When the Klan announced that they would be coming to downtown Portland, Oregon, they knew they would get a reaction. Portland’s progressive image has acted as a smokescreen for its long backchannel history of white nationalism, which also incubated an antifascist movement that has rallied communities against insurgent hate movements. Like organizations such as Aryan Nations and the Proud Boys before them, the Ku Klux Klan made an announcement last week to hold a public event to see if the city was amenable to their organizing. If no opposition arrived, they might be able to return with reinforcements. But an antifascist coalition of community organizations has been growing, coordinating, and ready to respond rapidly when these kinds of threats emerge.
Portland’s Recent History
Portland has been a focal point of the recent far-right resurgence because of the multi-year string of high profile clashes between Alt Right groups and antifascist protesters. Starting back in 2016, amidst the chaos of Trump rallies and rising hate crimes, a new figure named Joey Gibson emerged. His group, Patriot Prayer, was a big tent project inviting right-wing people to come together in nationalistic rallies intended to challenge the sensibilities of the left-leaning Portland metro-area. This triggered responses from antifascist groups when open white nationalists joined his ranks, which Gibson did little to stop. Instead, his group was a “crossover” point for fascists: they were able to mingle with conservatives, recruit, and help push the political agenda in a xenophobic direction. This only increased when Patriot Prayer rally attendee Jeremy Christian murdered two people in an Islamophobic attack on a Portland train. Gibson decided to hold a rally just weeks after the attack, which resulted in thousands of people protesting on all sides of his small band of Proud Boys.
Since then there have been dozens of clashes, with violence spilling into the streets as the far-right comes armed and ready to fight. Over the last year Gibson’s presence has started to decline, largely because of the mass resistance he is seeing from antifascist groups, and others on his wings are trying to jump into the limelight. A new group called Portland’s Resistance, led by Patriot Prayer associate Haley Adams, has emerged in an even more disorganized fashion, and the Proud Boys have used every excuse to return to Portland.
The most recent act of attention seeking has come from former Imperial Wizard for the North Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Steven Shane Howard, who is now living just across the Columbia River from Portland in Vancouver, Washington. Howard has caused controversy in the area before, joining a crowd of 250 in a wealthy Portland suburb for a pro-Trump rally on March 4th, 2017. He had been set to join the quickly growing ranks of white supremacist celebrities as the star of the A&E reality show Generation KKK, until it was canned after it was revealed that producers for the show were paying the Klansman in front of the camera for appearing, and were allegedly compensated for fabricating racist scenes. His visible tattoos bely an affiliation with Christian Identity, a racist interpretation of Christianity that claims that Jews are literally the children of Satan, and he was working with the National Socialist Movement as recently as 2016. At the time, Howard had alleged that he had left his Klan life behind, but after doing an interview with the Vancouver paper the Columbian, where he alleged that white supremacists were in fact collaborating with Joey Gibson, he took to Facebook to announce that the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan would be coming to Portland on February 8th to protest “illegal immigration, sex offenders, and putting prayer back in schools.”
The reality was that no one knew if he was going to own up on his promise, but given Oregon’s long history of white supremacist violence and the recent memory of far-right attacks, community organizations were taking him at face value.
“First and foremost, if the Klan does not show, then we have achieved our goal,” says David Rose, an organizer with the Portland antifascist group Rose City Antifa. “This could very well be a test, to see what the community’s response is, before a larger event. It is important to show that even the threat of a Klan rally will cause the community to unify, and say with a clear voice that this sort of hate is unacceptable, and will not be allowed, no matter how large or small their rally is.”
Organizations like Rose City Antifa and the mass antifascist organization Pop Mob (short for Popular Mobilization) reacted quickly, refusing to give the Klan the opportunity to hold a public event amid silence. Rose City Antifa, which was formed in 2007 to take on the growing threat of Volksfront, is often focused on building a militant community-defense bloc, whose priority is defending the crowd from the far-right and police violence and disrupting fascist attempts at organizing. Pop Mob and other coalition groups participate in the mass action, working to find a way for the entire community to plug in. And this was the goal for this Saturday action, to organize a mass event with both a community face and a militant contingent, and to do it publicly. This could send a message straight to the Klan that they cannot come in unopposed, and may even stop them from arriving in the first place.
“[T]he community coming together to defend itself in a mass gathering is the safest way to show groups like the KKK that they are not welcome here in Portland,” says Rose.
Society of the Spectacle
There is a long history of using large mass events as an antifascist tactical maneuver, while also turning protest actions into a fun, community-forging space. The Anti-Nazi League used to work with the concert promoter Rock Against Racism in Britain to create large-scale carnivals and concerts, with bands like The Clash and Elvis Costello, in an effort to totally overwhelm National Front marches that were taking place in immigrant neighborhoods in the late 1970s. The idea is to get as many people to come out as possible so the numbers themselves can act as both offensive and defensive because it disallows space to the far-right groups while also helping to keep the crowd safe.
At the most recent Proud Boy march in Portland, antifascist groups created a mass coalition in the same park as the far-right. They played music, gave out concessions, and had speeches, generally turning it into an outdoor party on a sunny day. Community-defense organizations were placed off to one side of the group, which could keep people safe and create a buffer between the crowd and more confrontational protest tactics. A month before that, Pop Mob had held a dance party called the “milk shake” in a park at the same time as a scheduled far-right march, playing on the recent trend of throwing milkshakes at racist agitators as a form of non-violent disruption. They handed out vegan milkshakes, had a dance party, and eventually occupied the streets to block the Proud Boys and Portland’s Resistance from having open access. In both cases, the strategies brought in a large mass of people to limit the effectiveness of the far-right groups, and militant antifascist groups such as Rose City Antifa were a part of this coalition.
A Colorful Coalition
Part of the growth of the coalition has rested on attempts to get more and more of the community involved in these larger antifascist actions. Here is a mass of people acting in coordination that hold a portion of the tactical strength to disallow fascist organizations to have clear access to the city. This is particularly important when organizations like the Ku Klux Klan could be testing the waters to see what kind of response is possible, so a large mass of people standing in vocal opposition has weight. Part of this project has been thinking up creative protest tactics that look good to newcomers and news cameras, which is why some protesters have decided to don bright yellow banana costumes.
The Banana Bloc was formed as a tactic back in August of 2019 as part of the massive coalitional effort to counter the Proud Boys. Because the Proud Boys are known for cutting together videos of confrontations with protesters, Pop Mob and others decided to make themselves look as absurd as possible as a way of subverting far-right propaganda efforts.
This is how the Banana Bloc emerged, a contingent of people dressed in full-body banana costumes, dancing in semi-choreographed spectacles. This contingent dramatically shifts the tone of the protest, making it about fun and selfies, and a format that tends to reproduce itself as people enjoy coming to an outdoor costume party. The members are part of the Unpresidented Brass Band, a marching band that formed after Donald Trump’s election to accompany the growing number of protests in the area. After previous actions where they came dressed as clowns or other costumes, the thought emerged that the banana costumes would garner a positive image from media representations. It also helped to grow their own group, which has doubled since the August action where they first arrived dressed uniformly as bananas.
“Not only are we mocking [the far-right], but we are outshining them. And we will be joyful in the face of hate,” says Miles Thompson, a trumpet player leading the Banana Bloc. “I do think that it makes [these actions] much more accessible for people…people can see from afar that it is not just black bloc and there are other ways to participate. And especially nonviolent and relatively safe ways to be out at events like this.”
While leading the protest goers on “banana dances” to the soundtrack of jazz music, they also supported the black bloc protesters who were standing in between the larger crowds and the police.
“Without the black bloc, we couldn’t be here. Honestly, they are the ones who stand in front of the police. If we are here without them we are potentially sacrificing ourselves,” says Thompson.
Pop Mob was one of the organizations who first called for the protest action, with the hopes that the pressure of the protest would dissuade the Klan from even showing up.
“Our plan was always to have a giant pizza party and build community and use it as an opportunity for people to network and basically celebrate coming together and standing up against the KKK and hate in any form in our city,” says Effie Baum, an organizer with Pop Mob. Their coalition has tried to expand what type of protest activities can happen at these actions, displaying a “diversity of tactics” that can attract people who have never shown up at an antifascist demonstration. Pop Mob has done this by injecting a little fun into these events, like including music, snacks, and pizzas.
“It’s a way to offer engagement to folks who maybe are not always comfortable showing up at these events because they see the way the media portrays antifascists and they think that it doesn’t apply to them because they see only one version of what antifascists look like. So having events like this provides an opportunity for folks to engage in any level that they feel comfortable. That anybody can be an antifascist,” says Baum, who also stressed that Pop Mob also support the militant antifascists who engage in more confrontational protest tactics. “There is a lot of power in numbers. So we can stand behind our friends on the front lines and basically show a much bigger showing when we’re all here…The only people who aren’t welcome in our tent are fascists, cops, and “both siders.”
So, on February 8th, more than three hundred protesters met together in Lowndes Park in Southwest Portland to await the KKK arriving at the Justice Center across the street, which was surrounded with riot police. Organizations from around the city joined the antifascist organizations in their call for a coalition, including large leftist organizations for the area like the Democratic Socialists of America and Portland Jobs With Justice.
“The activists in Jobs With Justice know that the KKK is an affront to all decent people and as people who are participating in a new insurgent left-wing labor movement, it’s important to learn how to fight against reactionaries like this when the stakes are lower and we can train up to fight for what we know they have in store for us. Which, of course, is nothing but death and misery. So we will fight while we can, with Banana Bloc,” says Alyssa Pariah, the co-chair of Portland Jobs With Justice, a community-labor coalition representing more than 100 labor unions and community groups.
As the crowd swelled, the hours ticked by and the Klan failed to arrive at their promised location. Several right-wing livestreamers tried to enter the crowd and were pushed back by antifascist militants, but the white nationalists who had staked their claim on the Justice Center backed out amid silence. Early in the morning the Klan had reached out to the Portland Police to tell them that they were no longer going to show up, an outcome that organizers had hoped would take place. Instead, the organizations involved were able to bring people together in a positive show of solidarity, focusing on the messaging around hate groups in the city. While there were some tense moments with the police (and three arrests), the protest went off without any major incidents, and organizers were able to see that the sheer threat of a large antifascist protest was enough to dissuade the Klan from even showing up. Rose City Antifa was there prepared to confront the Klan if they had arrived, and block them from having access to passersby or other protesters.
“[Today] was a success, in that the KKK rally failed to materialize, and the community came out to show solidarity and defend each other,” said David Rose, of Rose City Antifa. “Without the community standing strong, Portland cannot continue to weather the threats and attacks of the far-right and white supremacist organizations.”
The hope from organizers is that the large presence, the strength of the community, and the increasing support for these protests will send a message to the far-right that the city is off limits. The Klan received the message before they even arrived, and this could extend to groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys who have laid siege to Portland for almost five years.
Shane Burley is an author and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has been featured in places like the Independent, the Baffler, In These Times, Truthout, Waging Nonviolence, Jacobin, Alternet, Protean Magazine, and Commune.