How did Portland stand united against hate?

June 12, 2017

On June 4, more than 2,000 people mobilized in Portland, Oregon, to counterprotest far-right forces gathered for a rally allegedly about "free speech," but really about racist hate.

The turnout of 400 right-wingers on June 4, even after the racist murders committed by a white supremacist on a Portland train that shocked the world, shows the frightening growth of the far right. Fortunately, though, opponents of racist hate refused to be intimidated and sent a message that the bigots won't go unchallenged. The organization of the counterdemonstrations raised anew questions for the left about how to confront the far right--and even to take place, they had to surmount the objections of liberal voices who opposed a direct challenge and even, in some cases, called for ignoring the racist haters.

The June 4 counterdemonstration is only a first step--but an important one in setting an example for the left's future initiatives against the rise of the far right. Here, Wael Elasady, an organizer in Portland and member of the International Socialist Organization, discusses how the counterdemonstration was built with another Portland organizer, Sarah Levy.

WHAT WERE the goals of the organizers of Portland Stands United Against Hate counterprotest against the far right?

WE COULD see that around the country, the far right was consciously provoking street brawls with small numbers of Antifa activists at their rallies as a way to radicalize and build their base. Meanwhile, the liberal establishment was urging people to ignore the right and lamenting the violence from "extremists" on both sides.

As a result of this dynamic, broader layers of people who would otherwise come out to oppose the right were opting to stay home, and the far right was therefore gaining momentum.

We know this trend needs to be reversed. Therefore, what informed our strategic orientation from the beginning was the goal of organizing the largest mobilization possible to confront the far right.

At first, garnering interest beyond the existing left proved difficult, but the dynamic changed after the horrific murders by right-wing extremist Jeremy Christian, and it became possible to build a larger mobilization.

Anti-racists mobilize against the far right in Portland, Oregon
Anti-racists mobilize against the far right in Portland, Oregon (Joe Frazier)

We organized the Portland Stands United Against Hate rally at City Hall, across the street from the far-right rally, and adjacent to two other counterdemonstrations.

Our counterdemonstration was based on the belief that we wouldn't have the numbers to either occupy the plaza where the far right was rallying or push them out once they started, as the other two counterprotests wanted. So we aimed to challenge the right with our much greater numbers, and hopefully build the basis for even larger mobilizations in the future.

We reached out to unions, faith organizations, immigrant rights groups and social justice groups of every stripe to endorse the action and invited them to a planning meeting in which we all would shape the event. This approach was very successful--the planning meeting had 30 people from 20 different organizations present, and we ultimately ended up with 72 organizations that endorsed the rally and mobilized their communities to attend.

It was very powerful to see unions, racial justice groups, immigrant rights groups, socialists and others arrive with their banners, marching into the rally with organized contingents. There was a brass band contingent, a Native American drumming group, families of victims of police brutality who came out, and throngs of Portland residents who brought their homemade signs.

This sent an important message--it wasn't only a minority of left-wing activists who rejected the racism of the far right, but masses of ordinary residents of Portland.

BESIDES THE question of how to organize a counterdemonstration against the far right, there was also the debate about whether to counterdemonstrate. The liberal strategy essentially called for ignoring the far right's rally, because if you show up and confront them, you're giving them more attention. Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. led the pressure to call off the counterprotest, right?

JESSE JACKSON actually flew into town for one day and called for the counterdemonstrations to be canceled, so he could lead an anti-racist march on a different day. He has yet to call that march, by the way, and my sense is that he won't. So his call appears to have been simply a cynical maneuver to disorganize and demobilize our side.

We had to argue against this approach--not only against Jesse Jackson, but other organizations that put forward the message that the right should be ignored.

It's very important for us to understand how self-defeating the calls to "ignore" the far right are. The goal of far-right movements is to dominate the streets and intimidate their opponents. If they're successful in this or are left unchallenged, they will only gain more momentum and confidence. And they'll be able to attract more people to their organizations because it appears that they have a successful strategy.

The goal of intimidation is a central strategy of the far right. That's why they're coming to Portland, Berkeley, Seattle and Boston. They want to go to the heart of cities with a strong left--they want to come into our streets--and say: This is our territory now.

That's why it was essential for people to show up in mass numbers to confront the far right.

Luckily, not everyone heeded Jackson's call, and only a few organizations in our coalition pulled their endorsement of our counterdemonstration.

If Jackson and other liberal politicians had joined the call for people to mobilize, we would have drowned the far right in a sea of resistance. Instead, the self-described "leaders" of the resistance did everything in their power to limit our numbers and therefore played a particularly damaging role.

IT FELT to me like the stakes were really high in Portland, following the stabbing, then the noose being hung in the African American Museum in Washington--every day following the stabbings, we would hear about another hate crime. It's clear that it's going to get worse and worse if the far right isn't confronted. This seemed to prove, in a way, that the liberal idea of "ignoring" the right has already failed tragically--they've already grown stronger in the months when they were ignored.

YES, WHAT the far right is trying to do is instill terror into anyone opposed to them. They hope to accomplish this through individual attacks by right-wing extremists who have gained the confidence to carry out murder in broad daylight--the Portland Max line attack, the assaults on two Muslims the next day in Portland, the murder of a Black student at the University of Maryland by a member of an "Alt-Reich" group, the nooses hung at the African American history museum.

In my neighborhood, there were white supremacist fliers put up everywhere, and we most recently heard that there were death threats against the organizer of the Good In the Hood festival in Portland. So on the one hand, they carry out individual terror and intimidation. On the other, they were brazenly organizing rallies in the heart of our cities.

So what was at stake in Portland was this: Can the far right murder people in broad daylight and then stomp triumphantly through our streets, opposed only by a small number of radicals? Or would the city of Portland turn out in mass to reject their hate?

The latter is what happened, with counterprotesters greatly outnumbering the right and surrounding them on three sides--500 at the Antifa rally, 150 at the Labor against Fascists rally, and over 1,500 at our Portland Stands United Against Hate Rally. This sent an important message that even the media could not ignore, and it was a very important step forward.

If you watch videos of the conversations of right-wingers at their rally, they were taken aback, muttering that Portland really was "liberal" and that our rallies were huge.

Of course, this is just a first step, but it's an important one. Around the country, I think this is the first time since the protest against Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley that our side vastly outnumbered their side. This can be our starting point for stemming the tide of their growth.

THERE HAVE been some critiques about the fact that the Portland Stands United Against Hate rally wasn't organized around physically confronting the right.

THE DECISION to organize this rally around a plan of challenging the far right, but not physically confronting them or attempting to deny them the space, was a tactical consideration. It was informed by our overriding goal of mobilizing the greatest number of people to confront the right and our assessment that those large numbers of people wouldn't attend a rally with those aims.

So we organized the Portland Stands United Against Hate rally with this in mind. It was a way to build confidence and organization, and break through the fear barrier that was being fanned by the media, the mayor and the police to discourage people from attending.

That said, our aim should be to build our numbers and confidence so that we not only protest the far right, but ultimately are able to drive them from our streets. This can't be done simply through will power or radical sloganeering. If all it took to defeat the right was yelling charge, then we would have already defeated them.

We have to be able to assess the political situation, and the strength and confidence of our side, and choose tactics that will help mobilize the largest number of people to confront the right and take militant action to push them back.

The far right is incredibly dangerous in their instigation of violence--this is the main way they have trained their core members throughout history. For that reason, our movement has to take up the question of defending ourselves from attack, and what tactics can drive them from the streets.

Our strategy is different from Antifa. These activists conceive of their struggle to push back the fascists as separate from a mass movement--in fact, they see themselves as acting on behalf of larger numbers of people and view the confrontation primarily through the lens of street fighting.

We, on the other hand, believe that self-defense and actual confrontations have to be organized as part of a mass movement, and democratically accountable to it. The specific tactics and assessments have to flow from a broader political strategy of defeating the right. That's something the left needs to think through and discuss.

IN THE lead-up to the protest, there were calls by the mayor to have the federal government revoke the permit for the far right. Is this a call that should have been supported?

THE FIRST thing that we have to do is expose the hypocrisy of what the far right is doing. They are using the cover of free speech to organize a white supremacist movement in this country that aims to take away all of our civil rights, including free speech.

Killing people on a train isn't a question of free speech, hanging a noose outside the African American History museum isn't a question of free speech, physically attacking and assaulting Muslims on the streets isn't free speech, sending death threats to a professor of African American history at Princeton isn't free speech.

The first thing we have to say is that the far right doesn't care about free speech or civil rights--their aim is to use the call for "free speech" to organize for the opposite.

But there are multiple problems with relying on the state to stop the far right, which is what Mayor Wheeler proposed to do by asking the federal government to pull the permit.

First, this plays into the far right's strategy. They are making gains by portraying themselves as victims who are just trying to send their harmless, inoffensive message. When the government steps in against them, that's more fuel to the fire.

Second, and even more importantly, calling on the state to revoke the permit of the far right today hands them the power to cancel our rallies tomorrow. We can't trust the state, which is the largest purveyor of violence and repression, so we can't hand over our civil liberties to them.

Finally, you can't ban a far-right movement out of existence. These forces are a mass phenomenon, emerging out of an underlying social crisis.

That doesn't mean our side shouldn't exercise our right to free speech to challenge the far right wherever they rear their heads. The strategy for defeating the right isn't to appeal to the state to ban them, but to organize mass mobilizations, which can ultimately push them backwards.

SPEAKING OF the state, can you talk about the role of the police at the rally and what IT tells us about what we can expect from law enforcement in the contest with the right.

THE POLICE actually coordinated with the far-right militias that were providing security for the racists' rally. It appears that the police handed over control of the sidewalk surrounding their rally to these militias, and then worked with them.

A member of a far-right militia helped police tackle, subdue and arrest a leftist protester. The militia member actually reached into the waistband of the DHS officer and grabbed plastic cuffs to help with the arrest.

Furthermore, the police erected a barrier around the far-right protest, making it clear who they were there to protect. They then carried out an attack on left-wing protesters at Chapman Park, using tear gas and rubber bullets, and later "kittling" a group of left-wing protesters.

This is another reason we have to be clear that the state won't stop the far right. In fact, elements of the state often ally with the right.

This is because the mass protests of the left demand a different society. We expose police brutality, while the cops are there to protect the current order, and they are imbued with racism and contempt for working-class people who they police.

The far right's ideology and strategy fit with that. They don't want to get rid of the system--they want to channel anger against minorities and the left. The far right consciously courts the police and law enforcement--which is why there were Blue Lives Matter posters at their rally. Many of the Oath Keepers who coordinated with the police are former military and former police officers themselves.

The Portland example confirms the general rule: The police won't confront the fascists, except in specific circumstances where they may go beyond the limits of the establishment.

That's why it's critical for our side to organize the largest number of people and have a coherent strategy that avoids self-defeating provocations with police that give them cover to target our side--so that we can take on the right, but also build our power to withstand police repression.

CAN YOU talk about some of the next steps in fighting the right?

THE IMMEDIATE steps are to continue building a movement that can confront them.

The far right is growing--there were 400 people at their demonstration, which is one of their larger ones they've been able to organize. Their goal is to build a mass movement to take over the streets, so we have to continue our mobilizations to confront them and demoralize them.

But we also have to understand that this is going to be a long-term struggle. This isn't going to be one or two protests.

There are a few reasons for this. First, there's an ideological dynamic, created by both political parties, that is conducive to the growth of the far right. Years of the "war on terror" has normalized Islamophobia; years of immigrant-bashing and deportations has built up anti-immigrant lies, and increasing inter-imperial rivalries are strengthening nationalism. This has created an atmosphere in which far-right ideas can gain traction among wider layers of people.

Second, with Trump in office, we know he will continue to use his position to spread racism, sexism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant scapegoating, and this gives the right greater confidence.

Finally, as I said earlier, there are deep structural issues at play that allow the far right to grow. Historically, the right grows when there's an economic and social crisis that devastates lives and drives people to despair. The right thrives by taking that despair, and channeling it toward scapegoating, racism and nationalism.

Which means that as we build our movement to challenge the far right, we also have to connect that movement to a variety of social struggles--from immigrant rights, to police violence, to universal health care--and a wider left alternative.

Ultimately, to defeat the right, we have to not only challenge them in the streets, but provide a more compelling political alternative that can channel people's anger and despair about the status quo into a political movement that identifies the real source of our misery in a system built for the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us.

Challenging the far right requires aiming for a different vision of society--one based on equality, where immigrants aren't terrorized by ICE and African Americans don't suffer police violence; where women have control over their bodies and decisions; where working people of all races don't not have to struggle every day just to pay the bills; where getting an education doesn't mean being up to your eyeballs in debt; where health care isn't a privilege but a right for every person; where human activity sustains and enriches all lives, rather than destroying the planet.

We have to provide a socialist alternative to this system and to the despair it breeds.

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