And they’re learning lessons from the left
In 2020, the sight of Americans clad in makeshift body armor, secondhand gas masks, and wielding homemade shields of plywood and foam is mostly associated with anti-racist protesters in places like Portland and Seattle. These tools are evidence that protesters are doing whatever they can to protect themselves against the high-tech equipment and overwhelming and forces of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, who have proven time and time again that they are more than willing to wage brutal violence against anti-racist, anti-fascist, and anti-police activists. They’re the equipment of a scrappy, Do-It-Yourself insurgency on the streets of American cities–the logical tactical progression of protesters who have spent nearly three months being beaten, shot, and tear-gassed almost every night.
The same goes for the tactics of organization behind the scenes of the ongoing battles in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and elsewhere. Though Twitter and Facebook are undoubtedly the preferred tool of organizers trying to get the general public to show up to rallies and protests, their dubious privacy and security features give pause to activists who fear that their tweets, posts, and private messages will be used against them when the State comes knocking on their door. Though social media gets all the attention, the real planning and organizing goes on in encrypted chat apps like Signal or Telegram, which offer a modicum of security from remote surveillance that even the most locked-down social media accounts cannot (though Telegram isn’t as secure as people want to believe.)
But in Eugene, where the nascent uprising against police brutality and racial oppression is struggling to take root, the equipment and organizational tools generally associated with left-wing activists are not as commonly used as they are elsewhere in the country. Save for the declared riots and subsequent curfews of May 29-31 and a second declared riot on July 25-26, the protests in Eugene have remained generally peaceful. Uniformed officers with the Eugene Police Department, for the most part, keep their distance from organized protests and allow them to gather and march with little interference. As a result, they have not needed to employ the Hong Kong-inspired tactics being used by their feisty comrades in Portland. A few people still show up to protests in Eugene wearing body armor and carrying shields, but their numbers are few and more indicative of an overabundance of caution rather than practical necessity. One is more likely to wear out the soles of their sneakers on an endless march through downtown than getting tear-gassed at this point during the uprising.
That’s not to say that there is no one group in this town employing these tactics–it’s just not a group that one might expect. And, because of that, it’s beginning to feel like the police aren’t the biggest threat to activists in Eugene–try as they may to keep that dubious honor.
It’s a small but empowered right-wing militia, and they’re more organized than one might imagine.
There’s a long history of right-wing militia activity in Oregon, and the areas around Eugene are no different. For as long as Eugene has claimed itself as a progressive paradise, there have been neo-Nazis and white supremacists and militiamen around to counter that claim. For every Ken Kesey, there’s a Jimmy Marr; for every Steve Prefontaine, there’s a Jacob Laskey. They’ve always been here, lurking around the fringes of the city–Eugene’s own dirty little secrets. People like Marr and members of the Laskey family make headlines every so often, sometimes for doing something violent but usually just by appearing in public and making a scene before local anti-fascists confront them, expose their identities through a process known as doxxing, and drive them back to the fringes. They’ve become bolder and appeared more frequently since Donald Trump became President, but their numbers were generally too small and their groups too disorganized for them to become much more than a sideshow attraction for the people of Eugene.
But now, with tensions at an all-time high and near-nightly warnings from right-wing media about so-called “Antifa terrorists” and the “radical agenda of Black Lives Matter” in Portland and elsewhere, the fiery-but-easily-ignored right-wing population of Eugene have decided to take matters into their own hands. And, at least in Eugene, they’re doing so by borrowing the tactics of left-wing protesters and adding their own fascist twist to them.
One might argue that right-wing opposition to this latest uprising in Eugene began on the very first night of protests, May 29, when several people showed up to counter a huge crowd on 7th and Washington with automatic rifles and at least one protester was hit by a car. Others might argue it began when Isiah Wagoner, a one-time leader of Black Unity and current write-in candidate for Mayor, was himself hit by a car driven by Travis Waleri during a march on June 29.
But the real local opposition to the current iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement truly began in earnest on the night of July 25, during a nationwide solidarity march against the federal occupation of downtown Portland.That night, as a huge crowd gathered in front of the Wayne Lyman Morse Federal Courthouse in downtown Eugene, approximately three dozen or so people arrived to counter-protest the rally. But unlike past counter-protests, this group came far more prepared.
They arrived carrying homemade shields, wearing helmets and body armor, and–most importantly–packing plenty of guns and melee weapons. Their shields were painted red, white, and blue: all bore some variation of “Back the Blue” or “We Want Unity” or “All Lives Matter” or other slogans. Many were, somewhat ironically, wearing masks–though one suspects that it was less about disease prevention and more about concealing their identities. Their arrival prompted a lengthy standoff between the two groups, which in turn led to several fist fights, some sporadic gunfire, at least one incident with a Taser, and endless back-and-forth taunting.
The counter-protest group–which included Marcus Edwards, Geena Hager, Robert Welch, and other people aligned with local militias and white supremacists–was eventually pushed out of the area by the overwhelming number of Black Lives Matter supporters, but not before the leaders of the opposition group promising, quite loudly, that they’d come back again and again to counter Black Lives Matter protesters–who they believe are indistinguishable from “Antifa”–and that they would fight to defend their communities from so-called “terrorists.”
The arrival of a right-wing militia at a huge protest is not a new phenomenon: it has happened plenty of times before, and will likely continue until the heat death of the planet. But this particular militia’s arrival at this specific protest reveals that the local militia types are getting more organized in their opposition. This group of pro-police counter-protestors arrived together, they left together, and they had a clear hierarchy of leadership and communication. While the majority stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a parking lot across from the Federal Courthouse to confront a crowd that far outnumbered them, their leadership paced back and forth in the thin space between the two groups, hurling insults at the Wall of Moms and picking fights with anti-fascist protesters. At some point, they must’ve gotten together to build three dozen matching wooden shields.
They even had their own sort of peace policing. When militiamen became visibly agitated and drew their weapons, other, calmer members of the militia quickly pulled them away from the main crowd to calm them down.
Though that first night didn’t end in a victory for the militia, it signaled that they were more willing to confront the growing movement against police violence head-on. And, in the weeks since the confrontation on July 25, they’ve only become more empowered in their actions.
The following night, another impromptu protest was held at the Lane County Jail in response to the declared riot the previous night. Things didn’t escalate to riot levels, but once again, right-wing groups arrived to oppose the protest, causing minor skirmishes throughout the night and producing one already iconic photo of a man in an old-school gas mask pointing a handgun at protesters while posing as a journalist outside the jail.
Three days days later, in Thurston, the same militia showed off their rapid-response abilities during a Black Unity march through a residential neighborhood.
Though that night was marked by brutal arrests and beatings by the Springfield Police Department, it also showed how quickly the growing militia was able to rally over 100 people to counter a peaceful march–and how willing they were to coordinate with the police.
Videos posted to Facebook by a prominent militia member named Geena Hager–which were later deleted–showed that the right-wing militia were working with SPD officers and therefore knew exactly where and when to confront the group for maximum menacing. (Hager was arrested and quickly released for assaulting a member of the Wall of Moms later that night.)
Most importantly, it showed how even right-wing militia groups can, to borrow a common tactic and phrase used by protesters, “be water.” In Thurston, they were everywhere and nowhere all at once, often appearing both in front of AND behind the slow-moving march full of people who expected peaceful chants, not police brutality and right-wing harassment.
Thurston was the victory–if you can call five arrests and cracking the skull of an innocent woman a “victory”–that Eugene’s right-wing groups needed in order to justify their self-anointed status as front-line defenders of local communities. In their minds, the police are hampered by politicians and the media, unable to do their jobs for fear of public backlash, and so they’re more than happy to take on that role themselves. To the militia, chasing several hundred so-called “Antifa terrorists” out of Thurston was a grand defensive stand not unlike a small-scale Alamo–vengeance for getting embarrassed in downtown Eugene just a few days earlier.
But Thurston was just the beginning. Since July 29, protests in Eugene have died down considerably–partly because of a hiatus on the part of Black Unity, partly because the furor over the Feds in Portland has gone away, and partly because the EPD arrested a bunch of people for participating in the protests on May 29 and are actively searching for 60 more–but even the small protests and gatherings are attracting the presence of the right-wing militia.
On August 5, a small protest organized by the United Communists and Anarchists of Eugene was menaced and harassed by the militia for over two hours. The militia, who had established a makeshift base of operations in the parking lot of the Elk Horn Brewery, easily outnumbered the protesters two-to-one and used their rare numbers advantage to threaten and attack several protesters, many who appeared to be underage. That night, the militia once again demonstrated their ability to communicate and move swiftly, and added spotters in trucks, cars, and even bicycles to their repertoire of tactics lifted from left-wing protesters.
On August 7, after a small not-campaign rally and march led by mayoral candidate Isiah Wagoner, the militia waited a block away from Sladden Park in the Whiteaker neighborhood of Eugene to menace protesters who were returning to their cars and homes from the rally. Once again, they used cars and trucks to surveil the rally-goers from a distance while also reminding everyone gathered that vehicular attacks are becoming increasingly common tools against street protests.
On August 14, during a quiet vigil held in Washburne Park to honor the Black women and trans people murdered over the past two years, the militia spent the entirety of the event circling the park in those same trucks and cars, keeping a watchful eye on people who were in the park simply to mourn. At least one of the militiamen attempted to take photos of the activists and mourners, but was stymied by his hesitancy to get any closer than a hundred yards away (and the fact that all the activists gathered that night were in black bloc). Even though nothing occurred that night, the presence of the militia at something as peaceful as an evening vigil indicates that they’re not willing to let a single event go by without presenting themselves as the opposition.
But it was a calm, seemingly innocuous event on the sweltering afternoon of August 16 that really put the militia’s growing activism, influence, and ever-evolving tactics into perspective. It wasn’t a protest, nor was it a counter-protest–it was a simple, family-friendly cookout in the middle of downtown Springfield. Except for a few paintball guns, no one was openly carrying, nor were there any signs that anyone had planned any actions beyond hiding from the brutal sunshine while eating hot dogs and waving American flags. Geena Hager walked around the crowd and sold t-shirts for The American Patriots Society (TAPS). It was little more than a Fourth of July party and fundraiser held a month and a half too late. There were three distinct right-wing groups there: the Oregon Patriots, We the People of Lane County, and TAPS. There were divides and splits between members of some of the groups–Rob Davis of TAPS said that “the [Oregon] militia is trouble”–but the groups had far more in common than they didn’t.
More than any other action they had taken, it proved that the right-wing militia–for all their fear-mongering about the supposed terrorism of “Antifa” and Black Lives Matter–was truly paying attention to the the tactics of their left-wing counterparts.
Shield walls, gas masks, and makeshift body armor, while somewhat useful against riot cops and great for photojournalists trying to make the front page of The New York Times, do little to win over the people who have somehow not yet taken a side in the ongoing uprising against the police state.
The same applies to right-wing militiamen who bring military-grade weaponry to a protest about mask-wearing and only seem to be against anti-government when white people are the ones being oppressed. In a revolutionary era being captured in snippets on social media, optics are key–and the right-wing activists of Eugene, Springfield, and the surrounding areas are beginning to learn that.
That’s why, in its own way, hosting a peaceful cookout for the community is a savvy move by Lane County’s nascent militia movement. BLM activists and left-wing protesters being brutalized night after night by the police have won the sympathy of the general public for their resilience in the face of overwhelming force, and it’s hard to garner that same sympathy for one’s own cause when one is indistinguishable from a soldier or riot cop.
But for groups like WTPLC, the OPM, and TAPS to host a barbeque while waving American flags–feeding the community and giving people an excuse to socialize in the middle of a pandemic–makes the entire militia movement seem far more sympathetic than their actions over the past few weeks would suggest.
By night, they’re angry, violent, and ready to fight anyone who dares speak ill of a police officer or their president; by day, they’re upstanding members of the community who make good burgers and are good with kids. It gives the militia a chance to introduce themselves in the calm and sober light of day–to assert themselves not as violent right-wing racists, but as citizens who simply want to defend their communities against the encroachment of “communists and anarchists” upon their traditional American ways. It’s true that their stunts sometimes seem ridiculous. It’s true that they’re willing to resort to violence at the slightest provocation. And, it’s true that many right-wing activists in Lane County have already made a mess of their names and their causes.
But, all that aside, they’re smarter, more savvy, and most importantly, more organized than anyone is willing to give them credit for.