By Eric K. Ward
When a white teenager in Kenosha, Wisconsin fatally shoots two racial justice protesters after he and other armed vigilantes are given water and thanked by local law enforcement; when he’s allowed to walk away from the killings despite multiple eyewitnesses and video identifying him as the shooter, and he himself approaches a police car with his hands up; when he’s not arrested until the next day — we should be appalled, saddened, outraged. But we should not be surprised.
Self-appointed paramilitary formations, jacked up by conspiracy theories and internet hoaxes, armed with military-grade weapons and homemade bombs. Police forces sympathetic to — and sometimes colluding with — these domestic terrorists. Elected officials, civic leaders, the business community: either silent or caught up in the false neutrality of both-siderism.
This template for the destructive drama now playing out in America’s city streets has been on clear display in Portland, Oregon since 2017. The escalation of extra-legal paramilitary targeting of non-violent protesters was fueled by a President who responded to George Floyd’s murder by reviving the racist exhortation, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It was abetted by elected officials and law enforcement spreading internet hoax panic about “antifa invasions” of small towns. But a more troubling culpability lies with the municipal leaders — elected officials, law enforcement, the business community, civic organizations — that have remained neutral as far-right domestic terrorists have mounted their assault on the rule of law and the constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.
Even before Trump famously characterized the deadly white nationalist riot in Charlottesville as involving “very fine people on both sides,” Portland was looking the other way as armed far-right formations came looking for a fight. Instead of recognizing the threat to the rule of law and democratic practice brought by groups like Patriot Prayer, Proud Boys, Identity Evropa, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters as they descended on Portland, the chaos they produced was characterized as a “street brawl” between “two sides” who were seen as — at best — equally culpable.
Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson admitted his strategy to a reporter just after Charlottesville. “They show up to goad leftists into a fury, then let them fight police while TV cameras roll,” Willamette Week reported; “whether antifa protesters brawl with his supporters or just clash with police, it’s a ‘win-win’ for the far right.” The effectiveness of these optics has now reached prime time in the President’s bid to scare America into four more years.
Despite the transparency of the alt-right “street brawl” strategy and the known dangers posed by far-right domestic terrorism, a leaked internal investigation found that a leader in the Portland Police Bureau viewed far-right protesters as “much more mainstream” than their leftist counterparts. Other reporting has found active coordination between the bureau and far-right leaders as well as far-right adherents within the police force. Oregon Public Broadcasting took to Twitter to question the seriousness of local law enforcement: “Police say they’ve been looking for the man who pulled a gun on antifascist protesters at Saturday’s violent protest in downtown Portland. He isn’t that hard to find. Our reporters saw him leading a rally in front of Gresham City Hall yesterday.”
The implications of far-right ideologies within law enforcement are detailed in a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice, Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement: “While it is widely acknowledged that racist officers subsist within police departments around the country, federal, state, and local governments are doing far too little to proactively identify them, report their behavior to prosecutors who might unwittingly rely on their testimony in criminal cases, or protect the diverse communities they are sworn to serve.”
Promises by Portland city leaders to address the bias within the force, and to reform police behavior towards protesters, have gone unfulfilled. Not three months before the deadly vehicular assault amidst the alt-right riot in Charlottesville, Jeremy Christian killed two intervening bystanders on a light rail train in Portland. He had attended a Patriot Prayer rally the month before. Despite the national attention garnered by Christian’s attacks — or maybe because of it — Patriot Prayer took to the streets looking for a fight again the following week. Once again, Portland leaders adopted a both-sides stance and the police disproportionately targeted protesters perceived as antifascist. As Willamette Week reported, Patriot Prayer’s Joey Gibson went on to lead “three of the most violent protests in Portland’s recent history, on Aug. 6, 2017; June 30, 2018; and Oct. 13, 2018. He also organized a large Aug. 4, 2018 rally that led police to use crowd control agents on leftist counter-demonstrators, severely injuring several people with flash-bang grenades.”
Even after the eyes of the nation were on Portland this summer for the politically-motivated deployment of federal agents against civil protesters, local law enforcement continued to demonstrate confusion about the real threats to democratic practice. When Proud Boys and other far-right extremists took to the streets on August 16th for a “No to Marxism in America” rally, Portland police took a hands-off approach to the vigilantes brandishing weapons and looking for a fight, declaring a riot and moving on protesters only after the alt-right groups had left.
So it was no surprise when only ten days later, a 17-year-old wanna-be cop styling himself as a militia member and “Blue Lives Matter” adherent drove across state lines with an assault rifle to Kenosha, Wisconsin and opened fire on protesters. No surprise that before he did so, he was thanked by police officers for his armed presence. No surprise that, as a white teenager, he was allowed to leave the scene of the mayhem to go home, still breathing.
The failure to take right-wing extremist violence and the growing paramilitary movement seriously is not just a municipal issue, of course. The Trump administration has consistently downplayed the threat and subverted officials’ attempts to address it, as detailed by Politico in a recent analysis, “They tried to get Trump to care about right-wing terrorism. He ignored them.”
The administration has only been willing to adopt the term “domestic terrorism” when pointing the finger at the loose-knit collection of those who oppose fascism. Just a day after a 17-year-old teenager espousing right-wing ideology opened fire on civil protesters, the head of the Department of Homeland Security prioritized the targeting of “antifa” as domestic terrorists. This, despite a recent study from the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that found “an increasing percentage of plots and attacks in the United States shifting over the past couple of years from jihadist motivations, increasingly, to far-right activity”. In contrast, a database of nearly 900 politically motivated attacks and plots in the United States since 1994 includes just one attack staged by an anti-fascist that led to fatalities. In that case, the single person killed was the perpetrator.
The night before a 17-year-old teenager espousing right-wing ideology drove across state lines with an assault rifle to open fire on civil protesters, the Republican National Convention featured the middle-aged white couple who brandished weapons against peaceful protesters.
Charlottesville was more than the debut on the national stage of the white nationalist and white supremacist forces that felt emboldened by Trump’s election. It was the launch of a dangerous new trend: attacks on peaceful, constitutionally-protected protesters, as documented in the Southern Poverty Law Center report When the ‘Alt-Right’ Hit the Streets: Far-Right Political Rallies in the Trump Era. Charlottesville launched the far-right narrative that depicts armed vigilantes and organized paramilitaries as righteous defenders of communities and “heritage.” They have come to call this “antifa hunting.”
When the murder of George Floyd proved to be the straw that broke the back of mainstream silence in the face of anti-Black police brutality, President Trump revived the racist rallying call, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Non-violent civil protests for racial justice were met not only with militarized police violence, but with armed vigilantes wearing full body armor and camo who’ve harassed and menaced protesters with taunts and weaponized vehicles. Trump’s labeling as “terrorist” those who oppose fascism ignited a wave of armed vigilante mobilization in suburban towns and rural outposts, incited by false rumors of an “antifa invasion.”
USA Today, The Guardian, Slate, and Just Security have all documented the alarming rise in the weaponization of vehicles against protesters with headlines reading, respectively: “‘I would be very careful in the middle of the street’: Drivers have hit protesters 66 times since May 27.”
“Drivers target Black Lives Matter protesters in ‘horrifying’ spate of attacks.” “Why So Many Drivers Are Ramming Into Protesters.” And “Vehicle Ramming: The Evolution of a Terrorist Tactic Inside the U.S.” Far-right corners of the internet have a horrifying way to sum up this tactic: “Black Lives Splatter.”
The presence of armed militias in the middle of non-violent civil protest is rightfully shocking to those who haven’t seen it before. But for some of us, sadly, this isn’t new. Oath Keepers descended on Ferguson, Missouri during protests in response to the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. Describing themselves to reporters as “current and former U.S. soldiers, police and first responders who aim to protect the U.S. Constitution,” these self-appointed Rambos strode through Black neighborhoods brandishing military-style assault rifles.
In the West, armed paramilitaries are well-established. There have been the big, headline-making moments, like the armed 2014 standoff in Nevada between the Bundy family and law enforcement that led to the 2016 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in violation of Burns-Paiute Tribal sovereignty and state and federal law.
In New Mexico, heavily armed paramilitary groups are a frequent presence at protests calling for racial justice, with one vigilante shooting and critically injuring a protester on June 15. In Ohio, a peaceful small-town Black Lives Matter protest was hijacked, according to news reports, by “a group of armed motorcyclists and others showed up wearing Confederate flag, Punisher and Trump-themed hats and clothing, some of them apparently drawn by online warnings that the demonstration was organized by Antifa activists.” The tiny Olympic Peninsula community of Forks, Washington found its claim to fame as the “Twilight movie vampire town” eclipsed by news coverage of carloads of armed men hyped up on “antifa” rumors tailing a multi-racial family (including a teenager and elderly grandma) to their campsite from the grocery store and cutting down trees to block their escape.
In California, an active-duty Air Force sergeant linked to the boogaloo movement was charged with killing a federal security officer, during a Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland on May 29 and a Santa Cruz County sheriff’s sergeant on June 6. His Facebook post read, “Go to the riots and support our own cause. Show them the real targets. Use their anger to fuel our fire. Think outside the box. We have mobs of angry people to use to our advantage.”
Targeting of protesters reached a dangerous new crescendo in Portland in early August with pipe bombs thrown by a man who on video “appears to be a retired U.S. Navy SEAL and former Central Intelligence Agency contractor who has worked in Afghanistan — and spoken out on social media against the nightly Portland demonstrations,” according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. “No one was injured in the small explosions, but the attack suggests a new, dangerous dynamic. For the past 73 days of protests against systemic racism and police violence, there has been a continuous fear that right-wing demonstrators would become involved, leading to violence. Now, it appears that may have happened.”
The failure to take this seriously has now left a 17-year-old in Illinois with the blood of two Wisconsin protesters on his hands.
To be clear, injuries during this summer of protest have spanned ideology. We condemn violence against anyone. But while there have been a handful of incidents where alt-right activists have been attacked, the preponderance of violent attacks, and the deadliest, have been against racial justice protesters.
The misplacement of federal attention, and the cover provided by this President for racist and anti-Semitic violence and vigilante mobilizations — this would be bad enough on its own. But it’s coupled with inattention and confusion at the municipal level, which is where democratic practice should find its strongest protection. Lacking leadership from the federal government, it falls to local elected officials, law enforcement, and business and civic leaders to draw a moral barrier against hate activity.
Business and civic leaders are so busy parsing the distinctions among the overwhelming majority of peaceful racial justice protesters and those committing property crimes — some of whom are far-right provocateurs — that they’ve lost sight of their own role. When the political center fails to coalesce against fascism, it is hypocritical to scapegoat those anti-fascists who believe they are keeping faith with the more than 400,000 Greatest Generation American lives lost in World War II. If the political center doesn’t stand against the obvious reality of ongoing and deadly race inequality, it will continue to be up to the young people with the stamina to come out night after night to press for change in the streets.
It’s time for the business community to do more than cut a Black Lives Matter commercial. It’s time for city leaders to do more than pass resolutions and then wring their hands when violent extremists come to town. It’s time for law enforcement to take seriously the threats to their own safety and the rule of law caused by anti-government formations and white nationalists in their own ranks.
Police reform is absolutely necessary, as one piece of redressing the structural racism undergirding the entire carceral system. But what we have to remember is, at the end of the day, inclusive democracy is facing twin threats: the legacy of white supremacy and the emergence of white nationalism and armed paramilitary defiance of the rule of law. Defending our democratic freedoms and institutions should not be left wholly to the young people in the streets, now branded as “terrorists” simply for opposing extra-legal authoritarianism and sounding the alarm over the early signs of fascism. It’s the job of the middle, liberals and conservatives. It’s the job of business, religious, and municipal leaders.
Trump wants to make an example of my hometown of Portland, Oregon. It’s an example the nation would do well to study — not for any over-hyped lawlessness in the streets, but for what can go wrong when far-right extremism is not taken seriously. The mainstreaming of authoritarianism and far-right bigotry doesn’t have to be Portland’s national legacy. But if it is, it’s because Portland civil society — not those marching in the streets — chose it.
Ricky Best (53) and Taliesin Namkai Meche (23), May, 2017, Portland. Heather Heyer (23), August, 2017, Charlottesville. Robert Forbes (56), June, 2020, Bakersfield. Anthony Huber (26) and Joseph Rosenbaum (36), August, 2020, Kenosha. Killed for standing up against racial hatred, their killers aided and abetted by the neutrality of both-siderism. We add their names to the litany of lives needlessly taken.
Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward, and Executive Director of Western States Center.