Exclusive interview with the amazing Rose City Antifa
We here present an interview with the (in)famous Rose City Antifa from Portland, Oregon – one of the oldest and most renowned North American antifascist groups. They have been going 13 years now and have attracted a lot of attention for some highly publicised confrontations with the far-right in their home city. Of course, as we all know, ‘everyday antifascism’ involves a lot more than show-piece confrontations, so here we also delve into the background of their work, what keeps them going and how they deal with the many problems antifascist organising throws up.
Q: Ok let’s start with the basic questions: how and when did you get set up?
A: Rose City Antifa was founded in the Autumn of 2007 after an ad-hoc committee was formed to successfully oppose Hammerfest, a neo-Nazi skinhead music festival that was to be held in Portland. After successfully shutting that event down, several organizers decided that they needed to continue to do anti-fascist work in a more formal, organized way. The group was formed by local leftists who had experience doing anti-fascist work both locally and outside of the United States. We are the oldest antifascist organization in North America and are stronger than ever.
Q: Portland, like Brighton is renowned as a liberal left-wing city. But recent events in Portland have shown a shift to the right (which we will discuss later). But what was the fascist presence like when you were setting up the group?
A: Fascists at the time were much more subcultural, either coming from the bonehead scene or from white supremacist prison gangs. The Hammerskins are an example of the former, and Volksfront an example of the latter. Though Portland has a reputation as a progressive city, it and Oregon have a long racist history, including a large and active white supremacist skinhead movement in the 1980s, members of which were responsible for the murder of an Ethiopian immigrant, Mulugeta Seraw in 1988. Anti-racist activists organized to combat these groups in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and successfully drove them out. We as a group trace our lineage back to the anti-racist movement of that era that continues the fight to this day.
Q: Brighton Antifascists are part of a British-wide network of autonomous groups (the AFN) – do you as an organization adhere to any structures of this kind?
A: We are members of the TORCH network. This network grew out of the old ARA (Anti-Racist Action) network. It includes groups from all over the continental United States. Our network activities are somewhat different than those of the AFN because of the difficulty of organizing mobilizations over the large distances in the United States. We do however work closely in our research, monitoring, and exposing of fascists. In the US, we organize much more regionally based on proximity to other cities so for example during events in other cities in Oregon and Washington we are able to lend support, as opposed to trying to organize mobilizations across a vast geographical landscape that exists here in the United States.
Q: Likewise, whilst most member groups of the AFN are anti-authoritarian in nature we also do not demand that our members adhere to any particular ideology (e.g. anarchist vs communist.) Is this the case for Rose City Antifa?
A: Absolutely. We are a non-sectarian leftist group. We only require that our members adhere to the TORCH points of unity. We have members from a number of schools of leftist thought, but we are first and foremost pragmatists, and organize with the specific goal of shutting down fascists. Interestingly, political disagreements are rarely if ever an issue internally because we have one goal in mind and that is shutting down fascists in our city.
Q: There is a UK-wide debate over the best means for antifascist organization. This debate usually boils down to mass community organization vs squaddist action. We as Brighton Antifascists adhere to both camps. For us one cannot exist without the other, as an antifascist project would not be complete without the mobilization of large numbers of people as well as direct physical resistance to fascist threat. Where does Rose City Antifa stand on this debate? From your experience does a similar question over tactics arise in the USA?
A: We take a similar stance and employ both tactics where they are most appropriate. Community outreach and coalition building has been a part of our strategy from our founding. Our goal has always been to build and organize resilient communities to resist the fascist threat. To that end we also employ squaddism, whether at demos or at opportune times to disrupt fascist organizing where ever it arises. We work closely with more mass-organizing based groups, for example locally a group of antifascists has recently arisen called “PopMob” that does outreach in more mainstream ways and is able to mobilize sections of the community that may not be as keen on engaging in militant antifascist action but nonetheless share the same goals. By working in tandem with such groups we are able to mobilize the community and also raise awareness of fascist activity here in our city. So far this strategy has led to the ability to bring the larger Portland community together to oppose the activities of the far right. We are strict adherents to the St. Paul Principles and these have served as an excellent guideline for various groups to coordinate locally around shared goals without leaving a backdoor open to divisive issues or disagreements.
Q: With the rise of Trump and the wide-spread mobilization of the far-right it seems that even previously left-wing cities such as Portland are turning to the right. Is this a correct representation of the situation?
A: The city itself remains a progressive, left-wing city and fascists from outside the area have set their sights on Portland because we are a symbol of “the left”. There’s been a long history of anarchist, anti-fascist and left-wing organizing in our city and there remains a militant left that is still growing, organizing, and effecting change in the city. That being said, more far-right groups have appeared and held demonstrations in the Trump-era than before. Groups like Patriot Prayer, Identity Europa, The Daily Stormer ‘Book Clubs,’ and the Proud Boys are a few examples of street-level far-right, white nationalist, and fascist movements that have appeared locally. Some of these groups have managed to radicalize more mainstream right-wingers. Some of this is due to fascist entryism, but some is also due to the growing cultural divide between the left and the right that has been exacerbated by Trump and Trumpism. It might be best to say that the far-right has been emboldened, especially in terms of street-level action, but not that there has been a right-wing turn in the city generally. The vast majority of the city is opposed to these fascist mobilizations, and a diverse and large community response continues to show up against them. We are winning.
Q: Please could you tell us a little bit about Patriot Prayer? E.g. What is its ideology, organizational structure and what kind of support do they receive amongst the community of Portland?
A: Patriot Prayer has little to no organizational structure; they are essentially a cult of personality around their founder Joey Gibson. Their ideological beliefs are incredibly shallow, and tend to draw more on cultural resentment towards broader social changes in the United States than any coherent ideological background. They are essentially a strain of far-right political Christianity. They are misogynist, anti-gay, anti-trans, and ‘anti-communist.’ They have a knee-jerk opposition to any leftist or progressive organizing or social change, and tend not to have any sustained organizing on any topic for longer than it has Joey Gibson’s attention. Their lack of ideological depth provides a space that more explicitly white nationalist and fascist organizers have tried to fill, in many cases successfully. The KKK, Identity Europa, and the Proud Boys have all used Patriot Prayer events as a springboard for their organizing efforts. Furthermore, their cultural resentment has created far-right killers like Jeremy Christian. Jeremy Christian is a fascist who just weeks after attending Patriot Prayer events in 2017 murdered two men and injured a third after they intervened to stop him from yelling racial abuse at two black teenage girls on a local commuter train. Joey Gibson continues to defend Jeremy Christian to this day. Joey Gibson and Patriot Prayer only get support from some elements of the mainstream right-wing. They are able to get this support because they are able to play on the same cultural divide that is being amplified by Trumpism. One of the difficult things about confronting a group like Patriot Prayer is that it employs such an open umbrella style of organizing that they have found sympathizers with everyone from the anti-vaccine movement to the average disenfranchised republican. Their lack of a clear ideological framework means that organizing against them has led to difficult media narratives that ‘antifascists are coming for republican housewives.’ Recently, the local media has had to come to terms with the fact that Patriot Prayer events are in fact a gathering place for far-right white nationalists and fascists, but that is in no small part due to antifascists exposing them for who they really are. We have made serious gains over the last years in shifting the media landscape to characterize their mobilizations as fascist events as opposed to simply “conservative rallies.”
Q: The 2019 May Day clashes in Portland between Patriot Prayer and Rose City Antifa are now world-famous. There was also some controversy over the ‘infamous’ hand shaking at the end of the fight. Please could you give us an account of the events of that day as well as some context?
A: Suffice it to say, that after humiliating that far-right fighter in combat, that individual was attempting to de-escalate the confrontation that had been taking place, and in that state of adrenaline shook a hand and told Patriot Prayer to leave. What gets overlooked in focusing on the handshake is the fact that a large number of individuals repulsed a far-right attack on a well-known leftist space. There is ongoing legal repression from the events of that day, and so we are unable to go into more detail on the events or the confrontations that took place.
Q: Whilst many international accounts of Portland’s May Day events focused primarily on the Patriot Prayer attack and the subsequent handshake, very little was actually said about the anti-ICE demonstration which was held in Portland on the same day. What is your stance on the importance of the intersectionality of struggles? E.g. how important is it for antifascists to mobilize against ICE and the like and why?
A: We feel it is important to note that Portland was one of the first cities to establish an occupation of an ICE facility, and the anti-ICE demonstration on Mayday 2019 was a continuation of that struggle. We see the struggle against borders as inherently linked to anti-fascism, since fascism is intensely nationalist and wants to increase the violence caused by borders. Throughout the occupation anti-fascists from our group and others responded to defend the camp from far-right threats and attacks. It is important for anti-fascists to mobilize in these struggles to build coalitions and support the work that other organizers are doing against oppressive structures like institutional racism, the border, and more. We are not single issue organizers because we recognize that the struggle against fascism is a broad one that also encompasses fighting the fascist tendencies already present in our society.
Q: The USA appears to be an increasingly divided country (e.g. in terms of race, class and gender as well as sexual orientation and identity.) How do these factors impact the organizational structure of Rose City Antifa? (e.g. how is it that you work to break down these barriers?)
A: As a group we have always drawn a majority of our members from the oppressed. We are majority queer and have always had a strong tradition of women as core organizers. We recognize that we must struggle internally against the oppressive structures present in the larger society, and have policies within our group that check the privileges and oppressive behaviors that all individuals raised in this society can exhibit. We’ve often taken difficult stances against abusers and abusive behavior within the left.
Q: As we all know, police brutality disproportionally targets people of color. How is this tackled by antifascists in a demonstration setting? E.g. will white antifascists place themselves inbetween police officers and their fellow comrades of colour?
Those are decisions that we make in conversation with the people of color who are at those demonstrations. We don’t presume that people of color do or don’t want to have us take those actions, and so we discuss with those organizers and defer to the judgement of the people impacted by racist police violence. Our white members don’t want to patronize or condescend to oppressed people by presuming to act in their interests so our white members take steps to organize in tandem with people of color when the police attack.
Q: Police brutality in the USA is rising whilst prison sentences are getting longer and longer. Please could you tell us a little about your current situation in relation to policing as well as to the prison system? (E.g. are any of your members serving active prison sentences and how does this affect your ability to organise?)
A: Anti-fascists have faced heavy police and legal repression in the United States. For legal reasons we can’t comment on whether or not any members are in prison, or have faced police repression. Policing in the United States as a whole entails frequent attacks on demonstrations, counter-intelligence operations by the FBI and local police, and co-ordination with the far-right and white nationalists. We believe the struggle against fascism is a three way fight involving ourselves, fascists, and the state which protects the fascists. Locally, we know that Patriot Prayer and the Portland Police Bureau have worked hand in hand in actions that targeted antifascists. A recent revelation is the very cozy relationship between a Police lieutenant and Joey Gibson exchanging plans via text message, advising fellow fascists how to avoid arrest (despite police warrants), and sharing information on antifascist activity in the city. Furthermore, a survey of police in Portland revealed that most police hold a favorable view to the fascist “patriot rally” demonstrations taking place, deeming them to be the ‘mainstream’ activists and treating antifascists as “volatile.” This is the landscape that we have to organize under and we have no doubts about what side the police will be taking in these ongoing conflicts.
Q: The mainstream American media (e.g. Fox news) seems hell-bent on representing the antifascist movement as negatively as possible. What kind of struggles do you encounter when attempting to organize with larger groups of people? And how do you combat (if at all) the stigma associated with ‘antifa’?
A: We find that locally we don’t have that problem because of years of diligent community organizing and a more favorable political climate. To combat negative media representations, we engage with the media through interviews (with the exception of explicitly right-wing outlets) to de-mystify anti-fascists and try to accurately portray our views. Having the history and name recognition that we do, we have the very awkward position of being interviewed by mainstream outlets such as the BBC, CNN, NBC and others. We have made a conscious decision to engage in such interviews because we feel it is important to portray antifascists as the ‘normal’ community members that we are, as opposed to the violent caricature of “antifa terrorists” portrayed in mainstream media outlets and especially in right wing media.
Q: It’s been a hell of a ride from Charlottesville to today. Where do you see the USA moving towards?
A: We’ve seen many fascist movements turn more sharply towards underground, lone-wolf style organizing in the wake of Charlottesville. It seems reasonable to assume that this clandestine and violent trend will continue and possibly increase if Trump is defeated in the upcoming election. At the same time, the last four years have seen major mobilizations by the left across the country, so it seems likely that social conflict will intensify as the left organizes and the right becomes more reactionary and violent. We cannot predict the future, but the militant far-right is the most emboldened it has been in a generation and no matter the political outcomes of the coming elections we expect these people to be heavily armed and ready for conflict.
Q: Likewise, what do you foresee the future of Portland to be?
A: We have seen many major demonstrations by the far-right, but it seems that legal repercussions have caught up to several key organizers, and fascists are again afraid to stage large demonstrations because of the strength of anti-fascist responses. We can expect far smaller flash demos and sporadic small-scale mobilizations, but our community is more organized than ever to oppose them. We also have seen several fascist organizations like Identity Europa and the Daily Stormer ‘Book Club’ disband or curtail their organizing based on anti-fascist actions. It is an ongoing war of attrition against various factions of the far-right but as the antifascist saying goes, “we intend to win.”
Q: Finally, how can international comrades support Rose City Antifa?
A: We would love to host talks by international comrades in order to share skills and experiences from those organizing in different contexts so please get in touch and let’s organize! We’ve hosted anti-fascists from Germany and the UK already, and have appreciated the perspectives, insights, and histories that those anti-fascists presented to us and the community. As well, supporting us financially through donations or buying our supporters gear is always welcome. Lastly, supporting anti-fascists in prison throughout the United States is important, so please write to anti-fascists like Gage Halupowski and others. Comrades in Antifa Sacramento maintain a list of all anti-fascist prisoners in the United States at https://antifasac.blackblogs.org/
Our website is https://rosecityantifa.org/ Please get in touch and we look forward to building more bonds across the globe!