On Saturday, the far-right group Patriot Prayer is holding a "Freedom March" in Portland, Oregon. As the Southern Poverty Law Center reported earlier this week, the group has "been holding rallies in the Pacific Northwest since early 2017 alongside the hate group Proud Boys, who call themselves 'Western chauvinists' and frequently engage in street fighting and harassment. The rallies have attracted a wide array of racist and antigovernment extremists." One recent rally was shut down by police after it became violent when counterprotestors from Antifa clashed with the demonstrators.
We spoke with Randy Blazak who works with the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime. The CAHC is a statewide partnership between community groups and local, state, and federal governmental agencies. The Coalition and its members support non-violent solutions to the problem of hate and hate crimes in Oregon. He told us about what his coalition has been doing to counteract the rallies and alt-right extremism in the Portland community. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
NIOT: Can you give us some background on the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime and the work that you do?
Randy Blazak (Photo courtesy of Oregon Coalition Against Hate)
Randy Blazak: It was founded in 1997, a long time ago in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing when there was a recognition that the issues of extremism and hate were continuing problems and that there was a lack of communication between law enforcement and government groups and communities about these issues. CAHC was formed with the idea of creating networks of communication to help with the reporting and investigating of hate crimes. The idea was to get people to report it, but there also has to be a buy-in from government agencies that these crimes will be taken seriously and be prosecuted. So there's that piece. Then there's the larger education piece where we talk about not just the dangers of hate crimes and why we need to be resistant to the messages that come out from hate groups, but also just what is a hate crime.
Sometimes it's sort of confusing for people, especially people who are in targeted communities like minority immigrant communities, for example. Then there is also the issue of how we help people out of the world of hate and how we help the victims, whether it's a hate crime or a hate incident. How do we make sure they have the resources that they need? These are very traumatizing events, even if it's something as simple as posting a Nazi flyer on a telephone pole. These can be very traumatizing and triggering occurrences. So we have to make sure that those communities have resources, and we can plug in through the vast network that we have to get help for folks who are facing hate, whether it be criminal or noncriminal.
NIOT: Portland was the site of a really violent hate attack a year ago. Talk about that and the current situation in Portland.
Randy: After the election, there was a series of alt-right rallies that we had in Portland that attracted some pretty nasty characters, including Jeremy Christian who was the attacker on the Max train. He found in the alt-right fellow believers that helped magnify his xenophobia, Islamophobia and general hatred of anyone he didn't think were Americans.
"It's kind of a recipe for disaster. You want to support people's free speech rights and the ability to voice whatever disagreements they have about the world, but there's a real concern that this isn't just free speech, this is a training ground for some pretty serious terrorists."
Not to get too academic, but we use this funnel model — I didn't invent that, it came from this guy named Ken Stern, who wrote a great book after Oklahoma City called “A Force Upon the Plain.” It’s very similar to the militia movement in the 1990s that are all around mainstream grievances. In the 1990s the issues were about land use and gun rights and taxation and now it's immigration and gun rights. The people who come in at the top of the funnel are protected by the First Amendment and are just complaining about what they want to complain about, but as the funnel goes down, it becomes more and more dark.
Then it becomes anti-government conspiracy theory. Then it becomes an empire and a conspiracy theory and at the bottom [of the funnel] are the terrorists. This is how we got Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. And the Max attacker, who idolized Timothy McVeigh, is one of those folks who filtered down through the funnel. It magnified his anger at the world and it turned violent. The Max attack was one of several attacks on mass transit that he had engaged in.
And so that's the concern — that the rallies are funneling people down to this darker level. They have a very clear rhetoric that we need a second American revolution to fix this country, to purge the foreign influences and to get us back on track, and you know, a little bit of terrorism will go a long way. There's a real concern that this isn't just free speech, this is a training ground for some pretty serious terrorists.
We’ve seen it over and over again. We get these folks in other states, as well. The Southern Poverty Law Center has done a good job of tracking these people. They come in at these antigovernment rallies, including the Tea Party 10 years ago, they sort of do their time and they just sink deeper and deeper into it. Of course, there's plenty of people at the top who would disavow any acts of violence. It's not to paint all these people who are showing up at these rallies as terrorists. But there are those who sink deeper in and there could be other issues at work including mental health issues. These groups are like petri dishes of hate.
NIOT: What kind of buy-in have you gotten from police and city government?
Randy: After the Max attack, the mayor came up with $400,000 from his discretionary budget to create grants for community groups to fight hate. The main mandate of Portland United Against Hate (the city initiative) is this whole notion of building capacity with community groups and to make the community more resistant to hate and improve the reporting. But you know, when the alt-right nationalists show up it takes it to a whole other level.
On August 12, 2017, the Coalition Against Hate Crime, with the assistance of the Department of Justice – Community Relations Service, held a free forum, entitled How We Respond to Hate.
NIOT: How are you working with them to try to create a scenario that will keep people safe?
Randy: We’ve been successful in the Portland area. We have a dedicated detective keeping track of these issues. The other agency that has been really helpful has been the Department of Justice Community Relations Service (CRS). We've been able to facilitate conversations between DOJ-CRS and the Portland police about how to manage these events and it's been very helpful — how to set up perimeters around these rallies and how to keep these groups separate and to allow everyone to have a First Amendment right without it turning into a riot. When those strategies are employed as they were last year, everything goes off fairly smoothly. When they're not and we just expect the police to maintain control — often very quickly, as we had a couple of weeks ago, they spin out of control. So, it's really important to have this coordination between local law enforcement, Department of Justice and the community groups that can do the outreach to try to help diffuse the situations and create alternatives to the street battle.
NIOT: So let's talk about who's coming to town this weekend and about the nature of the response. Who are the Proud Boys?
Randy: It's anti-immigrant, but it's not anti-white immigrant, it's anti-Muslim immigrant. They're positioning themselves similar to the nationalist groups in Britain, like Britain First. They'd say, 'We have gay members and we have black members, you know, we just want to protect our nation.' So it's a kinder, gentler white supremacy around these specific issues so they can avoid looking like hate groups of the past. It's also very anti-feminist, anti-woman. That's the thing that really holds it all together — this misogyny.
In Portland, we've had an escalation of Proud Boy sightings, including around the ICE encampment. They've apparently been harassing the people who were protesting the ICE headquarters. And so, I think part of it is this expectation that the tensions are increasing — the kind of long hot summer phenomenon, you know — things are really building and it's creating this snowball effect. I think it could go either way. It could just sort of peter out because the expectation is so high that something's going to happen and then nothing will happen. My concern is that the rumor mill is so super-charged around who's coming to town that the opposition, including Antifa, are going to be ready for a brawl and then it's just inevitable that something happens. So it could be a whimper instead of a bang, but they're expecting a bang.
The Proud Boys part is important because Joey Gibson (the organizer of the rally) had a little security force around him that seemed to fade and the Proud Boys have kind of stepped into that void. They fashion themselves as street fighters. The concern is not just what happens at the rallies, it's when they're in town and they're out looking for people who have identifiers of the opposition, whether it's an anti-Trump bumper sticker or a gay flag or [what have you], that they're out on the prowl looking for targets. So that's what we're on guard against here in Portland. We're helping the community be the eyes and the ears. I've been sending out emails to groups, not to engage, but just report and document as much as possible — anything that you see happening.
NIOT: How much do these groups want to start a confrontation? Because I think that's something that people don't understand is that their purpose is to start a fight. That is what they're looking for.
Randy: I can tell you from the work that I do on extremists that inciting a conflict is exactly the intention. If we trace the history of the alt-right, it really emerges from online chat groups where their method of operation was trolling. These are the guys that have really perfected the art of harassing people online. You troll to create a reaction and then you have an opportunity to recruit people who are disaffected and also get your slanted ideology into the fray.
And they've taken that into the street. Instead of trolling people on their Twitter pages or Facebook pages, now they're doing it in the streets of cities where there's a known liberal resistance or radical resistance like Seattle and San Francisco and Portland. It's no coincidence that they keep sending their energy to Portland because they know they're going to get this reaction. It paints the opposition as these radical leftist anarchists who are violent and it helps drive the narrative that the opposition to nationalism is communist or anarchist or violence or black clad or terrorist. All these pejorative terms get thrown out to describe something that's much more complex.
Opposition to racism is, as someone once described it to me, it includes a lot of church ladies — people that don't fit the stereotype of the teenage anarchist. So there's a lot more variety out there in terms of opposition, but [the alt-right] now control the narrative of what the opposition is, and it looks pretty menacing to Middle America. They've done a good job of taking that image of the black-clad anarchist, Antifa, to mainstream America and saying 'This is what the opposition to our perspective is. You have a choice between these communists and those of us that love America. Who are you going to choose?' So it's quite clever in that sense because less sophisticated folks are going to say, ‘Oh, the choice is obvious, I love my country, so I'm going to go with the Proud Boys against these frightening folks that look like terrorists.’ That's why they keep coming to Portland is because those images of somebody throwing something at a police officer are gold for them.
NIOT: What do you say to people? What do you say to the church lady? What do you say to people who want to stand up to hate groups and the white nationalist backlash. How can we effectively organize against them?
Randy: On one level it's challenging because if you come out and directly confront them, no matter what your place in the antiracism movement is, there is this conundrum in that you want people to stand in opposition (and it not just be Antifa), but on the other side, you don't want those folks to get hurt.
You also don't want those folks to add fuel to the fire. And so, what we have encouraged is that people come up with alternative ways of making their stance against racism public — alternative events, alternative rallies, things that are not in the same physical space as these alt-right rallies — and trying to lure as much media attention to those events as possible. This is what we're doing in DC on Aug. 8th on Capitol Hill with this alternative teach-in [I’m participating in]. Instead of going out and screaming at Nazis, we're going to talk about the real threat to our community and have an alternative event. That can be both powerful, but admittedly a little less sexy, because when there are fascists marching down the street you want to stand up, you really want to kind of be clear in your opposition to that, but you also don't want to play into their narrative.
There are voices on both sides that really just enjoy the fight, the street battle. You know, there's this romantic notion of being in the streets fighting for your cause. Whether you're a fascist or antifascist, you're carrying a banner and when you're an 18 year old male and that's the thing that you imagine — you read about Paris 1968 and now you're manning the barricades. There are these boys, largely young male voices that are driving this notion that we have to fight in the streets now for our cause or we're gonna lose the country.
"It's a tricky situation. But we're trying to encourage people to come up with alternative events that don't agitate, that can work towards deescalation instead of escalation."
NIOT: We have this position and you have for many years that we need a bigger, stronger, better narrative and that we have to have the strength to not want to go in and fight them, not want to go in and directly confront them, and that's really hard. I agree with you, it's a really difficult challenge. So, is there anything that you're doing specifically in Portland to help people get to that place? Who do you see playing a role in trying to show a broad-level resistance to hate in Portland that focuses on indirect confrontation?
|Last year, the CAHC distributed these signs to members of the community in Oregon.|
Randy: Well, it's an ongoing process so it's not around one specific event. Part of it is the continual work to build community capacity to get people to understand the impact of hate and to cut off their fuel at the source and make it harder for them to recruit people so their numbers get smaller and smaller and they have less of a receptive audience. That's just the regular work that we do around education and improving relationships among community members, including minority communities that often are the targets of the hate but don't know what to do about it. The ability to resist some of these messages.
It's intoxicating. And I see how people get caught up a bit on both sides. I have these mixed feelings about Antifa. They are doing anti-fascism work, which is important. Fascism is a bad thing. We all agree on that. They are documenting a lot of the actions that are coming from the right-wing extremists, which is incredibly important to be able to get down who these folks are. But I've never met a former white supremacists that stopped being a Nazi because somebody punched them in the face or because somebody screamed at them and told them that they're wrong. Their paths out are always because somebody talked to them like a human being about their issues and not about the stupidity of their ideology.
When I see a racist or a fascist, I think there's a future anti-racist or anti-fascist. We just have to find the key to get them to the other side. These people fell into right-wing extremism. We all want to be antifascist, but we have to figure out what the most effective method is. We also don't want to take an academic approach while people are committing hate crimes against a very vulnerable population. So it's this challenging thing and it comes to a head when we have a rally like this coming into the city.
NIOT: How is that work going?
Randy: We've got enough research now to know the profile of a person that's drawn into the world of hate and we know that it isn't their racism that pulls them into it or their underlying bigotry, those are constants in our society. It's really the emotional ability to manage the world that they're in and they often come from very chaotic backgrounds. A big part of it is how we manage change in our society. This is this reoccurring theme — how we manage the rapid pace of change that includes changing ethnic and racial demographics of the country, changing gender roles, changing the presence of LGTBQ people in the population. When I was a kid in the '70s, gay people were only in San Francisco and Greenwich village, or so we thought, and these people are out now [in all communities] and there are some people that are challenged by that reality.
And of course the big one is the change in the economy. The American Dream has been turned upside down and a factory job is now a job at Walmart. These are really challenging changes and there is a desire for some people to push back against them. 'Make America Great Again' was part of that notion that things were better in the past before all these civil rights movements upset the apple cart for straight white males. We are helping people to manage that change and understand that it's ultimately a good thing and we all benefit from a more inclusive society, including straight white males. Utilizing people who had been through it before is also a part of it, but also doing the outreach to people who are at risk and who are being targeted by these groups. It's increasingly younger white males through social media and coming up with a counter message that says, Hey, you know, this is the reality of the change that we're going through and we'd rather have you on our side. It all comes back to education and helping to get a story out about the benefits of embracing the change instead of trying to push against it.
NIOT: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Randy: Thank you.
Randy Blazak at a 2017 Not In Our Town rally in Portland, Ore. (Photo credit: Kenton Waltz)