The far-right brawlers of “Patriot Prayer” and the “Proud Boys” are planning a demonstration on August 4, in Portland, Oregon. Their “freedom march” is likely to be light on political content, but is presumably a response to the recurring counter-protests that have prevented Patriot Prayer from accessing city streets. While Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson is running for Senate in Washington State and campaigns at these public events, the recent history of his public appearances has focused almost solely on fighting the left opposition that comes to greet him in Portland. Local groups, however, are coming together with a movement strategy to break the menace of far-right terror that has plagued the city in recent months.
Founded as a “white utopia” that banned people of color in its early years, Oregon contains a deep-seated tradition of reaction to progressive causes. Portland’s liberal politics often serve to mitigate, rather than transform, the root problems — often against the demands of local, left-wing social movements. This has been the case, for instance, with the increasing spread of gentrification in previously multi-ethnic Portland neighborhoods, forcing out the residents who have called them home for years as high-rise condos come in to serve transplants.
In the 1980s, neo-Nazi skinhead gangs ran working-class neighborhoods in the city, taking over entire music venues and bars and inspiring early anti-racist activists to push them, often physically, out of public spaces. This culminated in the 1988 murder of Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw by members of the skinhead gang Eastside White Pride, which resulted in the successful lawsuit of the fascist organization White Aryan Resistance by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The far right has had moments of resurgence in the state since then, especially during the Obama administration, with militia groups occupying the Sugarpine Mine and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Since Trump’s rise to power, however, the regional far right has taken the fight to the cities, inciting violent clashes with the left in painfully public fora, from universities to public squares. Since early 2017, Patriot Prayer and its founder Gibson, have been holding Trump-inspired rallies meant to prop up a new kind of US civic nationalism and to draw left-wing activists into the spectacle of public confrontation.
While Gibson himself often sticks to the rhetoric of “Independent Trumpism,” he has made open allies with activists from far right and violent white nationalist groups such as Identity Evropa, the Traditionalist Worker Party and, most recently, the “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys. A Patriot Prayer attendee, Jeremy Christian, murdered two people in a racist rage on a Portland train last summer and since then, the vitriol at Patriot Prayer events has spilled over into mass melees with the opposition, set against Portland’s business district.
On June 30, another Gibson rally was held, with dozens of Proud Boys from multiple states, many suited up in body armor, using flagpoles as weapons and screaming epithets at the anti-fascist crowd of more than 100. A sweeping wave of violence ensued as the Proud Boys charged directly into the opposition, attacking protesters and beating many on the ground in a cruel, gang-style attack not unlike the kind of street violence the skinhead gangs were known for in the ’80s.
That same day, a local reporter published an overheard conversation between police officers, in which they allegedly said that they should “just let them fight.” Many counter-protesters were injured, possibly from police handling of the situation, including one sent to the hospital with a skull fracture.
With the experience of that mob violence in mind, a large coalition of community organizers formed to inspire mass counter-protest participation in Patriot Prayer’s upcoming August 4 follow-up event. Under the name “Pop Mob,” which stands for “popular mobilization,” the group is looking to bring out hundreds, if not thousands, of community residents to completely overwhelm Patriot Prayer on the day of their march.
While many anti-fascist organizations have continued to bring people out for direct confrontation with far-right assemblages, Pop Mob would attempt to fill the gap by creating a broad-based community swell that can support the anti-fascist organizers who do that work day in and day out. This would be a return to the large participatory model that emerged in response to the far-right “free speech” rallies that occurred in 2017 across the country.
In Portland, several thousands of protesters responded to a June 4, 2017, rally of Patriot Prayer, pressing on the rally from all sides and showing that opposition to their presence was a mainstream perspective for the town. Similarly, in the days following the disastrous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, Proud Boys and other far-right actors were met by 40,000 protesters in Boston, who completely overwhelmed the city in popular fashion, disallowing the “alt-right” to conduct business.
“We know that we outnumber them, and history has shown in Portland, … when we have large numbers of people coming together, it shows the right wing and hateful groups that their rhetoric is not welcome in our city,” said Effie Baum, an organizer with Pop Mob. “As they grow and become a larger threat, we need a larger group of folks to combat their ideology.”
The goal of a popular mobilization, then, is to stop the use of public space for the far right to further organize brutality. With a large contingent, the violence often promised by the far right can be neutralized, as confrontation becomes less fruitful. By the sheer virtue of the popularity of the counter-protest, it can shut down Patriot Prayer and be used as an opportunity to discuss the issues of inequality in our society and enable further organization building apart from the far right’s influence.
“If nobody is there to oppose them, then there is nobody there to defend the most targeted and marginalized members of our community,” said Baum.
Rose City Antifa, one of the longest-running anti-fascist organizations in the country, has been counter-organizing Patriot Prayer events since their earliest incarnation in 2007. They will be holding their protest at the same spot as Patriot Prayer — Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
“Patriot Prayer has a history of using violence against the community as a political tool, and inviting in white nationalists, fascists and other bigots into downtown Portland for the purpose of threatening and attacking activists and liberals,” said David Rose, a spokesperson for Rose City Antifa. “They now represent the forefront of this new violent, bigoted nationalism, and it is important for the community to rally in opposition now more than ever.”
Gibson has been ratcheting up his attempts at provocation in recent weeks, arriving at the “Occupy ICE PDX” encampment at the Portland office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to bait those protesting ICE and family separation into arguments. With the growing discontent against his political allies, he seems to be doubling down on his agenda of confrontation, refusing to “back down” in the face of the city’s almost universal rejection of his presence. On a recent livestream in front of the Occupy ICE PDX encampment, Gibson said that there would likely be both confrontations and violence at the August 4 rally, though he is already blaming the police.
The violence of the June 4 rally has also echoed through the far-right media sphere, with video of one Proud Boy, Ethan Michael Nordean, knocking out a counter-protester becoming a celebrated meme that earned him the recognition of his peers. Even conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of InfoWars has shown his veneration of the Proud Boy street attacks, saying he might come out to Portland in August to join their side.
The Proud Boy slogan, “Fuck around and find out” states their tactics clearly, and Proud Boys leadership has worked hard to sanctify violence as a critical part of masculinity. Without interventions by protesters and even reporters, several counter-protesters could easily have died on June 30, and so there is every reason to believe that the violence could escalate to fatalities.
In response, the opposition is swelling as labor organizations like Jobs With Justice and community activists promise to stand up in nearby parks, refusing to let the Proud Boys have access to the streets without a strong voice of opposition. It is this popular and community-led approach that has the ability to shift the tides on these violent rallies, maintaining the progressive perspective while protecting protesters from attacks.
Gibson and his group may bus down to Berkeley on August 5 for a “No to Marxism in America” rally. The rally is likely to be a repeat of last year, when the group tried to antagonize the city shortly after Charlottesville and was met by a mass coalition led by unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
If activists want to reduce the potential for violence and deter further far-right demonstrations, it will require connecting as a true community, both in response to threats from the radical right and back in the neighborhoods, workplaces and community centers they share.