How Liberal Portland Became America’s Most Politically Violent City

On a cloudy day in early November 1979, a caravan of Nazi and Ku Klux Klan members careened into Greensboro, North Carolina, winding toward a local Communist Workers’ Party protest that had gathered in the city to march against the state’s white supremacists. The communists, wearing berets and hard hats, spotted the fleet and taunted the new arrivals with chants of “Death to the Klan!” The KKK convoy slowed, and stopped. Far-left protesters, bearing both wooden planks and concealed pistols, began surrounding the motorcade, beating the doors. As TV cameras rolled, the trunk of a Ford Fairlane, stuffed with shotguns and rifles, popped open. Someone yelled from one of the cars, “You asked for the Klan! Now you’ve got ’em!”

Eighty-eight seconds and 39 shots later, five communists lay dead. Eight other demonstrators were wounded, some permanently paralyzed. For a brief moment, the Greensboro Massacre became one of America’s most notorious acts of political blood-letting. And yet, unlike Wounded Knee or Selma, Greensboro has over the decades largely faded from memory.

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Except in Portland.

Among the fringe political groups currently waging battle in the City of Roses, Greensboro is well-remembered, even idealized. It is increasingly seen as the inevitable end of the escalating violence that has rocked this city since Donald Trump’s election in November. Left wing “antifas,” wearing red bandana masks alongside other far-left protesters, have rioted multiple times and caused millions of dollars of damage, with threats from left wing groups even forcing the cancellation of a parade because it featured a float from the local Republican Party. Eager to push back against the opposition, white nationalists have begun mixing with anti-government militia members for “free speech” rallies. A man who attended one of these rallies would later stab to death two men on a train when they intervened to stop his anti-Muslim rants against two young women. The norms of protest and counterprotest—mostly verbal shouting and sign-waving—are quickly crumbling in Portland. The left wing antifa have even threatened preemptive violence in the name of the defending the city from groups they say promote violence.

In Portland, Greensboro isn’t a past mistake to be avoided, but a future clash to be courted. Both sides mention Greensboro in conversation. Both sides know the details and the death toll. And both acknowledge Greensboro as an event that may well serve as a model for what’s just around the corner. “My big concern is sooner or later is that we’re going to have another Greensboro Massacre type of event,” Mark Pitcavage, who researches domestic political extremism with the Anti-Defamation League, added. “This is so unlikely to end well.”

***

The fact that Portland erupted as the epicenter in Trump-era political violence in the U.S. is, in a certain sense, surprising. A liberal nirvana, a crunchy, weed-and-hops city where Republicans and plastic bags alike have been all but evicted, Portland has embodied and outpaced many of the urban trends of the early 21st century: gentrification and co-ops, food trucks and footbridges, transitions to a bike-and-pedestrian economy. It is, as a conspicuous show has encapsulated, a progressive paradise.

And yet, as many within and without the city have begun realizing, Portland is a town leavened with a history of rampant racial strife. As the whitest major American city, Portland blossomed in the lone state that constitutionally barred blacks from living there through the 19th century, that acted as one of the primary concentration centers for incarcerating American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II, that redlined as severely as any major metropolis elsewhere. That in 1922 saw its chief of police posing alongside hooded Ku Klux Klan members. That brought Jim Crow to the Pacific shoreline.

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It’s the type of legal legacy, the type of nod-and-wink encouragement of white supremacy, that not only welcomed any number of Confederate families to relocate to the region in the aftermath of the Civil War, but that, toward the close of the 20th century, saw neo-Nazi and skinhead groups begin to extend their tendrils through the area. Before “Portlandia,” there was “Skinhead City.” In the mid-1980s, skinheads began marching through downtown, hauling bats, pipes and axes. Not long after, the city birthed Volksfront, a neo-Nazi contingent that eventually expanded internationally. In 1988, a trio of skinheads bashed Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student, to death; the three all received prison sentences, with one tabbed as a “prisoner of war” by other white supremacy groups.

Locals began pushing back. In 2007, a group called Rose City Antifa took form, borrowing the shortened form of “antifascist” for its name. The crew pointed to similar European movements, which had, in places like Germany and Italy, arisen in response to the fascist movements that would eventually crater Europe in World War II. It also tapped into regional currents of anarchism and latent communism. These were the political strains that had sparked, among other things, the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organization, which resulted in millions of dollars’ worth of property damage in the city.

From its inception, Portland’s antifa contingent cloaked itself in anonymity; as a 2009 story in Portland’s Willamette Week noted, “Little is known publicly about Rose City Antifa.” And little seems to have changed in the decade since. Its unofficial uniform comprises blood-red and black bandanas and hoods, but the group doesn’t keep any official membership rolls, let alone share last names with anyone outside of its circle. “Why do we wear masks? Because [of] instances of antifa people [who] have been assassinated,” says David, a member of Rose City Antifa who, like all group members before him, declined to share his last name with POLITICO Magazine. The historical examples are not recent, but they are well-known in the group: Skinheads murdered a pair of anti-racist activists in Nevada in 1998, luring them to the desert outside Las Vegas, and local antifa have claimed that a 2010 incident in Portland—a shooting that left a self-described anti-racist skinhead in critical condition—was also politically motivated.

For much of its existence, the group largely relied on shout-downs and public displays of force as their primary tactics. Recently they’ve added the cyber weapon of doxxing—exposing personal information such as addresses, places of employment, and dates of birth and schools, even if it means innocent families mistakenly targeted by antifa begin receiving threats. Such tactics have been “effective because they raise the cost of participation,” Stanislav Vysotsky, who researches political extremism with the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, told POLITICO Magazine.

But now, for antifa, it’s not enough to simply outscream their opposition; rather, those far-right forces must, in a bizarre nod to the Bush Doctrine, be preemptively denied a voice from the outset. “We are unapologetic about the reality that fighting fascism at points requires physical militancy,” Rose City Antifa’s Facebook page reads. “Anti-fascism is, by nature, a form of self-defense: the goal of fascism is to exterminate the vast majority of human beings.” The group does not specify what physical militancy means, but their page makes clear that the definition includes “any means necessary.”

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“We’re seeing more people be like, ‘What’s antifa actually about? … Do you just like going and smashing Starbucks windows?’” David says. “And no, we don’t smash Starbucks windows—most of the time.” Or as one of the Rose City Antifa’s Facebook profile pictures read, “Set phasers to kill.”

***

Unsurprisingly, antifa’s assault-related tactics, despite their continued usage, have proven less than effective, according to those who closely follow political extremism in the U.S.

“It just makes [antifa] feel good—they think they made a point,” the ADL’s Pitcavage said. “But their tactics are counterproductive. They haven’t made any dent over the years with those tactics. … And it gives the white supremacists an unbelievable amount of publicity.” After all, a lack of anti-Nazi brawl-and-bash protests weren’t the reasons fascists rose to the fore in Germany and Italy—and there’s little reason to think that depriving neo-Nazis of their First Amendment rights will prove any more successful than the myriad pre-WWII street brawls that failed to slow the rise of fascism in Europe. Pitcavage points out that the far-right has been far deadlier, far more corrosive, than any American antifa contingents over the past few decades—but antifa tactics have only exacerbated and inflamed far-right rosters: “All the antifa tactics do is give extremists more attention, make extremists feel good, feel like warriors—and give them an opportunity to recruit.”

It’s impossible to tell whether the antifa protests have boosted the recruitment efforts of nationalists and white supremacists, but the group’s tactics have not endeared them to mainstream critics on either the right or left. Shortly after Trump’s election, anarchist and far-left protesters rioted in Portland, bringing at least a million dollars’ worth of damage—and resulting, in the eyes of the Department of Homeland Security, in “domestic terrorism.” Further riots followed Trump’s inauguration, and more in the months thereafter. “Their actions—conducted anonymously but brutally—show them to be punk fascists,” wrote an editorial in The Oregonian, slamming those leading the greatest political violence Portland had seen in a generation.

Then, in late April, organizers behind the 82nd Avenue of Roses Parade—a spectacle through one of the more multiracial neighborhoods in Portland—received an email ratcheting tensions even further. Sent from an anonymous account, the email targeted the inclusion of a Multnomah County Republican Party float: “You have seen how much power we have downtown and that the police cannot stop us from shutting down roads so please consider your decision wisely. … This is non-negotiable.” Shaken, organizers canceled the parade; The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf wondered “who this faction on the left will next label a Nazi or a fascist in order to justify their own use of fascistic tactics.” Or as James Buchal, the Multnomah County Republican Party chair, told POLITICO Magazine, “The real concern going forward is that it’s a totalitarian sort of mind-set, where basically [they’re] not going to tolerate Republicans in our city.”

When asked about the threats made to parade organizers, Rose City Antifa didn’t blame right-wing provocateurs posing as local leftists, although they did note that “no one knows who sent [the email].” Rather, the group’s spokesman characterized the cancellation as an overreaction. The email “had some sort of oblique promise of some sort of altercation, they shut down the entire parade, and then acted as if it was a whole big deal,” David says.

Shortly thereafter, alt-right actors organized a “free speech” rally near the parade’s canceled route—a rally attended by a man, Jeremy Christian, who donned an American flag cape, gave Nazi salutes to passers-by, and, a few weeks thereafter, allegedly killed two Portlanders defending a pair of teenagers from Christian’s Islamophobic slurs on a train.

The stabbings of Ricky Best, 53, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, only emboldened the antifa protesters, who saw Christian’s ability to speak publicly as a precursor to his violence. “Having a place where you can feel free to express these sorts of racist, bigoted beliefs enables you to go and make rants on a train,” David claimed. “It makes you want to defend yourself when people in the community step up against you.”

One week after the murders, antifa and far-right actors clashed once more, this time at a “Trump Free Speech” rally. Epithets soon transformed into the kind of physical violence antifa had advocated earlier: Portland police said counterprotesters at the alt-right rally sparked the violence by slingshotting bricks, rocks and feces alike, forcing officers to unleash pepper spray on the crowd. As Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson told the local Willamette Week in late May, “It’s never been as vocal as it has been in recent months. … While they’re not street gangs, the threat of violence is there.” Or as Kyle Chapman, one of the alt-right spokesmen at the rally, said about the possibility of advocating violence, “It’s not such a bad idea, is it?” This, after Chapman tweeted that it was “open season on antifa.”

And the likelihood of a confrontation may increase if Buchal, the head of the local GOP, follows through on his plans to hire militias—Oath Keepers and Three Percenters—as security at future events, a development he told POLITICO Magazine he’s still considering. “What we’re really seeing are these very strong alliances being forged between Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and … white supremacists and white nationalists,” Vysotsky said. Added Pitcavage, the Oath Keepers especially have “really, really come on strong against the antifa. … So now into the equation you not only have antifa versus white supremacists, but now you have antifa versus a much larger swath of the far right, which really increases the possibility for all sorts of things going on.”

As of now, any possibilities of dialogue—of a negotiated off-ramp to de-escalate tensions—seem negligible. “When somebody is threatening you with bodily harm, as many of these groups are, sitting down for a conversation is not really something you want to do with somebody like that,” David said. “That’s the unfortunate truth.”

Meanwhile, the next round of protest is scheduled for Friday in downtown Portland. The right-wing Patriot Prayer group has organized a “freedom march” that is expected to attract white nationalists, neo-Nazis, militia and white supremacists. The antifa have pledged to block them. The Rose City Antifa wrote on its Facebook page, that, this time, “enough is enough.”

Casey Michel is a writer from Portland, Oregon, and can be followed on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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