Ethan Nordean, after violent clash in Portland. | David Neiwert
David Neiwert,  July 18

Freedom to Bash Heads

You are cordially invited to have a civil discussion with the Proud Boys

Ethan Nordean, after violent clash in Portland. | David Neiwert
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The Proud Boy, wearing camouflage body armor and a bright red ballcap (emblazoned not with the usual “Make America Great Again” but rather a big “45”), had a white megaphone slung on a long lanyard around his neck. He’d been using it all afternoon to taunt the antifascists and other protesters gathered on the other side of the police barrier.

Now, as the gathering of his fellow Proud Boys and “Patriots” prepared to march on the last day of June through downtown Portland, Oregon, he began to lay it on thick.

“What we should be doing to all the illegals that are jumping over our borders, we smash their heads into the concrete,” he declared to the crowd. “Handling business. Separating them from their kids. Making sure they’re not with pedophiles and child molesters, people like the left.”

The outburst was typical of the ugly taunts both sides had been using all day, fuming at each other as they were separated by police barriers, a street, and several phalanxes of helmeted riot officers.

About fifteen minutes later, the same Proud Boy, believed to be a California man who came north for the protest, could be seen participating in some of the most brutal assaults yet associated with the now-regular “free speech” rallies staged by Patriot Prayer, the group of far-right provocateurs based in nearby Vancouver, Washington.

In one video, the megaphone shouter can be seen joining a cluster of about six other Proud Boys as they kick a black-clad antifascist protester, curled into a fetal position on the ground. At one point he indeed appears intent on smashing the man’s head into the concrete. At the Patriot Prayer “Freedom and Courage” event, there were about sixty of them altogether. Many had arrived from other states, mingling with the militia-oriented “Patriots” from event organizer Joey Gibson’s outfit.

“What we should be doing to all the illegals that are jumping over our borders, we smash their heads into the concrete.”

Most of the day’s event had been relatively peaceful, the two groups of demonstrators shouting at each other as they clustered on either side of the police barriers around Terry Schrunk Plaza in the heart of downtown. The main hints of violence came via the chants and speeches by Patriot Prayer and Proud Boy leaders at the park. And a few hours in, the right-wing provocateurs made good on their threats, as they went marching with helmets and plastic batons.

The first fights erupted as the crowd turned the corner near where the counter-protesters gathered; as they assembled, a couple of water bottles were lobbed at them. Shortly after that, firecrackers and smoke bombs filled the street with smoke. It was at this point that the first punches were thrown by a handful of Proud Boys. The blows were returned by antifascists, inducing the police nearby to set off some flashbang devices to break up the violence.

However, the leaders of the parade had already rounded the block and, moments later, reached Main Street, a block away from the first fights. At this point, they encountered a number of black-clad antifascists—reportedly chased there by police tear gas—running up Main toward them. They formed a phalanx and then charged the counter-protesters as they approached, leading to the melees caught on video in which a number of antifascists were badly beaten.

Eventually, the march returned to its original route. But by then, police had declared the event a riot and shortly thereafter blocked it off, forcing the Patriots and Proud Boys to retrace their steps slowly and return to Terry Schrunk Plaza. Cops then arrested a number of Proud Boys along the way and at the park. All told, police arrested nine people from both camps.

The antifascists had clearly come looking for a fight. Some of them carried small flexible fighting batons. One of these was caught on a video that went viral; in it, the antifa demonstrator is flattened by a Proud Boy named Ethan Nordean, who was led away in cuffs by police at the end of the rally, but reportedly was released shortly thereafter.

Just as clearly, the Proud Boys and Patriots were also primed for battle. Indeed, the whole point of the event was to try to provoke a fight that they were not simply prepared for, but were keen to take part in. Prior to the onset of street hostilities, the alt-right crowd bristled with warlike talk about martyrdom as the price of freedom and “taking down” the antifascists across the street. Periodically they’d break into chants of Queen’s mock-authoritarian seventies anthem “We Will Rock You,” which they dedicated to British Identitarian Tommy Robinson.

As I watched the last of the Proud Boys—waiting for the final school bus that had brought them to the rally to arrive so they could leave, clustered on a street corner and haranguing the counter-protesters across the way—I mused about how conservatives’ sudden concern to safeguard civility in American discourse is a crude, cynical manipulation. Its operational logic is very similar to the Proud Boys’ insistence on claiming that their protests are about nothing more than the assertion and protection of free-speech rights.

The whole point of the event was to try to provoke a fight that they were not just prepared for, but were keen to take part in. The alt-right crowd bristled with warlike talk about martyrdom as the price of freedom and “taking down” the antifascists.

That, after all, has been what Gibson’s Patriot Prayer events have been ostensibly about since they were launched in Portland last year. Gibson and his comrades claim that they’re standing up for “conservative speech,” which has always translated into a lot of immigrant-bashing, Islamophobia, “constitutionalist” gun nuttery straight from the Bundy Bunch, and a heavy dose of Deep State/globalist conspiracy theorizing. Unsurprisingly, the gatherings attracted more than their share of extreme rightists, including a broad array of skinheads and white nationalists; last year one of the more unhinged such fellow travelers showed up to one of the earliest Patriot Prayer events draped in a flag, and then began shouting that he was a Nazi and using racial epithets. Organizers kicked him out.

His name was Jeremy Christian. One month later, in May 2017, while riding a Portland MAX commuter train, he began harassing two Arab teenage women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, using ethnic slurs against Muslims. Three men riding the train tried to intervene; Christian pulled out a knife and stabbed them, two of them fatally. At his arraignment, he was still protesting Joey Gibson style: “Free speech or die, Portland! You got no safe place. This is America—get out if you don’t like free speech!”

Patriot Prayer had a previously scheduled rally just over a week after the murders. Civic leaders urged the group to cancel the event amid burgeoning anger in the community, but Gibson and his cohorts held it anyway. It turned into a gigantic melee, with the Patriot crowd heavily outnumbered, and a number of assaults and arrests on both sides. It was some of the worst crowd violence Portland had seen in decades.

Since then, Gibson has organized an ongoing series of “free speech” and “freedom” rallies along the West Coast and elsewhere—in Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, and Olympia and Vancouver, Washington. He’s denounced white supremacists after Charlottesville, but also openly embraced the Proud Boys, the group founded by the white identitarian hipster journalist Gavin McInnes, who’s long been a presence at Gibson’s rallies. The June 30 event was originally intended to commemorate the post-murder event, but it took on a life of its own after an early June rally in downtown Portland also dissolved into violence.

Gibson made a pitch for help from supporters across the nation, and the Proud Boys gladly obliged, putting out the word on their regional social media sites. As a result, a considerable number among the Patriots were wearing black polos and red MAGA ballcaps, and they came from all over the country, especially California.

Listening to them bait the counter-protesters with ugly speech, and talk among themselves about fighting tactics, it was clear the “free speech” they wanted to defend was bigoted and threatening. The lofty constitutional principles were little more than a pretext: they were there mostly to bash some “leftist” heads. That was plain enough in the Facebook posts promoting the latest Patriot Prayer rally, which warned in faux-biblical cadences that “the liberal-occupied streets of Portland will be CLEANSED. “Recourse will be swift,” it went on to intone, “for those who wish to oppress our freedoms . . . And the hands of Justice shall smite them with a vengeance heretofore to these ne’er-do-wells.” And if this were somehow less than clear, another post advertised a $25 T-shirt bearing the legend “Better Dead Than Red,” with a headstone reading “RIP Rose City Antifa,” above a #LetthePatriotGamesBegin hashtag.

On the other hand, spending time among the counter-protesters was also enlightening. The masked antifascists—some of whom obviously were inclined toward, and prepared for, violence—were actually a small minority; the majority of the opposing crowd was comprised of socialists from a local labor organization and anti-racists. They were locals who were there to protest peacefully, but who said they also came prepared to defend themselves and other people who might be attacked.

They were there primarily to make it known to a pack of outsiders (probably only a tiny handful of the Patriots were from Portland proper) that their hateful speech—their talk about smashing immigrants’ faces into the pavement—wasn’t welcome in their community. In other words, they, too, were exercising their free-speech rights.

This point was lost on Gibson and his Proud Boy cohort—as well as their chorus of defenders in the so-called alt-right movement. They seem only to endorse a model of free speech as speech that doesn’t provoke any consequences. They don’t seem to understand that the principles of free speech may permit you to say vicious and demeaning things—such as “smash their heads into the concrete” —but that doing so also means that you also have to face listeners’ righteous anger. The right to protest their violent speech is in the same class of protected speech as their own hateful outbursts are.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers in Congress have recently introduced the “Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018,” which seeks to criminalize the mere possession of attire antifascists have adopted to conceal their identities at protests.

This basic truth has also plainly eluded Republican lawmakers in Congress, who have recently introduced the “Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018,” which seeks to punish as a federal crime the mere possession of attire antifascists have adopted to conceal their identities at protests. The law imposes maximum sentences of fifteen years for alleged antifa threats to the American body politic—in spite of the fact that, in 2017, right-wing white nationalists accounted for the most political killings of any extremist group in America, while antifascists have committed none.

Underneath all the First Amendment rhetoric at the Patriot Prayer events is a pretty unambiguous agitprop agenda—namely to create a combustible, violent situation that can be blamed on the “radical left.” Why else even hold such a rally in downtown Portland?

By contrast, the loss of “civility” that conservatives and centrists bemoan as liberals exercise their free-speech rights—the owner of the Red Hen restaurant politely rejecting Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ patronage, residents of Martha’s Vineyard purportedly turning Alan Dershowitz into a social pariah—seems quaint and frankly ridiculous when a growing sector of right-wing activism now is devoted to provoking street fights.

It’s a cynical con. Alt-right guru Richard Spencer admitted as much recently during an interview, where he was asked by a fellow white nationalist, regarding their ability to maintain public internet platforms: “Are we even pro-free speech?” To which Spencer replied: “No, of course not,” adding that they “have to use this platform” to be “radically pragmatic.”

Of course, the Proud Boys and their founder and president McInnis insist they are not white nationalists, they are not alt-right, and they are not about violence. In a piece at the group’s website titled “We Are Not Alt-Right,” McInnes—a cofounder of the Vice media empire—declares: “We are not a violent group. We don’t start fights but we will finish them. The violence you see in the media is us defending ourselves from lunatics who want us dead for no discernible reason.”

But the Proud Boys’ Twitter feed tells a very different story. After the rally, it featured a nonstop series of clips and gifs from videos showing Proud Boys beating the crap out of antifascists. Nordean’s flattening of the baton-wielding antifascist was a particular favorite.

Indeed, that brutal assault drew so much admiring attention from thuggish right-wingers that McInnes invited Nordean onto his popular online show Get Off My Lawn, after replaying the video multiple times, including slo-mo and musical-soundtrack versions. McInnes hailed it as “the turning point in the war against antifa,” and told Nordean that “I honestly think that that knockout is a pivot in the movement, it marks the beginning of the end of antifa, and the beginning of being safe and proud to be Trump.”

“These guys were ready to fight, they’d had enough,” McInnes explained.

Jason Wilson, a reporter for The Guardian, contacted McInnes to ask about the violence at the rally. McInnes fumed at him: “You would have to be completely blind, which I think you are, to not see that fight for what it is, which is antifa fully armed attacking Joey Gibson and Joey Gibson’s friends.”

When Wilson asked him whether sharing the video widely and promoting it also promoted violence, McInnes called him a “fucking weak human being,” a “vile little pussy,” and a “tepid cunt,” then ranted about “the media class” who “sit there picking fights, call everyone a Nazi, and then when someone dares defend themselves, and someone else says ‘yay’, you say ‘well you’re promoting violence.’”

At that point, McInnes hung up.

So once more: what was all that about civility?

David Neiwert is the author of Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (Verso Books, October 2017). Based in Seattle, he is the Pacific Northwest correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

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