The far right Proud Boys haven’t stopped holding rallies in progressive urban areas, but their ability to draw crowds and take over city centers is being checked by antifascists looking to halt their growth.
On Sunday, August 22, a number of people associated with the far right “Patriot” movement held a rally in Portland, Oregon, featuring the Proud Boys, members of Patriot Prayer and unaffiliated supporters. One of its key organizers was Audra Price, a member of a Pacific Northwest–based “police supporters” group known as COPS NW, which organizes anti-Black Lives Matter rallies. Some of the organizations associated with the far right rally, such as the Proud Boys, are at the core of the recent spate of far right violence that has plagued both Portland and other cities around the country. As expected, numerous organizations and autonomous organizers prepared a series of interventions to challenge the far right rally, refusing to let the far right activists return to the city without objection.
This clash between the far right and antifascists comes exactly a year after another clash, in which Proud Boys and other far right groups rallied on the steps of the Justice Center in Portland in an effort to challenge the Black Lives Matter groups that had been demonstrating there through the summer. On that day, police stood blocks away, refusing to intervene as projectiles were hurled at antiracist protesters and guns were drawn on unarmed activists.
Since 2016, far right groups have headed into Portland and other liberal cities, attempting to instigate conflict that would allow them to push a narrative about “protecting” the cities from allegedly violent left-wing protesters.
Part of the goal for antifascist and antiracist organizations in advance of the Proud Boy rally was to make such a public call for antifascist demonstrations and attention that the far right would back down from their attempt to enter the middle of the city.
Preparing to Counter the Far Right
On Friday, August 20, a coalition of a number of groups including Don’t Shoot Portland, Interfaith Clergy Resistance, and the Oregon Justice Resource Center held a press conference in front of the city hall in an effort to draw attention to the fact that far right groups were again making Portland a target.
“[We’re] concerned community people who are sick and tired of the city’s silence on these issues of Proud Boys coming and running roughshod over our city,” said Juan Chavez, of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, who also mentioned that just two weeks prior weapons were pulled on protesters during a far right rally. “The solutions to this aren’t necessarily complicated. We’ve just gravitated towards seeing the challenging of police authority as a greater sin … than driving through a city with a Trump flag shooting at people.”
Many antiracist activists allege that the police are unwilling to take action against far right demonstrators who often come from out of the city, are armed and often publicly state their intent to commit violence. Instances like last year’s clashes saw police refusing to intervene against far right attacks or using disproportionate violence against the antifascist demonstrators. Earlier reports suggested that the police view the right-wing protesters as “more mainstream,” and this could explain their responses.
The same day, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler held a press conference begging Portlanders to stay home, just as he had done in 2019 when antifascists planned to turn out in fierce opposition to a Proud Boys summer rally.
“The city of Portland has long embraced, continues to support the most cherished of American values for generations: that’s the right to assembly and the right to freedom of speech. But as we have seen [in] the past, these events can be subverted by people who come with the intent to commit either acts of violence, or destruction, or sometimes both,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler. “Our ask is simple. We are asking you to choose love.”
Wheeler was re-elected in 2020 but is already facing a recall effort, which cites his heavy-handed use of police on left-wing and antiracist protesters.
The Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said during the same press conference that state police and “metro partners” would be present at the protest but would take a hands-off approach.
“People should not necessarily expect to see the police standing in the middle of the crowd trying to keep people apart,” said Lovell. “People need to keep themselves apart and avoid physical confrontation.”
Many activists cite the threat of violence from far right groups even in the presence of police as the reason that antifascist groups are formed in the first place.
“Normal people like you and me, and our local antifascist groups, should not have to do this. Antifa in Portland was founded after the police force showed no ability to protect minorities in this town from being murdered, such as Mulugeta Seraw,” Rabbi Ariel Stone, of Interfaith Clergy Resistance, said to Truthout. Seraw, an Ethiopian student, was killed in 1988 by members of Eastside White Pride, a neo-Nazi gang in Portland.
“I am very much in favor of antifa because all of us should be antifa, should be antifascist,” Stone said.
Antifascists in the area responded to the murder of Seraw by helping to mobilize antiracist skinhead groups and the early emergence of Anti-Racist Action, a precursor movement to the more recent iterations of antifa. A strong neo-Nazi presence in Portland during the ‘80s and ‘90s led to the emergence of militant antifascism, which worked to push racist gang members out of music venues, community locations and shared spaces to minimize the threat these groups posed. Today there are several antifascist groups in the city, and longstanding organizations like Portland’s Rose City Antifa are a model for many groups around the country.
“[This] event is yet another attempt by the far right to gather their supporters together to intimidate, and when they can get away with it, attack, people in Portland,” said “Larry,” an organizer with Rose City Antifa who used a pseudonym due to fears of fascist retaliation. Larry said that Sunday’s date was likely picked by the far right because it was the one-year anniversary of last year’s event, which led to multiple injuries and attacks on Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
“The reason we’re helping organize a counter on 8/22 is getting people together to show solidarity with each other in opposition to the far right and the violence they bring whenever they gather. We think that the past has shown that when we get a lot of people together to oppose them, in whatever capacity people feel comfortable with, the chances for attacks drop tremendously,” Larry told Truthout.
Preventing the Far Right From Taking the City Center
On Sunday, the Proud Boys event had to change locations early on, likely due to pressure from a coalition of antifascist groups. By changing locations at the last minute, the far right organizers tried to reduce the number of counter-demonstrators that show up.
Activists began to amass near to the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, where the Proud Boys rally was originally set to be held. While groups like Rose City Antifa were involved in promoting and encouraging participation, some of the work was done by autonomous groups, often organizing in small affinity groups. This has become the de facto coalition of many of these Portland antifascist demonstrations: a mix of nonprofits, radical and antifascist community groups, and a lot of community members angry about yet another arrival of right-wing militants.
The earlier press conference and the announcement of the counter-rally showed the Proud Boys and far right militants that they could not come to the city unopposed. This likely pushed them out of the city center and to their new location, the parking lot of an abandoned K-Mart on the edge of Portland’s Eastside.
“We need to organize events like this to counter them because those in power are not countering them,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins of the antifascist group One People’s Project. He pointed out that Sunday’s muted events were a perfect example of how well-organized resistance can play out, as the far right was unable to continue their event and no one faced reprisals.
For the first part of the antifascist counter-demonstration, there was a carnivalesque feeling of jubilation. Free pizza was distributed by mutual aid groups. Interfaith Clergy Resistance, wearing their recognizable purple vests, provided a progressive religious presence. The Proud Boys held their speeches across town at an event hosted by Proud Boys PDX and featured members from across Oregon, California, New York and Boston. They had armed teams patrolling their area, harassing the few journalists and demonstrators who showed up to their location.
“[Today] was 100% a victory. The community came together and showed up for each other and their neighbors. The far right did their math, saw the widespread opposition in Portland, and decided they would rather go stand in an abandoned K-mart parking lot, miles away,” Larry told Truthout. “Portland kept them out of downtown and kept each other safe.”
Eventually the Proud Boys led a charge on a medical van that entered the parking lot’s south side, flipping over the van and sending the driver fleeing for safety. After trashing the van further, and taking photos in front of it, the attendees, led by Proud Boy Tusitala ‘Tiny’ Toese, fired projectiles from paintball guns and pepper spray at journalists and attempted to start fights.
However, “keeping [the Proud Boys] out of the downtown area absolutely reduced the risk to people,” said Larry, explaining that the violence that happened at the edge of the city could have been worse if activists had allowed them to enter the city center. “We saw them give a bunch of speeches openly threatening trans people and people they perceive as liberals/leftist, among others, and later in the day they just let loose. That kind of destruction would only have put more random people at risk if it had happened in their original location.”
While this was happening, the antifascist protest downtown continued, developing into an “Occupy Wallstreet” style blockade and protest zone. After the confrontation at the K-Mart the Proud Boys left town, heading over to Esther Short Park in nearby Vancouver, Washington, but violence continued within the city. While details are still sparse, near the downtown protest encampment there was a shooting incident as protesters ran for their lives. Protesters say that they heard one man use a racial slur against a Black man in a group of antiracist demonstrators and then opened fire. At least one of the shooters is now in custody. Bullet holes were left on surrounding buildings and a parked car. When police arrived, several protesters demanded to know why they had not been there when they were allegedly targeted by the shooter with a firearm.
While many people assumed that far right events would soon burn out after Donald Trump’s loss, there has been some wind in the sails of the most violent edges of the far right. After a moment of growth as we saw since 2015, moments of decline often become incubators for impulsive acts of violence and desperate moves. COVID safety measures have also become a hot issue for right-wing figures bent on building up resentment against liberal politics. This has created a new channel for these conspiracy-minded movements, and they are clamoring for a new identity.
On Sunday, the Proud Boys were disallowed from taking the Portland city center, as they have tried to do dozens of times in the past few years. While the Proud Boys’ numbers have fractured as their leaders face criminal charges, the antifascist response has remained stable, or grown. While the far right is still coordinating events across state lines, the capacity of antifascism to respond quickly and effectively is outpacing them.