As some of you know, there was a Patriot Prayer rally and a countering antifa rally in downtown Portland today. The antifa rally was in support of survivors of sexual assault, but though we got there about 1pm, we didn’t see any speakers or organization at all. (The Oregonian reported that there had been 7 speakers, etc.) By the time we arrived, the police in riot gear were preparing to force the counter protest into Chapman Square and away from any contact with the streets or sidewalks neighboring the Terry Shrunk Plaza, where Patriot Prayer was getting ready for their rally.
Of course, forcing the protestors, curious onlookers, and media away from the sidewalk had the effect of enraging a lot of people. In fact, the whole time we were there the rally merely seemed filled with people either idly milling about or yelling at, cursing at, and/or taunting the cops.
From what I was seeing, I was becoming more and more perplexed about what the objectives of the counter-demonstration were. Sure, I knew that it’s important to show that there’s opposition to fascism, but surely there had to be a concrete actionable objective as well. Later that evening, I looked it up. The organizers of the rally, PopMob, have this to say on their website:
The goal of a popular mobilization, then, is to stop the use of public space for the far right to further organize brutality. With a large contingent, the violence often promised by the far right can be neutralized, as confrontation becomes less fruitful. By the sheer virtue of the popularity of the counter-protest, it can shut down Patriot Prayer and be used as an opportunity to discuss the issues of inequality in our society and enable further organization building apart from the far right’s influence.
But this time the right didn’t come with weapons. At least physical weapons. Their weapons were words. Unlike the Rose City antifa outside, they knew exactly who they were speaking to and why: the cameras and their internet followers. Sure, it was a pitiful turnout for them–maybe 30 people tops, but they don’t really need the physical turnout. They just need to reach the people they can turn to their cause.
Contrary to popular belief (or at least what I was led to believe), the words they were saying weren’t extreme ones like “Kill the Jews” or “White Lives Matter.” They instead aimed to tap into the outrage that many white men are feeling around the culture change that’s happening right now. A lot of men (used to invisible male privilege) are feeling attacked as the balance of power shifts. Patriot Pride knows this. They know this demographic are easy pickings for speakers like Joey Gibson to reach. Their main message: that men are victims too and that masculinity itself is under attack. Many, many people–not only conservatives–believe this. Even many cis-men on the left, though they daren’t say it to their compatriots, have a gnawing feeling of emasculation going on. These men are easy targets for at least some of the the radical rights’ messaging.
At the Patriot Prayer rally, organizers really went out of their way to connect with a wider audience and distance themselves from the “leftist mob” outside. They had a Latino MC and a trans M-F speaker (among others) and even thew a little “dance party” to try to show how hip they are. Sure, it might seem ridiculous given their poor turn out, but their messaging was consistent and may very well have been effective for their target audience. What’s more, they don’t need a high attendance to reach the people they’re going for–they just need a combination of outside media and good internal social media marketing. It seems to me they had enough of both.
What amazed me and my friend was that next to no activists were actually inside the Patriot Prayer rally. It’s not like it was difficult to get into. They searched for weapons, but that was about it. In fact, if you looked fairly normal (i.e. not dressed in black battle gear) you could easily get in. Yet there was no interest in doing that from the activist side of things, neither to hear first-hand what the “enemy” was saying, nor come up with creative interventions (invisible theater, etc.). Instead, they were in the other park spending their time chanting things like “We believe survivors!” at the cops. At the height of my civil disobedience days, people would have scouted all the different possibilities for achieving an objective (i.e. shutting something down) and have been willing to change plans on a dime when they saw an opportunity (i.e. knowing how to get into the rally). This group seemed positively apathetic to anything other than milling about, heckling police, and waiting for the end of the rally when things would (I was told) finally “start to happen.”
While the case can be made that having masses showing up at these rallies can shut them down and/or minimize the potential for violence against vulnerable populations, I honestly don’t believe it’s enough to stop the rise of fascism. I can definitively say that showing up to “punch a Nazi” or to shout at cops is not doing much either. And while The Oregonian did cover the “support the survivors of sexual assault” message of the antifa rally and played down the message of Patriot Pride, that also won’t be enough to stop the spread of fascism.
If we want to stop fascism, we need to at the very least,
- Listen to what the other side is saying so we can understand who they’re appealing to and can come up with ways to counteract it,
- Identify clear, actionable objectives per event rally–and no, simply outnumbering them is not purpose enough, and
- Create strategies that effectively achieve those objectives.
Of course, much more could be said on all tactics and strategies, but suffice it to say that today wasn’t an example of successful ones.