Anti-racists show their strength in numbers

June 6, 2017

John Monroe and Brayden Teems report on a rally that brought out over a thousand people to let the far-right know that it isn't welcome in Portland--or anywhere else.

THOUSANDS OF people showed up to protest a far-right rally in Portland last Sunday, in a step forward for the movement that is urgently needed to counter the growth of violent, white-supremacist organizations, in Oregon and across the country.

The right-wing rally was called for June 4 by Patriot Prayer, a local group that claimed to be calling a demonstration in defense of "free speech." This has become the phony rallying cry for the so-called alt-right and its attempt to whip up more support for the neo-Nazi fringe, in particular, by appealing to right-wing Trump supporters.

The plan for a rally of hundreds of racists parading around Portland was a cruel provocation just a week after Jeremy Christian murdered two people and wounded a third, after the three tried to stop him from harassing two young women of color, one wearing a hijab, on a train.

Christian is a violent racist who showed up at a previous right-wing rally for "free speech"--armed with a baseball bat.

AFTER WEEKS of growing fear following Christian's double homicide and the murder of Richard Collins III by a white supremacist on the campus of the University of Maryland, it was critical that anti-racists turned out in large numbers in Portland to confront the right and publicly demonstrate that its hateful ideas are still widely despised.

Standing against alt-right hate in front of City Hall in Portland
Standing against alt-right hate in front of City Hall in Portland (Paul Gordon | ZUMA Press/Newscom)

As many as 400 people turned up for the Patriot Prayer rally--but they were outnumbered by more than 2,000 counterprotesters in three different demonstrations that faced the alt-right on three sides of the park where they gathered.

The largest of these was the Portland Stands United Against Hate rally, with some 1,500 people rallying across the street from the far right. On another side was a separate mobilization of 400 to 500 activists associated with Antifa, which has pursued a strategy of seeking physical confrontations with the far right. There was also a separate "Labor Against Fascism" mobilization that drew around 150.

The overall turnout was impressive considering that many people were frightened by the violence of the far right, but also because it happened in the face of calls for people to not show up from leading Democrats--from Mayor Ted Wheeler to Rev. Jesse Jackson.

"Let them march alone," Jackson said at a press conference organized by local Democrats two days before rally. "Our presence becomes the other side of the news. Let them and the cameras show up and be their own movement."

Thankfully, many people didn't follow this advice, which would have given the right-wingers even more confidence that their hatred won't be opposed. Instead, the right was outnumbered, and its message of hate was drowned out by chants and taunts.

That's exactly the kind of response that's needed to peel away potential new recruits to their poisonous politics--and to show everyone that the white supremacists and their hangers-on are a pathetic minority.

The counterprotest was a positive step for our side, after months of growing momentum for the far right, which has been courting Trump supporters by claiming that it is the victim of an oppressive liberal power structure. The "free speech rally" was part of a national campaign to cynically employ the idea of civil liberties as a cover for spreading bigoted ideas, intimidating oppressed groups and trying to stop the left from organizing.

AT THE Portland Stands United Against Hate rally, the crowd was energetic, and the rally organizers led loud chants of "No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here" to open the event.

Unite Oregon director Kayse Jama told the crowd that "we are living in a moment of history" that confronted us with the choice between "continue perpetuated bigotry and hate or building a just society." The message clearly resonated with the crowd, as hundreds of people faced the far-right rally and proudly chanted "Black Lives Matter" and "Nazis go home."

One of those facing the "alt-right" was Ana, who had been protesting at "pretty much every anti-Trump rally." "I have a voice as a young woman of color," she said, explaining why she was at the rally. "This call to action is why I am here."

More than 70 local and regional organizations endorsed the rally, and this broad base was reflected in the event. Calls for solidarity and the need to unify came from speakers from a wide range of organizations, including Voz Workers' Rights Education Project, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights (SUPER), Veterans for Peace (VFP) Chapter 72, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and many others.

Zakir Khan of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) told the crowd that this was a "rally of solidarity" and a "chance for people to feel supported" in the wake of Jeremy Christian's horrifying attack.

Many speakers went beyond the themes of mourning a tragedy and challenging the far right to talk about other pressing issues, like the ongoing crisis of police brutality in Portland.

The crowd heard from Donna Hayes, grandmother of Quanice Hayes, a 17-year-old African American killed by Portland police in February. "As I look at [Jeremy Christian], domestic terrorist is what I see," Hayes said. "When I continue to look at domestic terrorism, I see Portland police." She went on to name Keaton Otis, Aaron Campbell and other Black men murdered by Portland police.

Eva Maria of the ISO called attention to the need for a mass movement to challenge both the far right and the injustices of the U.S. government at their roots:

American workers of every color and gender are struggling to survive while the richest keep getting richer...It is this racism, it is these endless wars, and the nationalism that accompanies them, a society that lacks dignity and hope, that has opened the door to those far-righters to push their scapegoating, their nationalism, and its racism as the answer for some of those desperate few.

So today we are here to stand up to the right. But tomorrow we need to understand that the fight isn't over. Our class, our communities, those right here, need to start organizing to provide a political alternative that can fully represent us and provide the kind of world we want to live in. It's time for us to start acting on the offensive and demanding what we think we deserve.

AFTER A few hours of competing rallies, police tried to clear out the Antifa protest in order to give the alt-right safe passage out of its outnumbered predicament. The Portland police lived up to their official reputation for using excessive force, using concussion grenades and moving in force to evict Antifa protesters.

Most mainstream media reports characterized the day as a clash between right-wing and left-wing "extremists." In truth, there were two groups that went to unnecessary extremes: the far-right bigots and the Portland police, whose attacks on Antifa were completely unwarranted, and spread fear and confusion among the rest of the counterprotesters.

The only people who police seemed concerned about protecting were the far-right racists--and not for the first time.

At another "free speech" rally on April 29--the one attended by Christian, wielding a baseball bat--far-right demonstrators were shielded from left-wing protesters by police as they marched in southeast Portland. At the end of the march, the city spent taxpayer money to buy bus tickets for all the right-wingers to get back to the march's starting location.

With the state--from the police departments in cities like Portland all the way up to the White House under Donald Trump--explicitly supporting the far right, it's no surprise that these violent creeps feel confident organizing in public.

Some Antifa protesters have criticized the Portland Stands United Against Hate rally for not trying to physically confront the Patriot Prayer protest, but this is a misreading of what the situation demanded on June 4.

The white supremacist movement can only be driven to the margins through large-scale protests. The running battles at recent protests between small numbers of alt-right and Antifa haven't given confidence to immigrants, Muslims and other targets of the far right to come out and participate in such protests.

Instead, the confrontations have made people even less likely to protest--and allowed the hard right to deliberately use confrontations with Antifa to paint themselves as victims of dangerous and oppressive leftists who are trying to shut down the right's freedom of speech.

ORIGINALLY, THE announcement of the June 4 alt-right rally was met by little mobilization beyond Antifa groups. Broader left organizations remained demoralized after Portland's May Day march, when Black Bloc protesters undermined a march of some 1,000 people by provoking police and then retreating into the crowd after the police responded with a completely unjustified use of violence.

The dynamic changed, however, after Jeremy Christian's horrific murders of Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and wounding of Micah David-Cole Fletcher.

About 1,000 people came to a vigil the day after the murders. While people were there to mourn and stand in support of one another, many were also angry and determined to push back against bigoted terror. Out of this surge came the Portland Stands United Against Hate rally.

Mayor Wheeler attempted to halt both the right-wing rally and the counter-mobilizations by calling on the federal government to revoke Patriot Prayer's permit. But this only helped the right-wingers promote their false image as oppressed defenders of free speech.

Instead, the counterprotests showed a better way to fight hate: with thousands of people determined to prove that the far-right bigots are a loathed minority.

Hopefully, the momentum from this action can be built upon nationally, at events like the Washington, D.C., town hall meting about Richard Collins' murder on June 6--and the June 10 counterprotests called against the anti-Muslim "Sharia Law protest" in Seattle and other cities.

After the event, the organizers of the counterprotest issued a statement that included their reflections on the success of the action:

The main lesson from today is that to successfully stand against the far right we must mobilize the largest and broadest number of people. That we must build strong united coalitions. That when a political call that resonates with people is made, ordinary people have an amazing capacity for self-organization, which we saw today. We believe the Portland Stands United Against Hate rally is an example for people around this country for how to begin to turn the tide against the far right.

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