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Portland Anti-Fascist Coalition Shows Us How We Can Defeat the Far Right

Communities looking to deal with similar far-right threats can learn from the anti-fascist coalition's success.

A retired paramedic confronts the Proud Boys as they wait to get into vehicles to go to another location after marching across the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, Oregon, on August 17, 2019.

The far-right “western chauvinist” street gang known as the Proud Boys is already talking about a follow-up rally next month in Portland, Oregon, following their rally there on Saturday, August 17.

Local anti-fascist resistance is growing, however, and anti-fascist activists say they emerged from their counterprotest against the Proud Boys last Saturday with a strengthened and historic coalition of organizations that will continue to make fascism unwelcome in their community.

Portland was in the news frequently in the lead-up to Saturday’s fascist rally as right-wing leaders called for the event with increasingly violent rhetoric, which put anti-fascists and the rest of the city on high alert.

The story of how the protest and counterprotest on Saturday played out illustrates how strong and broad the local anti-fascist coalition has become.

Approximately 250-300 far-right protesters were met with around a thousand anti-fascist counterprotesters Saturday in Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park. The “western chauvinist” street gang, the Proud Boys, described their rally as a protest against “domestic terrorism” — and they believe that the anti-fascist movement qualifies. In response, Portland anti-fascists crafted a counterprotest aimed at mobilizing and including nearly every segment of the community.

The coalition’s goal of inclusion, combined with the strategies commonly associated with “antifa,” gave the groups a unique toolkit that allowed the coalition to build bridges and increase the number of participants. The success of this method could be a game changer for communities looking to deal with similar far-right threats.

The Summer Cycle

Portlanders have become familiar with this new summer ritual, when far-right groups descend on the city and anti-fascist organizations respond in kind. This cycle began in 2016, when Trumpist group Patriot Prayer and their leader, Joey Gibson, staged a public rally for Trump in opposition to the city’s liberal consensus. White nationalists from groups like Identity Evropa joined Patriot Prayer, which brought out the ire of local anti-racist organizations. This conflict escalated after an attendee of a Patriot Prayer rally murdered two people in an Islamophobic attack on a Portland metro train. Since then, any appearance by Patriot Prayer, which has been supported en masse by the Proud Boys and a number of “Patriot” and militia organizations, has seen mass protests organized by growing coalitions of leftist, labor, community and anti-fascist groups. These have led to high-profile street brawls where Proud Boys have used gang-style attacks to critically injure protesters.

The August 17 Proud Boy rally was called after such an event on June 29, when right-wing reporter Andy Ngo was attacked by a masked counterdemonstrator. Ngo then made the media rounds, calling for “antifa” to be labeled as terrorists and getting some traction with a new Senate resolution introduced by Ted Cruz. Amid the mass right-wing show of support and donations for Ngo, a number of right-wing figures, such as former InfoWars correspondent Joe Biggs, called for this rally to stand up to the “domestic terrorism” it spuriously claims is coming from antifa.

A City in Crisis

Because so many of these clashing demonstrations have become bloody riots, the City of Portland tried to head this one off. This included moving a local 5K race, announcing the shutdown of particular quarters of the downtown district near the park where the demonstrations were later held, and increasing the police presence.

“We don’t want your hatred, we don’t want your violence, but if you come here, we’re going to be prepared,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in a press appearance just before the protest. Joined at the event with two dozen community groups, Wheeler also denounced the hate groups in attendance and suggested counterprotesters should just stay home.

“Clearly the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) was gearing up for another ‘school yard fight,’” said David Rose from Rose City Antifa, an anti-fascist group in Portland that has been counter-organizing the Proud Boys and famously took down the neo-Nazi organization Volksfront in the years after its 1994 founding. “Anti-fascists remember that it was local Portland activists who received debilitating and disfiguring injuries at the hands of the PPB that day.”

Pop Mob, another local anti-fascist organization, flyered at the mayor’s press conference, attempting to counter the “stay at home” message that the city had been pushing. With Rose City Antifa, they pulled together a large coalition for this counterdemonstration, including the labor coalition Portland Jobs With Justice, the local chapter of the NAACP, the Portland IWW, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and many others.

Their message to the mayor was that anti-fascist protest was a vibrant form of civic engagement, and that people can protest in a variety of ways and still remain effective.

Resisting the Far-Right

To create a welcoming space for protesters attending the anti-fascist rally, they developed what they called a “spectacle” to counter the way that groups like the Proud Boys often co-opt protest footage.

“We know that the far right does a lot of their recruiting from protest videos and love to make toxic masculinity riot porn,” said Effie Baum of Pop Mob, “so we decided we wanted to do something so they could not make a single video that would not look ridiculous or be drowned out with noise.”

The coalition planned a massive string of morning events, including an opening interfaith prayer, juggling and clowns, and a great deal of music, noise makers and outrageously themed costumes.

“Also, it creates an opportunity for a lot of different folks to engage at a lot of different levels of engagement who wouldn’t normally come out,” pointed out Baum.

The days preceding the rally were not easy for the far-right coalition that was trying to form. Joey Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer, was indicted with felony riot charges for his role in a May 1 attack at the local bar Cider Riot!, along with several other associates. This development was to be expected for the far-right figure, who has been at the center of a series of confrontations, often appearing unprovoked. Shortly after, the Patriot organization the Oath Keepers, who have helped build the anti-government militia movement, pulled out, citing Patriot Prayer’s lack of ability to weed out white nationalists from their ranks. As attendees started to pour into Portland, many began venting online because their promised accommodations never materialized and the public event pages were disappearing from Facebook.

“I think that what this is showing us, the Oath Keepers pulling out … our organizing is already effective and we haven’t even had our event yet. It basically supports our viewpoint that standing up to these people is how we are going to win and not what the mayor is suggesting,” Baum told Truthout the night before the demonstration.

The Main Event

Around 1,000 people flooded into the park at 9:00 AM for the “everyday anti-fascist” rally, a phrase that highlights the range of strategies that people can use to combat the growth of fascist violence. After meditation and prayers, a series of speakers and dance parties used absurdity to mock the far right. A troop of dancers came dressed as bananas or poop emojis, while others tossed baking flour in the air with signs that read “White Flour.”

“I think this protest has had a lot of national attention, especially because the organizers on the right have been making explicit threats, talking about coming armed. So it’s scary, so I think this party theme is helping to counteract them,” said Olivia Katbi Smith, co-chair of the Portland Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a part of the coalition.

Community-defense-oriented organizations were also present, with a black bloc of several hundred people who explained that their goal was to keep people safe from attacks from the Proud Boys.

After the politically oriented speeches, speakers reminded people that since a violent far-right street gang was roaming around Portland, they could stay in the park, have refreshments, build community and avoid what felt like a dangerous situation. The coalition created a space where people were encouraged to meet each other and hopefully extend some of the community partnerships that made the coalition so successful.

Then Came the Proud Boys

While late to the party, Joe Biggs managed to bring over 300 Proud Boys and supporters into what may have been the largest Proud Boy contingent in Portland history. Haley Adams, the founder of Portland’s Liberation, the far-right political offshoot from Patriot Prayer, arrived early with a small crowd.

“Andy Ngo was attacked and it really made people upset. Joe Biggs, who is holding this event, is really upset about it,” said Adams, confirming she had worked with Biggs and the Proud Boy leadership to organize the event.

While Adams and her group numbered only around 20 people for the first couple of hours, Biggs arrived as promised with hundreds and occupied an adjacent area of the park from the anti-fascist coalition.

“This is going to be the largest protest in Portland history. The entire world is watching what we are doing,” yelled Biggs into a crowd that surrounded him before they took a knee for a prayer.

After 30 minutes, the far-right coalition packed up and was allowed to take Hawthorne Bridge across the Willamette River to the east side of the city, despite police orders to stay out of the road. Black bloc protesters were prevented from entering roads, yet they still amassed several hundred protesters and marched across the Burnside Bridge and through the streets of Southeast Portland. By that point, the Proud Boys had largely dispersed, many reconvening across the Washington State border in Vancouver.

“The Portland community outnumbered these invaders. The Proud Boys cancelled their downtown rally and march after less than 30 minutes,” said David Rose of Rose City Antifa.

Later, anti-fascist counterprotesters followed reports of sporadic Proud Boy sightings throughout downtown Portland and continued their march, which saw several small skirmishes while police pushed through the crowd. A rented school bus filled with Proud Boys and members of the far-right American Guard came through downtown and were swarmed by counterdemonstrators. Some windows were broken. A rider in the bus attacked demonstrators with a hammer, but members of the anti-fascist coalition were able to defend themselves and turn away the attacker.

“Today, Portland showed that it will not be a victim for the far right, and that white supremacists will never have a welcome here,” said Rose.

Another Proud Boys associate, John Turano, known as “Based Spartan” for showing up in costume, came into the Pop Mob rally and also harassed people, until the community defense organizations created a barrier.

Police ended up arresting over a dozen counterdemonstrators through “snatch and grab” arrests as streets full of activists voiced outrage about the treatment. Many anti-fascist coalition members alleged that Proud Boy affiliates were seen threatening protesters, though the police only made arrests of the anti-fascist counterdemonstrators.

“We are grateful for everyone who stayed focused on the mission, without regard for politics or ideologies … earlier today, some were of the opinion that we showed bias toward a particular group,” said Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw in a press conference in the early evening after the protests.

That alleged bias was the choice to let the Proud Boys take the street and shut down a bridge as they moved their protest away, though that freedom of movement was not granted equally to counterdemonstrators. Outlaw says that this was based on a threat assessment and to avoid a conflict, not because of preferential treatment.

The Bureau admitted to at least six “force events,” including one deployment of pepper balls, which are crowd control projectiles that can cause serious injury to demonstrators.

“It was business as usual for the police; it is exactly how they respond every time this happens,” said Baum. “They always protect the fascists. They provided a barrier around the fascists today. And then they gave them an armed escort across the bridge.”

“I want this to be the last time,” said Smith. “[It is] ridiculous that our mayor and our city leaders are not out here with us, because if they showed up, and we had 5,000 people or 10,000 people, [the Proud Boys] would never come back.”

What happened in Portland on Saturday is tied directly to the nationwide controversies around anti-fascist activism, and how right-wing politicians and media outlets choose to portray them.

Donald Trump set a national tone the morning of the protest by tweeting out “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an ‘ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.’ Portland is being watched very closely,” a point which continues the recent rhetoric about criminalizing anti-fascist activism. Andy Ngo, whose treatment was the impetus for this rally, was nowhere to be found.

Despite promises from the far right that this was a chance for them to stand up to “domestic terrorism,” they stayed far away from the anti-fascist demonstrators and left the area when the anti-fascist coalition got nearby. The protests, while seeing several arrests, had very little violence like was promised, and instead showcased much of the resolve of the anti-fascist movement in the city.

“I think that this morning was hugely successful, that the coalition-building effort we spent the last six weeks putting together was the best coalition building we have seen in a long time,” said Baum. “It was a broad-based coalition of organizations from across the spectrum of the left, and that is exactly the kind of coalition building we need to be doing to confront this threat. A lot of really amazing people were brave and showed up today despite the fear mongering from the city.”

The anti-fascist coalition’s success at pulling together such a diverse event has raised organizers’ hopes of replicating this winning combination of strategies to resist far-right groups as they return. The current leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio has promised to keep returning to Portland to bleed the city’s resources, and that means that the far-right group could be continuing its series of events, or even ratcheting up appearances. With that in mind, Portlanders are coming together in unprecedented numbers to find a way to expand the range of anti-fascist activism and put up an effective resistance to the Proud Boys’ violence.

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