Several hundred anti-fascist activists gathered in Lownsdale Square, a small park in downtown Portland, Oregon, on February 8 to oppose a Ku Klux Klan rally organized by Steven Shane Howard, a former imperial wizard of the North Mississippi White Knights. But after local anti-fascist groups mobilized to counterprotest, Howard contacted the Portland Police Bureau to cancel his event. When the KKK didn’t show up, we held a victory party instead.
Unfortunately, while we anti-fascists in Portland danced to a brass band dressed in banana costumes (the beloved Banana Bloc), more than a hundred members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front marched through the National Mall in Washington, DC, wearing white masks and chanting “Reclaim America!” and “Life, liberty, victory!”
In the aftermath, #AntifaTerrorists trended on Twitter. The hashtag tends to emerge when the right has an optics problem and needs to spin the narrative. An optics problem like, for example, white nationalists marching through the nation’s capital.
For all of the right-wing hand-wringing over people dressed in black wielding silly string and oranges, nearly all the domestic terrorists in the United States emerge from the extreme right. A 2019 report from the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism showed that all 50 of the extremist killings in the United States in 2018 had links to right-wing extremists. Since 2001, the extreme right has killed 109 people. Over that same time period, anti-fascists are responsible for zero deaths.
The goals of anti-fascism are simple: oppose hate and prevent its spread. The goal of white nationalism, as established in core texts such as Siege: The Collected Writings of James Mason and the white nationalist utopian novel The Turner Diaries, is to destabilize American society and initiate a civil war. Amid the chaos of a fragmenting country, the white nationalists plan to seize control and establish a white homeland. (That “nationalist” doesn’t refer to the United States. It refers to the white nation they’ll form from America’s ashes.) It’s far-fetched, but the improbability doesn’t keep us safe from domestic terrorists working toward it.
Domestic terrorists are like mushrooms. Mushrooms are the surface expression of a complex network that lives beneath the soil and can span thousands of acres. Above the surface: A hate-filled person—almost always a white man—commits an act of terror, like the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting or the El Paso massacre. The popular narrative may describe him as a “lone wolf,” lashing out at society because of a personal grievance. We want to believe that; it renders each horrific attack an isolated event. But white nationalists are deliberately encouraging vulnerable individuals to carry out terrorist acts. In addition to message boards like IronMarch, 4chan, and StormFront, white nationalists rely on rallies—like the one planned by Howard in Portland and the one carried out in Washington, DC—for recruitment and radicalization. Rallies give them an opportunity to identify and connect with individuals who they deem open to indoctrination, as well as generating a trove of often sensationalized media coverage that they can mine for online propaganda.
In the spring of 2017, a Vancouver, Washington–based group called Patriot Prayer began crossing the Columbia River into Portland to hold right-wing extremist rallies. Emboldened by the Trump administration, they came to challenge Portland’s reputation for progressive politics and values. Their intention was not to protest but to instigate conflict. They’re frequently accompanied by members of the Proud Boys and known white supremacist groups, including the American Guard, the Three Percenters, and the Oath Keepers. They come dressed for battle, with helmets and body armor, sticks and bear spray, knives and guns. Oregon is an open-carry state, and the alt-right takes full advantage.
They’ve been confronted by anti-fascist protesters marching in black bloc as well as those rallying in solidarity. But they’ve also been helped by the Portland Police Bureau—an organization that includes among its ranks an officer who built a shrine to Nazi soldiers in a public park. In a series of hundreds of friendly text messages between Portland Police Lieutenant Jeff Niiya and Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson from 2017 to 2018, the lieutenant shared information about anti-fascist activist movements, including the locations of unrelated leftist events.
On the morning of a Patriot Prayer rally on August 4, 2018, police found members of Patriot Prayer with a cache of loaded weapons on a rooftop overlooking the location where the rally and anti-fascist counterprotest would take place. The weapons were taken and the Patriot Prayer members “redirected.” There were no arrests, and police returned the weapons after the event. The Portland Police Bureau informed neither the public nor the mayor’s office of this potential sniper threat until months later.
When the police form a line to separate one side from the other at these events, they always stand with their backs to the alt-right and their weapons facing the anti-fascist counterprotesters. Dispersal orders and crowd-control weapons like tear gas and stun grenades (“flashbangs”) go only one way, often deployed against the anti-fascists to allow Patriot Prayer to leave the area. Nonviolent protesters have been struck and seriously injured by flashbangs fired directly into the crowd by the police.
So why do we keep showing up to protest Patriot Prayer and their white supremacist friends? Why did we come together last Saturday to protest the KKK? Critics often tell us, “Stop giving them the attention they’re looking for!”
We keep showing up, because ignoring hate doesn’t make it go away; it only allows it to spread further. If we permit white supremacists to march through our city, they’ll grow bolder. If we don’t show up each time and prove that we outnumber them, their numbers will swell. Imagine the recruiting power of an artfully edited video of white supremacists marching unchallenged through the streets of a major US city like Washington.
On August 17, 2019, Patriot Prayer, the Proud Boys, and other extremists came back to Portland. Anti-fascist protesters recognized that videos of clashes have been used as right-wing propaganda, and so the anti-fascist group PopMob organized the Spectacle, an event designed to shut that down. PopMob encouraged Portlanders to wear whimsical costumes to an anti-fascist outdoor dance party adjacent to the far-right rally. That resulted in the confrontation of about 300 far-right demonstrators with roughly 1,500 unicorns, cats, witches, and bananas (the Banana Bloc, of course), joined by a contingent of protesters in a black bloc forming a front line to protect us. It was a very Portland protest, and it was also very effective. The far right called it quits after 30 minutes, retreated to their rental buses, and went home.
This past Saturday, the KKK wanted to test Portland, and once again we organized and claimed victory. Portland leftist organizations including PopMob, Rose City Antifa, Portland DSA, Jobs with Justice, Banana Bloc, the Direct Action Alliance, and others have formed a community to face down right-wing extremists.
When we counterprotest white supremacists in Portland, we’re working to cut off white nationalists’ recruitment and radicalization tools as early as possible. If you are opposed to fascism, you are an anti-fascist, and our fight is your fight. As a favorite chant at these anti-fascist rallies goes, “We are many! They are few!” We need to prove that nationwide.