Portland Riot Part 2: Fear
Read Part 1 here
The Left is good at signs. Every post-2016 rally, from the largest nationwide protest to the smallest local gathering, prompts people to create a host of new ones: clever, funny, poignant, and/or cutting.
In this sea of innovation and turnover, “Make Racists Afraid Again” persists. The sign appears at every post-Trump rally I have attended of any sort. My friends share the slogan on social media. You can get it on a T-shirt.
Antifa doesn’t come with as many signs as other left-wing groups — their primary purpose goes beyond expressions of outrage. Yet “Make Racists Afraid Again” has turned up at almost every Antifa counterprotest I have personally witnessed. This makes a certain kind of sense, since the slogan perfectly encapsulates the essence of Antifa’s goals and tactics.
“We are Rose City Antifa. We oppose fascist organizing in physical, cultural, and political spaces through direct action, education, and solidarity.”
Antifa and I have important things in common. We both see a real and rising white nationalist threat and the creep of those ideas into the mainstream. We both think society at large underestimates this danger, and we believe in an imperative to fight these ideas. We want to relegate these destructive ideas to the shadows where they belong. Dangerous ideas can never be exterminated, but they can be made so fringe and so universally understood to be horseshit that they don’t menace regular people.
Antifa attempt to weaken and/or eliminate fascism by disrupting fascist organizations and events using “any means necessary.” Whether through physical violence, doxxing, or other less dramatic means, the group seeks, in a phrase, to make racists afraid again.
People imagine fear as a deterrent to action — something to make people sit down, shut up, crawl back under the rock they crawled out from. If we make racists and fascists sufficiently afraid, the logic goes, they’ll lose their power. They’ll disappear. We can continue working towards a better and more equitable future.
But fear doesn’t work that way at all.
I volunteer with shelter dogs, which means I meet a lot of animals who become afraid easily. A scared dog is a dangerous dog. One of the most important things I do as a volunteer is keep an eye out for signs of fear, because fear often leads to aggression. Even a good and well-adjusted dog will bite if they think someone or something threatens themselves or their loved ones.
Antifa insists that their tactics constitute the best — and only — way stop far-right ideas. Does it work that way? After sixteen months of protesting Patriot Prayer gatherings in Portland, Oregon, has that group been in any way deterred?
I have attended Patriot Prayer rallies, on and off, for about a year. I wear nondescript clothing. I stay as quiet as possible and speak when spoken to. I observe and record.
Through this attendance and observation, I see Antifa from something approaching the perspective of Patriot Prayer. I witness firsthand the effect that Antifa has on rally attendees. I personally experience these effects as well — after all, Antifa can’t tell the difference between me and any other rally attendee.
In one sense, Antifa tactics have succeeded. Antifa has succeeded marvelously at making Patriot Prayer afraid.
Here’s what that looks like — and feels like — from the inside.
Portland is beautiful in the summer, and June 30th is no exception. I approach the Terry Schrunk plaza through quiet sunlight, where I can just make out some kind of beat from beyond the police barricades.
As I draw nearer, the beat resolves itself into the strange sound of pro-Trump rap. I later discovered that the song is entitled “Alt-Left.” The artist, LasikBEATS, performs it live — a bearded white man in an American flag do-rag and a Proud Boy polo. The song describes the oppression experienced by conservatives as they march in the street — attacked by Antifa, arrested by the police, under seige from all sides, yet strong and ready to fight. The music video, which I watched later, features carefully mixed footage of Antifa, street brawls, and news coverage.
The music video also features extensive audio and video of Trump’s statement on the Alt-Left. Trump coined the phrase during a press conference regarding the events at Charlottesville, Virginia last summer — the rally at which a self-described neo-nazi murdered Heather Heyer and injured 35 others.
The artist does not mention these events, of course. He does not mention that Richard Spencer, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, helped organize the rally that inspired Trump to denounce the “alt-left,” or the undisputed presence of self-described Nazis on his side of the rally. Instead, he portrays the rally attendees as victims simply standing up for free speech and conservative values.
This moment exemplifies an interesting truth about Patriot Prayer. The things they explicitly advocate for — a right to free speech and free assembly, God and religion, pro-life family values, patriotism, support for the troops, respect for the President — are essentially Conservatism 101. The poison often lies in what remains unsaid.
LasikBEATS probably wouldn’t like me describing his lyrics as centered on fear, yet there it is, fear, at the center. “Risking my life, but that’s how it’s supposed to be…I grew out a beard, and now I wear goggles ‘cuz they try exposing me…and if I get killed, get me a flag and drape that shit over me.”
Observe that, while Antifa has clearly succeeded in making LasikBEATS afraid, fear did not prevent him or any of the other attendees from showing up today. Instead, the fear motivates them. Why else perform this song at the start of the rally? Memories of past rallies, experienced or watched on YouTube, gets the rally-goers pumped up and ready to defend themselves. That feeling of the cornered dog, purposefully cultivated, preparing the people for war.
Prayer and Propaganda
As I enter the rally and make my way through the crowd, Joey Gibson steps up to the microphone. “There’s [only] one thing that I bend a knee to,” Gibson explains, “and that’s God.” Everyone kneels as Gibson asks God to guide the attendees, to help them do the right thing, and to speak the truth. “We are here to bring light into a city that is filled with darkness. We just need you to guide us one step at a time.”
I look around at the crowd as the prayer continues. It is, as usual, somewhat mixed. As one might expect, the vast majority of attendees are white men. People of color attend as well: not many, but enough to be significant. There are women — a few young, but mostly women who look like someone’s aunt or grandmother. There is a sign condemning homosexuality, but I see a few scattered pride flags and at least three women who appear to be trans. There are perhaps a hundred people in attendance.
Those praying can clearly hear Antifa across the street. The counter-protesters play a brass band in an attempt to block out the words. They scream. They chant “Nazis go home!”
When someone is kneeling, praying to their God for guidance and strength while a mass black-clad people who outnumber you horribly call you Nazis, they experience a visceral sense of the persecution that evangelical Christians have claimed for decades.
In a way, that persecution is an illusion: Antifa has no idea what Joey Gibson is specifically saying or what his audience is doing. Yet there is truth in here somewhere. Antifa does not care what words Patriot Prayer actually uses at these rallies, because for them it is beside the point. They have already decided what Patriot Prayer is — a white supremacist, fascist movement.* They miss the importance of the big-tent nature of these rallies. The gathering together of genuinely fascist elements with Christian grandmothers and lifelong conservatives.
Imagine how all this looks through conservative eyes — not a far-right conservative, but a regular, old-fashioned, God-fearing conservative watching this rally on one of many live streams. If this — a racially-mixed-for-Portland crowd of people kneeling in prayer — is what the Left thinks of as Nazis, clearly “Nazi” is an empty insult and Nazis are nothing to worry about. Unlike the very real, frightening mob surrounding you, white supremacist movements pose no threat, because apparently you are the white supremacist movement and you are not advocating for holocaust.
Not only is all of this untrue, it is highly dangerous. Naziism is, unfortunately, a very real ideology. The white supremacist movement grows even as the meaning of the word “Nazi” becomes increasingly distorted and degraded through chronic overuse. Moments like these erode the natural post-WWII revulsion felt by the vast majority of human beings towards Nazis, at a time when we need that revulsion more than ever.
The equivocation between the watching conservative and the Nazi dulls future reactions to actual Nazis. The natural assumption will be that the Nazi is an ally — mischaracterized by a word that is more insult than ideology.
This prayer isn’t for the benefit of committed white supremacists. It’s for those who remain undecided. Those who wouldn’t be here, wouldn’t be watching, if swastikas came out, but who might be persuaded to join that sort of rally given time and a sufficiently terrifying enemy.
Moments like these are for those who might drift farther right, if they were made sufficiently afraid.
Joey Gibson’s Shifting Rhetoric
After the prayer concludes, Joey Gibson begins to speak.
I have not been to all of Patriot Prayer’s events — not even close — but I’ve been to enough to have a familiarity with the typical Joey Gibson talking points. He emphasizes the bravery of those who attend Portland rallies and the importance of standing up for free speech. He supports Trump to much applause, but rarely mentions specific policies. He always talks about love and acceptance. He points out the racial diversity of his audience. God features prominently, though specific scripture does not.
Always, Gibson bashes Antifa, whom he depicts as weak cowards one moment and a dangerous menace the next. He encourages his audience to rise above the hate displayed by Antifa and to conduct itself with honor in the upcoming march.**
In other words, the actual rhetoric of the typical Gibson speech is usually pretty tame. Moderate, even.
Gibson’s June 30th speech isn’t like that at all. Something has changed. Today, Joey Gibson speaks about revolution.
Today’s speech begins with direct parallels between the American Revolutionary War and the need to fight today. We are, Gibson explains, losing the freedom our founding fathers fought for. “We have DC that is filled with politicians that rejected God a long time ago. And I believe that it is time that we the people begin to reject the authority of the politicians in Washington DC.” The Patriot Prayer leader goes on to directly compare Democrats to King George III.
For Gibson, both the past and present American revolutions are fundamentally religious. He claims that the Founding Fathers got their conception of human rights directly from God and scripture, then reminds the audience of Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that “rebellion against tyranny is obedience to God.” Today, Gibson tells us, “rebellion to the corruption in our government right now — that is obedience to God.” What America needs now are “warriors for Christ, who are willing to go out and to fight this evil that we have all over this country.”
Action — aggressive action — is a moral imperative. “If you say nothing, if you do nothing, you are just as much to blame as the evil itself, you will be held just as responsible.” Rally-goers can hear the counter-protester chant and clamor throughout this speech, confirming the black-clad danger.
Joey Gibson concludes his speech with a description of two men he greatly admires. The first of these is George Washington. Gibson mostly focuses on Washington’s battlefield courage and expertise at war, but mentions our first president’s willing relinquishment of power. Like Jesus, Gibson tells us, Washington came to serve, not to be served.
The second courageous man is Martin Luther King. To illustrate King’s courage, Joey Gibson relates the story of King’s lunch counter protests. He describes in bloody detail the way the police beat him as he sat, peacefully, at a counter where he had every right to be. After the beating, King tottered to his feet and, rather than surrender, placed his hands back on the lunch counter. King fought for freedom, Gibson tells us, and King won.
Notice the message and the moral of this specific story, which revolves around courage under fire. In Gibson’s telling, Dr. King stands virtually alone, fighting hard against a corrupt system. He is outnumbered and outgunned. In this moment, he is physically overpowered. Dr. King refuses to be intimidated, but instead endures. He sacrifices. And, eventually, he triumphs.
This is a story of transforming fear into power that resonates with frightened Patriot Prayer rally attendees. They view themselves as an oppressed minority, surrounded by frightening and dangerous elements who seek to intimidate them — to make them afraid again. Like Dr. King — a man, outnumbered, outgunned, and physically overpowered, who refuses to give into fear — they can endure. They can be heroes.
Looking For a Fight
Most events create an order of speakers using some kind of metric of least to most important: building up to their main event. Patriot Prayer is not like this. Joey Gibson is the main event of the rally’s speaking portion: the man with the vision, the charismatic figure behind this entire movement. He steps down to thunderous applause. Now, perversely, it’s time for the opening acts.
The other speeches are of varying quality. Will Johnson — a black gentleman from California and the host of the Unite America First video channel — gives a speech urging America to leave its racist history behind, forget identity politics, and stand strong for freedom of speech. Haley Adams, a prominent Patriot Prayer member, gives a furious speech about an attack on her and her family during the June 3rd rally a month ago and a mayor who encourages this sort of thing. “Ted Wheeler, you’re going to remember my name!” A Seattle Proud Boy encourages his people to fight hard. A state congressional candidate — the only person in a suit — gives a rather bland speech. A trans woman talks about the coming biblical apocalypse. A slender older man with a huge hippie beard describes how the Antifa beat him up at the last rally.
As the event continues, the crowd thins relentlessly — not leaving, but traveling to the edges, where action is already starting. A few people attempt to break the police line. Antifa and Proud Boys shout insults back and forth. Everyone is fired up. This is more fun than speeches. This feels like revolution.
A lot of people traveled long distances to be here. Proud Boys drove down from Seattle. Bikers for Trump rode in on Harleys. Big bearded men drove in from Idaho and the rural Pacific Northwest. Some flew in from as far away as Phoenix and Alabama. The Three Percenters are here. All of them spent time and money to travel to Portland today, and they didn’t do it to hear someone reading a speech off their cell phone.
They came because they know there’s going to be a fight.
Joey Gibson’s words have fired the crowd up. Exchanging insults with Antifa confirms everything Gibson said on an emotional level. This is war. This is revolution. This is dangerous. It’s time face down fear, time to be a hero.
The two groups growl at each other like dogs with a fence between them.
Soon, that fence will be lifted.
Soon, we will march.
People sometimes ask me whether these rallies are dangerous. Until recently, I could confidently say no. Although people do get into fights, get hurt, get arrested, the street violence has a certain ritualistic quality.
Someone — Patriot Prayer or Antifa — starts yelling profanity and insults at the other side. Someone on the other side rises to the bait, starts yelling back. Both sides of the altercation posture the way men sometimes do in bars: they get uncomfortably close to each other, put their arms out to the side, scream into each other’s faces. This ritualized aggression continues until either someone breaks up the fight by dragging their friend away, or until someone throws a punch. At that point, people usually run forward to help. The police, if they’re nearby, step in with pepper spray. Medics run forward with milk and towels. Each side cares for their own. Those who push back against the police are arrested.
For the most part, anyone who wants to avoid fighting could simply avoid the escalation ritual. But today is a new day. The revelations of children separated from parents, asylum seekers imprisoned like criminals became headline news only a few days ago. Portland is full with righteous anger. They want this to stop forever. They want to make the people who support such policies so afraid they never open their filthy mouths again.
Perhaps this is why, as the march moved out of Terry Schrunk plaza and turned left on Madison Street, Antifa immediately begins throwing things. Fireworks crackle. Sticks and smoke bombs sail overhead and land in the midst of the crowd.
Later, the papers will report that both sides threw fireworks. I can’t find a single clear video of the beginning of the march, so I can’t know for sure. What I see, and what my video below shows, is Antifa throwing things and Patriot Prayer yelling, furious, as the entire march froze. The police fire tear gas or rubber bullets at Antifa as Patriot Prayer stands, stationary, until Joey Gibson’s bullhorn finally got everyone moving
My video is clearly a video of firecrackers and nothing else. In the moment, however, no one knows what will fly through the air next. Videos cannot convey the uncertainty and the fear of that moment. You teeter on a knife-edge between individual brawls and real mob violence. It is impossible to be sure which way things will break until after everything ends.
As the march gets moving, Patriot Prayer continues down their approved, city-permitted parade route. A turn, and then another, down 2nd avenue.
Antifa is waiting.
Here, the video evidence is very clear on what happened.
The two groups move towards each other. In another YouTube video from a slightly different angle, you can see two men step forward and begin the ritual escalation posturing. And then the M-80 explodes.
After a moment of stunned stillness, Patriot Prayer charges forward and the riot begins.
I see men beating each other with flagpoles. A little ways away, two men beat up a third. He is on the ground. They punch and they do not stop.
I hear more fireworks whizzing through the air, and then something too loud to be a gunshot. I remember flash bang from military exercises. Other protesters do not have those memories. “Were those gunshots? Do they have guns?” It turns out it is the police and DHS firing the flash-bang. Of course it is. Sitting in a quiet place, distant and comfortable, it’s obvious. In the moment, with smoke and chaos everywhere, nothing is obvious. In the moment, you are too afraid to think clearly.
A preternaturally calm voice blares from a police megaphone. The permit for the march has been cancelled. Everyone must clear the street and get to the sidewalk. Eventually, this more or less happens. I see someone lying black and blue on the street. He looks seriously injured.
Once on the sidewalk, people start to get angry. It feels like an ambush. Ted Wheeler’s police set us up, someone screams. Patriot Prayer, the group of law and order, the group that thanks the police at every rally, is vocally furious. A chant of “USA” breaks out, punctuated by shouts for a medic.
Joey Gibson eventually gets on his megaphone. He tells Patriot Prayer to obey the police and get on the sidewalk. “But I’m not done! I am not done! Is anybody here done?!” he shouts. “NO!” everyone around me screams. A woman says something about suing Ted Wheeler. Proud Boys joke about their proximity to mace earlier and look for another opportunity to fight.
Ultimately, further opportunities are few. Further mob violence does not erupt, although skirmishes occur here and there. A few more flash bangs go off. The police are everywhere — van after van of them, riding by in riot gear, helmets with opaque visors. At some point, they declare the event a riot over their loudspeakers in that same institutional voice. Everyone must vacate the area. I pass by a restaurant full of people crowding against the glass, staring wide-eyed and silent at our strangeness.
As the march heads back to the park where it began, Antifa starts to peel off. Things calm down. Rally-goers laugh and joke about victory over Antifa. Someone is pulling a wagon with a boombox starts to play the “Alt-Left” song. A few dance and sing along. Anything to break the tension. Anything to become more human again.
With no antifa in sight, it’s safe for me to leave. I quietly depart from the group, walk to my car, and ride off into the sunset.
A New Day
No one died on June 30th in Portland, Oregon. No revolution started. No spark set the American tinderbox on fire. But the atmosphere was right for such an event.
As described in Part 1, it only takes one person to perpetrate the kind of violence that can set off bloody revolution or nightmarish repression. One person who decides to throw a bundle of M-80s instead of a single one, or unholster a gun and pull the trigger.
Aggression like this becomes more likely the more afraid people become. A public moment of violence right now could be catastrophic. Everything we do to create an atmosphere of fear raises the stakes, dulls thought, and increases the possibility of the kind of spark that that makes the world much, much worse.
“Make racists afraid again.” What does Antifa think racism is, if not fear of the other? All Nazi propaganda is fear propaganda: fear of Jewish hegemony, of sexual impotence in comparison to black men, of failing and faltering as a group-race. Happy, healthy, successful people do not become Nazis. The white supremacist’s promises of strength in a hostile world appeals only to those who live in abject terror of that world.
Antifa does not weaken the alt-right by feeding their fear, but strengthens it.
*There’s a recurring question that this article must leave insufficiently answered: how does one classify a group like Patriot Prayer? The presence of rap — even white rap — at the rally, a later invocation of Martin Luther King Jr. as a hero, and things like Gibson’s clear and unequivocable denunciation of white supremacy make it clear that whatever Joey Gibson is, he isn’t Richard Spencer. The alt-right calls organizations like Patriot Prayer “alt-light”: groups that embrace some alt-right ideas, but not racial nationalism. The distinction between these two movements — and the potential impact of treating one like the other — deserves several articles of its own. Back to article
**There is always a contingent that does not listen to this injunction once things get underway, including — at times — Joey Gibson himself. Back to article