Dispatch from Portland: ‘That Place Where the Wave Finally Broke and Rolled Back’

We were somewhere around Salem, passing the exit for the Enchanted Forest, when the nerves began to take hold. I remember thinking something like “I think that’s a chud truck; maybe we should keep an eye on it.” And suddenly there was this great roaring sound as James rolled down the window to smoke, and my blood was the temperature of the swirling air inside the car, which was barreling eighty-some miles an hour toward Portland.

It was almost eleven, and we still had around fifty miles to go, and we were trying to get to Portland before noon. The rally wasn’t scheduled to start until around one, which meant it wouldn’t really start until two, but James felt the need to get there early. So did I. This would likely be my last on-the-ground reporting for the foreseeable future, and it was coming on one of the most highly anticipated days of the year. 

The third annual antifascist v. fascist rumble, which has traditionally come around the end of August, had finally arrived. Almost everyone was expecting an all-out brawl, ourselves included. Either a brawl, or a big dumb shouting match that would seem far more dramatic on the internet than from a sidewalk in downtown Portland, but almost certainly a brawl.

And as a “professional” journalist in the Pacific Northwest, I felt an obligation to cover at least one story in Portland, for good or for ill. 

I’d prepared myself, too. In my bag were three bottles of water, two extra bandanas, first-aid supplies, a bottle of migraine pills, a change of clothes, a phone charger, four pens, two pencils, a small notebook, some hand sanitizer, and a respirator with fresh N95 filters installed. In the back of James’ car were two armored plate carriers with “PRESS” markers on the front and back. I was as fully loaded as I’d ever been.

But the nerves were getting to me. Cold feet, I’d call it. Right around the time we crossed the Willamette outside of Wilsonville, I felt an overwhelming urge to turn around and go back to Eugene. Twenty-some miles to go, each of them tougher than the last. Very soon, I’d be fighting off a panic attack, but there was no going back. The trip up the freeway was the world’s longest, flattest rollercoaster, entirely of my own making.

James noticed it immediately – probably cos I was talking way more than usual. Or, at least, I felt like I was talking more than usual. It was hard to separate what was in my head from what actually left my mouth.

 “You nervous?” he asked. I admitted I was, but not really. I attributed it to just regular pre-protest jitters, exacerbated slightly by the hype and scale of the event and the fact that I was, for the first time in a long time, not on my home turf. Portland is not my city, I explained, and I tend to get nervous in places where I don’t know the streets by heart. And I know how distrustful Portlanders are of outsiders these days. I couldn’t blame them.

I was nervous about a lot more than that. The city’s mayor and the chief of police stressed that the police were going to stand down during the event

“Our ask is simple: We are asking you to choose love,” Ted Wheeler said during a press conference ahead of the weekend. “People should not necessarily expect to see the police standing in the middle of the crowd trying to keep people apart. People need to keep themselves apart and avoid physical confrontation.”

Come what may, the Portland Police Bureau wasn’t going to get involved. I couldn’t decide if that was a good or bad thing. 

But now was not the time to bring it up. The last thing I needed to do was second-guess anything. Second-guessing myself is a very dangerous path to follow.

To distract myself, I played “spot the chud” on the freeway, which was only entertaining for the first half-hour or so. Once we got around Keizer and Woodburn, the game became too easy. Their trucks had Gadsen flag stickers and Blue Lives Matter decals, and one guy even had a Punisher skull decal modified to rock a big bushy beard. Lifestyle fascism at its most absurd, probably displayed for everyone heading north on I-5. 

Not even the scenery held any relief. Looking out at the Cascades only made the day feel more ominous. The sky was dour and gray. August felt like October but without the color and crispness. I couldn’t tell the clouds from the plumes from some not-so-distant wildfires. It was a cruel sight: a valley desperate for rain, smothered by storm clouds that spared none. 

As we entered the city limits, a motorcycle zipped by, slithering between cars and trucks on the serpentine highway. The rider was a blur, gone almost as soon as he appeared in the frame of the passenger side window. He moved so fast, I almost didn’t notice the SS insignia on the back of his helmet. Welcome to Portland, I thought, sadly. 

At the last overpass before downtown, an electronic sign flashed a message: “Choose love.” And beyond that sign was the City of Roses, with its broken teeth of steel and glass framed in gray and trembling with anxiety. 

Or maybe that was just me.

We were early, but we weren’t the first to show up. Around 11:30 a.m. we arrived at the Salmon Street Fountain in the middle of Tom McCall Waterfront Park along the Willamette, where 50 or so people were milling around, greeting each other, trying to cut the tension we were all feeling with banter and jokes. James beelined straight to some of the journos he’s acquainted himself with over the last year. I knew some of them by reputation, through watching the Battle of Portland unfold in tiny snippets on their Twitter feeds. It was strange to see them in person. Almost everyone was shorter than I imagined.

We talked shop with a few of them, trading predictions for the day and regaling each other with stories from our respective jurisdictions. There was plenty of time to kill, anyway, because the latest news going around was that the fash had changed the location of their rally at the last minute. Instead of coming downtown, the right-wing street brawlers opted to rally in an abandoned Kmart parking lot in deep Northeast Portland, a good twenty minute drive from the waterfront.

It was a sudden move, and no one seemed to know what to make of it. Either the chuds were trying to outmaneuver the antifascists and get them to relocate to the edge of town or they were truly spooked by the antifascist presence downtown and wanted to avoid them altogether. My gut said the former, and so did everyone else’s gut, apparently. The general consensus, at least according to one antifascist that seemed to know about the general consensus, was that the group was going to stay put at the waterfront with the expectation that the fash would eventually come into town. 

“I’m not falling for that chud fakeout shit they do,” the antifascist said. “There’s no way they can just switch up their plans at the last minute. A bunch of people probably haven’t seen their new flyer yet. So they’re still going to show up here, and we’re going to meet them here when they do.”

And so they did. All throughout the morning and into the early afternoon, the antifascist numbers swelled. As the numbers grew, so did the tension.

A trio of those hateful street preachers had set up shop near the fountain that morning, waving their big banners promising eternal damnation for those who fail to repent. I’m not exactly sure, but it didn’t seem like they had come out specifically to confront the growing number of antifascists. It seemed like they had just picked a very unfortunate Sunday to spew their bullshit in the park. The crowd began fucking with them almost immediately, and within an hour, the hate preachers had been chased from the park by a small contingent of rowdy antifascists. When the preachers came back with a loudspeaker a short time later, they were again chased three blocks from the park by the same antifascists.

This happened at least two or three more times over the course of the afternoon.

By 1 p.m., the official start time of the counter-demonstration, there were probably two or three hundred people in the park. Probably three-quarters of the gathered were in various states of black bloc. Some looked like thieves, others looked like soldiers. Either way, it was an encouraging display of community defense. 

Portland had gone all-out to confront the fash, bringing more numbers to the waterfront than the city had seen in months.

But the chuds still hadn’t shown up downtown – not in force. It was easy to spot them cruising down Naito Parkway in their trucks, keeping an eye on the antifascists, but they never stopped to pick a fight or otherwise make their presence known. The closest anyone came to making a scene was when a boat full of people on the Willamette came close enough to yell something at the people on the shore before speeding away upriver. It was roughly the third or fourth most chickenshit thing I saw all day.

Otherwise, they more or less left the antifascists to their own devices. And I think that’s where the problems started. 

It was all very dull, until it wasn’t. I waited all day for something to happen, and when it did, I wasn’t ready. No one was ready, because it didn’t happen where it was supposed to happen.

If you’ve ever spent a considerable amount of time in the protest scene, you know that there’s a buzzy, nervous energy among the crowd just waiting to be harnessed. It varies based on the place, context, and ideology of the protest, but that energy is always there. That energy is the whole point of rallying people to a protest. And the more people in the crowd, the more buzzy and nervous the energy.

But harnessing that energy is a time-sensitive thing. Leave a big crowd of people waiting in a park for something to happen, and they’ll soon grow restless. Some will get bored and leave. Others will start agitating people in the hopes to get something going. And some will just straight up go and start something themselves, regardless of whether anyone follows their lead. 

August 22 in Portland saw sporadic attempts to channel that energy, but not enough to release the growing tension. The gathered antifascists had hyped themselves up for a street brawl, and they needed a way to let that energy loose before it exploded.

The contingent that spent the first part of the day repeatedly chasing off hate preachers was one example: each time the hate preachers came back, more and more antifascists joined in the brigade to chase them off, partly because those hate preachers were assholes, but most likely because it was something to do. The third or fourth time, there were probably fifty or so antifascists–and half as many journalists–running down the street after them.

Other than these little bursts of activity, nothing much happened. Throughout the crowd and the black bloc, people were paying close attention to what was happening across town, watching the fash livestreams on Facebook for any sign that the estimated hundred-or-so Proud Boys and “patriot” types were getting ready to roll into downtown. Small groups of antifascists had peeled off from the downtown crowd to head east to face the fash head-on, and some journos had left to cover that scene instead, but there hadn’t been any sign of major conflict yet. Just a lot of shit-talking on both sides. They were basically daring one another to make the first move. People still believed that the fash were the ones who’d blink first. Around 3 p.m. there were probably 400 people in Tom McCall Park – about 250 of whom were in full bloc, more than enough to take on all comers. It’s not often you see 250 antifascists in one place, ready to rumble. It really is an incredible and intimidating sight. 

The tension grew. 

James and I had started discussing making our exit from the park. It didn’t seem like anything was going to happen at the waterfront or at the Kmart parking lot, and we were ready to chalk this up as a successful antifascist community defense based on sheer numbers alone. The fash had stayed on the edge of town, there was no massive brawl that would shock and horrify the American public, and most of the day had devolved into a pretty chill block–or is it bloc?–party in the park. A rapper by the name No$hu (pronounced “No Shoes” because he doesn’t wear shoes) freestyled over the beat of the drumline; others flocked to the mic to add their own bars. 

That, too, funneled some of the restless energy – or at least, the music gave the people something to focus on for a little while. But that wouldn’t hold their attention for long. 

After hours of standing around, people were really itching for something, anything, to happen. People started play-fighting in the crowd, throwing soft punches and kicks at each other to keep the muscles warm. Arguments with passersby increased, especially after an old woman started filming the crowd and babbling about “praying for the soul of America” and claiming that “Patriot Front is right down the road.” Some antifascists started fidgeting with road signs and traffic cones. Rumors started to spread that antifascists were staging at Parkrose High School, not far from the Kmart, to confront the fash. Regardless of the veracity of the rumor, most people stayed put in the park.

Paranoia ran rampant. I suppose you have to be kind of paranoid in this line of work. Everyone could be anyone. Sometimes it’s obvious, like the pair of men leaning on the railing of the Hawthorne Bridge, phones out, monitoring the festivities. Other times it’s less obvious, like a man with a strong jaw walking around trying not to look like an undercover cop. Around 3:30 p.m, I noticed that James and I were being watched very closely by a squad of armed antifascists who never strayed too far from us no matter where we went. As was their right. They probably thought I was recording people’s faces, when really all I wanted was a recording of this very good freestyle:

Meanwhile, at the abandoned Kmart in northeast Portland, hell was breaking loose. 

Journalists that had arrived to cover the far-right rally were being chased out of the area or harassed by chuds. Speakers on the impromptu stage baited antifascists to come meet them for a fight and promised that they weren’t going to stop rallying anytime soon. They called it the “Summer of Love” event, but it only took a few minutes for the hate speech to start.

Then, sometime before four o’clock, a group of antifascists–presumably ones that were tired of standing around at the waterfront–showed up at the Kmart. The brawl that the city had been bracing itself for finally came to fruition.

I wasn’t at the Kmart–James and I were still at the waterfront, waiting for something to happen–so I can only piece together what happened through other people’s reporting. But even then, it’s clear that the entire confrontation was doomed from the start. Almost as soon as antifascists arrived, they were swarmed by Proud Boys and other chuds armed with bear mace and paintball guns. A lot of them had apparently come up from Bakersfield and Los Angeles, California, whose chapter of the Proud Boys has been notoriously violent in recent weeks.

This image captured by photographer Nathan Howard shows a second attack by the fash on the driver of a truck in a nearby parking lot. The second attack on was also captured on video. After antifascists were pushed out of the area, the chuds returned to the van, which they proceeded to flip over

Then, somewhere in the midst of all that chaos, a few protesters clad in black–I’m hesitant to call them antifascists, based on their behavior–apparently decided to take out their frustrations on the journalists that were covering the action. One journalist, Maranie R. Staab, was hit with paint, maced, and called a sexist slur after trying to speak with a group of black-clad protesters. In the video below, the person getting in Staab’s face clearly knows who she is, referencing reporting she did in Colombia during that nation’s recent wave of protests earlier this year.

Regardless of the attackers’ ideology, this blatant, misogynistic attack on a journalist is despicable. 

While fascists and antifascists brawled outside of an abandoned Kmart in Northeast Portland, the crowd downtown reached peak restlessness.

The mood shifted right around four in the afternoon. I realize now it’s because the crowd was watching the developments unfold in Northeast Portland, but in the middle of the crowd, unaware of what was going on elsewhere, it manifested as a weird, unsettling vibe throughout the several-hundred strong gathering. 

At some point–I’m not sure when–a man appeared at the edge of the crowd and started making a commotion. James and I were standing a short distance away, close enough to see what was happening but far enough that we couldn’t make out the details of whatever argument was brewing. 

Then the man stripped off his shirt and fell to his knees, crying out “No more war!” over and over and over again. It was clear, at least from where I was standing, that the man was in some sort of mental health crisis.

Then someone sprayed the man with bear mace.

I don’t know why the man got sprayed with mace. Maybe someone felt unsafe around him. Maybe I missed a comment he had made to someone that someone interpreted as a threat. Maybe someone confused the man for someone else. I don’t know, and I don’t want to pretend to know. All I saw was a man going through some sort of mental health crisis getting sprayed with bear mace – twice.

The man laid face down on the corner of Naito Parkway and Salmon St., his cries cutting through the din of four hundred voices and the thumping of hip-hop through a bicycle-powered speaker. Almost immediately, people realized that someone had fucked up.

“Who sprayed this man with mace?” an antifacist screamed from the street at everyone and no one. “This man is going through a crisis, why did fuck did someone spray him with mace? When I find out who did this, I’m going to beat your fucking ass.

A few minutes later, the man had recovered, gotten back on his feet, and rejoined the crowd, dancing at the front of the impromptu rap show. But the damage had been done. What had been a carefree and relatively joyous affair turned sour and dark.

Soon, another commotion broke out in the middle of the crowd. Someone had supposedly spotted an Iron Cross tattoo on a man’s arm–I didn’t see it myself, but I have to trust that antifascists weren’t lying about spotting an Iron Cross–and chased him, his partner, and his dog right out of the crowd and several blocks up Taylor Street into downtown Portland. 

I started following the crowd that was chasing the couple and their dog up the street. But right before I turned the corner on Taylor, I was met with a mass group of people sprinting back toward the park, some of whom were screaming “Shots fired! Shots fired!”

Now, consider what you may know about Portland and its ongoing street battles between fascists and antifascists. Consider that tensions between the groups have been escalating for years, and consider that last year, right around this time, was when Aaron “Jay” Danielson was killed in a shootout in downtown Portland, which led to the killing of Michael Reinoehl by federal agents a few days later. Consider that it’s only a matter of time before all this street brawling between left and right turns into murder and massacres.

Now imagine that you’re in downtown Portland, surrounded by antifascists who have just made it a point to chase someone they’ve deemed a threat to their group, only to hear a bunch of people scream “SHOTS FIRED!” while running back toward you

Would you panic?

If you were like most people within the first few seconds of hearing that, you’d probably be forgiven for assuming the worst had just happened – that yet another person had been murdered on the streets of Portland. And you’d be forgiven for simply turning tail and running away from where the perceived danger was coming from, right alongside all the other people running away from the danger.

It took a full minute or two for someone to get on the microphone and clarify that the shots had been fired at the Kmart and that there were no gunshots downtown (yet). The news had just broken that the antifascists who had split off from the crowd were being attacked in Northeast Portland, and for some reason that led to people sprinting back toward the park in a total panic. 

That was the breaking point for the downtown crowd. From there, things splintered quickly. With the news of the attack at the Kmart, some people began demanding that the antifascists abandon holding downtown and reconvene in Northeast Portland to confront the chuds that had just destroyed two vehicles and badly beaten several antifascists. Others held the line, insisting that it was only a matter of time before the chuds showed up downtown, especially now that they had gotten a taste of violence. Arguments ensued, and everyone started accusing everyone else of not having the best interests of the movement at heart, while everyone else relied on the old “No Gods, no masters” adage to ignore the cries of those calling for action. 

And so nothing happened, except for the arrival of an overwhelming feeling–among the press,  the antifascists, and even random passersby who may or may not have had an active stake in what was going on–that something had changed on the streets of Portland, and not for the better.

A lot more happened that day. 

Most importantly, a gunfight did end up breaking out in downtown Portland, after a Gresham man named Dennis Anderson decided to open fire on the crowd of antifascists that had chased him away from the crowd, prompting people to shoot right back.  That’s the headline you probably saw at some point in the last few days – that, and the videos of a van and a pickup truck being smashed to hell by Proud Boys. 

All that happened, and all of it was awful, but I wasn’t around for any of it. James and I cleared out of downtown around 4:30 p.m., not long before the shooting started but too late to see anything at the Kmart. 

The journalist in me is upset that we left the scene before we were absolutely sure that nothing else would happen. But the rational and human part of me has no qualms of leaving a scene shortly before people start firing live rounds in the middle of a large American city. 

That’s a strange sentence to write. Say your prayers; here’s your future.

The fallout is still settling. Social media is all aflame with arguments and discussions and excuses, while press advocacy groups are releasing statements condemning the violence against journalists. Ted Wheeler, who is objectively an idiot, called the day a “victory” for the city, because “this time, violence was contained to the groups of people who chose to engage in violence toward each other.” 

On August 24, an anonymous group of antifascists published a report back explaining the day from their perspective, giving further insight into what happened near Parkrose High School and adding their own analysis of the downtown antifascist gathering. They claim that the press that followed the rally near the Kmart were acting aggressive and threatening the bloc; they also fail to address the use of a slur and wave away the assault.

I don’t want to make a definitive claim that August 22 in Portland was a good or bad thing. I’m sure you know where I stand by now; I’ve never been good about hiding that. I have my opinions, but Portland is not my city, and Sunday’s ultimate place in the pantheon of the Rose City’s antifascist actions is not up to me to decide. That, unfortunately, is up to the petty leftists of Twitter to figure out amongst themselves.

But I can say that August 22 was a microcosm of the last 18 months of American street protests, and maybe a microcosm of the American left in general.

The fascists, fundamentalists, chauvinists, incels, brawlers, bastards, and assholes that make up the modern far-right did exactly what everyone expected them to do on Sunday. They showed up in Portland to raise hell, attack people, and otherwise terrorize an American city. Sad as it may be to admit, that’s nothing new.

What’s new is this subset of the left playing right into the hands of their sworn fascist enemies by behaving the way that their tormentors always accuse them of behaving. Up until Sunday, the fash had to rely on lies and disinformation. Now, they have actual footage of so-called “leftists”–I still have a hard time believing any of those bastards are really leftists–acting like fascist hooligans. 

And you better believe those video clips are going to make the rounds every single time antifascists try to do anything from here on out.

A huge group of people showed up in downtown Portland to confront a fascist threat on Sunday. It was the biggest crowd the city had seen in months, and for the most part, they did everything right. They showed up in black bloc, they had their affinity groups, they had their security and shields and supplies and snacks. There was music, there was dancing, there was rapping, there was joy, and most importantly, there was a feeling that people had finally figured out what it was going to take to confront their oppressors. There was a clear and present threat that the people were coming together to defend against – a threat that has made it abundantly obvious what its ultimate goals are.

But by the time the majority of people figured out they were standing in the wrong place, fighting the wrong people, it was already too late.

This is the last you’re going to hear from me for a while. Thank you for reading. I hope I meant something to you. But before I go, indulge me with this quote and song.

Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened…

You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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