Joe Biggs hustled away from the scene, the bill of his baseball cap pointed backward, reading, “Make Frogs Straight Again.” A former Infowars staffer, Biggs was abandoning his “End Antifa” rally in Portland, Oregon that he had been hyping for weeks and which lasted half an hour.
About five hundred participants, many in Proud Boy uniform — black-and-gold Fred Perry polo shirts and red MAGA caps — gathered in a waterfront park, sang the national anthem, and filled the air with chants of “USA! USA!” and fruity vape juice emissions.
But boxed in by concrete barricades and armed riot police and nearly a thousand antifascists having a dance party, the far right quickly called it quits. A local official said the Proud Boys were “so outnumbered, they wanted to get out of town.” The Portland police escorted them over a bridge closed to all other traffic and into a parking lot on the East Side, where most participants piled into their cars to leave town.
However, when asked if the rally was a success, Biggs said, “Yeah, Donald Trump wants to declare Antifa terrorists.” Biggs was referring to Trump’s tweet earlier that day: “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.” Trump, who said there were “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville two summers ago, has a preternatural ability to turn reality inside out.
Under the Banner of Free Speech
Leading up to August 17, Biggs had worked overtime to spread fear. He spewed threats such as “DEATH TO ANTIFA!!!!!!” and “I’m ready to go hunting,” advised followers to bring guns, and displayed a spiked MAGA bat that he said would be put to “good use.” Others on the Right were even more graphic, posting images of antifascists’ throats being slashed and issuing dozens of terroristic threats, including naming specific Portland activists to be shot.
That the day ended with only minor skirmishes seems to be due to the El Paso effect: the massacre of twenty-two people on August 3 by a gunman on an anti-Hispanic rampage who echoed Trump’s racist language appears to have finally goaded law enforcement into pressuring far-right extremists. Only after the massacre did police in Portland arrest six members of the white nationalist–friendly Patriot Prayer, including leader Joey Gibson, for attacking antifascists at a cidery on May Day — even though extensive video evidence of the attack had been available for three months.
The FBI also perked up after El Paso, with Biggs claiming that an agent visited him in Florida, warning about “threats from both sides.” Biggs then called on his followers to “tone down rhetoric” and not bring weapons to the Portland rally. Standing near “violent extremist” Christopher Ritchie, who participated in the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Biggs said, “There are psychos on both sides.” In fact, all fifty of the extremist murders in 2018 had a link to the far right, and this year there have been four foiled far-right plots since El Paso.
Biggs said, “Please leave me alone” before heading across railroad tracks. As he left, Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio, who was also in Charlottesville in 2017, pointed at me, saying, “He called me a white supremacist.”
Joseph Oakman approached. The size of a tank, in body armor, a combat helmet, and a tattoo on his right arm that read, “Proud Boy West Is the Best,” Oakman asked me, “You call him a white supremacist?”
It was my turn to retreat.
Tarrio was referring to an article in which I described him as an example of “multiracial white supremacy.” In 2018, at a rally in Portland that drew neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis, Tarrio said the reason police killed young black men in disproportionate numbers was because all black people listened to hip-hop, which “glorifies that lifestyle . . . of selling drugs, shooting up,” leading to higher crime rates among blacks. During the most recent rally, Tarrio, an Afro-Cuban and Florida director of Latinos for Trump, hugged members of the American Guard, hard-core white supremacists with ties to neo-Nazis.
That’s not unusual for the Proud Boys. They’ve overlapped with the neo-Nazi universe not just in Portland, but also with the 211 Bootboys in New York, with the Holocaust denier Augustus Invictus and others in Charlottesville, with Keystone United in Philadelphia, with “Resist Marxism” in Providence, Rhode Island, and with Identity Evropa in Berkeley.
Back at the parking lot, Alan Swinney smoked a cigarillo as the Proud Boys dispersed. A Desert Storm vet from Central Texas, Swinney said he was there for “free speech.” Six-and-a-half-feet tall, Swinney wore body armor, a motorcycle helmet, and a large sparring pad strapped to his left arm to fend off blows. It’s unlikely he was there to talk politics.
Last October, a battle-ready Swinney was photographed in the thick of fighting in Providence. A month later, wearing similar body armor while joining with different neo-Nazis, Swinney reportedly tried “to provoke a confrontation with counterprotesters in Philadelphia.”
This is typical of the far right’s double game. Under the banner of free speech, they recruit brawlers, white nationalists, and convicts to fight the Left in the streets. Portland is their favorite battleground because they can engage in organized violence with few repercussions due to the region’s history of white supremacy, weak political leaders, and a police force that colludes with the far right. Patriot Prayer, usually backed by the Proud Boys, has held at least eighteen planned events in Portland, along with numerous spontaneous ones, since early 2017. They are often labeled “free speech rallies,” but it’s not free speech they’re after.
In 2017, Joey Gibson admitted Patriot Prayer’s strategy was to “goad leftists into a fury, then let them fight police while TV cameras roll.” This quickly evolved into fighting antifascists directly. Last year, Patriot Prayer was caught on video planning violence, while saying, “make it look all natural.” A video from this year shows them preparing to attack antifascists at a Cider Riot bar on May Day, saying, “There’s going to be a fight,” getting “prepped for war,” testing the wind to see which way pepper spray would blow, readying weapons and body armor, and discussing a second wave of combatants led by Gibson.
As to why Patriot Prayer would allow incriminating evidence to be recorded, their aim is to create viral videos. If their combatants triumph in battle, then the video is used to recruit more scrappers. If they lose, then it’s proof of “Antifa terrorism,” abetted by lawless liberals.
The Proud Boys use the same playbook, promoting violence while claiming self-defense. Except they make news for little else other than violence, having engaged in gang assaults in three cities coast to coast in one week last October, and encode violence in the group’s ranking system.
Behind the scenes the facade drops. HuffPost obtained logs of private chat among dozens of Proud Boys, led by Alan Swinney, discussing how violence helped them recruit, showing off deadly weapons, plotting ways to commit assault and claim self-defense, and talking about “injuring and even killing their adversaries.”
In Portland, rallies have devolved into sickening scenes of gangs of far-right hooligans stomping lone counterprotesters in the streets. One Twitter account claims to have identified fifty-one different right-wing extremists committing assault at Portland rallies. Despite the evidence, there is no indication any one of them has been arrested. The Proud Boys’ Tarrio and others who allegedly joined in these assaults walked through Portland escorted by police on August 17.
This time Portland largely deprived right-wing extremists of their oxygen of violence by mobilizing seven hundred police officers at a cost of $2 million. But this begs the question, why did it take two years for the city to show it can contain far-right violence? Yet that hasn’t stopped the far right from trying to capitalize on violence. Its strategy is mutating, thanks to media provocateurs like Andy Ngo.
How Andy Ngo Became a Victim
In a battlefield that is as much virtual as it is physical, Ngo uses selective editing and inflammatory language to claim Antifa is attacking innocents. It’s real-time disinformation, as deceptive video clips are uploaded rapidly to social media, where right-wing firebrands like Michelle Malkin and Jack Posobiec amplify them, enabling them to proliferate in the dense ecosystem of right-wing media, and then ooze up to Fox News.
The crowning moment of the Portland propaganda model was a June 29 far-right rally where Ngo was doused with milkshakes and punched by masked individuals. Ngo narrated the aftermath to 1.7 million viewers on Periscope, garnering an audience the size of a nightly cable news show and nearly $200,000 in online donations. There was no justification for the attack, if no other reason than that Ngo was cast as the victim in a story that became national news and was exploited by Trump in trying to label Antifa terrorists.
Ngo had already been elevated by Rupert Murdoch–owned media such as the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, and Fox News. His shtick is that it’s the Left that’s intolerant and violent: Black Lives Matter attacks elderly whites, he claims, anti-ICE protesters lay “siege” to an ICE facility, Antifa wants to kill border police, Muslim students talk of killing nonbelievers, the campus thought police are silencing the Right, and hate crimes are hoaxes.
That much of Ngo’s work appeals to racists, such as a “massively Islamophobic” travelogue to England, is well-suited for Fox News. Ngo is a regular guest on Tucker Carlson, who promotes “white genocide,” the white nationalist conspiracy that dark forces are plotting to exterminate whites. Ngo’s lurid claims that Portland is policed by a “leftist mob” are meant to buttress the idea that white America is under siege, and tend to whip the far right into a murderous rage.
This is the strategy Ngo and other right-wing opportunists pursued during August 17, portraying numerous fights as the work of sinister Antifa elements against defenseless innocents. In the past Ngo’s fabrications have played a role in stoking violence, such as portraying a motorist who struck a protester as the victim of Black Lives Matter mobs.
This time was different, however, as journalists and independent researchers who’ve been tracking Ngo and other provocateurs countered the disinformation quickly. Unpacking a few incidents shows how actors like Ngo exploit social media and rely on the right-wing echo chamber to create such a din of disinformation that their propaganda can leak into the mainstream news.
Ngo apparently wasn’t at last month’s Portland protest, but he posted bits of video from other opportunists without context and with misleading wording. In one clip viewed 3.2 million times, Ngo tweeted, “A large antifa mob chase & attack a man & a young girl who got separated from the others. No police.”
This wasn’t a random attack, however. The two are Trump supporters known for picking fights; they once said a five-year-old Palestinian child “looks like” a terrorist. The man is John Turano, aka “Based Spartan,” a notorious right-wing combatant. According to the Guardian he was eager to fight that day, “seen on the East side arguing with other right-wingers about leaving, saying: ‘Antifa are over there,’” before returning west to fight counterprotesters. As for the “young girl,” she is Turano’s twenty-four-year-old daughter, Bianca, who in one video appears to spray protesters with a chemical irritant. (In August 2018, the pair attended a violent far-right rally in Portland saying all undocumented immigrants should be deported, except for Bianca’s mother and Turano’s ex-wife, who is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico living in Southern California.)
The man in the blue hat, Gregory Isaacson, was arrested with Patriot Prayer members at a rally in 2018 and is allegedly connected to the white nationalist Identity Evropa. After Isaacson provokes the crowd, and antifascists throw refuse and spray him with silly string, two men with him assault multiple people, sparking a fight. One man is Charles Brandon Recor, a stunt man with martial arts training. Recor, who describes his work as “grassroots journalism,” produces videos of himself disrupting a “Drag Queen Story Hour” by yelling, “Evil…you do not subject children to this lifestyle,” and engaging in violent altercations at Pride and with Antifa.
In a third incident, Ngo claimed, “Antifa attacks people on a bus. They try to pull them out and hit them with a hammer.” A quickly published photo and a video Ngo shared later showed the two sides taunting each other before a person on the bus attacks the Antifa people with a hammer. Counterprotesters rush in, disarm him, throw the hammer back, and pepper spray those inside the bus as well. The hammer wielder and passengers were all members of the white nationalist American Guard.
In all three instances, then, the individuals portrayed as victims of Antifa were right-wing extremists instigating violence, which indicates who these events really attract. Some antifascists were eager to rumble, as well. But others jumped in to defuse the violence every time. No doubt dumb acts are committed in the name of antifascism. But that’s true of any movement, and dumb is not deadly.
The rapid response by journalists and researchers prevented the selective videos from infecting the mainstream media and stymieing Trump’s attempts to designate Antifa as terrorists. Reporters said Ngo overreached, and a week later he was fired as an editor of Quillette after reporter Alex Zielinski published evidence — reported by an Antifa-friendly mole inside Patriot Prayer — of his apparent collusion with far-right violence. But plenty of opportunists are vying to be the next Ngo, as social media outlets are loath to lose business by banning extremists.
The mainstream media are failing as well, by starving reporters of the time and resources needed to expose the unsavory characters and ideas lurking on the far right.
Stemming the Tide
One recurring question asked by journalists and others who oppose the far right but are uneasy with violence needs to be addressed: why does Antifa show up? A common assumption behind the argument is that if no opposition were to show up when the far right marches, then there would be no violence, hence no story for the media, which would in turn deprive the far right of the visuals they need to recruit. They would thus flounder and dissipate.
This thinking misunderstands what is happening in the streets in the same way the media failed to grasp Trump in 2016. The far-right rallies are neither discrete nor static events. Like Trumpism, they are part of a dynamic of extremism, benefiting both from polarization and the disruption of norms.
Anyone who has been to an antiwar protest, women’s march, climate-justice demonstration, or Pride experiences the power in numbers. Protests can make people feel they are part of something bigger and their cause is noble. They serve as a place to recruit, bring new people into the movement, and energize activists to go back to their communities, organize, and take further action.
It’s dangerous to allow for white nationalists and far-right extremists at a time when they are plotting and carrying out mass shootings, says Paul O’Banion, a longtime Portland organizer. “Ignoring fascists emboldens them. Alt-right leader Richard Spencer admits this, saying he and his fascist buddies can’t have public events anymore because antifascists have won the battle for the streets. But this isn’t true yet in Portland, which is why they keep coming here. We’ve been able to keep their numbers down and limit the violence they attempt to inflict by consistently mobilizing against them.”
Patriot Prayer, Proud Boys, and their allies shifted strategy in 2018, says O’Banion. “They began showing up in small, well-armed groups at places like the IWW [Wobblies] Hall. They threatened the Occupy ICE encampment last summer. They went to Planned Parenthood in Olympia and harassed people. They harassed people at an immigrant solidarity event shortly before August 17.” Patriot Prayer has also tried to disrupt a general meeting of the Portland DSA, the Women’s March in 2018, and LGBT Pride, and they threatened a climate change event at a local college, which was canceled by the administration. And they attacked the Cider Riot bar on May Day.
In effect, the far right is using the big rallies to recruit, stoke more violence, and disrupt peaceful left, labor, and liberal organizing.
In this context, argues Garrett Epps, a constitutional law scholar, declaring Antifa a “major Organization of Terror” is not about Antifa; it’s about cowing civil society. Epps says the far right is “threatening violence to achieve political change,” which is “the textbook definition of terrorism.” Their aim is to control the streets and undermine “our sense of security that we are free citizens of a democratic nation, free…to assemble peacefully to advocate values that the Republican Party does not approve.”
Needing to be ever more extreme, Trump is now embracing brownshirts. In June, Proud Boys, including Joe Biggs, chanting “Pinochet did nothing wrong,” marched outside of Trump’s rally in Orlando to kick off his 2020 campaign. New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel cited a “GOP operative” saying, “The Trump campaign is well aware of the organized participation of Proud Boys rallies merging into Trump events. They don’t care.” And HuffPost observed of Orlando, “Fascists and conspiracy theorists were not fringe figures among this massive crowd of Trump supporters, but represented a large segment of the people.”
The extremism that has a toehold in Portland because of police complicity and political gutlessness could spread as Trump becomes increasingly erratic. More recently, Proud Boys were spotted at a Trump rally on August 1 in Cincinnati, and they planned to rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico on September 14, two days in advance of a Trump rally in the area.
Yet recent events in Portland also show how to contain the far right. A recent Major League Soccer game between Portland and Seattle was thrust into the center of antifascist organizing when the league banned political symbols at games, singling out the antifascist Iron Front. In a scene remarkable for professional sports in America, fans from both teams stayed almost completely silent for the first thirty-three minutes in acknowledgment that the Nazis banned the Iron Front in 1933. When time was up, a “multitude of Iron Front flags” were unfurled among fans on both sides, according to the Portland Mercury, with the Portland team’s fan base, known as the Timbers Army, “belting out its version of the Italian antifascist anthem Bella Ciao” for the rest of the game.
The protest spread to the field, with one Portland player wearing a jersey with the Iron Front symbol and the Seattle goalkeeper saluting fans after the game. If the Left learns to harness this type of passion in the streets, the fascists, and Trump, don’t stand a chance.