters, resulting in injuries and multiple thrown milkshakes. He later went to the hospital, and several of his supporters created a GoFundMe for Ngo, which has already well surpassed $100,000 in donations.
A Permanent State of Anti-Fascism
Organizers of the counter-demonstration declared success as the event met its goals: to stop the Proud Boys from being able to move freely, to recruit and have access to the city. Participants in the counter-demonstration reflected on how nationwide counter-organizing efforts had helped to amplify the mobilization’s clear messaging about the threat posed by the Proud Boys and to solidify within the public opinion why the counter-demonstration was necessary.
As the Proud Boys continue to take organizational hit after hit, their fractured status does not mean they lose their capacity for violence. Historically, far-right gang formations like the Proud Boys often hit points of impulsive violence, and anti-fascist organizers fear more attacks may be coming, as associates of the hate group have already announced that they plan to return to Portland on August 17.
“The creativity, bravery and coordination on the ground was really inspiring,” said a member of Rose City Antifa who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about safety.
“We will not allow fascists to take the city, and we are winning,” she added. “The local far right is getting much weaker. Meanwhile, the leftist side just gets better … we are developing stronger relationships of solidarity.”