Opinion

In Portland, I Witnessed the Violence of White Pride in Trump's America

Portland, once known as America's far-right skinhead capital, was the scene of a hate crime 30 years ago that galvanized action against white supremacist gangs. This Saturday, with a tailwind from the Trump White House, far-right political violence returned to its streets

Protesters of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer clash with protesters from anti-fascist groups during a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, U.S. June 30, 2018
\ SOCIAL MEDIA/ REUTERS

On Saturday, June 30, Portland, Oregon experienced perhaps its worst scene of open political violence in living memory.

The far-right march involved around 150 Patriot Prayer supporters, including dozens of members of the Proud Boys, an all-male, self-declared "fraternity" of "Western chauvinists" who provide security for numerous alt-right events. According to the ADL, they "stand on the dividing line between right-wing activists and white supremacists"; the Southern Poverty Law Center designates them a hate group.

I was standing on the sidewalk at the side of the march; I was taking photographs, and had intended to simply observe the event. As soon as it began, several violent exchanges led to the police setting off a round of tear gas and pepper balls. A friend standing behind me was hit on the shoulder.

Protesters of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer clash with protesters from anti-fascist groups during a demonstration in Portland, Oregon, U.S. June 30, 2018
Bryan Colombo/via REUTERS

To avoid the tear gas, many counter-demonstrators fled around the block, but found Patriot Prayer activists marching down the adjoining street. The far-right group turned to face the anti-fascist counter-protestors. 

After a brief standoff punctuated by a loud explosion, the Patriot Prayer group brutally attacked them. I saw several simultaneous melees occurring, but the most unnerving involved an immobile protestor lying on the ground while about seven Patriot Prayer protestors kicked and stomped him.

Abandoning my attempt to observe, I intervened. Attempting to reason with the attackers, I yelled, "You’re going to kill him!" Suddenly I was facing the other direction, heard a loud noise and felt pain in my cheek. Without having so much as raised my arms to defend myself, I had been sucker-punched by a Patriot Prayer supporter.

When I looked at him, I saw the scared child beneath the chauvinist grin. I saw a boy I might have played baseball with as a kid before he became the coward who hit me. Most importantly, I saw his shame.

Right-wingers clash with anti-fascists in Portland

I kept trying to move the group away from the individual whose life they apparently intended to snuff out. The last remaining belligerent, a heavy-set white male in a bright blue T-shirt, put his knee on the counter-protestor’s neck and attempted to place him in a choke hold in a ridiculous imitation of a police officer. Since a choke-hold can be fatal, I pressed him to stop, while blood began to pool on the street beneath the counter-protestor’s face. 

As fights continued around us, the man in red stood up, babbling something incoherent about taking the counter-protestor to the police. That impromptu speechifying gave his victim the chance to slip his grip and escape.

I then heard the police loudspeaker pronounce that a riot had been declared and the march’s permit revoked. Returning to 3rd Ave, I saw barricades thrown up at two intersections. The battle began to recede and the far right returned to where they started - Schrunk Plaza.

Portland has been largely free from open far-right violence for decades, but has an important history of white supremacist violence. It was once known as the skinhead capital of America.

In the 1980s, Tom Metzger, who founded founded the White Aryan Resistance group, helped organize a band of fascist skinheads who murdered an Ethiopian immigrant, Mulugeta Seraw by clubbing him to death with a baseball bat. That led to a game-changing wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Seraw’s family by the Southern Poverty Law Center and a groundbreaking state law to monitor hate groups.

I asked a long-time member of the Portland Baldies, an anti-racist skinhead crew, how Saturday’s violence measured up to past conflicts. "That was definitely the worst ever I’ve seen," he responded. "There were some intense clashes with neo-Nazis during the Metzger trials, but not on the level of Saturday."

There is no doubt that Trump has brought about the return of far-right violence in Portland. His xenophobia and nationalism are normalizing far-right talking points, while his longtime advisor, Roger Stone, openly embraces some of the most violent and thuggish of his organized supporters, the Proud Boys, whose founder, Gavin McInnes, denies that Nazis exist and that hate crimes are hoaxes

Trump’s inner circle's support for far-right fight clubs adds to local law enforcement's problems. They already face a crisis of legitimacy as they contend with the contradiction between Portland's status as a sanctuary city  - for which it's been directed attacked by Attorney General Jeff Sessions - and brutal federal immigration enforcement agencies.

What I saw in Portland was a further sign that we are in the initial stages of a protracted social conflict. And I experienced what is becoming a key ethical question for journalists reporting America's nationalist violence and bystanders that witness it: when must we move from observation to intervention?

The Trump era is one of Gordian knots, impossible ethical questions that still require deliberate and decisive action. My Saturday in Portland confirmed for me, at least, that to redeeming America's humanity, we must cut the Gordian knot - and get involved.

Alexander Reid Ross is a Lecturer in Geography at Portland State University. He is the author of Against the Fascist Creep (AK Press, 2017). Twitter: @areidross