There were white-supremacist rallies scheduled Saturday in two American cities a continent apart—one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Portland, Oregon—and the outcomes at each of them proved to be very revealing about the nature of fascist organizing in the 21st century. The main lesson: Their claims that “antifascists help our recruitment” notwithstanding, racists deeply loathe and fear being confronted about their hate, particularly (but not necessarily only) by antifascists, and especially when they are outnumbered.
Of the two events, the march by the explicitly fascist group Patriot Front through downtown Washington, D.C., was by far the most disturbing: Over a hundred white men wearing identical white masks and ballcaps, carrying specially designed travesties of the American flag with the stars replaced by a fasces (a bundle of bound rods with an ax head), the original symbol of fascism.
They traveled, complete with a police escort, from Union Station to the Capitol, chanting “Reclaim America!,” but otherwise rarely speaking—and also almost entirely without opposition or protest. That’s because they did not publicize the event beforehand. The march had come and gone before local antifascists could organize a counterprotest.
Afterward, a police spokesperson told WUSA9 reporter Mike Valerio that no permit had been issued: the 150 or so marchers had simply shown up at the Lincoln Memorial and begun marching down the National Mall toward the Capitol. Metro Police scrambled to create a de facto security detail, the majority of them bicycle patrol members, “so officers could keep the peace,” a not-uncommon procedure in a city that sees protest marches frequently.
After pausing for speeches at the Capitol, where police reportedly also kept reporters from approaching the marchers, the group of masked fascists then marched up Third Street and then past Union Station, finally disbanding at the nearby Walmart parking lot. They met only smatterings of antifascist protesters along the way.
The planned Ku Klux Klan rally in Portland, however, was a very different story—especially because the racists who announced their rally at the Multnomah County Courthouse on Saturday never actually showed.
The rally had been originally announced by the leader of an Oregon Klan outfit, Steven Shane Howard, on Jan. 10 on Facebook, saying that at the Feb. 8 event, “illegal immigration, sex offenders, and putting prayers back in schools will be some of the topics.” In a Jan. 28 post, he looked forward to “a battle I've wanted for a long time” in Portland, adding: “When u have our own people living on the streets, illegals taking advantage of hard working Americans, our beautiful weman being raped in our schools , our people being cut and killed from the crime in your state, it's time to fight. PORTLAND IVE WANTED THIS AND I CANT WAIT!!!!!!”
The rally was flagged by antifascists, who then turned out en masse to protest the KKK’s presence, as they regularly do for far-right events in Portland. However, Howard messaged Portland Police Bureau (PPB) early Saturday morning and informed them that they intended not to come hold their rally after all. PPB’s Twitter account reported: “The organizer for the [Klan] rally in front of the Multnomah County Courthouse has communicated to PPB he has cancelled the event planned for this morning and does not intend to show up. PPB continues to monitor the situation.”
So, as the Oregonian reported, the scene in the city park across the street from the courthouse, where several hundred antifascist protesters had gathered, became mostly a “dance party” featuring a street-marching band and occasionally loud music. And over the five hours or so that the park across from the courthouse was occupied, a mostly festive mood prevailed—interrupted occasionally by antifascists chasing out provocateurs, as well as brief clashes with police. Three people were arrested by day’s end, including one of the provocateurs.
Relatively few observers, including the protesters, actually expected Howard and his Klan outfit to even show in the first place. A onetime “Imperial Wizard” for the North Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Howard relocated to Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from Portland, in 2017 and began organizing then. But his following is believed to be tiny—numbering perhaps 10 at best—and would have been massively outnumbered at the Multnomah County Courthouse.
A handful of far-right provocateurs came to the rally at different times, most of them intent on attempting to capture video of antifascists behaving violently. Some ran away with small clusters of antifascists chasing after them. Others were pushed out by antifascists, some of whom hit a couple of would-be provocateurs with blasts of yellow paint. One of them, videographer Brandon Farley, was arrested by police after apparently attempting to start a fight with protesters after they had chased him away from their rally.
All this marked a noticeable shift in tactics by Portland Police, who in previous events had intervened after violence broke out between antifascists and far-right protesters, usually marching with Joey Gibson’s proto-fascist Patriot Prayer organization. Journalist Robert Evans, who was also on the scene, observed on Twitter that even as one of the provocateurs arrived on the scene “and was surrounded, the police pulled back. It is hard to see this as anything but a direct statement that they will not engage to protect right wing activists who rush into the crowd to piss people off.”
This marked a notable shift in police tactics, which have tended toward confronting antifascists and focusing on arresting anyone engaged in direct contact. Over the course of the afternoon, the police presence remained mostly distant and muted; the main exception occurred when a line of bicycle police rode past the jeering crowd, and when someone near the front threw something at them, other officers quickly rode up and arrested the man.
The tactical change may well reflect the presence of a new police chief, a veteran officer named Jami Resch, who was recently named to replace Danielle Outlaw, the controversial chief whose tenure included questions of improper contacts between Portland police officers and far-right organizers like Gibson. Resch has started out well, focusing her efforts on improving community relations, and vowing to ban the use of flash-bang devices at the Portland protests.
Toward the end of Saturday’s event, after the marching band and most of the protesters had long cleared, some of the antifascists still in the park vandalized a monument to Portland soldiers who had died fighting in the Philippines in 1906. This spurred a quick police response, resulting in the arrest of one person they accused of painting the grafitti. Police said they were still seeking unnamed other participants in the vandalization.
“A small group’s actions negatively impacted public safety of the entire city because resources had to be diverted to this event,” Resch said in a statement, as KOIN reported. However, Resch also noted that the majority of people at the rally had peaceably assembled to exercise their freedom of speech. “Unfortunately, a group of people chose to engage in dangerous, illegal behavior,” she added. “I appreciate the thoughtful, measured response by our officers and law enforcement partners.”
The events in Portland contrasted starkly with those in Washington, where the police formed, as journalist Zach Roberts observed, an extraordinarily protective escort service for the Patriot Front marchers: “When asked why the police were preventing media from photographing, no one answered,” he reported.
Police spokespeople offered less-than-persuasive explanations for why the fascists were permitted to march with masks in a city whose laws specifically outlaw marching with masks. Metro Police spokesperson Alaina Gertz told WUSA9’s Valerio that the masks were still legal because there was no violent intent behind them:
"The next part of the statute is key, where it says masked protesting is illegal only if there is 'the intent to deprive any person or class of persons of equal protection of the law or of equal privileges and immunities under the law,'" Gertz said. "The interpretation of what constitutes threats or intimidation is where we start to get into a grey area."
When it comes to Patriot Front, there isn’t really much gray area at all. The group, as I explored for the Southern Poverty Law Center, is unapologetically fascist in its politics, and openly racist and anti-Semitic and hateful toward the LGBTQ community.
It grew out of the now-defunct Iron March online forum, which spawned a range of violent neo-Nazi offshoots, from the murderous Atomwaffen Division and “The Base” terrorists, to the West Coast-based Rise Above Movement, to the Vanguard America organization that marched at Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, where one of its members, James Alex Fields, mowed down an antifascist counterprotester, Heather Heyer, with his car afterward.
Patriot Front’s founder—a young Texan named Thomas Rousseau—in fact was photographed standing with Fields and other VA marchers; he was a VA member at the time. However, Patriot Front grew out of a desire to reorganize and dedicate white supremacists after Charlottesville, with an open embrace of fascism along the way.
One of PF’s fliers—its primary recruitment tactic—reads “Fascism: The Next Step for America.” Its manifesto declares, “Our national way of life faces complete annihilation as our culture and heritage are attacked from all sides,” and includes this passage:
An African may have lived, worked, and even been classed as a citizen in America for centuries, yet he is not American. He is, as he likely prefers to be labelled, an African in America. The same rule applies to others who are not of the founding stock of our people, or do not share the common unconscious that permeates throughout our greater civilization, and the European diaspora.
Rousseau’s group has also shown a propensity for violence, ranging from its threatening protest of a book fair in Houston to its attempt to attack an “Occupy ICE” protest encampment in San Antonio in 2018. It recently was spotted recruiting new followers at the rally for Donald Trump in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Art Spitzer, the legal director for the ACLU of D.C., told WAMU that Patriot Front’s march didn’t cross the line into criminality because it didn’t specifically express threats or intimidation: “You can’t threaten someone by expressing a view in a peaceful way,” he said.
The question is likely to remain unresolved for the time being: While The New York Times filed a Reuters report on the march, the Washington Post to date has not filed a single word or photo about it. In the meantime, we have also learned that far-right activists prefer to march without opposition—and that when the opposition is overwhelming in numbers, they may just choose to remain at home. That will be useful knowledge down the road.