Defending Democracy from Intimidation, Hate & Violence
By Eric K. Ward
I don’t often use Medium to toot Western States Center’s own horn, but you know you’re doing something right when Black multi-media giant BET publishes your organizational analysis of white nationalism in the same week a noted rabbi calls your organization’s work on antisemitism “essential torah” and the elected officials of a major city put out a press release to thank your team for the training they delivered on these subjects.
I especially want to praise our program team’s strategic and effective leadership over the past two years, as we’ve contended with the determination of white nationalists — and their Defender in Chief — to make our hometown of Portland, Oregon the front line of their war on inclusive democracy. (See Far-right groups, feeling support from Trump, find fertile recruiting ground in the Northwest.)
Our Deputy Director of Programs & Strategic Initiatives Amy Herzfeld-Copple and Momentum Program Director Lindsay Schubiner have built the partnerships and designed the interventions that are helping Portland demonstrate to the nation how to come together to reject hate and violence. I am proud of them, and proud of our city leadership, for the historic two-part training we just presented to all current and incoming City Council members and bureau directors.
“We made a commitment to becoming an anti-racist city,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said earlier this week. “Our partnership with the experts at the Western States Center will help us understand white nationalists and improve our response to the very real threats they pose to our community.”
We appreciated what each of our city commissioners had to say about the training. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty underscored the importance of this work on the municipal level. “Given our state’s history of white supremacy and our current national leaders’ efforts to downplay its dangers, it is critical local governments like ours understand the threat and take the steps to protect Portlanders as we continue working together to build a more equitable Portland,” she noted.
Municipal Leadership Against White Nationalism is Paramount
It’s no accident that rising authoritarianism in this country is taking the form of attacks on our cities. As we look ahead to defending inclusive democracy both before and after this high-stakes election, we remain convinced that strong and aligned municipal government in opposition to white nationalism and political violence is paramount. That message was reinforced in a recent national briefing we offered with Michael Zamore, Chief of Staff for U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley; Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty; Darren Harold-Golden, from the Yes for Real Police Accountability campaign; and attorney Cliff Davidson, who is managing our lawsuit against the federal government.
Over the past two years, Western States Center has been deeply engaged in de-escalating the political violence brought to Portland by the Proud Boys and other extremist groups desperate for attention and relevance. In the lead-up to the September 26th Proud Boys rally promoted as expecting 20,000 attendees, we organized 32 community organizations to issue a collective call to action. It had a meaningful impact on elected officials, and inspired local community and government unity that led to a clear, moral rejection of hate and violence.
Our work included framing the Proud Boys incursions into Portland with the media, including acting as a source for NPR, the Associated Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the Daily Beast, and other national outlets. See Eric Ward Feared Someone Would Be Killed and Amy’s interview How Does Portland Pull Out of Its Spiral of Political Bloodshed?.
Our sign-on letter calling on elected officials to demonstrate unity against hate groups and political violence spurred an effective response. Governor Kate Brown described our letter as “a clarion call” and thanked us for our leadership. The Portland Mayor and City Council responded to our request for solidarity, issuing a strong statement along with state officials which echoed many of the points in our letter. Portland Commissioner Chloe Eudaly also answered our call to action by devoting Bureau of Transportation readerboards to messages reading “Portland United Against Hate” and “Black Lives Matter,” giving a visible signal to the whole community.
As we noted in a press release at the end of that fraught afternoon, the Proud Boys rally itself was much smaller than advertised — a few hundred, not thousands — and was easily out-organized by courageous Portlanders who put on events standing up for Black lives, challenging hate groups, and educating about the history of Vanport City (the historic Black community insultingly chosen as the rally site).
That said, the need for unity and organizing only increases after that weekend’s failed paramilitary mobilization. Only three days later, during the first presidential debate, the President’s refusal to denounce white supremacy functioned as a rallying cry for the Proud Boys and other alt-right paramilitary groups. Perhaps even more troubling was Trump’s statement urging his supporters to go into the polls and “watch very carefully.” In the current context, we can only interpret that as a call for voter intimidation, so the risk of violence remains high heading into an election where there was already deep concern that alt-right and paramilitary groups will mobilize around election sites.
These larger threats to inclusive democracy are why it’s so important to understand the political goals of white nationalism, alongside our work to dismantle structural racism. We were pleased by the response of Portland’s City Council to the training we provided these past two weeks. You can watch the opening training session here.
When the Portland City Council unanimously passed a landmark resolution condemning white supremacy and alt-right hate groups in February, 2019 it served as a model for other cities and counties around the region. One of the components of the resolution was a commitment by the Council to undertake training on white nationalism. That promise has now been fulfilled, offering another model for municipalities around the country.
We must continue to be united in saying: Not in our town. Not anywhere. We have an opportunity to tell a different story, build a different blueprint for a united government and community response that shrinks space for political violence.
Building Social Movements’ Understanding of Antisemitism & White Nationalism
Alongside strong municipal government, we believe that inclusive democracy relies on a larger percentage of social movement leaders having a deeper understanding of white nationalism and the anti-Semitism that drives it. Our work on antisemitism keeps us in high demand across the country, with seemingly nonstop training requests from universities to family businesses, congregations, and community organizations. We fielded over 150 applicants for the 20 spots in our current Common Good Masterclass, a 14-week program to help artists and cultural workers deepen their knowledge of the ways that antisemitism fuels white nationalism, and reflect this analysis in their work.
We were honored by Rabbi Lauren Grabel’s post calling our interview with “a highlight of Yom Kippur for many.” View the interview, which Rabbi Grabel described as “essential torah for 5781, including how white supremacy works vs. white nationalism, how to understand the uptick in anti-semitism in all spaces, not just the far right; the way anti-semitism functions to undermine the unity of progressive spaces; Black Lives Matter as a movement; self-interest and how we can call people IN so we can WIN.”
We’re also building awareness through The Far Right: Exposing Anti-Blackness, a three-part virtual convening hosted by Southern Poverty Law Center on Oct. 8, Oct 22 & Nov. 5. Addressing the challenges facing Black communities amidst a rising and increasingly violent white nationalist movement, the teach-in explores concrete ways we can fight back against white nationalism and rising authoritarianism, today and post-election. Read Shutting Down White Nationalist Movements, Extremism And The Myths That Surround Them which I co-authored with SPLC Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks, published Monday by multimedia giant BET, and our full call to action on the SPLC website.
Shifting the Narrative to Focus on the Common Good
We must go beyond the narrow ideological united front strategy that much of our social movements still employs. At Western States Center, we do our part to shift from an ideological to a “common good” values frame in our narrative and communications work. Check out Singing a Different Tune, Telling A Different Story, my first contribution to The Oregon Way, a new blog founded to “help identify common values and solutions across Oregon.” I was pleased to be able to spotlight Ana Egge and Matthew Ryan, two of the singer-songwriters in our Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab, an artist cohort for countering bigotry, which has won support from the American Immigration Council’s Inclusion Innovation Collaborative.
None of this is possible without our Western States Community. Western States Center has been defending democracy from intimidation, hate, and violence for decades. We’re ready for whatever comes our way on November 3 — and the weeks and months to follow.
Join us. Share our new Extremist Spotlight series that launched recently on Facebook and Twitter to highlight what we’re uncovering in our monitoring and research work. Visit our online action hub at WeDefendDemocracy.org regularly for other actions you can take.
Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with SPLC and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.