Portland Rejects Proud Boys and Other Ultra-Right Groups as Trump Tries to Criminalize Antifa
August 21st 2019
A crowd of white nationalists took to the streets of Portland, Oregon, over the weekend for what they dubbed the “End Domestic Terrorism” rally. But they were outnumbered by a massive response from counterprotesters, who gathered across the city as police escorted members of the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer and other right-wing groups across one of the city’s main bridges. Police arrested 13 people throughout the day and seized weapons but largely avoided “the worst-case scenario” Portland’s Mayor Ted Wheeler said the city was prepared for. Portland Police put more than 700 officers on patrol, with more than one cop for every two of the estimated 1,200 protesters. Some Republican politicians have called for antifa to be recognized as a terror organization, and the FBI has found that the majority of domestic terror in the U.S. is caused by white supremacists. From Portland, we speak with Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who this year became the first African-American woman on the Portland City Council, and Shane Burley, a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon, and author of “Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Hundreds of far-right protesters took to the streets of Portland, Oregon, Saturday for what they dubbed the “End Domestic Terrorism” rally. They were outnumbered, however, by counterprotesters, who gathered across the city as police escorted members of the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer and other right-wing groups across one of the city’s main bridges. Portland Police drew on local, state and federal law enforcement to put more than 700 officers on patrol — more than one cop for every two of the estimated 1,200 protesters. Police arrested 13 people throughout the day, seized weapons, but largely avoided the worst-case scenario Portland’s Mayor Ted Wheeler said the city was prepared for.
Trump tweeted, “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an 'ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.' Portland is being watched very closely. Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job!” the president tweeted.
One of the far-right rally organizers, Joe Biggs, told a reporter the event was a success. Biggs said, quote, “Go look at President Trump’s Twitter. He talked about Portland, said he’s watching antifa. That’s all we wanted. We wanted national attention, and we got it. Mission success,” Biggs said.
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This is a spokesperson from Rose City Antifa speaking at Saturday’s dueling protests.
“FELIX”: We absolutely reject the label domestic terrorism. Anti-fascists are not domestic terrorists. We are the people who stand up for our community and defend it from the people who want to do our community great harm.
AMY GOODMAN: Some Republican politicians have called for antifa to be recognized as a terror organization. A Republican congressional memo obtained by the Tampa Bay Times cites antifa as a violent group responsible for gun violence despite zero deaths being attributed to antifa protesters. The FBI found the majority of domestic terror in the United States is caused by white supremacists.
For more, we go to Portland, Oregon, where we’re joined by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. She became the first African-American woman on the Portland City Council this year. We’re also joined by Shane Burley, a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon, author of Facism Today: What It Is and How to End It.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Commissioner Hardesty, talk about what happened this weekend, what’s happening in the streets of Portland, how the Proud Boys were dealt with, and also President Trump’s tweet, he going after the counterprotesters to the white supremacists.
COMMISSIONER JO ANN HARDESTY: Good morning, Amy. Thank you so much for having me on.
I think what we saw on Saturday, that Portlanders from all walks of life showed up to stand up against white supremacists and white nationalists. The mayor created a coalition of over a hundred individuals and organizations, that had a press conference on Wednesday that said we were going to draw a line in the sand, that basically said we were not going to allow white supremacists to come and take over our streets. They have been coming to Portland because they don’t like the fact that Portland is a liberal city that values all individuals, and we are a sanctuary city.
I monitored the protest from 9:30 a.m. until about 6:30 p.m. from the command center. And what I can tell you is that law enforcement and community members, for the most part, operated professionally, and people did what they do. So, it was like either people came out with protest signs, there were restaurants that refused to serve white supremacists. There were businesses that shut down, but paid their employees, because of the concern about violence breaking out. I am one of the biggest critics of Portland Police Bureau, but I can tell you, in this particular case, they used a lot of restraint.
And I am so proud of my community not actually giving in to hate, not giving in to divisive activity even from the president of the United States. Let me be clear: The people who showed up on Saturday wanted to make a strong message that they were not going to allow white supremacists to take over our community.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you make of the city police escort for the Proud Boys, the Patriot Prayer and other right-wing groups across one of Portland’s main bridges? Were similar protective services offered to antifa, the counterprotesters?
COMMISSIONER JO ANN HARDESTY: So, Amy, let me clarify that. Thank for you that question. What Portland Police did was make a tactical decision. So, 45 minutes into the protest, the Proud Boys contacted the police and said they were ready to leave, because, quite frankly, they were so outnumbered, they wanted to get out of town. And so, because we had already closed off the Hawthorne Bridge, it was the best way to get them back to their automobiles so they could go out of town. What we didn’t want was the counterprotesters and the white supremacists to actually meet up in any way, shape or form. And so, that was a good decision made by the police. The police didn’t escort them; the police just made it available for them to be able to utilize the bridge to get back to their automobiles so they could go back to Vancouver or wherever else they came from.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane Burley, you were out there covering the protest. You’re also author of the book Facism Today: What It Is and How to End It. If you can talk about what you witnessed, the protest, the counterprotest, and who was there and who the Proud Boys are?
SHANE BURLEY: Yeah. So, the Proud Boys are a kind of far-right street gang that have been kind of taking the streets all around the country, having these kind of Trumpist events that are really focused on demonizing immigrants, propping up traditional gender roles and basically victimizing anyone that comes out and protests them. And they’ve been coming to Portland almost monthly for the last three years to stage these kind of vague political events where they end up staging really brutal, gang-style attacks on counterprotesters.
And so, this time, they were coming out to try and, you know, bang the drum that antifa are domestic terrorists, even though antifa is responsible for killing no one, and the far right is responsible for killing over 300 people in the last two years. And so, they brought out about 200, maybe 300, people in basically what amounted to a flash protest. They were out for about 30, 45 minutes and then ran out of town.
On the other side, about a thousand counterdemonstrators built a really large coalition of groups, including labor coalitions, the NAACP, anti-facist groups, and they had a big, large event in the park. And so, this was able to kind of bridge a lot of people in the community, bring a lot of people out and completely outnumber the Proud Boys and really shift the dynamic for the day.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about also Patriot Prayer.
SHANE BURLEY: Yeah, Patriot Prayer is a far-right group that’s kind of from Portland, or at least the Portland area, and they’ve been staging kind of right-wing protests for the last few years. They usually bring on a large amount of counterdemonstrators because they play really friendly with white nationalist groups like Identity Evropa and Traditionalist Workers Party, and then basically getting security from the Proud Boys.
And so, this started as kind of pro-Trump rallies with really deep anti-immigrant rhetoric, with transphobic rhetoric, with all kinds of like kind of bigoted speeches, and it’s turned into a much more militant, kind of almost militia-style organization, where they are coming out, looking for counterprotesters and trying to basically find clashes wherever they can and victimize people on the street. And this has been responsible for dozens of acts of violence around the city, really serious injuries for counterprotesters and lots of kind of targeted acts outside of protest realm. So, people have been very wary about Patriot Prayer, including that one of their attendees murdered two people in an Islamophobic attack on a Portland train two years ago. So, this has been a long string of violence from both Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, that have basically laid siege on the city.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell us who Joe — if you can tell us who Biggs is?
SHANE BURLEY: Yeah, Joe Biggs is a former InfoWars correspondent. And in reality, he’s just kind of been this right-wing internet celebrity. He kind of drums up a lot about fear, about the same kind of conspiratorial rhetoric that InfoWars is known for. And he’s especially focused on violent rhetoric about fighting antifa, meaning anti-fascist protesters. So, he will tweet out or post videos or photos talking about how we need to murder antifa, using rhetoric about support for Pinochet and the murder of communists or dissidents, and then really drumming up a, really, climate of explosive anger, and using incidents and reframing them as much as possible to say that anti-fascists, the people who are defending against violence, are actually the perpetrators and that the people receiving that violence are actually the people responsible. And so, it’s a really intentional way of painting victims as perpetrators. And that’s how he’s built a career.
AMY GOODMAN: Then give us the history of antifa. Kellyanne Conway, the White House counselor, falsely claimed antifa is short for anti-First Amendment, Shane.
SHANE BURLEY: Yeah. Antifa just means anti-facist. There’s a really long tradition about this, going back decades. And essentially what they do is come out, create protest movements, use a variety of tactics and strategies to defend against far-right groups. And so, the Proud Boys, for example, left on their own devices, have proven that they’re going to attack people, they’re going to threaten people, they’re going to essentially lay siege with political violence on an area. Anti-facist protesters, on the counterside, just want to create a defensive situation, where they’ll block them from moving around the city, block them from being able to victimize marginalized folks, and to create a really strong countermessage and countermovement to what the goals of those far-right groups are.
AMY GOODMAN: Jo Ann, I wanted to ask you about Trump’s tweet and his response to what was going on in Portland, and the whole push to call antifa a terror organization, to categorize it as such.
COMMISSIONER JO ANN HARDESTY: Yeah, that was very problematic to have the president tweet out his message the morning of the protest. We were already preparing for the worst-case scenario, and it was very unhelpful to have the president jumping into the rhetoric about antifa. And quite frankly, antifa has not been the problem in Portland. The problem has been Proud Boys and white supremacists sending out messages all over the country encouraging other white nationalists and white supremacists to come to Portland and beat up on community members. I mean, that’s just pretty appalling.
AMY GOODMAN: Why Portland?
COMMISSIONER JO ANN HARDESTY: And I think what we’ve learned over the last two years in these protests is that we have to be very strategic. There’s always a mixed message about should you show up at protests. And I remind people, if we didn’t show up at protests to push back against white nationalists and white supremacist activity, I would not be a Portland city commissioner today. If we just assumed that the laws are the laws and there’s nothing we can do, we would not have had the social justice movements that we’ve had over the time in this country.
Oregon has a history of white supremacy. We were born from a — as a white homeland. That’s how Oregon got started. And so, we have our own homegrown white supremacists. But when we have people on a national stage encouraging people to come and create violence in our community, that’s when the community must stand up and make sure that we draw a line in the sand and say no way. Again, the difference this time between some of the other protests we had is that there were clear lines of command, who was in charge, who was making decisions about who would move where, and there were also enough law enforcement and community members who were willing to deescalate situations as they arose. And that was one of the things that, really, I was thrilled about. And so, it is unhelpful to have the president or anybody else encouraging people, mislabeling antifa as the problem, when the problem is really white supremacists trying to take over our streets.
AMY GOODMAN: Shane, I wanted to ask you about what happened to Andy Ngo in June. He calls himself a conservative journalist; others say he’s a right-wing provocateur. He’s called for antifa to be labeled as terrorists, after saying he was attacked by them when covering one of their demonstrations. This is Ngo speaking to The Wall Street Journal.
ANDY NGO: Antifa are not anti-fascists. Antifa is a paramilitary movement made up of extremist, violent anarchists and communists who are agitating for a political revolution. On the 29th of June, I was documenting one of their demonstrations as a journalist. … As a mob, they swarmed and attacked me, completely unprovoked on my part. They went for my head, my face, my eyes with their fists and their weapons. And this attack happened in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center, where the Sheriff’s Office and the police precinct is, but no police came to help.
AMY GOODMAN: Jacobin called Andy Ngo “the most dangerous grifter in America.” Shane Burley, can you explain who he is and what happened to him?
SHANE BURLEY: Yeah. So, Andy Ngo is essentially an editor for Quillette magazine, a kind of far-right provocateur. Most of his writing credits or appearance credits seem to be around playing up victim narratives about conservatives being under attack, or painting like Islamophobic rhetorics and kind of punching down as much as possible. And so, you know, he had been well known for coming out to these rallies, filming people, often getting uncomfortably close or doing things like filming on sign-in sheets, just things that generally people think are inappropriate and most journalists don’t do.
And so, on June 29th, there was another anti-facist rally, when Patriot Prayer tried to have another one of their events. And Andy Ngo was there and got in a conflict with some anti-fascist demonstrators. Obviously, it’s not a good thing. Journalists shouldn’t be under attack. I think it’s important, though, to ask why it was particularly Andy Ngo. And it’s because, in a lot of ways, violating the very basic precepts of what journalism is and how we deal with the community, and then reframing factual events in a totally strange way — for example, the way that he’s portrayed events that happened on Saturday as being one of essentially mass antifa violence, when that is actually the opposite of the case. And it usually is the opposite of the case, but he’s worked really, really hard to drum up this fear of antifa. It helps give him a lot in donations, after his attack, and it’s really helped build up this right-wing media sphere that builds an entire marketplace simply out of outrage.
AMY GOODMAN: Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a popular sentiment online this weekend in response to Trump: No government will declare itself facist, but it will declare anti-facists enemies of the people. How does your city move forward right now?
COMMISSIONER JO ANN HARDESTY: Well, I want to make sure that our city really understands that anybody who stands up against — white supremacists and hate groups who intentionally come to our town to create fear, to attack our community members, will not be acceptable. Antifa is in no way, in my opinion, a hate group. It’s not even an organized — it’s not even a membership organization, right? It is people from all walks of life who stand up to white supremacist and white nationalist activity.
What I hope that our city has learned from this weekend is that when we come together, even if we don’t agree on a whole bunch of stuff normally, when we come together and stand up against hate groups and stand up against people coming in and trying to take over our streets, they leave. They understand that we’re not going to accept that.
And what I also want to make sure that we do — the FBI says that they are investigating hate groups, but I’ve heard of like not one group that the FBI has arrested that is a white nationalist or white supremacist organization. When we were trying to pull out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the FBI’s argument as to why we couldn’t pull out was because they were fighting these white supremacist organizations. And again, we have a history of white supremacist organizations in Oregon, but not once has the FBI stepped in and intervened to protect community members.
So what we know is that we have to protect our community — we, the community. And we saw our people do it in a whole bunch of different ways this Saturday.