Antifascist doctrine does not allow for avoiding such confrontations: “They will not pass” is another precept, deriving from the Spanish Civil War. But, in the summer of 2018, several activists in Portland created a new organization—PopMob, short for Popular Mobilization—which aimed to enlist a more diverse, and less militant, league of protesters to counter Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys. Whereas Rose City Antifa has strict vetting protocols for new members, Effie Baum, a co-founder of PopMob, told me, “Everybody is welcome under our tent, except cops and fascists.” PopMob promotes what Baum calls “everyday antifascism,” not as an alternative but as a complement to front-line combatants in black bloc. “If you’re gonna punch a Nazi, punch a Nazi,” Baum said. “If you’re gonna stand in the back with a sign that says ‘Love Trumps Hate,’ there’s room for both of us.”
The feud reached a head this summer, on August 29th, when hundreds of Trump supporters met in the parking lot of a suburban shopping mall, then drove into Portland together. The route was announced just before the caravan’s departure, to stymie protesters. That afternoon, I interviewed Shane Burley at a bar on the east side of town; after leaving the bar, I pulled onto a road full of honking cars and trucks bedecked with huge American flags and “Trump 2020” banners. I followed the caravan out of the city, not realizing that dozens of drivers had broken off and headed downtown, where local residents shouted obscenities at them and threw water bottles. Some of the Trump supporters fired paintball guns and pepper spray from their vehicles; others got out and assaulted protesters.
It was dark when I arrived downtown. As I parked on a wide avenue in the shopping district, several people in black bloc sprinted by. Turning a corner, I came upon a small crowd facing a police cordon. Behind the officers, a dead body lay in a pool of light.
The victim was Aaron Danielson, a thirty-nine-year-old supporter of Patriot Prayer. He’d been shot by Michael Reinoehl, a forty-eight-year-old white man who—though unaffiliated with Rose City Antifa or PopMob—once wrote on Instagram, “I am 100% ANTIFA all the way!” Reinoehl later claimed that he had fired in self-defense, and a cannister of bear spray and a telescopic truncheon were found on Danielson. At the time, however, nobody in the crowd knew what had happened or who was involved.
“What are you doing here?” I heard someone say. A man in black bloc, his face concealed behind a balaclava and ski goggles, was addressing a man with a trimmed beard, wraparound sunglasses, and a baseball hat emblazoned with the name Loren Culp—the Republican gubernatorial candidate for Washington. He also wore a hooded sweatshirt that said “Patriot Prayer.”
“It’s Joey Gibson!” someone said.
Gibson later told me that he and Danielson had driven into Portland in the same truck. After following the pro-Trump caravan back to the shopping mall, they received messages about the skirmishes downtown, and, separately, they returned to the city. Gibson had happened on the crime scene accidentally, and he had no idea that the corpse thirty feet away was Danielson’s.
Another man in black bloc told Gibson that he’d heard the victim had been murdered by a Proud Boy. This seemed to be the crowd’s prevailing assumption, though neither Antifa nor the Proud Boys had killed anybody before. Affecting a casual posture, Gibson waved dismissively and said, “That’s what they always be yelling and screaming about—‘Some white supremacist killed someone tonight.’ They say that shit all the time.”
“Because you bring white supremacists to town all the time,” someone said.
“I’m brown,” Gibson responded. He rolled up his sleeve and showed his skin tone.
People pressed around Gibson, shouting at him to leave. When he asked, “Why don’t you guys stop acting like Nazis?,” a man in a Young Turks sweatshirt spit in his face.
“Can we stop with the hate?” Gibson said, making no move to wipe off the saliva.
Protesters continued to arrive, and, as the volume and ferocity of their insults escalated, Gibson turned to a blond woman who’d been standing at his side and said, “Let’s go.” A mob of at least fifty young people pursued them. Gibson kept up a show of equanimity until his hat and glasses were snatched away. Soon, drinks were emptied on him, objects were hurled at him, eggs were smashed on him, and he was punched and pepper-sprayed. With the blond woman’s help, he stumbled forward while someone rang a cowbell in his ears and others strobed flashlights in his eyes.
“Kill the Nazi!” someone screamed.
The mob grew. As far as I could tell, all of Gibson’s assailants were white. At some point, several people pushed their way to Gibson and escorted him down the street, keeping at bay the most belligerent aggressors. A short Asian man in a bicycle helmet yelled, “Let him leave, goddammit! Everyone back the fuck off!”
After several blocks, Gibson and the woman ducked into a gas station, and an employee locked the door behind them. The man in the bicycle helmet blocked the entrance, but people smashed the windows and kicked open a side door. Another protester raised his gas mask and pleaded, “He’s a fucking Nazi, but are you going to lynch him?”
The police arrived, and the protesters fled. Gibson vomited in the bathroom, washed the pepper spray from his eyes, and called a friend to pick him up. A reporter looking to identify the shooting victim texted Gibson a photograph of medics treating Danielson. “I recognized him right away,” he said.
After the crowd dispersed, I found the man in the bicycle helmet at a nearby 7-Eleven. His name was Rico De Vera, and he was a twenty-seven-year-old Filipino-American who studied engineering at Portland Community College. Earlier that day, a Trump supporter had shot him in the face with a paintball gun; the flesh around his left eye was stained neon pink. De Vera had been regularly participating in Black Lives Matter protests since May. Although he remained enthusiastic about the movement, he worried that in Portland it had been subsumed by the city’s militant antifascist culture, which he saw as violent and white. “It pisses me off,” he said. “People are going to use tonight to say that Black Lives Matter is a bunch of thugs.”
We walked a few blocks to a park outside the Multnomah County Justice Center, where people had congregated by a perimeter of concrete barriers and metal fencing. This was where most of the Patriot Prayer rallies and Antifa counter-protests had taken place; more recently, it had become a locus for Black Lives Matter demonstrations. In June, huge crowds had lobbed fireworks, bottles, and other projectiles at the Justice Center, a fortresslike monolith that contains the Portland police headquarters and the county jail. On June 26th, Trump called for the deployment of federal agents to protect government property throughout the country from “left-wing extremists.” The Justice Center stands beside a U.S. District courthouse, and in July more than a hundred employees of the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service arrived in Portland, ostensibly to protect the federal building. A U.S. marshal shot a twenty-six-year-old protester in the head with an impact munition, fracturing his skull; the protester had merely been holding up a boom box with both hands. Such excessive force drew larger and larger crowds to the courthouse until Chad Wolf, the acting Secretary of Homeland Security, began to relinquish responsibility to the Oregon State Police, in late July.
Now a young woman with a megaphone told the people at the Justice Center that she had an announcement. “I just got word that the person who died was a Patriot Prayer person,” she said. “He was a fucking Nazi. Our community held its own and took out the trash. . . . I am not sad that a fucking fascist died tonight.”
Although years of antifascist activism in Portland have likely contributed to the extraordinary staying power of its Black Lives Matter movement, white antifascists insist that they’ve played no role in organizing racial-justice protests. Sophie, of Rose City Antifa, said, “We don’t feel like, as a group, we should be taking away space from people who have dedicated their lives to this.” However, Sophie added, “we are fully supportive, and many of us attend as individuals.” Effie Baum, the PopMob co-founder, similarly told me, “We’ve been really intentional about not taking the lead on stuff that’s been happening since George Floyd was murdered.” One reason for this, Baum explained, was that “we’re a mostly white organization.”
Portland, whose population is six per cent Black, is the whitest big city in America. The historian Walidah Imarisha traces the origin of these demographics to the founding of Oregon, which settlers envisaged as a “white utopia.” When Oregon joined the union, in 1859, it became the only state with an outright ban on Black people. Later, redlining policies and urban-renewal projects displaced many African-Americans, a process reprised by more recent waves of gentrification.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Portland are resolutely non-hierarchical; as a rule, however, white protesters defer to their Black and brown peers, who are usually the only people to use megaphones, deliver speeches, and lead marches. Since the federal withdrawal from the Justice Center, the protests have targeted the Portland police with nightly “direct actions.” Every day, a message circulates on social media announcing a rendezvous point (usually a park); from there, protesters depart to a nearby destination (usually a precinct house). A diffuse, anonymous network, communicating on encrypted messaging apps, chooses these locations. Although Fox News and the Trump Administration characterize Portland as an apocalyptic war zone, some direct actions attract fewer than a hundred people, and even on well-attended nights their impact is undetectable beyond a few square blocks.
Still, property destruction does occur, and, because the vast majority of protesters are white, this has been a source of tension with some residents of color. In June, after rioting damaged several businesses along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, in a traditionally African-American neighborhood in North Portland, a consortium of Black community leaders held a press conference to condemn the vandalism. J. W. Matt Hennessee, the pastor of Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, told white protesters, “Get your knee off our neck. That is what you are doing when you do stuff like this.” Ron Herndon, who led civil-rights campaigns in Portland during the eighties, called the vandals “demented” and said, “Go back to whatever hole you came from. You are not helping us.” On the weekend of Columbus Day, which Portland recognizes as Indigenous Peoples Day, protesters toppled a statue of Abraham Lincoln, shot through the windows of a restaurant owned by a Black veteran, and broke into the Oregon Historical Society, where they inexplicably stole a celebrated quilt commemorating African-American heritage, stitched by fifteen Black women in the nineteen-seventies. (Police found the quilt lying in the rain a few blocks away, slightly damaged.) The leaders of thirty Native American groups released a statement comparing the conduct to “the brutish ways of our colonizers.”
Two days after Aaron Danielson was killed, I joined a few hundred protesters outside a luxury building where Ted Wheeler, Portland’s Democratic mayor, owns an apartment. In Portland, the mayor serves as the commissioner of the police bureau, which protesters are determined to see defunded. As a picnic table from a restaurant was dragged into the street and set on fire, I spotted Najee Gow, a twenty-three-year-old Black nurse, leading chants of “Fuck Ted Wheeler!” I’d met Gow the previous week, when several young women had staged a sit-in in Wheeler’s lobby. Gow, who wore a peacoat over a red-white-and-blue tank top, had been incensed that no African-Americans were included in the demonstration. “It’s what they’ve always done,” he’d said. “Hijack Black people’s movements. This is disgusting.”