We can’t let them take over our streets
Socialist Worker contributors report from the anti-fascist counterprotests against the far right in Portland and Berkeley, with reporting from Ben Riley, Michael Mullinax, Nicole Colson, Ann Coleman, François Hughes and Eric Ruder.
THE FAR right wanted to use this past weekend’s mobilizations in Portland, Oregon, and Berkeley, California, to take the streets and show that they have rebuilt their strength one year after the murderous violence in Charlottesville.
They were met in both places by a determined response that outnumbered them — despite the threat of violence, heavy-handed police repression and the urging of political leaders to stay away from counterprotests.
But these countermobilizations were smaller than the upsurge of protests and vigils one year ago after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. The renewed threat of the far right is serious, especially considering that this is Trump’s America — which makes the countermobilization next weekend against the disgustingly named “White Civil Rights Rally” in Washington, D.C., all the more important.
The turnout by the fascists in Portland was several hundred, organized chiefly by Patriot Prayer. In Berkeley, there were only a few dozen bigots — a bust compared to what organizers had been boasting about. But the mobilization in Portland was the right’s biggest to date in over 30 events held in the Pacific Northwest and northern California since Trump took office.
Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys had vowed to come to Portland armed and were threatening to inflict violence on anyone who opposed them.
But they didn’t have to. The police did it for them.
As even the mainstream press noted, police kept the far right and anti-fascist demonstrators separated — but focused their ultimatums and activities on the anti-fascists.
After giving a public order for the counterdemonstrators to disperse or be subject to arrest or the use of “riot control agents or impact weapons,” police methodically attacked them. Images captured riot-clad cops smiling as they unloaded “flash-bang” grenades, while the far-right thugs cheered them on.
At least one of those grenades reportedly hit an anti-fascist protester in the head. Pictures circulated on social media of the protester with a bloody head wound, and a helmet with a large projectile embedded in it.
“I’m certain he would be dead if he wasn’t wearing a helmet,” Jenny Nickolaus, an anti-fascist demonstrator and friend of the victim, told the Huffington Post.
THE PORTLAND mobilization was the 16th time in as many months that Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson called for a gathering of Proud Boys, white nationalists and other reactionaries to terrorize the streets of Portland.
This time, the rally was in support of Gibson’s campaign for the Senate in Washington. The cynically named “Gibson for Senate Freedom March” drew out a collection of open fascists, many brandishing Proud Boy or swastika tattoos and clad in body armor. Dozens were seen carrying guns and other weapons.
In a Facebook Live video published leading up to the event, Gibson urged his supporters to “carry guns at all times,” while also suggesting that his followers “infiltrate” and “document” counter-demonstrations.
The counterprotest was called by Pop Mob — short for “Popular Mobilization,” a loose-knit coalition emerging out of the June 30 confrontation between Patriot Prayer and anti-fascist protesters. Despite the alarm raised by the potential of infiltrators and gun violence, organizers were able to mobilize a strong resistance.
By 10:30 a.m., hundreds had gathered for a rally at City Hall to oppose the bigots. The rally featured speakers from Jobs With Justice PDX, Gabriela Portland and other organizations, along with artist/activist Mic Crenshaw, who both spoke and performed. Although organized contingents were few, socialist groups made up the bulk of the early crowd, as the rally swelled to 600 people.
Alyssa Pagan spoke from Jobs With Justice, highlighting the need to build our forces. “In order to successfully defeat the right,” Pagan said, the left must “organize in our workplaces” to fill the “vacuum” resulting from decades of union busting and movement co-optation.
At the conclusion of the rally, the crowd began to march toward Salmon Street Fountain, where separate groups of anti-fascist protesters were already confronting the alt-right. The marchers chanted, “Wherever they go, whatever they do. We are many, they are few!” as they approached. Steel barricades, a four-lane road, a line of police cars and a hundred riot-clad Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officers separated the two groups.
After another half-hour, in a scene that has become all too predictable with Portland’s police, PPB announced that they had “observed weapons on some individuals on the west side of the street,” and ordered the immediate dispersal of the counterprotest.
Within minutes, flash-bang grenades had exploded in the crowd. People began fleeing from the police escalation into traffic on nearby bridges, where police arrested anti-fascist protesters.
Multiple people were injured by the police. In addition to the protester who was struck in the head by a flash-bang grenade, one woman was sent to the hospital with a broken arm after also being hit with a grenade.
Police then began to escort portions of the right-wing groups toward their buses, through the scattered crowds of anti-fascists. Gibson and his “inner circle” of hardened street-fighting bigots, stayed behind to march in formation through a freshly cleared park.
Anti-fascist protesters regrouped, and a contingent of about 150 people continued to confront Gibson and Co. until they departed under police escort.
For anyone who attended the demonstration, the necessity of resistance and organizing was clear.
Robin Wright, an anti-fascist protester who marched with the ISO, captured the urgency: “The way I figure it, these guys are already in town and packing. We’re all already all at risk. Their likes have recently shown their willingness to strike, stab and shoot at innocent people without warning. I don’t think sitting it out is really an option any more.”
IN BERKELEY, the crowd of 500 to 600 counterprotesters outnumbered the far right by 25 to 1. No more than a couple dozen far-right provocateurs were able to establish a presence at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park.
Although the Berkeley Police Department (BPD) was more restrained than in Portland, the cops used emergency rules passed by the City Council to arrest people at will for either minor violations or fabricated infractions, such as carrying an object the police deemed a weapon.
The first sign that the fascists might not be able to mobilize large numbers came earlier in the week when they changed their rally time from 4 p.m. to 12 noon. This seemed to signal that they didn’t expect to draw any of their fascist brethren from Portland to their event and hoped to avoid the counterprotesters by starting earlier.
As a result, there were two countermobilizations — a Sweep Out the Fascists event at 11 a.m. and a Solidarity Against Fascism East Bay (SAFEBay) rally at 2 p.m.
Just before the start of the 11 a.m. rally, the police pulled over the organizers sound truck for hauling such “dangerous” prohibited items as picket signs and whatever the BPD deemed to be “shields.” The driver of the truck was cuffed and arrested, and the truck was towed away.
Just before noon, a few hundred people departed from Ohlone Park, where the anti-racist forces were gathering throughout the day, and tried to march toward the Civic Center.
But police repeatedly moved lines of riot police into place to keep the march from ever getting closer than a block away. At the site itself, the couple dozen far-right bigots were surrounded by cops, and chanted at by 100 or more counterprotesters.
Eventually, several hundred of the marchers returned to Ohlone Park and joined with SAFEBay’s 2 p.m. event, which turned into a celebration as people realized just how small the far-right mobilization turned out to be.
People listened to speakers from Democratic Socialists of America, city workers represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), members of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and the International Socialist Organization.
Andrea, a city worker and member of SEIU Local 1021, sent one of the critical messages of the day:
Look to your left, look to your right, look at all of us here. This is our city. This is where I come to work every day to support this community. What we are doing together across unions and across organizations in opposition to hate — in opposition to the people who want to come here to drive wedges between who we are — that is what we stand up for: us together...Stronger together, brothers and sisters.
After the 2 p.m. rally, more than 100 people again marched from Ohlone Park, this time making it all the way to the Civic Center and holding an impromptu speakout to reclaim the park from the far right. The police tried to intimidate the crowd, using the emergency rules to arrest a handful of protestors while far-right live-streamers attempted to film the counterprotesters to dox attendees.
In August last year, after several attempts by far-right figures such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at UC-Berkeley and following the Charlottesville violence, several thousand people mobilized in Berkeley to stop the far right.
The smaller turnout this year, even after the tragic murder of Nia Wilson in Oakland on July 22 in an obviously racially motivated crime, is disappointing.
This is the eighth time that the far right has mobilized in the streets, in our parks or on our campus since February 2017. Revolution Books in Berkeley has been harassed by far-right activists more than 10 times in the last year. On March 4, a far right group called Berkeley Warriors stormed the store on the anniversary of the first pro-Trump rally staged in 2017.
The lessons of this past weekend are clear. Anti-fascist forces turned out in large enough numbers, but we need to prepare for the future, because the fascists are far from defeated, and they will be back.
We should organize for demonstrations that look more like the upsurge after Charlottesville last year, particularly Boston in the wake of Charlottesville last year.
Instead of hundreds, we should strive to mobilize thousands and tens of thousands — so the bigots and their friends in law enforcement know that we aren’t about to let them take over our streets.