Why Portland Is So ‘Antifa’

Oregon’s history of radical resistance is directly linked to its racist roots

photo: Oregon Historical Society

In the first episode of the HBO series Lovecraft Country, the three main characters find themselves in a sundown town—a community where Black people could find themselves arrested, or even killed, if they were found to be outside past sundown. The phrase trended on Twitter, where many white people revealed that they were learning of the existence of sundown towns for the first time. It also prompted many Black Twitter users to share their stories of sundown towns, and even make a collaborative map of confirmed or suspected places where it was deemed unsafe, either in the past or present, for Black people to be outside after dark. While many of these towns are concentrated in the American south, there are even more in the northeast and the Rust Belt. What might come as a surprise to some is how many are clustered along the west coast corridor, especially in Oregon.

Map of ‘sundown towns.’ Source: @MorganJerkins

The history of Oregon is extremely racist—even by American standards. From the time of the first white settlers, violence against the region’s Indigenous population was common. When Oregon became a US state in 1859, it was the only state to expressly forbid Black people from living, working, or even owning property inside its borders, a prohibition which remained in place until the 1920s. “The founding idea of the state was as a racist white utopia,” educator Walidah Imarisha told The Atlantic in 2016.

In the early 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan became deeply entrenched in Oregon politics, helping to elect a number of people to local and county offices, the state legislature, and even the governorship. During this period, it was not uncommon for the Klan to stage rallies where they marched through city streets in a deliberate campaign of intimidation. “Opponents of the Klan struggled to find allies,” writes historian Eckard Toy. “Most Oregonians did not join the Klan, but many supported its agenda and others declined to challenge it.” While a handful of vocal individuals stood up to the Klan, Toy continues, “most local newspapers supported it or took a neutral stance.” A white supremacist cultural identity was firmly planted in the region, and its influence is still very much felt in many Oregon communities.

A Ku Klux Klan parade, Ashland, OR. (photo: Oregon Historical Society)

Despite the Klan’s efforts to keep Oregon white, the growing need for labor prevailed. During the Great Migration, some African Americans moved to Portland to work for the railroads. Their presence in the city was strictly regulated by redlining—laws which limited where they were allowed to live. In World War II, many Black people worked at the shipyards in Vanport, a government town constructed between Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR. Shortly after the war, Vanport was destroyed in a flood and some 18,500 people were displaced, approximately a third of whom were Black. For those who remember this story, ‘Vanport’ signifies a diverse working-class community constructed in an atmosphere of wartime solidarity and wiped out through negligence.

When overt racism became less publicly acceptable during the Civil Rights era, white nationalist organizations largely moved underground, but their base of power remained intact. Oregon white nationalists started playing a long game. Since the 1970s, a white separatist movement known as the Northwest Territorial Imperative has been deliberately encouraging people with white nationalist sympathies to move to the Pacific Northwest, with the ultimate goal of establishing a white ethnostate in its evergreen forests. In 2015, Casey Michel wrote a feature on this separatist movement for Politico, calling them “America’s worst racists.”

The history of radical activism in the Pacific Northwest—individuals who identify as antifascists, and who have formed grassroots organizations to protect their communities against racist attacks—must be understood in the context of the persistent influence of white nationalism in the region.

The history of radical activism in the Pacific Northwest — individuals who identify as antifascists, and who have formed grassroots organizations to protect their communities against racist attacks — must be understood in the context of the persistent influence of white nationalism in the region.

A 2017 exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery titled no. NOT EVER. featured interviews with many individuals from rural communities in the Pacific Northwest who have attempted to build a counterculture of resistance in white nationalist strongholds. (I wrote about this exhibition for The Stranger.) It was through this show that I learned about the Northwest Territorial Imperative and also became familiarized with some of the working-class antifascist work that has been done in these rural communities for decades. “Many organizers do not know how to say NO to white nationalist claims for free speech rights,” said one of the information cards presented in the exhibition. “White nationalists are acutely aware of this and use ‘free speech’ as an effective strategy to test a space to see how hospitable it is for their recruitment and organizing.”

One strategy of far-right organizing is to appeal to a liberal sense of freedom.

At the time of this exhibition, the use of ‘free speech’ as a wedge strategy—disingenuously appealing to a liberal sense of freedom while also advocating for a removal of freedoms for others—had reached a fever pitch. During that summer, Charlottesville happened, and far-right rallies organized under the guise of ‘free speech’ were happening in many communities, including my own. One of the organizations behind these rallies in the Northwest is known as Patriot Prayer. Since 2017, this group’s activities have only escalated. Last weekend, Patriot Prayer led a caravan of some 600 vehicles with Trump signs and flags into Portland in a spectacle recalling the days when the Klan marched through Oregon city streets.

One of its participants was shot and killed by a suspect who identified himself as ‘antifa’—short for antifascist—which is not a single organization but rather a broad category of individuals who employ diverse tactics in an attempt to build critical resistance to white nationalist movements in their communities. According to author Mark Bray, the term ‘antifa’ conjures “the historical continuity between different eras of far-right violence and the many forms of collective self-defense that it has necessitated across the globe over the past century.” In other words, it lends some semblance of a movement to efforts that are largely decentralized.

^ This entire thread by a Portlander is worth a read.

In an interview with VICE given shortly before shooting suspect Michael Reinoehl was killed by U.S. Marshalls and local law enforcement in Lacey, WA, Reinoehl indicated that he believed he had acted in self-defense. This incident has, predictably, provided grist for right-wing pundits, who believe that ‘antifa’ should be designated a terrorist organization. I suspect that is exactly what the rally was intended to provoke. Shortly after this incident in Portland, Virginia state legislator Lee J. Carter tweeted: “The history of Nazis holding rallies in left-wing areas of Weimar Germany, instigating street fights, and then telling the press that only they could save Germany from the ‘violent communists’ seems like an important thing for people to be studying right now.” When far-right street gangs march (or ride) into town, they are looking for opportunities to spark violence so that they can claim victimhood. This victimhood, in turn, is used to make their extremism seem both reasonable and comparatively harmless, while casting their opponents as crazed thugs.

While many people have only become aware of ‘antifa’ over the past few months, the events that are currently unfolding, both in Portland and across the Pacific Northwest, represent an escalation of dynamics that have been ongoing for practically as long as the Northwest has been inhabited by white settlers.

For far-right and white nationalist groups, the long-term goal remains what it has always been: the establishment of an Aryan homeland in the lush, climate change resilient Pacific Northwest. The demonization of antifascist activists is an essential component of this ominous plan.

The reason those activist groups exist in the first place must not be lost in this discussion.

Artist and historian. PhD student researching religion, material culture, media, and politics. Bylines at The Wire Magazine, Art in America + more.

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