Unity and organizing is key to beating back fascism

Sean Cumming reports on the massive anti-fascist counter-protest to the Proud Boys rally in Portland, Oregon on Saturday, September 26. 

The Nazi street gang, the Proud Boys, found themselves outnumbered and humiliated last weekend in Portland, Oregon. What they had billed as a 10,000-strong orgy of racism and violence went off as a damp squib in the fall rain. A coalition of anti-fascist groups, community groups and labor union members came together to draw over 2,000 Portlanders to a counter-rally and community event. The Proud Boys and assorted hangers-on could only muster 200 racists to their hate fest on the outskirts of town.

Portland has been the target of fascist violence and organizing for a number of years. In the 80’s Nazi gangs roamed the streets of Portland leading to the murder of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student, in 1988. In 2017 Jeremy Christian murdered Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche on the MAX public transit system, after the men had confronted him over his racist abuse of two young girls. Christian had been a regular attendee at Patriot Prayer (another far right gang) events and was a supporter of Donald Trump. 

The over 100 days of Black Lives Matter protests in Portland have seen a reaction not only from the state, but from the far right. Pipe bombs were thrown at BLM protestors by alleged fascist sympathizers only last month. In a bizarre, and horrifying, turn of events, Patriot Prayer member Aaron Danielson was shot dead downtown on August 29. Less than a week later police and feds killed Michael Reinoehl, Danielson’s alleged killer, an anti-fascist who claimed to act in self defense, outside a friend’s home, in contested circumstances.  

Trump has stoked these flames. He called the killing of Reinoehl “appropriate retribution.” The city, the governor, and mayor have done nothing to prevent the fascists. Indeed, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) has been facilitating their demonstrations. PPB officers have been caught on video, and via leaked texts, having friendly conversations with Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson.

This background made Saturday’s possible large influx of fascists into the city a worrying proposition for activists, organizers, and the community as a whole. Online chats of the “Patriot Coalition of Oregon,” leaked before the rally, showed them recommending arms and ammunition be brought, and warning and promoting violence.

At the anti-fascist rally in Peninsula Park I spoke to Rory Gatto, of the Unemployed Workers’ Council:

“With recent events and with the fetishization of people like Kyle Rittenhouse in the news I am a little worried that these people are emboldened. My hope is that we continue to show people that they [the fascists] aren’t welcome in our city. Even if they are scary, we are going to be here and do the right thing”

Organizers from Democratic Socialists of America, Pop Mob, Rose City Antifa, Labor Against Fascism, and a number of other community groups made the decision together to build a rally in North Portland rather than confront the Proud Boys across the river, at the more isolated Delta Park. This brought out more people than had attended previous anti-fascist events in the city, despite dire warnings from the press about violence. Many of the attendees made the connection between the fight for Black lives and the need to oppose fascism.

Emma, in attendance with other volunteers from the United Church of Christ told me why she was there:

“Not enough people are aware how much the hate groups have increased in the last four years. It is the number one domestic terror threat. I can’t live with the idea that the Proud Boys are going to come into the city of Portland with people not telling them we don’t want them here. One of the wonderful things about Portland is the sense of community. United Church of Christ has this faith community of pastors and rabbis that have been coming out to protests throughout these 110 plus days. It is important for people to see that the community is united against this, this is not a narrow slice of Antifa. That is the narrative that is being promoted. It really is a broad coalition of people saying this system is broken and we need change.”

Speakers from the stage made it explicit that the fight against racism and for Black Lives means taking up the struggle against fascism, and that resistance to fascism means fighting for Black lives. Wall of Moms’ organizer Demetria Hester led a moment of silence for Breonna Taylor. Civil rights lawyer and activist Juan Chavez told the crowd, “racism fuels the Nazis.” Musician and activist Mic Crenshaw drew the connections between the state, racism and fascist violence calling the PPB “the stormtroopers of empire” and noted that, “Every time we came out to confront them [the fascists] the police would be there protecting them.”

Laura Wadlin, one of the organizers of a new group, Labor for Black Lives/Labor Against Fascism, spoke of the need to remove police unions from the labor movement, and of the need for anti-fascist organizing within unions,:

“Labor unions are a serious threat to white nationalism because they promote class solidarity across lines of race, gender, religion, and nationality…labor unions should be the first line of defense against fascists because we are organized where we are most powerful against the ruling class, which is the workplace.”

The number of union banners and union members at the rally is an important step forward in the anti-fascist struggle here in Portland. The Pacific Northwest Carpenters Union were the first to put out a statement opposing the fascists coming here. This led some union organizers to get together and form Labor for Black Lives/Labor Against Fascism. Many were long term anti-fascists, but some were brought to the movement by the demonstrations for Black lives. I spoke to Jamie Partridge from Labor for Black Lives/Labor Against Fascism about the need to build working class resistance in our workplaces, 

“Trump’s rhetoric is more openly white supremacist and authoritarian so I expect the fascist movement will continue to grow, but it also seems that the resistance is also growing. That can’t help but spill over into the labor movement. People are coming to our table who are members of all different unions and even though their leadership is not there yet, they are. If we do what we need to do in organizing the rank and file they (the leadership) will be.

During the first Presidential Debate on Tuesday night Trump refused to condemn far right violence. Instead he offered a message of support to the fascists gangs intent on terrorizing communities across the country. When asked directly about the Proud Boys the President told them to “stand down and stand by.” This unveiled encouragement has emboldened the fascists despite their poor display at the weekend. While they clearly have no base in Portland, the presidents’ words may make them more palatable to those alienated by the current triple crisis.

Saturday’s successful rally shows that the key to building resistance, not only to fascism but to the racism of the Trump administration, is through unified action and building organizations capable of pulling large numbers onto the streets. The solution is not to look to the state for protection or for legalistic solutions—which can often backfire on us—but through connecting the movement for Black lives to the power of the organized working class. Saturday here in Portland was a forward step in that process. We cannot let Trump’s support for the far right be a step back. The hope for anti-fascists now is that we can deepen these connections and start to grow anti-fascist roots in our workplaces and communities. 

Sean Cumming