On Saturday, a few hundred nationalists, white supremacists, Trump supporters, and other reactionaries descended on downtown Portland, Oregon, for a right-wing rally. Leading them was Joey Gibson, a notorious provocateur who is running for a US Senate seat in Washington on a platform of Trump-inflected libertarianism.
Over the past two years, Gibson has organized marches throughout the Pacific Northwest, bolstered primarily by members of the street-fighting Proud Boys, an ultranationalist, traditionalist “fraternal organization” founded by ex-Vice executive Gavin McInnes. This event was billed as a patriotic rally, but under the bright blue summer sky on the bank of the Willamette River, its participants were met by a much larger mobilization of unions, community groups, some militant anti-fascists, and anti-capitalist organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America and the International Socialist Organization.
As riot cops fired flash-bang grenades into the larger of the crowds, injuring at least two people and arresting four, Gibson led his supporters back and forth along the waterfront, escorted by another contingent of armored police.
I asked him how his Senate campaign was going. “You’re looking at it,” Gibson replied.
His crew was visibly frustrated: The sheer size of the counter-protest had foiled their plans to march through the city. Cheering on the police would have to suffice. “USA! USA!” they chanted. A bagpipe on the anti-fascist side droned, accompanied by a snare drum and the intermittent booms of stun grenades.
For all the digital chaos wrought by the so-called “alt-right,” open-air political violence remains the most immediate way for figures like Gibson to radicalize and recruit young men into his burgeoning movement. And, to broaden their appeal, groups sympathetic or adjacent to the alt-right are ditching racist rhetoric for more mainstream political language. This allows them to appeal to a bigger and (at least superficially) multiracial group of middle-class Americans who wouldn’t dream of joining the Ku Klux Klan, but harbor deep resentment towards foreigners and approve of other parts of Trump’s agenda.
In the recent past, open white nationalists such as Matthew Heimbach and Richard Spencer built their movements with hopes to not just influence the Republican Party but wield political power in their own right. Heimbach strove to build an explicitly revolutionary organization in his Traditionalist Worker Party; the more genteel Spencer’s Ccontinental-style “identitarianism” provided a kind of intellectual framework, drawing from thinkers such as Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist to advocate for a white ethno-state.
But after progressive activist Heather Heyer’s death in Charlottesville and the massive anti-fascist and anti-racist mobilizations across the country that followed, the influence of this revolutionary tendency (while still active) began to wane. Less vigorously ideological groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys observed Spencer and Heimbach’s mistakes; their more moderate strategies have, in turn, won them greater appeal by foregrounding ultranationalism and a vicious opposition to left-wing politics.
They’re also shifting from ethnically defined nationalism to a version that purports to target outsiders based on their legal status, not the color of their skin. Significantly, the presence of people of color in this coalition allows Gibson and the Proud Boys to “prove” that they aren’t racists at all.
Gibson, for starters, identifies as Japanese American; his deputy, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, is American Samoan. Both vehemently deny that either the Patriot Prayer or the Proud Boys are white-supremacist organizations—though local anti-fascist and anti-racist organizers have identified neo-Nazis and other organized white supremacists in their midst. One masked Proud Boy present on Saturday, who said his name was John, told me that anyone in their crew who expressed racist views would be stomped out—but “not literally,” he quickly added.
But for every masked John, there’s a “General Graybeard”—an older man who, on Saturday, led members of the “Freedom Crew” and “Hiwaymen,” two patriot groups from Arkansas, wearing tactical gear and bearing shields emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag. He explained that the imagery was about honoring the South’s history. “We fly it so people know it’s not racist,” the self-proclaimed general explained. “It’s about heritage. It’s about the Constitution.”
When I asked masked John whether he accepted this explanation, he shrugged. “I gotta take that at face value,” he said.
“We’re here to support the Constitution of the United States of America, which is all about free speech and being able to assemble peaceably and talking about the things that we support,” a Patriot Prayer supporter also named John told me. What exactly those things are proved more difficult to articulate: “It’s a call to action. We believe this is a time to act in our country.” The second John kept gesturing at Lionel, a recent immigrant from Cameroon, to prove his point.
“I believe in peace, freedom, and everything else,” Lionel concurred. “Me, I’m black. We are also human. We have our voice too.”
While the majority of uniformed and armored Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer affiliates on Saturday were white, a half-dozen people of color (including Lionel) were happy to explain what brought them to the Freedom March. One 40-year-old black man named James first started supporting Joey Gibson about a year ago. “I admire people like Martin Luther King when they fought for civil rights and stuff like that,” he said. “These guys, they look like they’re taking a stand, and I want to take a stand with them.”
“There are no white supremacists here,” James told me. “I get nothing but love. White supremacists don’t let minorities into their ranks.”
And about those Confederate battle flags? “All it represents is the Southern states. It’s just a flag,” he said.
The left, he continued, was being paid by George Soros to spread disinformation. “I’m not getting paid for this. I’m here of my own accord. We’re a diverse group,” he continued. “We’re all Trump supporters.”
Leonor Ferris, a 75-year-old immigrant from Colombia, laughed when I asked about the accusations of white supremacists in Patriot Prayer’s midst. “I’m a Latina! How could they be white supremacists?” she asked. “Look at my skin! I’m not a white supremacist. I love people. I love every color.” Ferris was not the only one to treat my questions as preposterous. “Do I look like a white supremacist to you?” Will Johnson, the black owner of a small videography business, asked me. “I got dreadlocks!”
Johnson went on to claim that Hillary Clinton is so pro-abortion that she supports killing newborn children. “The liberal media—which is against this country, which is the enemy of the American people—they covered it up, because they don’t want people to know,” he said.
Enrique Tarrio, president of the Proud Boys’ Miami chapter, told me that he has visited with members in Portland, Austin, New York, North Carolina, and Georgia. “Not once have I dealt with race,” he said. “We have a diversity problem in our Proud Boys Miami chapter—which is that we don’t have enough white people.” His Instagram account, which includes group photos of the chapter’s mostly white members, suggests otherwise.
“I’ve got my ‘Made in Mexico’ tattoo. I go out with these people. There’s no white supremacists here. They just want to protect their country,” Fernando, a 36-year-old Mexican immigrant who works in a warehouse, told me. “Every country should have people like that. If you fight for your country, no matter which country it is, the world will be strong. There will be no suppression, no corruption.”
Patriot Prayer’s ultranationalism comes out most vigorously when its supporters talk about immigration. “We do need a wall,” Johnson, the black videographer, said. “We have walls in our homes. The elitists have walls around their neighborhoods—gated communities. But they don’t want to do one for those of us who don’t have that.”
James, the black scrap-metal worker, echoed this sentiment: “You came here illegally, you break the law, you gonna be punished.”
As an immigrant herself, Leonor Ferris understood the desire to come to the United States. “America is the leader of the good countries. Freedom, you know? That’s what I believe in,” she told me. However: “We are used to certain things. I’m very clean and very picky. I don’t want people that come here that trash the streets,” she continued. “I see people trashing the country. And not only that, they’re dirty—the germs and everything.”
Nearly everyone at Saturday’s Freedom March seemed as worried about the threat of the rising American left as they were about immigrants. “We don’t want communists,” Ferris told me. “I came here legally and I don’t want to see what happened to Venezuela.” She continued: “The only thing communism brings is poverty. They can’t even eat over there. They don’t have nothing in Venezuela. I used to go to Venezuela to go shopping—beautiful stores.”
Toese, Gibson’s deputy, and several others sported T-shirts, manufactured by a white nationalist clothing company called Right Wing Death Squads, reading “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong,” referring to the Chilean dictator under whose rule tens of thousands of socialists and other dissidents were murdered and tortured. “Make Communists Afraid of Rotary Aircraft Again,” read the back of the shirt (Pinochet’s soldiers were notorious for throwing enemies of the regime out of helicopters).
Small-business values were what drew the Cuban-American Enrique Tarrio to the Proud Boys in the first place. Most of the Miami chapter’s members run their own companies, he told me, and one of the fraternity’s primary tenets is “Glorifying the Entrepreneur.”
“My family came from a communist country,” Tarrio said. “The only way to true freedom is entrepreneurship.” Then he invited me to follow him on Instagram. There’s a link to his company’s website—and posts about killing communists.
In the end, there wasn’t much violence on Saturday. A handful of skirmishes flared as groups of Patriot Prayer supporters and counter-protesters each made their way home; anti-fascists jeered as Proud Boys piled into the repurposed school buses that shuttled them back to their cars; and Gibson’s followers politely thanked the police for their service.
What’s most confounding about these groups is what gives them their potency. They aren’t particularly radical; they tend to support the status quo; their vision goes no further than Donald Trump’s own. “We even obey traffic laws!” one Proud Boy joked as he and his crew waited to cross the road. Their political arena is limited to the Internet, and, occasionally, the street—where, lacking any need for discipline or strategy, their activity redounds to spontaneous and expressive action: brawling with anti-fascists, beating up passers-by, harassing nonviolent civilians, and calling for undocumented people’s heads to smashed on concrete. What they are is committed.
“We’ll be back,” Enrique Tarrio sneered at a heckling local. “I run this city.”