Expert on the radical right warns that vigilantes are preparing 'to launch a coup'
In the Age of Trump, Portland, Oregon, is no longer just another city. Now it is a symbol and almost a Rorschach test for the country's deep and explosive political divides.
For Trumpists, Republicans and members of the far right, Portland is all that is wrong with "the Left" and "Liberals," a chaotic nightmare zone where Black Lives Matter, antifa and other "enemies" are running amok while they attack "patriotism" and "real American values."
To TrumpWorld, Portland and other Democratic-led big cities (which of course is virtually all of them) are hives of scum and villainy, overrun by criminals and "rioters," which must be conquered by Trump's enforcers and armed vigilante supporters.
Trump's "law and order" politics, and its inherent racism and violence, are believed by many to be his path back to the White House. In this view, Portland and other "Democrat cities" and communities are targets of opportunity for the Trump regime.
Writing at Washington Monthly, David Atkins explains Trump's mindset:
He sees the violence as politically beneficial, a useful cudgel against Democratic nominee Joe Biden — even though the violence is happening while Trump himself is president, not Biden.
Trump's election theme is that Americans won't be safe in a Biden presidency. The opposite is true. Americans won't be safe as long as a white supremacist president is leading a movement of bigots to incite a civil war, and attempting to ensure that the majority of Americans with cosmopolitan, egalitarian values remain politically disenfranchised and under the thumb of those who fear and despise them.
Trump's campaign of racial authoritarianism and stochastic terrorism, as well as overt threats of "law and order," resulted in a group of his supporters driving into Portland last weekend, armed with mace and paintball guns, to seek out confrontations with Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist protesters. During one such encounter, a member of the right-wing militia group Patriot Prayer, Aaron Danielson, was shot and killed. On Thursday night, the apparent shooter, Michael Reinoehl, was himself shot and killed by U.S. marshals in Olympia, Washington.
Despite this lamentable violence — for which Trump and the right must bear ultimate responsibility — for progressives and other people of conscience Portland is a symbol of resistance and hope. As part of the nationwide people's uprising sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters have been outside the Portland federal courthouse for more than 100 days.
The protests were largely peaceful until Trump and acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf deployed federal police forces to the city in July. Their presence, as designed, escalated the tension and led to increasing levels of property damage and incidents of violence.
Previewing Trump's plan for other parts of the nation, these federal shock troops made journalists and reporters a special focus of their violence. They also kidnapped protesters and other "enemies" of Donald Trump's regime off the street as though they were operating in a banana republic.
Much of the mainstream American news media's coverage of the recent events in Portland lacks meaningful context. Writing at Medium, a Portland press collective describes one such example of this "parachute journalism":
One night last week, during one of the smaller demonstrations, a tall white man in a clean ballistic helmet and brand-new plate carrier emblazoned with "PRESS" strolled through the crowd in front of the Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland, Oregon. He stopped by a gaggle of other journalists, most out-of-towners. "I've only been around for the last week," he said, "but the protests in Portland feel a lot more performative than the ones I've seen in other cities. Less genuine." A local journalist mentioned having been present for over 50 nights of the protests, starting in early June. "Yeah, I can only speak for what I've seen this week," said Clean Helmet. "I'm flying back to DC tomorrow." … Clean Helmet was on the ground in Portland, by his own description, for less than a week. This means that he was present for approximately 1/10th of Portland's BLM protests, thus far. I'm sure he got some great footage.
The Parachutes (as we have come to know them) come with money, and zero community connections. Their goal is the clip that can make the nightly news. They want a story that will dominate the news cycle. They do not know what is happening in Portland, and they do not care. They are coming to a city with a vibrant, scrappy community of street-level journalists. By and large, they do not want the context that those journalists can provide. And soon they will come to a city near you. When the Feds and the Parachutes come to your town, you'll want everyone to understand the context there, too. And they are coming. Clean Helmet is already back in DC, and on to the next assignment.
The important context which "the Parachutes" usually omit includes the way Portland is depicted as a liberal oasis in America's popular imagination. In reality, Portland is a very race and class-segregated city. As historian and activist Walidah Imarisha and others have richly documented, the Oregon territory passed laws in 1844 explicitly excluding Black people from the region under punishment of whippings and other violence. The state of Oregon formally included white supremacy in its constitution, explicitly banning nonwhites.
To this day, Oregon remains a redoubt of white supremacy, where white supremacists and other right-wing extremists have a large presence in the state and surrounding region. Portland itself has a long and ongoing history of right-wing violence.
Alexander Reid Ross is a doctoral fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right. His most recent book is "Against the Fascist Creep." Ross has also completed new research which documents more than 500 incidents in which white vigilantes and other right-wing extremists have confronted Black Lives Matter protests. This includes hundreds of acts of intimidation and other threats as well as dozens of examples in which right-wing extremists have assaulted or attacked Black Lives Matter protesters.
In this conversation Ross shares his firsthand experiences with the recent George Floyd protests in Portland. He also provides some context for those events and the police and federal response. Ross also details the long history of right-wing paramilitaries and political street gangs in Portland and their relationship with local police and other law enforcement.
Reid warns that Portland, the right-wing vigilante killings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the hundreds of other attacks by right-wing extremists on Black Lives Matter protesters is just a preview of the massive violence that Donald Trump and his movement may unleash before and after Election Day — perhaps including the arrest or imprisonment of prominent Democrats, journalists, and others deemed to be enemies of the state.
After almost four years of Trump and his regime's authoritarian, neofascist behavior, some voices in the mainstream American news media now use that correct and appropriate language to describe the reality of the situation. Why was there so much fear and denial about the obvious? Even when they use the correct terminology, the coverage is largely superficial and avoids serious discussion of the dire implications.
You must also take into account that many so-called left-leaning voices have also been interfering with bringing that truth to light. There were writers at the Guardian, for example, who were trying to sound the alarm about the dangers of right-wing extremism and fascism in America, but they were derided by their peers across the political spectrum.
I also believe that publications such as the Washington Post and the New York Times saw themselves as being aloof from questions of the mob and political violence in America. There is a tendency among elite voices to want to say that, "We're above political violence here in America and we resolve our differences through conversation. Therefore, let's give everyone a hearing and let's debate these issues, regardless of how extreme they may be. That is what a democratic country should act like."
In a sense, they put their faith completely in some abstract idea of "democracy" instead of taking the temperature of what is really happening on the ground.
You live in Portland. How is your experience different from the narrative being offered by the mainstream American news media and other outside observers?
We in Portland have been dealing with right-wing extremists and police abuse for a long time. Portland has experience with the likes of right-wing extremist groups such as Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys. This is not new to us.
I would go out to protests and see how the political violence is not a result of the breakdown in the monopoly of violence held by the police. The political violence was a result of the Proud Boys and the police effectively acting as two different elements of the same side. It wasn't that the police had lost the monopoly of violence. It was the police were shooting us in order to allow the Proud Boys to march through the city without proper permits.
Most mainstream news media coverage of the protests which have taken place here in Portland, recently and before, totally fail to acknowledge or even fathom the police involvement in the rise of the far right in this community. That failure has cascaded to the point that we are now at a point where the press is painting the current crisis as some type of grudge match between the feds and the anarchists. In fact, the protest movement is a very diverse group of people — especially by Portland standards — who are coming out night after night and making extraordinarily clear demands and being absolutely brutalized in the streets every night.
What too many reporters in many cases are trying to do is figure out how to resolve the situation, rather than understanding it and properly explaining to the public what is really happening and the context for it. By doing so, too many reporters are creating false equivalencies regarding the various forces at play here in Portland.
What does Portland exemplify, in terms of the protests and the Trump's regime's reaction?
It is an example of Donald Trump attempting to rise to the level of a right-wing political strongman. Donald Trump is using classic authoritarian tactics that one does not often see in a healthy democracy. Donald Trump is deliberately undermining the Constitution by using federal law to circumvent local governments' control over their police forces.
Trump and William Barr's de facto secret police are literally disappearing people off the streets of Portland and in other parts of the country where the Democratic Party is in power. How do you explain what is happening to people who do not live in those communities? Who are not being targeted by Trump and his henchmen?
The specific federal forces involved are BORTAC — the Border Patrol Tactical Unit — and the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group and others, under the coordination of the Department of Homeland Security. BORTAC have been in Portland shooting at people and launching tear gas. BORTAC is not trained for crowd or riot control. They are trained to engage in raids against migrants and to separate children from their mothers. That is what BORTAC does. They pride themselves on being the most militarized branch and group of the U.S. law enforcement community. BORTAC members are extreme Trump supporters. What is happening in Portland and other parts of the country is the border closing in on the citizens of the United States.
BORTAC is being used because Trump feels that they are his most loyal forces. That is fully in keeping with the tactics of authoritarian leaders who cultivate secret police whose main function is to serve as the government leader's private force, one that operates outside of any restraints such as internal review.
The [former] Chilean dictatorship is explicitly supported by Trump's own supporters, who wear T-shirts that say, "Right-wing death squad" and "Pinochet did nothing wrong." The American mainstream news media is far too charitable with its narrative that "Trump is playing to his base."
During the recent protests in Portland, were there moments where you feared that the federal forces were going to start shooting the crowd with lethal rounds?
The fear is very real and it's constant. The federal forces have assault rifles. They are loaded with live rounds. There are protesters who were throwing fireworks and things of that sort at the courthouse. What if one of the feds has an itchy trigger finger? What if a firework explodes and they then open fire on an entire group of unarmed people?
Trump and their defenders and other apologists will just say, "Well, these poor agents have been overworked for 60 days and look at all the things that have been thrown at them" and so on and so forth. We know what the narrative will be. All a person can do when protesting is to act accordingly and stay focused.
You have been documenting what are now almost 500 attacks, acts of intimidation, vehicular assaults, shootings and other threats by Trump supporters and other members of the right against Black Lives Matter protests. What do we know?
I have never seen this amount of anti-left vigilantism from the right. During the first year of Barack Obama's administration, the Tea Party was huge, and they mobilized with events all over the country. There were also armed protests in opposition to Obamacare. But those right-wing protesters were not coming out to confront and intimidate a much smaller group of anti-racists. Of course, those anti-Obama Tea Party and anti-health-care type protesters were extremely racist and a breath away from being fascists, but there was not that same energy and menace that we are seeing today.
The idea of these right-wing protesters and militia types being "anti-government" — again, a narrative circulated by the mainstream American news media — is very uncritical, a total misnomer. They are really pro-government. They are entirely in favor of the United States government as controlled by Donald Trump. Their claim to be "libertarians" is a joke.
Those right-wing militias and others sympathetic to them are arming in opposition to Democrats, liberals and progressives.
Right-wing extremists and other terrorists, including white supremacists and neo-Nazis, are also coordinating at times with the police.
They actually say that they are at the protests to "protect the police." Think about that claim: They are "anti-government" vigilantes who promise that they are trying to protect the police. In essence, these right-wing militias and the like are American citizens who believe it is their role not to become police, but to guard the police. Such a claim is ludicrous. It is a paramilitary force. These right-wing forces are coordinating and positioning themselves to be able to launch a coup against American democracy and the Democratic Party, if the latter gains control of the presidency and government.
The closest parallel with what we are seeing with Trump's movement would be the "massive resistance" by white people against racial integration in the South during the civil rights movement. I am of the opinion that the United States has not seen such a mobilization of violent, far-right forces to this extent since the 1960s.
Recently, a Trumpist and right-wing militia supporter traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin and involved himself in the protests there. He apparently shot three people, killing two of them. He crossed state lines illegally with a weapon he was not allowed to own. He was only a teenager, and was radicalized online into right-wing extremism. He is now being valorized by the right-wing media machine. Trump has defended this young man as a hero who was fighting against "criminals" and "looters." This apparent killer now has hundreds of thousands of dollars pledged to his defense.
Trump has defended Kyle Rittenhouse with the claim he was firing in "self-defense." In essence, Donald Trump supports the right-wing vigilante movement, which represents the disintegration of the rule of law.
We are witnessing an erosion of democratic norms in this country by Republicans. They accept breaking the law as being viable if it supports "traditional values" — meaning racism. As a practical matter, Donald Trump is spearheading the movement of the Republican Party into a full-on violent racist organization that encourages vigilantism.
In terms of engaging in the worst type of "both-sides-ism" and false equivalencies that helped Trump win and now keep power, the American mainstream news media is now advancing a "mutual combat" narrative in its coverage of Trump's supporters and the violence in Portland last weekend. How does that narrative contradict what really happened in Portland?
The "mutual combat" framing is inane, legally a non-starter, and obviously supportive of the aggressive party, which is typically the Trump supporters. Their strategy is to provoke fights and then call for "law and order" intervention from a corrupt president.
Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson has not been leading protests in Portland for a long time. He is a marginal figure, but the American news media has suddenly selected him and lifted him up for no apparent reason other than that he participated in an aggressive and bellicose Trump "caravan" last week during which right-wing vigilantes tried to run people over with their trucks, shot protesters and bystanders with paintball guns, and used pepper spray to attack people.
Should Black Lives Matter, antifascist and other human rights and social justice supporters stop protesting in order to deny Trump's supporters and other right-wing hooligans a narrative that could hurt Joe Biden nd the the Democrats? In essence, should they make a tactical withdrawal to deny Trump a strategic victory, because of how events will likely be distorted by the media to his advantage?
I will not say what protesters should or shouldn't do. I do not think what they choose to do or not do will matter much. What is significant is that the far right will deepen its insurgency against the left the more that Donald Trump falters and as he continues demanding "law and order."
The left would be remiss to engage them on this level. The left is not in the streets to spark a civil war or escalate violent encounters to the point of breaking civil society into protracted sectarian warfare. The left is in the streets to make life better for ordinary people, and to present a version of the future that would be better and more prosperous for everyone. The more the left maintains its sanity against overwhelming odds, the more the right's paranoia and hysteria will marginalize it in American society. This will create new spaces for progressive causes and movements.
What do you want to warn the American people about? What do you think happens next?
I am worried about crackdowns by Donald Trump and his forces against their direct enemies. This would involve dragging Democrats in front of kangaroo courts and starting to criminalize dissent such that the average American who has a bumper sticker or other affiliation with the Democratic Party or liberal or progressive causes becomes a target for Trump's zealots. I worry that Trump will find some way to round up the leaders of the Democratic Party and put them in jail or execute them.
That is the future that right-wing conspiracists such as the QAnon people want. They are the crowd that Donald Trump is signaling to. I do not believe that there is much stopping Donald Trump from following through on his extreme impulses. At this point Donald Trump is desperate. If Trump wins again it will just be more fuel on the fire for his followers. The right wing will follow through on his cues and start attacking regular people, not just protesters, who they believe are Democrats.