By Molly Harbarger The Oregonian/OregonLive August 4, 2017
Joey Gibson said at the beginning of the summer protest season that he had turned over a new leaf. The alt-right leader known for bombastic Facebook posts and pugilistic pronouncements advocated a new tactic. He doesn’t want to pick physical fights. He wants conversation.
Gibson used to hurl his conservative message mixed with insults at people on the streets of Portland, but now he hopes to convert the city’s overwhelmingly liberal residents to his Patriot Prayer movement with peace and inclusion. At the same time, he has hosted controversial white supremacist speakers and drawn loud counter-protests.
Gibson, a self-employed Vancouver, Washington, activist, will be back again Sunday on the Portland waterfront with plans to march.
And so will the anti-fascist activists known as antifa who wear black and mask their faces.
But this time, antifa members apparently also are changing their tactics. One of the most prominent antifa groups, Rose City Antifa, has asked its supporters to write down every time they hear a white supremacist buzzword or comment or see an alt-right logo such as Pepe the Frog banners.
The group is asking supporters to donate a dollar or more for each of the comments or actions that will be given to the National Network of Abortion Funds, which seeks to improve financial and logistical access to abortions.
The wrinkle is the latest in the rolling battle for the hearts and minds of Portland residents, played out in dueling demonstrations that draw police attention and often have turned violent.
Rose City Antifa has clashed with police and pro-Trump ralliers since the 2016 presidential campaign. A group spokesman who identified himself only by his first name David said the donations are a way for people at home to send their own message to Gibson and his supporters.
“We wanted to show them that this is just fomenting greater opposition to them,” he said. “The city is getting tired of these events that they are throwing.”
Police have a plan and staff in place to make sure Sunday’s march starting at 2 p.m. at the Salmon Street Springs fountain is contained and safe, said spokesman Sgt. Chris Burley.
He didn’t disclose whether police will be as hands-off as they were at the end of June when counter-protesters and some of Gibson’s marchers yelled at each other and threw punches.
“We expect participants to follow all laws and be respectful of one another,” Burley said.
Gibson said he expects the same of his attendees.
At his June 30 march, Gibson said his group and antifa had to control their own people when police largely stood back and watched.
“We ended up talking,” Gibson said. “We’ve had more dialogue in that one march than a year total. That was absolutely amazing.”
Gibson is hoping to see more dialogue this time, which is why he now prefers marches to rallies.
“We make tons of videos and stuff and people can watch those,” he said. “But I really believe if people can see me and look me in my eyes and shake my hands, nine out of 10 times they’ll leave this conversation with an open heart and an open mind even if I don’t agree with them.”
He said he has learned from some of this back-and-forth so far, such as making more effort to push white supremacists out of his gatherings.
At Gibson’s June 4 rally in the federal government’s Terry Schrunk Plaza, hundreds of pro-Trump supporters gathered to see alt-right celebrities — many of whom came from California. Young people crowded Kyle Chapman, a man known as “Based Stickman” because he once beat a Berkeley protester with a stick in a confrontation caught on camera.
Chapman is part of Proud Boys, a group that leaders say opposes feminism and promotes “nationalism,” or the desire to maintain the existing power structures in the U.S. The Southern Poverty Law Center links the group to white supremacist ideology.
In his speech, Chapman boasted that he “cracked some skulls for liberty and freedom.”
Baked Alaska, a young man with spiked frosted hair tips, has pushed the envelope further. Anthime “Tim” Gionet became an internet star in the dark corners of Reddit and 4Chan, online message boards where posters feel emboldened to shrug off the limits of polite society. He livestreamed himself giving a speech to the Portland crowd, urging people to keep sharing memes and posting on Reddit and 4Chan to win a culture war against liberals, feminists, immigrants and nonwhite people.
“And we have to win this culture war,” he said.
Later, he posted a video with a Portland area-based young man reciting the “14 words”: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” It’s a popular white supremacist pledge, loosely based on a passage in Adolph Hitler’s memoir “Mein Kampf.”
These are the events that Gibson said he wants to avoid.
He acknowledged that some antifa members’ concerns about racist violence in Portland, and Oregon in general, are legitimate.
“I don’t want people who are obsessed with race, even if they’re not racists, but they are constantly talking about skin color and identity politics, that annoys me,” Gibson said.
But antifa isn’t buying it.
David, the Rose City Antifa spokesman, said he sees Gibson and his group as the latest wave in Oregon’s ugly history of racism.
Antifa has worked against racism for years, but has burst into broader consciousness since Donald Trump’s campaign brought fringe far-right groups into public view, he said. Rose City Antifa is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year.
“White supremacists have always been around in this country and they will be until community groups rise up to oppose them,” he said.
The increased attention isn’t always flattering.
Portland police often end up clearing antifa with tear gas, flash bangs and rubber bullets. On June 4, police said that antifa protesters threw water bottles, bricks, fireworks and balloons filled with urine, feces and unknown chemicals at police, causing them to push protesters from the city-owned Chapman and Lownsdale squares next to Gibson’s rally.
Cordoned off by a line of police between the two squares, the conservative ralliers jeered as officers moved against the counter-protesters amid smoke from tear gas canisters.
After the rally ended, scuffles broke out as people headed home. One young woman with the antifa crowd sported a black eye after she said a man wearing a red, white and blue helmet from the rally punched her. He went on to assault two other people who intervened, according to eyewitnesses.
A similar scenario played out again later at the 200-person Patriot Prayer march June 30.
While Gibson said he wants peace and understanding, he also makes a point of urging his supporters to show up in defiance of antifa members. And antifa does the same.
Antifa often comes out looking like the antagonist, said David Neiwurt, a Pacific Northwest author who has been documenting far-right extremist groups for years.
He has seen antifa quietly follow white supremacists around the Pacific Northwest, protesting in various ways. This battle has waged for decades, as Oregon has long been a bastion for Neo-Nazi skinheads, he said.
But now that far-right groups are finding common ground under an umbrella of support for Donald Trump and starting to march together, he said violence is also increasing.
“I think it’s horrible strategic mistake to counter these guys with violence,” Neiwurt said, because it plays into Gibson and other alt-right leaders’ message they are being oppressed. “That’s the whole problem with the way this is coalescing. It’s all under this banner of opposing leftist violence and suppressing free speech.”
But some in antifa aren’t concerned about their image. Unlike Gibson’s group, many see antifa’s mission already aligned with Portland values.
Self-defense will continue to be part of antifa’s strategies, the Rose City group’s spokesman said, whether that wins members favor or derision from the broader public.
He isn’t worried that Gibson’s urgings for unity make onlookers see them as more peaceful and favorable.
“As long as he keeps coming and wanting to push this issue as if he is going to change Portland’s diversity, as if he is going to change Portland’s political leanings, we’re going to be out there to oppose that,” David said.