SPARKS of RESISTANCE
Confronting violent bigotry with solidarity
Jordana Sardo
volume:  
volume 38
issue 4
August 2017
imagestuff

Protesters joyously stand shoulder to shoulder against anti-Muslim bigotry in Seattle on June 10, 2017. Photo: Gina Petry

The election of Donald Trump unleashed a dramatic escalation of violent bigotry — and an equally dramatic fight back. Nowhere more so than in Portland, Ore. where two men lost their lives defending young women of color — and a community rose up in outrage.

Far-right viciousness mounts. In the first month of the new presidency alone, thousands of incidents of harassment were reported. Assaults on immigrants led the way, followed by anti-Black, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBTQ threats.

Islamic centers have received mail that describes Muslims as “vile and filthy people.” Jewish graves have been defaced. A noose was hung in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A Brooklyn man brutally beat two women he assumed were lesbians. The KKK threatened death to African Americans attending Portland’s Black community festival.

From New York to Seattle, men and women of color have been killed or maimed by assailants espousing racism and Islamophobia. In March, a Black man was stabbed to death in New York and another in Baltimore a month later, both by avowed white vigilantes. An Indian man working in the U.S. was shot to death in a Kansas bar in February.

West Coast battleground. This spring, Portland was the epicenter of fascist activity and resistance. In April, right-wing Patriot Prayer organized a “March for Free Speech” in the city. As well as Trump supporters, it attracted political reactionaries like Jeremy Christian who showed up wielding a baseball bat, spewing racial slurs, and making the Nazi salute. A month later, Christian boarded a Portland light rail train and terrified two young women of color, one wearing a hijab. When Micah Fletcher, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and Rick Best intervened in their defense, he slashed their throats. Micah Fletcher survived, but the other two men perished.

A week after these slayings, Patriot Prayer planned a second “Free-Speech” rally, with security provided by the Oath Keepers, a pro-militia, armed group. In response, outraged community members, socialists, and organized labor mounted a thunderous counter-protest. Thousands of anti-Nazi demonstrators drowned out a few hundred bigots. The message was clear in their slogan: “Hey, Hey, fascist scum — you’re out-numbered ten to one!”

The inspiring courage of the three men who stood up to the killer’s anti-Muslim vitriol was the opposite of an earlier incident in Portland in 1988. When Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant, was bludgeoned to death by White Aryan Resistance skinheads, no one came to his defense.

In the wake of that murder, the United Front Against Fascism, led by the Freedom Socialist Party along with unionists and community activists, organized for a decade in the Pacific Northwest and successfully stopped neo-fascist organizing in the region.

Nazis are back again. Capitalism contains the seeds of fascism, and when the economy is in a crisis, scapegoating heats up and thugs of bigotry stir. Bolstered by Trump’s bombast and sexism, neo-Nazis are seeking out his base with the aim of building a mass movement to “save” the white race. They are ever present at pro-Trump gatherings.

Not everyone at these rallies is a Nazi “brown shirt.” There are frustrated and angry Republican voters along with Trump die-hards. But they rub shoulders with extremists. These include the Three Percenters, a patriot anti-government group; the street-fighting wing of the Proud Boys who proclaim the western world to be superior to all cultures; and anyone displaying anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi signs.

Many come to demonstrations armed and eager to provoke a fight. They show up looking like B-movie gladiators wearing helmets, shields, draped in flags, and brandishing two-by-two sticks, and knives. They look like buffoons, but they are organized and their actions have deadly consequences.

In January, a Seattle Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) man protesting far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was shot and seriously injured. In June, a white zealot gunned his motorcycle at participants at a San Francisco street die-in to oppose healthcare cuts.

Bigotry disguised as free speech. By calling rallies ‘for free speech,’ the far right claim to be defending their First Amendment rights. They portray themselves as victims, both of the government and of counter-protesters. The liberal mayor of Portland played into their hands when he tried to revoke the permit for the second Patriot Prayer rally.

Big mistake. Denying permits or legislating speech as criminal will not stop the fascists whose aim is to build a political mass movement. And banning tactics will always be used against anti-fascists. Progressives need our free speech rights in order to out-shout, out-organize, and defend ourselves.

In June, Act for America organized “March Against Sharia” rallies in 25 cities. The group describes themselves as being dedicated to combating the ‘threat of radical Islam.’ But these rallies were sheer Islamophobia, feigning concern for women’s welfare. They were met with solid opposition.

Out-organizing the far right. In Seattle, an ad hoc coalition of fifteen organizations — the Muslim community, socialists, feminists, anarchists, religious groups, and unionists — mounted a counter-protest, “Seattle Stands With Our Muslim Neighbors.” In a purposeful united front, they shared leadership and decision-making, while maintaining organizational autonomy. Their demonstration security, fortified by experienced volunteers from the General Defense Committee of IWW, stopped numerous attempts by Proud Boy provocateurs to invade the march. This powerful collaboration of groups stands as an example for how to defeat neo-Nazi recruiting. They vastly outnumbered the right wing.

In the 1990s, the earlier-mentioned United Front Against Fascism (UFAF) brought together wide-ranging community social justice activists. From California to Idaho, this working-class coalition sponsored protests that squashed the Nazi dream of building an Aryan homeland on the West Coast.

Portland has a proud history of successfully countering Nazis using the united front strategy. In 2005, the Tualatin Valley Skins planned to hold initiation rituals in a neighborhood of Jews and Middle Eastern immigrants. The Freedom Socialist Party, Radical Women and local anarchists worked together to call a disciplined, bold, and loud direct counter. They provided security for the hundreds of demonstrators who showed up. Intimidated, the skinheads were no-shows.

Today’s neo-Nazis are bolder and clearly out to recruit. Civil liberties fighters need to confront them. This means that determined, mass outpourings of the majority — working people, unions, churches and communities of all the afflicted — must out-organize the racist extremists wherever they show up. United front resistance now will stop fascist gangs from gaining ground.

Send feedback to jsardo60@hotmail.com.

On Sunday, August 13, an ad hoc coalition that includes the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women will counterprotest the far-right Patriot Prayer group holding a rally in downtown Seattle. To join in, call 206-722-2453 or email FSPseattle@mindspring.com.