The image across Southwest Madison Street in Downtown Portland, Oregon, was reminiscent of naval warfare, of two opposing camps hurling across a blocked divide. Inside of the federally-regulated Terry Schrunk Plaza an Alt Right “Free Speech” rally was swelling while the community was descending against it on all sides, amassing its most militant faction in the park directly across the street. A line of riot police backed by federal officers from the Department of Homeland Security kept the groups apart, at least in principle until individuals decided to bridge the gap to antagonize the other. Attendees from the “right-wing” side came over to blast protesters, instigating fights that were met immediately by hundreds who had come there to respond to the culture of racist violence that had left the city shuttering over recent weeks. There was anger, but it made sense for what had transpired and the brazenness of the Alt Right and “patriot” groups who were gloating in their amphitheater.
The idea of a “Free Speech” event held in a public park with a dais lined with minor far-right celebrities has been a new concept since Lauren Southern led the stage in Berkeley, California on April 15th. Following the months earlier response to Alt Right provocateur Milo Yiannoupouls at Berkeley and the cancellation of anti-immigrant antagonist Anne Coulter, Southern led commentators from AltRight.com and Kyle Chapman, a man made famous for showing up at a previous Bay Area event to attack anti-fascist protesters.
While their branding is one about open access to speech and their rhetoric is traditional Trumpian fare, their driving element is an opposition to the growing anti-fascist mass movement. This phenomenon has been labeled “independent Trumpism” by anti-fascist writer Spencer Sunshine, taking the Trumpist cultural space outside of the official bounds of the GOP and creating a tacit coalition of the Alt Right, the militia movement, some areas of evangelicals, hard right rural people, and the anti-PC trolling crowd into a violent opposition to the left. Labeling all opposition as Antifa, which is a more militant organizational praxis used to confront neo-Nazis and white supremacists directly, they have created unity in their own ranks in opposition to the organized resistance they are seeing in cities around the country. From open Alt Right white nationalist organizations to patriot militias, their direct repression is not coming from state actors, but instead community organizations across the left spectrum that have seen the threat they present as Trump rose to power. Now that resistance has given them a targeted enemy to vilify, and these events are designed to draw out that opposition so that they can stage attacks.
In Portland, they knew the opposition would be massive given the palatable community rage about what had recently transpired. In a racist attack, Jeremy Christian, a local man with white supremacist roots, killed two men and injured one other who were intervening on his treatment of Muslim women on public transportation. Christian was known to frequent these “Free Speech” events, including the one organized by Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson. After the attacks, the community banded together, supporting the families of the victims and holding vigils at the attack site, yet an upcoming Alt Right “Free Speech” rally was planned. While Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler tried to get the federal government to intervene and cancel the rally, he failed to do so, and instead hundreds of community organizations, churches, political projects, and labor unions got ready to stand up to their presence.
On the Ground
What resulted is a window into the multiple minds of a left opposition, both in contradiction with each other and congruent in varied approaches. To the west was a “Stop Hate” rally organized by various socialist parties looking for an alternative to direct engagement with the right, vying for chants, speakers, and banners in a unified block. In front of the federal building to the east of the “Free Speech” rally was a block of labor activists, headed by building trade union rank-and-file members including the Carpenters Local 1503, Iron Workers Local 29, AFT-Oregon, IUPAT Local 10, and IATSE Local 28. This solid block of chants was a rhetorical alternative to the “working class” lingo that the patriot militias, particularly the Oath Keepers and III%ers from rural counties of the state, were attempting to capitalize. To the North, and closest in to the right-wing convergence, was the more militant action, called for by Rose City Antifa and the Pacific Northwest Anti-Fascist Workers Collective, and amassing the largest group of people. In unison, the three events compressed Terry Schrunk, creating a horseshoe of vocal opposition. While the “Free Speech” rally pulled in almost three hundred, the anti-fascist collection brought in more than 3,000.
While their rally did not begin until 2:00pm, many were in the park by 10:00am getting set up. Coordinating with a security detail calling themselves The Guardians, a group of mostly patriot militia members brandishing well-worn insignia patrolled the area, pushing through bushes in an attempt to reveal hiding protesters. They were then flooded with an influx of participants, including large out-of-state contingents. This included Proud Boys, part of the Alt Light configuration formed by Vice co-founder Gavin Mcinnis, who are “Western Civilization chauvinist.” While most were white, and often dressed as skinheads, there were a few Proud Boys of color, all of which who were open about their Eurocentrism, anti-immigrant anger, and pro-market perspective. The security teams met with the police and then worked in concert with them, including assisting with arrests in one controversial move. They were even allowed to bring in a crate of riot helmets; all allowed by Department of Homeland Security Agents. Members of the white nationalist Traditionalist Workers Party were there with “Diversity = White Genocide” signs. Members of the National Socialist Movement moved throughout the crowd, though didn’t identify themselves. They were only singled out by anti-fascist doxxing previously that revealed their affiliations. This was not surprising given the large collection of racist signs, such as suggesting Black Lives Matter were violent terrorists.
The event was headlined by “Based Stickman,” Kyle Chapman, and Baked Alaska, the Alt Right YouTube phenomenon who livestreamed on his own face the entire time he was there. In between baiting the counter-protesters, yelling about “throwing communists from helicopters,” and labeling all of the press as “fake news” or “ISIS,” he acted like a scene celebrity, talking down to those who approached him. Chapman was more open, giving interviews and asserting that he was a firm “American Nationalist.” They set the tone for the event, where the purpose was to mock and fight the left. Dozens came in pads and helmets, often with shields, ready to attack the left. Kek flags were flown or used as capes, as well as Pepe signs held under MAGA hats. The goal was less a conscious political event and more of a spectacle, an antagonism to the community that has already suffered so much.
Their tokenism was on full display, where a Samoan member of The Guardians was invited to do a “warrior dance” in the beginning and they included a trans-woman as one of their first speakers. She proceeded to take the Chinese flag, spit and step on it, and then said that all the mayor cares about is “communists and criminal illegals.” She was celebrated for her past “special forces” training that she used to attack leftist protesters in Berkeley.
As the crowds swelled, the police mobilized to block interaction, making it next to impossible to move between the crowds. Those that moved into the streets were identified and tackled, mostly being on the side of the opposition. Based Spartan, a cartoonish buffoon who dresses like a sword-and-sandal warrior got into fights with their own security, demanding that they stop “suppressing his free speech” by asking him not to stand on the sidewalk.
Eventually the police declared the assembly adjacent to the “Free Speech” rally canceled, saying that illegal activity took place. This included claims that bricks were taken off of bathroom facilities and thrown at the cops, yet this was unseen in photographs or videos and a reporter from KBOO radio went to the facility and found that no bricks were missing. The police then fired off rubber bullets and concussion grenades into the crowd, topped off by tear-gas canisters. After blockades were set up by protesters, they eventually headed into the streets of Portland in a large march. Police responded by violently kettling protesters and reporters, attacking many and arresting almost twenty. The Alt Right crowd shrunk, but those that remained taunted the leftists as the police engaged.
The police action did not define the day, the community response did. What the police’s response indicates, more than anything, is that there is an ongoing antagonism between the police and Portland protesters, and that a culture of violence is permeating between the departments in how they handle dissent. No matter what the police’s response was, the community was united and has built a base that can further feed anti-fascist organizing.