If you want a vision of our nation’s future, you can find it in the mace-soaked streets of Portland, Oregon. The City of Roses put it all on display on a recent Sunday in August, when the Proud Boys, an extremist group whose purpose, according to their founder, is to do violence to their political enemies, gathered in Northeast Portland. Downtown, hundreds of left-wing demonstrators gathered in anticipation of the Proud Boys’ arrival. Things got ugly at both sites. In the northeast, the Proud Boys flipped a van and beat a man bloody while he sat in a parked truck. There were paintball-gun fights and, of course, mace. Downtown, one right-wing agitator allegedly fired a handgun into a crowd of anti-fascists, at least one of whom returned fire. Prior to the rally, Mayor Ted Wheeler had advised citizens to “Choose Love.” After the shooting, local activists responded with a slogan of their own: “Choose level IV” — body armor.
Clashes are increasingly part of daily life in Portland, a city that, by the looks of it, is the nation’s leader in per capita ownership of body armor and gas masks. But while it would be easy to write this off as ‘Portland being Portland’ — a city George H.W. Bush nicknamed “Little Beirut” — that would be a mistake. The bloody tactics workshopped in Portland have already cropped up around the country, from Charlottesville to anti-mask protests to January 6th. The Proud Boys have no intention of going away, their critics have no intention of backing down, and where this ends is anyone’s guess. As U.S. representative and far-right extremist Paul Gosar put it at an Oath Keeper gathering when asked about a potential second civil war: “We’re in it. We just haven’t started shooting each other yet.”
Deep Ties Between Local Republican Party and the Far Right
Xander Almeida has been a member of the Multnomah County Republican Party since 2008. Almeida first became aware of the influence militant groups had on the local Republican Party in 2017, when he received an email warning him about “antifa” threats to a planned parade.
“And [the MCRP] said, don’t worry. We will get the three percenters out,” Almeida tells Rolling Stone. He provided the official notes from a June 26th, 2017 meeting, which include a proposed resolution that, “the MCRP may utilize volunteers from the Oregon Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and other security groups.” The resolution passed.
None of their meetings have ever been attacked by anti-fascists, but the MCRP remains deeply worried about the possibility of such an assault. In May 2021 they hired a Proud Boy affiliate to provide security at a meeting where they voted to recall party chair Stephen Lloyd. The recall petition slammed Lloyd for calling for more diversity within the party and alleged that his attempt to make meetings more open to the public put local Republicans at risk from Rose City Antifa, the oldest-named “antifa” organization in the United States.
For his part, Almeida now protests with Portland anti-fascists, including Rose City Antifa, against Proud Boys and other anti-democratic extremists. He is still a registered Republican, but says that he has felt “less and less” conservative in recent years. He says he feels alienated by his former ideological allies. When we met on August 22nd, he wore a helmet, motorcycle pads, and a respirator.
Portland: The Northwest’s Friendly Proving Ground
Since it’s rare for right-wing militants to face severe penalties for engaging in violence, many have come to see Portland as a proving ground and a place where they can test tactics in a friendly climate.
Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, a notorious brawler who has been affiliated with both the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, was jailed last year for assaulting an anti-fascist bystander. Toese was still legally prohibited from attending protests when he went to an August 22nd street fight. Police took no action. When we reached out the Portland Police Bureau for comment, a spokesman responded that it was the court’s duty to monitor someone’s actions before trial, not the cops. “That is not something we actively track,” the spokesperson said. “If anyone is aware that someone is violating their pretrial conditions, they’re encouraged to notify the court so the court can impose appropriate sanctions.”
In 2019, Sean Kealiher, 23, was killed outside a bar popular with local leftists, and according to the Intercept, Portland police have been slow to provide any information on their investigation into his murder. This stands in stark contrast to how law enforcement responded to the shooting death of right-wing protester Jay Danielson by anti-fascist Michael Reinoehl in late August 2020. After the shooting, Reinoehl went into hiding. He was tracked down and killed by U.S. marshals a week later. President Trump bragged about this: “They knew who he was, they didn’t want to arrest him. Fifteen minutes, that ended.”
Violence on the Ground
On the night of August 8th, 2021, after an event by anti-mask religious leader Sean Feucht, protesters clashed in the streets, with right-wing protesters firing paintball guns from trucks, and left-wing counterprotesters fighting back fireworks and mace. As soon as the dust had cleared, local white nationalist Haley Adams started drumming up interest for an event on August 22nd. This had been initially planned by Audra Price, the leader of a pro-police Facebook group with 21,000 followers; Price billed it as a chance for “patriots” to “come together to offer hope and inspiration.”
Ahead of the August 22nd event, Mayor Wheeler held his “Choose Love” event, a small digital press conference where city leaders addressed public fears over the impending rally. Police Chief Chuck Lovell announced that his department would not take any action to intervene in assaults. “People should not necessarily expect to see the police standing in the middle of the crowd trying to keep people apart,” he said. “People need to keep themselves apart and avoid physical confrontation.”
The gathering was advertised under a variety of names, but on the day of the event it was most prominently billed as a “Free Our Political Prisoners” rally. As my team and I approached the event, we saw two four-man teams, armed with rifles and handguns, patrolling the parking lot where the event was being held. Nearby were four middle-aged counterprotesters. They carried signs and wore normal street clothes.
One of them, Jordana Sardo, told me she was out that day in solidarity with the neighborhood’s nonwhite residents. “I think a disciplined show of opposition is best,” Sardo said. “Personally I am not in favor of confrontation, but I also believe people have a right to defend themselves.”
While we talked, we were approached by a right-wing livestreamer who began loudly questioning us. This caused a swarm of Proud Boys and other far-right activists to descend on us. Two of them, armed with bats and mace, pushed past the counterprotesters and toward me. One man got right up in my face and asked if I wanted to fight.
Several anti-fascist medics, dressed in black and wearing body armor, walked over and quietly put themselves between the unarmored counterprotesters and the Proud Boys. Another activist pulled his Toyota Tacoma up to the side of the gathering, which had spilled out into the street, to block traffic so that no one got hit. My team and I eventually pulled back to a nearby gas station.
There we encountered a couple who live in the area and had come out to see what was happening. The man, who asked to be anonymous, expressed concern for the local homeless population: “I’m mostly worried about the camps that are nearby.”
He had good reason to worry. Earlier that day, I’d interviewed seven residents of a downtown homeless encampment. They’d claimed they were assaulted on the weekend of August 8th by men they believed were affiliated with the right-wing groups, who had rallied in town that weekend. Residents described how the men stomped on one homeless person in a tent, leaving blood all over the sidewalk and sending the man to the hospital with a head injury. “Every fucking step they took, the n-word was just coming out of their mouth,” one teenage witness told me.
And on the weekend of August 22nd, with another right-wing rally in town, there were two more assaults on homeless individuals: On the night of the 21st, a man fired a BB gun at homeless people from a truck. In the early morning hours of the 23rd, two men hopped out of a truck with batons and knocked out another man’s teeth. He woke up in the hospital. No arrests have been made in these assaults, and it is unclear if police reports have even been made.
Most victims of far-right violence are deeply distrustful of the police. Many activists and homeless individuals were tear-gassed by the Portland Police last year. (So far, the district attorney has declined to prosecute cops accused of assaulting protesters.) The overwhelming attitude I’ve encountered on the ground in response to such violence is “don’t call the cops, we’ll handle this ourselves.”
On August 22nd, while my team and I were interviewing two local residents, Proud Boys surrounded us — and the police, as they’d promised, were nowhere to be seen. One man with a knife on his belt called me out by name. Another attempted to persuade the locals that he and his allies were being “civil.”
We left shortly thereafter. Within minutes, the fighting started and the four female counterprotesters we’d talked to earlier were assaulted. One of them, Martha, was still present when we returned. Her face was red and blotchy, her eyes were the distinct shade of bloodshot that comes from mace exposure. “They bear-maced me from behind as I was standing with my sign,” she said.
The fighting on August 22nd lasted more than half an hour. Two protester’s vehicles were damaged. One, a van, was trying to reverse when it was surrounded and the driver was assaulted at close range with bear mace and paintball guns. When the driver fled, the vehicle rolled forward briefly. Proud Boys then flipped it on its side and repeatedly struck its body and undercarriage with blunt objects.
Most of the anti-fascists who assembled in Portland that day stayed downtown. The handful who traveled to Northeast Portland to confront the Proud Boys were badly outnumbered. They were forced back, and the Proud Boys pursued them and assaulted one man as he sat, alone, in a truck. A haunting photograph by Nathan Howard shows an armored Proud Boy pummeling a bloody, unarmed man as he cowers in the driver’s seat, next to a shattered window.
Mayor Wheeler, and many mainstream liberals, have argued that if people refuse to give the Proud Boys the fight they want, they will go away. After August 22nd, Wheeler’s office declared that “violence was contained to the groups of people who chose to engage in violence toward each other.” But anti-fascist activists argue that the far right, if not confronted, will seek out vulnerable targets and carry out unchecked violence.
The Capitol insurrection on January 6th, many on the left argue argue, is an example of what happens when the right is not met with force in the streets. Instead of “choose love,” most antifa activists espouse a mix of research and direct action. These tactics were successful in curtailing Richard Spencer’s speaking career and turning the original big names of the alt-right into marginal figures. But they did not curtail the growth in support for authoritarian far-right politics and racist conspiracy theories nationwide. And some anti-fascists have hurt their own cause with an embrace of violence that goes far beyond direct confrontation of people espousing neo-Nazi rhetoric.
Violence From the Left
After years of escalating confrontations, members of both groups have grown hardened to violence. On August 22nd, a group of protesters in black bloc (a tactic in which protesters wear all black to increase anonymity) assaulted independent photojournalist Maranie Staab. She was maced and thrown to the ground, destroying her camera. When other members of the press attempted to aid her, activists in black bloc threw soda cans at them. Staab was also maced by a right-wing protester prior to being attacked by anti-fascists.
Staab’s attack was part of an escalating trend among many leftist activists whereby cameras are seen as enemies. This attitude is fueled by the fact that Portland leftist activists are often doxxed and subjected to death threats. When a rumor spread after a 2019 protest that “antifa” were throwing milkshakes made with quick-drying cement at right-wing demonstrators, protesters who’d handed out vegan milkshakes at that event were inundated with death threats. Last winter, around 20 Portland activists and journalists were sent death threats by an unknown far-right extremist. Most of those targeted were people of color.
During the big brawl in Northeast Portland on August 22nd, my team and I parked outside the home of a local activist named Marzz. She was wearing a zuria, a traditional Eritrean dress, and headed to a church gathering with her family. Marzz told me that she’d had to step back from in-person organizing as a result of such threats:
“I was showing up a lot and I got targeted,” she said, “I got sprayed in my eyes [with mace] and followed home.”
As overall political violence in the city has escalated, force has become the default. Street fighting is now a regular event in Portland, with “fighting season” extending from midsummer to early winter. And the violence in Portland often spills over into the streets of nearby communities, like Salem and Olympia, Washington, where a leftist demonstrator was shot in December 2020. On September 4th, prominent right-wing brawler Tiny Toese was shot in the foot at another rally in Olympia. At that same protest, independent journalist Alissa Azar was assaulted by several armed Proud Boys.
Rallies in Olympia or Salem draw in mostly local demonstrators, but Portland remains the brass ring for far-right organizers. Rallies there bring in Proud Boys from around the nation. Xander Almeida, the former Multnomah County Republican organizer, explained the thought process he’d seen in many of his former colleagues.
“Portland is a very reactionary city, and the best way to get a reaction is to show up with a Trump flag and a paintball gun,” says Almeida. “People come from all over to Portland, because they know there will be black bloc [folks] who will light a dumpster on fire, and they can say, see what happens when liberals are in charge?”
One anonymous anti-fascist in black bloc on August 22nd told me he’d been attending counterprotests to far-right events since 2017, and was nearby when a Trump supporter shot a left-wing street medic at an event for Milo Yiannopoulos.
“I didn’t even hear the gunshot, my phone just started blowing up,” he remembers. “[People asking] ‘Are you still alive?’”
The anti-fascist protester believes all this violence has had the effect of causing “ideological brutalization.” “When we are in these situations,” he tells me, “we become more primed for violence.” He talks about the street fights between communists and Nazis in the Weimar Republic. “That primed people for a period of political violence. I felt that happen to me.”
And it is here that Portland may once again be ahead of the nation. August 22nd, 2021, marked Portland’s first exchange of gunfire between right-wing and left-wing activists. It will not be the last one. And if it happens here, it will happen elsewhere in the country soon. Because what happens in Portland never stays in Portland.