The right tried to return to Portland...and failed

September 14, 2017

Joel Morrow and Ben Riley report on a protest that drove the far right out of town--and comment on the lessons to be drawn about what made this success possible.

ON SEPTEMBER 10, Portlanders demonstrated once again that fascists and violent racists are not welcome in their city.

The far-right group Patriot Prayer was scheduled to hold one of its so-called "free speech" rallies in Portland's downtown waterfront area on September 10. In fact, the event was really about providing a platform and organizing space for the forces that want to use violence and intimidation to deny free speech--and every other right--from oppressed people and progressive activists.

The list of speakers slated for the Patriot Prayer event included, among others, notorious Confederate monument defender Billy Sessions and self-described "American nationalist" Kyle Chapman, known as "Based Stickman" ever since he was caught on video beating protesters over the head with a stick.

But those plans changed when it became clear that people all around Oregon and southwest Washington were planning to protest their hate. Some 1,000 people showed up for a Rally and March Against White Nationalism organized by Portland Stands United Against Hate (PSUAH).

A socialist contingent hits the streets during Portland's march against the far right
A socialist contingent hits the streets during Portland's march against the far right (Hanna Estephan Eid | SW)

After hundreds of people publicly RSVP'd to counterdemonstrate in the days leading up to September 10, Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson announced a change in plans the day before the demonstrations were set to take place: He and a small "inner circle of Patriot Prayer" would hold a march and rally on the waterfront, while the rest of their followers would gather across the river in Vancouver, Washington.

The main result of the switch was that Gibson's band of racists was overwhelmed in two cities instead of one.

In Portland, a march that swelled to over 1,500 people ended up literally chasing the fascists out of town. As Wael Elasady of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) summed up at the post-march rally: "Today, we sent [Patriot Prayer] a message that when they come to Portland, THEY WILL LOSE!"

Later in the afternoon, the Patriot Prayer rally in Vancouver was outnumbered three-to-one by a rally called by the Southwest Washington Emergency Response Network, forcing the right-wingers to end their rally early and retreat yet again.

But during that retreat, there was a sobering reminder of just what despicable forces we're up against. A truck driven by one of the attendees of the Patriot Prayer rally took advantage of a widely dispersed crowd and attempted to run over a group of counterprotesters.

Thankfully, no one was injured in the attempt, but that makes it no less outrageous that police didn't even arrest the driver--even as the media drumbeat continues about the horrors of "violent Antifa" protesters.

GIBSON TRIED to take advantage of the recent wave of denunciations of Antifa when he announced his location change to Vancouver. "It's the only way to take away Antifa's message that they're trying to protect Portland," he told The Oregonian.

Gibson was picking on Antifa as the right's favorite scapegoat, but the truth is that many more people than this small group of anti-fascist activists was mobilizing against him, from a wide range of backgrounds and organizations outraged by the growth of right-wing extremism in this country and the deadly terrorism it is breeding.

The PSUAH rally was endorsed by 85 different organizations, including faith-based groups, health care advocacy, labor, environmental, education, racial justice and immigrant rights organizations.

Some 1,000 people showed up at 12:30 p.m. for the rally in Terry Schrunk Plaza, three blocks away from the waterfront where less than 20 right-wingers were protected by police and a large fenced-off "no man's land" separating them from hundreds of other counterprotesters.

PSUAH's original plan was to march down at 1 p.m. to join the rest of the counterprotesters at the waterfront to confront Patriot Prayer. By the time the march started, however, police were already evacuating the waterfront due to clashes that were breaking out between counterprotesters, Patriot Prayer and police.

After Patriot Prayer was escorted away, they marched up into the downtown area, tailed closely by Antifa and others who had been at the waterfront. The PSUAH march rerouted and began following the retreating right-wingers.

The march swelled to over 1,500 people as separate contingents of Antifa protesters and a large group from the First Unitarian Church joined with PSUAH in their common pursuit. Police were finally able to redirect the march, and the right-wingers scampered off into a parking garage, ultimately retreating to Vancouver.

Anti-fascist protesters, unified and energized in their victory, marched back to Terry Schrunk where a public speakout continued for another hour in high spirits.

SINCE EARLY April, Patriot Prayer has hosted 13 events--seven in Portland--including the now-infamous "March for Free Speech" that brought out Jeremy Christian--who just a month later would murder two people on the Portland "MAX" light rail, when they tried to defend two young women from his racist harassment and intimidation.

A week after these murders, Patriot Prayer hosted another event on June 4--dubbed a "Trump Free Speech Rally"--that featured leaders of the Multnomah County Republican Party, neo-Nazis brandishing Swastika tattoos and right-wing militia groups working side by side with the police.

It was in opposition to this event that the PSUAH coalition was formed and over 2,000 counter protestors joined three demonstrations to reject Patriot Prayer's message of hate.

August 6 marked the second time PSUAH mobilized against far-right bigotry. Unfortunately, this event was weakly attended and resulted in a tactical retreat following a clash between Antifa protesters and Patriot Prayer.

Organizers took many lessons from the day, not the least of which was the need for larger mobilizations to best ensure the safety of vulnerable people from racist violence.

The coalition also focused on tightening up security and strengthening on-the-ground communication among organizers, and between organizers and the broader rally. This reorientation was a key factor on September 10 in leading to a total rout of the far-right bigots.

Anne Henderson, who came out as part of a contingent from Humanists of Greater Portland, highlighted the need for the large mobilizations against the far right. She said her group hadn't mobilized as a contingent since the March for Science in April, but added, "Charlottesville inspired us to come out. I think that really tipped the scales for a lot of people."

Henderson believes that people need to send a message that we reject the far-right politics of racist scapegoating and fearmongering and that "mass mobilizations help send that message." She added, "Events like this show people that they are not alone in their struggles."

Anne was not alone. Akash Singh and Damon Motz-Storey from Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility reinforced her sentiments, saying they believe coalitions like PSUAH are an example of how we can come together around issues common to us all and fight for a better world.

They asserted that the agenda and actions of white nationalist extremists are a "threat to public health" and that all people are affected by this threat.

LARGER NUMBERS weren't the only thing that made the September 10 counterprotest a success. Disciplined contingents of socialists, labor unions and clergy throughout the crowd helped set the mood of the day.

The contingents acted as sources of inspiration and conduits of information, leading chants, maintaining tight formation during the march, and relaying pertinent information from organizers to the broader group. The presence of these experienced groups was an important factor in keeping the march organized through multiple tactical changes and police redirections along our route.

The Socialist Contingent was the largest organized body at the rally, totaling about 100 people. Members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Socialist Alternative (SA) and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), along with a number of unaffiliated socialists, gathered at a park near the main PSUAH rally before noon, and speakers from each group gave messages of anti-racism and solidarity.

Gisela Rodriguez of the Portland ISO highlighted the root of our power:

We have the power of collective action. Because ours is a system based on solidarity; because we are here for all immigrants, we are here for the Muslim community, for the LGBTQ community, we are here for the kid that committed a crime, for the single mother that works two jobs to sustain her family and for the father that cannot support his family because he is in prison. We are here for the working class and we are here because an injury to one is an injury to all!

After the speakers finished, the socialists marched to the main rally a few blocks away, where they led many who had gathered at the plaza in chants of solidarity with immigrant struggles, the movement for Black lives and the Palestinian people.

The socialist contingent remained together and disciplined throughout the rally and march, becoming a visible and exciting pole of attraction which served to draw in dozens of new faces and help strengthen unity between socialist organizations.

A few provocateurs from Patriot Prayer attempted to infiltrate the PSUAH rally late in the afternoon. They appeared to be trying to incite a violent response, projecting offensive slurs at attendees.

Being vastly outnumbered, this was one of their only clear tactics throughout the day: they would form small groups equipped with camcorders and roam around, provoking counter protesters to lash out at them so that they could play the victim and get press coverage out of it.

However, unlike previous instances when they were able to provoke clashes and appear to be stoic victims of "antifa violence", this time they merely succeeded in looking petty and marginal.

OTHER ATTEMPTS at inciting an adverse response from peaceful protesters came at the hands of the police. As they did at an anti-fascist protest in Berkely two weeks earlier, cops rode motorcycles through the crowd of people as they marched, threatening to arrest people if they didn't move. One Portland cop threw an explosive device directly at a crowd of journalists attempting to film a violent arrest.

Unlike the self-serving argument thrown at Antifa from the likes of Joey Gibson and their gullible followers in the media, these police actions are blatant violations of free speech rights that intimidate protesters and undermine their right to assemble--not to mention clear safety risks that could easily lead to unwilling marchers being run over by a motorcycle.

Perhaps the most outrageous police action, however, was the inaction of Vancouver police during the far right's retreat, when a Patriot Prayer supporter took advantage of a widely dispersed crowd and tried to run over Antifa protesters.

Police didn't even arrest the driver--they chose to take at face value his story that he was "scared" and "just trying to flee." This despite the fact that cops witnessed him drive around the block to go after left wing protesters a second time.

When asked by a reporter from Willamette Week why the man wasn't arrested, even though there was clearly evidence of possible crime, police spokesperson Kathy McNicholas replied that there are plenty of occasions when police don't make arrests, "like when someone steals a candy bar."

The attempted violence in Vancouver--and clear sympathies of many police with the far right--only underscore the need for our side to build large protests with tight, disciplined contingents.

On the whole, however, September 10 was a large success for our side. By employing lessons learned from the tragedy in Charlottesville last month, and the more successful anti-fascist mobilizations since then in Boston and the Bay Area, people in Portland and Vancouver were once again able to shut down a platform dedicated to preaching a reactionary politics of fear.

Along with the preceding victories in Boston and the Bay Area, ordinary people got to experience firsthand what a win against the right actually looks like when we show our strength in numbers, and maintain a tight and secure, yet confrontational march.

In addition, socialists in different organizations were able to strengthen their collaboration, through a successful contingent and by organizing a panel discussion featuring members of DSA, SA and ISO a week before the rally to debate strategies and tactics for fighting the right.

The PSUAH coalition is planning to build on this success with a daylong conference in late October that will feature talks and discussions on how to fight the white nationalist movement. It's clear that there is a lot more work to do.

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