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    Behind the Black Umbrellas

    Debating Violence with Portland’s Antifa and the Proud Boys

    By Patrick Tomassi

    March 17, 2021

      I have nothing to commend myself. My story does not matter. But if I could be someone, I would like to be a peacemaker. This article felt like it was going to be an excuse for violence, but it did not end that way. More power to you. Whether you burn down my house or a cross on my lawn, the response is still WWJD--

    • Brian Dolge

      I want to start by commending Mr Tomassi on an excellent, even handed article. I also want to state my position. My first 6 years of schooling took place in a whites only public school. I have spent many years as a survivalist, a liberal, a Democrat, an Evangelical, and a poor person, each with it's own views on race and violence. I have known peace activists, Nazis and Klansmen. Today I am an upper middle class older White guy who goes to a Roman Catholic church and identifies politically as a Christian Anarchist. I work as a street medic and care provider at BLM and anti-fa led rallies and I have faced Proud Boys and their ilk in DC prior to Jan 6. I am (striving to be) non-violent. I define violence as the intentional infliction of damage or prolonged pain on another person. I believe that this definition allows us to talk about violence without obscuring important truths. Threat, coercion, violent speech are all serious matters, but do not threaten bodily integrity. Property damage is often counter productive, ineffective or criminal, but, again not a threat to the person. I say all this to give context to what I have to say here. While I have been to many antifa/BLM rallies the only ones where I have seen violence occur were when Proud Boy, et al counter-protestors showed up. I have seen many protestors carrying shields and umbrellas, but almost never anything I would term a weapon. Every time I have encountered Rightist protestors I have feared for my own safety. These are not equivalent groups. At the same time I must say that I am frequently disappointed at the, not just lack, but refusal, of analysis among BLM/antifa actors. I do not question the reasons that emotions drive them, but I often wish that it did not evolve into a rejection of reason and a "race to the edge" to see who can express the most shocking "radical" opinion. On the other hand, these marches, which call for burning down the state, are proceeded by distributions of free clothes and food to the homeless and prolonged speeches about how we are here for other people, the dead or brutalized, not to promote any interest of our own. Violence is a human problem and will only be ended by changing human hearts. Antifa and BLM are at least actively committed to building loving, supportive, abundant (albeit secular) communities. I am not aware of any such efforts on the Right. Both sides use elastic definitions of words like violence and self-defense to justify themselves and demonize the other. That is why one of the key things we as Christians should try to do is define our words clearly and speak carefully about these matters. Finally, as regards Daryl Davis and the question of "converting" Rightists, I will say his work is exemplary, but probably not a path open to many people. Conversion requires time and a true openness on both sides, I wonder how many encounters he has had where nobody changed their mind. More importantly, changing individual racists is like buying an electric car to fight climate change. It is a good thing, and you should do it if you can, but the real problem is not individual behavior, it is institutional and systematic and must be addressed politically, which includes marches, rallies and actions, as well as voting.

    • Todd

      If anybody wants to have go beyond either/or thinking, I'm happy to have a deeper good-faith conversation with you. I'm Mennonite, pacifist, antifascist, and abolitionist. Depending on preconceived notions, people will categorize me as leftist or rightwing. I'm conservative because I want to preserve good things and progressive because I want to fix bad things, and I don't think these are mutually exclusive.


      One of the most disturbing things about the far left is their elastic definition of "violence" that includes the expression of viewpoints they find offensive. Coupled with their expansive definition of "fascist" that includes anyone who holds such views (like the belief that biological sex is binary and immutable or that heterosexuality is normative by divine design) they proudly justify actual physical violence, vandalism, intimidation, state coercion, etc. as means to shut down their philosophical opponents, all for the greater good, of course.

    • Lora Eschenbacher

      Yep, you cannot change a person by force. Never ever. Sin is sin and only Christ and the Holy Spirit can truly change a persons heart by an act of that persons free will. Only His Kingdom will rid the planet of violence. Yet, we must try to spread His peace for we are called to be peacemakers...

    • Mervyn Maciel

      Reading Patrick Tomassi's interesting article "Behind the Black Umbrellas", I was reminded of the unfortunate incident we experienced only recently in the UK. An innocent young lady was brutally murdered on her way home after having dinner with a friend in South London. To add insult to injury, the culprit was none other than a serving Metropolitan Police officer attached to the armed diplomatic protection Command. To show solidarity with Sarah Everard and other women who have been brutally murdered, a silent Vigil was held at Clapham Common. Instead of showing some sympathy towards the protesters, the Police behaved quite shamefully by man-handling several women. Protests and/or demonstrations are the result of frustration for not being heard or taken seriously. When will our Police learn to behave in a civilised manner?

    “What’d you see?” a man shouted. Around him, a crowd of black-clad activists gathered outside the Multnomah County Democrats building in northeast Portland, Oregon, the Sunday night after the US presidential election in November 2020.

    “You didn’t see shit!” the protesters chanted in response. Several people with hammers, rocks, and cans of spray paint broke windows of the building and tagged it – “Fuck Biden,” “ACAB,” “BLM.” Others opened black umbrellas, shielding the vandals from security cameras and passersby. The chanting continued: “Whose lives matter? Black Lives Matter!” and “All Cops Are Bastards” (to the tune of “nana nana boo boo”). Two men with drums kept rhythm for the chants. Within minutes, most of the windows were broken and the group was on the move again, back through neighborhood streets towards Laurelhurst Park.

    During summer 2020, as my hometown was front and center in the national news, I found that my idea, and other Portlanders’, about exactly what was going on was largely determined by what media we relied on: conservatives and liberals seemed to be living in alternate universes, with the same timelines but different facts. After one more argument about whether downtown Portland was actually “on fire,” I decided to begin attending and reporting on the nightly demonstrations.

    “If there’s a Nazi, they should probably be punched.” —Buckets

    When I arrived at Laurelhurst Park earlier that November evening, first-aid volunteer Marie Tyvoll had just finished setting up a medical tent. She introduced me to some other activists; most saw my press badge and faded into the shadows. None were willing to talk to me. Some said I should leave. After about half an hour, I overheard a man talking about his desire to “punch a Nazi.” The man (“Buckets,” for his plastic drum) wore the full “black bloc,” head-to-toe black including a balaclava, and looked to be in his twenties or thirties. He told me that for him it was pretty simple. “If there’s a Nazi, they should probably be punched.” Who qualified as a Nazi? Not run-of-the-mill Trump supporters. But Proud Boys? Probably. He said that it was “highly likely” that he had been at events where Proud Boys had also been present, but refused to answer when I asked if he had ever punched a Nazi, although he said he had been punched by one.

    While Buckets and I were speaking, another activist addressed the crowd. I raised my camera to take a photograph. “Hey, no filming,” yelled a large man in a gas mask. The fact that I was taking stills didn’t count: “No pictures means no pictures. Get the fuck out,” he said, towering over me. I hesitated for a moment. “We’re not gonna ask you again. Get the fuck out.” I walked away; he followed me briefly. The speaker asked the crowd how many were excited about Joe Biden, and was answered with boos. He proposed that they go “have some fun” at Democratic headquarters. Someone in the crowd started a chant: “ADAB – All Democrats Are Bastards!” It was hard to fit to the “nana nana” melody, and didn’t catch on.

    When the group began marching through Laurelhurst about 10 p.m., Buckets and another man drummed a rhythm for the chants. As they marched, activists shone flashlights into residents’ windows. Some residents stepped out on their porches. Others peeked out from behind closed blinds. Marchers pulled election signs from people’s lawns and tossed them into the street. One was for Mingus Mapps, the Black candidate who had unseated City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly earlier that week. Eudaly had been highly supportive of the protests. Mapps had received an endorsement from the Portland Police Union.

    The direct action at the Democrats’ building lasted less than ten minutes. The police were nowhere in sight. But as the group began to wind back toward the park, a number of officers arrived on bicycles. They followed for several blocks, then closed in at the middle of an intersection, arresting three men. Activists yelled at the police, asking why the men were being arrested. A moment later a man shouted, “Everyone scatter – let’s go!” “Be water,” said others, and the group dissolved into side streets.

    protesters in Portland, OR

    Protesters take cover during an assault on the Portland federal courthouse, July 2020. Photograph by Alex Milan Tracy, Sipa USA/Alamy Live News

    The Fascist Next Door

    A quite different “direct action” took place on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC, when an angry mob of Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol. Among them were Proud Boys including organizer Joe Biggs; believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory including Jacob Chansley, better known as the QAnon Shaman; and known White nationalists and neo-Nazis including livestreamer Tim Gionet, known as “Baked Alaska.” They roamed the building, trying to find Vice President Pence and the legislators who had moments earlier been attempting to certify the electoral college results; court filings disagree about what they would have done had they found them. Ultimately five people died in the insurrection.

    For many Americans, the Capitol insurrection came as a shock. For anti-fascist activists, it was exactly what they had expected. For years they have been saying that far-right violence, including terrorist attacks in which people are killed, is on the rise both in the United States and globally.

    The evidence bears this out. In October 2020, months before the Capitol attack, the Department of Homeland Security published a “Homeland Threat Assessment” investigating terrorist attacks and killings committed by “domestic violent extremists.” The report notes that “2019 was the most lethal year for domestic violent extremism in the United States since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.” Among domestic violent extremists, the report notes, White supremacists committed eight of the total sixteen lethal attacks, and were responsible for thirty-nine of the forty-eight resulting deaths. Elsewhere the report predicts that “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists – specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs) – will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland” in the coming years. (The document also discusses militant anarchists as a potential threat.)

    A similar tone is struck in the lengthy “Country Report on Terrorism” published in 2019 by the US State Department. “The threat posed by racially or ethnically motivated terrorism (REMT), particularly white supremacist terrorism, remained a serious challenge for the global community,” it states. “Continuing a trend that began in 2015, there were numerous deadly REMT attacks around the world in 2019, including in Christchurch, New Zealand; Halle, Germany; and El Paso, Texas.”

    According to the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, right-wing extremist groups kill vastly more people than do left-wing ones. “Between 1994 and 2020, there were 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States. Overall, right-wing terrorists perpetrated the majority – 57 percent – of all attacks and plots during this period, compared to 25 percent committed by left-wing terrorists, 15 percent by religious terrorists, 3 percent by ethnonationalists, and 0.7 percent by terrorists with other motives.” In the United States in the years since 9/11, “right-wing terrorist attacks caused 335 deaths, left-wing attacks caused 22 deaths, and ethnonationalist terrorists caused 5 deaths.”

    A real rise in right-wing extremist violence, then, long predates January 6, 2021. And antifa groups have come to see themselves as the ones willing to stand up and fight Hitler before he comes to power.

    a firs-aid volunteer confronting Portland police, July 2020

    Marie Tyvoll, a first-aid volunteer, confronts Portland police, July 2020. Photograph by John Rudoff/Sipa USA/Alamy Live News

    Anti-Fascist Origins

    Over the summer of 2020, anti-fascist activists in Portland were catapulted into the national spotlight by their participation in racial-justice protests, street fights with far-right groups and law enforcement, and vandalism. In September, President Trump called Portland an “anarchist jurisdiction,” and the Justice Department soon made a similar designation. But Portland has a long history of anarchist and anti-fascist activity.

    Oregon’s anti-fascist presence arose as a response to right-wing extremism. Though recently famous for its lefty “Portlandia” reputation, the state has for most of its history been home to significant numbers of far-right and White supremacist groups. In 1859, it became the only state admitted to the union with a Black exclusion law. In 1922, Walter Pierce, a Klansman, was elected governor of the state. The Black exclusion law was overturned in 1926, but was not fully removed from the state constitution until 2002.

    In November 1988, skinhead neo-Nazis from a group called East Side White Pride beat Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw to death with a baseball bat in front of his apartment in southeast Portland. The incident provoked Mic Crenshaw, co-founder of Anti-Racist Action (ARA), to move from Minneapolis to Portland to found an ARA chapter there. This group gave rise in 2007 to Rose City Antifa, the first group in the United States to adopt the “antifa” moniker, which is common in Europe.

    “If we’ve learned anything, it’s to be really annoying.” —An antifa activist

    Groups like Rose City Antifa subscribe to a set of views often described as anarcho-communism. They use symbols like the three-arrow Iron Front emblem of the German anti-Nazi Social Democratic Party, and the red and black flag emblem representing both communism and anarchism. According to Mark Bray of Rutgers University, the roots of contemporary antifa lie in pre- and immediately post-World War II Europe. In his book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, Bray tells the story of the “43 Group,” a collection of mostly Jewish British veterans who set out to prevent fascists from organizing in England in the years directly following the war. Fascists and nationalists, including former members of the British Union of Fascists, were by this time organizing events under slogans such as “War on the Jews.” Because police would not simply shut down fascist groups’ events, the 43 Group attempted to force them to, using direct-action techniques. “If a single member could get through the cordon of fascist stewards to tip over the speaker’s platform,” Bray writes, “the police had a policy of not allowing the fascists to set it up again. With that in mind, the 43 Group organized units of about a dozen into wedge formations that, at an agreed time, would start far out in the crowd and build up steam so that they ‘could break through many times [their] number of muscular stewards’ and get to the platform.” If this didn’t work, the group would disperse into the crowd to start fistfights, creating a brawl the police would have to shut down. According to Bray, this approach was hugely successful.

    Present-day antifa groups see themselves as belonging to the tradition of the 43 Group and other groups that opposed the rise and resurgence of fascism around Europe. They engage in similar tactics, using direct-action techniques, they say, to defend marginalized communities – particularly ethnic and racial minorities, and queer and trans people – from those who would commit violence against them. “Our long-term goal,” one Portland activist told me, “is to make it so that people who are organizing for violence against our communities don’t have a platform to do so.” They understand violence, in a broad sense, to encompass actions that do harm, whether or not they involve a physical attack. Anti-fascists “doxx” people – publish their personal information in an attempt to affect them financially and socially – though Rose City Antifa claims only to doxx those who have made threats or acts of violence against marginalized people. Others are not so scrupulous – for example, one anti-fascist activist attempted to doxx me, publishing my place of employment and the name of a journal I help edit, after I shared photographs from the Democratic headquarters march in November.

    Antifa activists also believe, at least in the United States, that the police and prison systems themselves are fundamentally racist institutions that must be abolished; a common chant at direct-action events is “no good cops in a racist system.” Most antifa seek to abolish the state entirely, and establish what Rose City Antifa refers to as “a classless society, free from all forms of oppression.” One person I spoke with in August during a direct action near the Portland Police Union building told me that the point is to put stress on the system. “If we’ve learned anything,” he said, “it’s to be really annoying.… We’re putting cracks in the system… overtaxing it” to provoke the police into using excessive force. He added that “every single act of aggression that they commit against people that are coming out here… just makes our argument stronger as well.”

    This approach was extremely effective throughout the summer, with fireworks lobbed at the police and Molotov cocktails repeatedly thrown at the federal courthouse, starting fire after fire. Tensions escalated: more police and federal law enforcement officers were sent to the city; nightly protests repeatedly ended with police using tear gas and other “less lethal” munitions to disperse the crowd. Protesters captured numerous video clips of excessive force, including the now-iconic one of federal agents attacking a peaceful US Navy veteran.

    Proud Boys rally in Portland, September 2020

    Proud Boys rally in Portland, September 2020 Photograph by Stephanie Keith/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

    The Language of the Unheard

    “I think a riot is the language of the voiceless,” an anti-police activist in Portland told me during a protest on election night, paraphrasing, like many others I spoke to, a 1967 speech by Martin Luther King Jr. “In the final analysis,” said King, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

    People recall this phrase at critical moments; following the police killings of Michael Brown Jr., Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, Google searches for it spiked. In April, 2015, during the Baltimore riots following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, it was googled more frequently than King’s more well-known observation about light driving out darkness and love driving out hate. After George Floyd’s death in 2020, during the sometimes-violent protests that ensued, the quote was searched for four times as often as during the Baltimore riots and used in hundreds of articles, both those critical of rioting and those that sought to explain it.

    In a June New Yorker article, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor used it to condemn ongoing oppression:

    Riots are not only the voice of the unheard… they are the rowdy entry of the oppressed into the political realm. They become a stage of political theatre where joy, revulsion, sadness, anger, and excitement clash wildly in a cathartic dance. They are a festival of the oppressed.

    But journalists like Taylor and others did not go on to point out, as King did in his speech, that riots tend to aggravate the very problems they seek to address. Riots are not only the voice of the unheard, King declared; they are also “socially destructive and self-defeating.” “I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way. But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots.”

    “We believe that there are no bad protesters.” —Johnny

    Later in November, I spoke with two representatives from Rose City Antifa. We sat outside at a picnic bench in a park a few blocks from the house where I grew up. The evening was cold, but unusually dry for the time of year. When I arrived at the park, I was surprised to see that the activists, who asked to be called Johnny and Taylor, wore casual street clothes and made no effort to disguise their identities. As they spoke, steam wafted off their KN95 masks, fogging their glasses.

    “We support a diversity of tactics,” Taylor told me when asked about the vandalism that has made antifa notorious. “I think that a lot of the property destruction we’re seeing right now is a product of people’s genuine and justified frustration and rage with any number of things in our society.” Taylor pointed to a lack of response on the part of politicians to the problem of police brutality, as well as frustration about the quarantine and poor handling of the pandemic. “We don’t comment on the actions that people choose to take.”

    “We try to not comment or speculate on what people’s motivations might be,” Johnny added, “because we believe that there are no bad protesters.… We try to be empathetic to any reason that people would show up to a protest and put themselves out there like that.”

    “I don’t know that there would be a ‘right’ answer,” Taylor interjected. “I can’t think of a thing that would sway me either way about why someone would break a window.”

    Johnny told me that, for Rose City Antifa, self-defense can be “preemptive.” It is not necessary to wait until someone is prepared to inflict violence before you defend yourself. Instead, by community organizing, doxxing, and occasionally brawling in the streets, antifa groups believe they can prevent greater violence later.

    “It was terrible. It was selfish. Uncalled for. I don’t think they care about people on the street.” —Smiley

    These activists, like most of the others I spoke with, also wanted to broaden the definition of “violence” that I used to frame my questions. “If you think of destruction and violence as things that do harm,” Johnny told me, “then we see that in our city all the time. We see that there’s a housing crisis in Portland; we see that wages have not been adjusted to allow for everyone in the city to have a good quality of life; there are houses that are sitting empty, accumulating property value while people sleep on the streets. Those are things that are violent.” When protesters act out of frustration with this kind of violence, Johnny said, “What’s a window to that?”

    I told them about a Somali immigrant woman in Minneapolis whose restaurant was destroyed in the first days of the racial-justice protests, and asked Johnny and Taylor how they thought about the unintended consequences of property destruction. They disputed my use of the word “unintended.” “People pretty much know that things can happen when they engage in this sort of action,” Johnny said. “And I think that in its aftermath, our goal is still to keep our communities safe and healthy. The community will try to address those issues.”

    “People make mistakes,” Taylor added. “Things happen in the heat of the moment that people might not have chosen to do otherwise. I think that what matters most is how we as a community bounce back from that and show each other that we take care of each other.”

    Smiley, a homeless man in Portland

    Smiley, who lives on the streets of Portland, was affected when an antifa action shuttered homeless outreach at St. André Bessette church. Photograph courtesy of Patrick Tomassi

    One such “mistake” was made in downtown Portland the night after the election, when a black-bloc activist with a hammer shattered the windows of St. André Bessette Catholic Church. In the security footage, a homeless woman who had been sleeping in the doorway can be seen jumping out of the way in terror. The parish, whose primary work is to provide meals and clothing to Portland’s homeless community, was forced to close down operations for two weeks due to safety concerns. I spoke with the pastor, as well as several of the people who live on the streets in the area and rely on St. André for both support and companionship. They all expressed frustration that someone would choose to harm vulnerable people. “It was terrible. It was selfish. Uncalled for,” a man named Smiley told me. “I don’t think they care about people on the street.”

    Rose City Antifa did not step forward to help St. André Bessette rebuild. Those who did were members of the church community, strangers, and at least one formerly homeless person who had been helped by the parish. Nor did any antifa group take responsibility for the attack – a benefit of the decentralized anarchist approach. The man who committed the crime, one is meant to believe, acted alone.

    Justifiable Violence?

    Most antifa activists I’ve spoken with do not consider property destruction violence: violence, they say, can only be directed at people. In antifa circles, this sort of violence is often referred to as “punching Nazis,” and is a matter of intense debate among leftist and anti-fascist groups. So-called “everyday anti-fascists” tend to be ambivalent about it, while others, like Buckets, are more explicit in their endorsement. Johnny, who grew up in a faith tradition, said that the idea of committing violence in response to injustice had not always been palatable. But this started to change as Johnny began to empathize with those committing the violence. “People generally aren’t pushed to violence on a micro-scale” such as face-punching, said Johnny, “unless they have exhausted other resources.”

    Johnny and Taylor explained that they are willing to punch Nazis for the same reason that they doxx them: to provide real-world consequences for threatening and perpetrating acts of violence. In this sense, it is fundamentally about power. Antifa groups cannot make the people they see as Nazis change, but they can make it so costly to be a Nazi – economically, socially, or physically – that they stop showing up. “If you and your buddies posted that you were going to go commit violence against members of a race of people,” Taylor said, “and then you lost your jobs, and had to go spend time looking for new ones,” or your friends abandoned you when they learned about your behavior, “you might think twice about doing that.” Similarly, if every time you showed up at a Proud Boy rally you got punched, you might get sick of it and stop showing up.

    Both activists said that while they’d come to support violence as a political tool they were by no means cavalier about it. “Violence still makes me incredibly sad and incredibly upset,” Taylor told me. “For us as an organization,” Johnny added, “violence is always a last resort.” This was similar to what I heard from people carrying weapons such as baseball bats and truncheons at direct-action events.

    Antifa activists – including every one that I spoke with – repeatedly claim that they do not go looking for a fight. “We aren’t punching first,” Taylor told me. “The work that we do is community self-defense. And we’re pretty clear about [the fact] that the Nazis who get punched are people who are coming into our city looking to inflict violence on people who they see as ‘other.’”

    Activists on the far right completely disagree about who’s looking for a fight. When I asked “Bluto,” a Proud Boy, at a September rally about the large baseball bat he was leaning on, he corrected me. “My war club,” he said. “It is defensive only, and lower body. Because anything above that would definitely do some real damage. I’m willing to defend myself, but I don’t want to go to jail for murder, and I don’t feel somebody necessarily needs to die.”

    “I got something to add,” another Proud Boy chimed in. “You know how you haven’t seen violence happen here? You won’t. Not here.” Proud Boys, they agreed, do not throw the first punch. Bluto said he would go to the wall for his right to act in self-defense. “But I insist that I will never start a fight.”

    And yet, as I wrote in Public Discourse in November, violence does break out almost any time Proud Boys and antifa interact. These events are powder kegs, waiting for one spark before they blow. Each side blames the other, and says that the bats, pepper-spray canisters, and guns that people on their own side carry are for self-defense only. Video footage, sometimes selectively edited to make the other side appear at fault, is circulated on social media and used to radicalize and recruit more militants on both sides.

    In Antifa, Mark Bray makes a case in defense of violent anti-fascism. While he accepts that confronting far-right groups could give them more attention than they would get otherwise, he claims that it also prevents them from capitalizing on it. He points to the 2017 Berkeley protests, in which militant anti-fascists clashed with far-right extremists and neo-Nazis, threw fireworks and rocks, broke windows, and set fires, in a successful attempt to cancel right-wing speaker Milo Yiannopoulos’s event. “Yiannopoulos’s fame did indeed soar after he was shut down in Berkeley,” Bray writes. However, if shutting him down “prevented a single undocumented or transgender student from facing harassment or worse… then it was worth it. Period.” The event he is discussing is one at which multiple people, including bystanders, were injured.

    Bray suggests that, since World War II is “the least controversial war in American history,” the question is not really whether Americans think it is legitimate to fight Nazis. Rather, the question is whether Americans would consider it heroic to do so before the outbreak of the war. Why, he wonders, do Americans object to the idea of confronting present-day fascists and White supremacists with violence, when they have no such objections to battling Hitler? For Bray, the question of whether an explicitly fascist regime could actually come to power today is irrelevant, because whether or not they are in power, far-right extremists can still inflict harm on marginalized communities.

    Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer demonstrators in Portland, September 2020

    Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer demonstrators in Portland, September 2020 Photograph by Michael Nigro/Sipa USA Credit: Sipa USA/Alamy Live News

    Another Way to Combat Hate

    During summer 2019, I drove for Lyft to make extra money. One day I had a discussion with a young woman who was flying home to visit her family. She talked about the difficulties of coming out as lesbian to her conservative parents, and how hard it had been to talk with them. At some point in the conversation, I brought up the Black blues musician Daryl Davis, who has spent decades befriending men in the Ku Klux Klan. Over the years, hundreds of people have left the hate group as a result. “I used to think dialogue like that was possible,” she told me as we pulled up to the airport. “I don’t anymore. That’s why I participate in anti-fascist actions now.” She picked up her luggage and walked inside.

    This is a common refrain among those who participate in anti-fascist actions. As one man said of Nazis at a Mark Bray reading, “You are not going to love these people away.” “I wasn’t planning on it,” Bray responded. Taylor and Johnny, of Rose City Antifa, agreed with the woman from my Lyft and the man at the reading. “I don’t think that dialogue is possible because dialogue requires good faith on the part of both parties,” Johnny said, “and I don’t think that that is possible with people who have gone to that far of the right.” By the point someone is a neo-Nazi, Johnny said, “a dialogue ship has sailed.”

    “How can you hate me, when you don't even know me?” —Daryl Davis

    Just before Christmas, I spoke with Daryl Davis over Zoom from his home in Maryland. Davis has spent the last thirty-seven years engaging with members of hate groups, including Klansmen and neo-Nazis. Growing up, he said, he would have agreed that the ship had sailed. When he was ten years old, Davis, who is Black, was carrying the flag during a march with his otherwise all-White Cub Scout troop when spectators began throwing rocks and bottles at him. That was when he first started to ponder the question that would end up shaping much of his life: “How can you hate me,” he wondered, “when you don’t even know me?” He began to read books about racists and hate groups, but none could answer his question.

    In 1983, Davis was playing with a country band at a truck-stop bar called the Silver Dollar Lounge in Frederick, Maryland, fifty miles west of Baltimore, when a White man walked up to him during a break in the show. He put his arm around Davis and told him he was the only Black man he’d ever heard play the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis. “Where do you think Jerry Lee Lewis learned how to play?” Davis asked. When Davis said that Lewis learned his style from Black blues and boogie-woogie players, the man did not believe him. He was fascinated by Davis, though, and invited him to his table for a drink, the first time, he said, he’d ever had a drink with a Black man. In their ensuing conversation, the man said that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Davis didn’t believe him, he told me, until the man showed him his membership card. At the end of the conversation, the man gave Davis his phone number and told him to call whenever the band was in town. He did, and the man came every time, sometimes bringing other Klan members along to see the Black man who played like Jerry Lee.

    In 1987 or ’88, it occurred to Davis that the answer to the question that had plagued him since childhood – how can you hate me, when you don’t even know me? – had fallen into his lap. “Who better to ask that question of,” Davis thought, “than somebody who would join an organization that practices that kind of thing?” He got back in contact with the man from the Silver Dollar Lounge and asked him to put him in touch with the Klan leader for the state of Maryland. Then Davis traveled around the United States, meeting with members of the Klan to find the answer to his question. “I never set out to convert any of them,” Davis said. He had been raised to know that a tiger cannot change its stripes. But within a few years, people started leaving the Klan because of him.

    “I never expected some Klan leader I’m talking to to decide to quit based on some of the things that I’ve been saying to him,” Davis told me. “He quit. I got his robe and hood. It was a shock to me.” Davis said that, like the woman in my Lyft, his thinking had been wrong. “She was thinking like I was… The thing of it is, that’s right. A tiger cannot change its stripes and a leopard cannot change its spots, because they were born with those stripes and spots. A Klansman or White supremacist is not born with that robe and hood.” Davis now has over fifty sets of robes and hoods, and more than two hundred men have left racist hate groups either directly because of him, or because of someone he helped.

    Daryl Davis

    Daryl Davis Photograph from Penn State

    Davis said that the mistake anti-fascist activists make is to try to deny someone’s reality. “Whatever somebody perceives becomes their reality,” he said. “Whether it’s real or not, it’s their reality because that’s what they perceive.” He used the example of crime statistics. “They see more Black people in prison than White people. And that’s a fact: there are more Blacks in prison than White people. So their perception is Black people are more prone to crime than White people.” But they are not looking at all the data, from poverty to educational differences to imbalance in the justice system. Instead of yelling at them that they are wrong, Davis tries to fill out the picture. “I offer them different things to look at. And then they put it together themselves. And that is a lot stronger than trying to compel somebody’s behavior. When you try to force somebody to do something, you’re going to have resistance. You might get them to do it, but it’s going to be short-lived. But if they come into it themselves, it’s going to last a lot longer.” For Davis, this is no armchair philosophy. He has had guns pulled on him, and stood next to fiery crosses. He has seen conversion happen hundreds of times, and many of the men who have left violent hate groups because of their friendships with him have gone on to help others leave.

    In 2019 Daryl Davis was invited to speak at an event on racism and free speech organized by a media platform called Minds. After anti-fascist activists allegedly threatened to blow up the event, it was moved from New Jersey to a secret location in Philadelphia. Somehow, Davis said, activists got wind that the after-party would be taking place back in New Jersey. They showed up across the street to protest. According to Davis, they were calling those inside White supremacists. So he decided to invite them in so they could meet everyone. “So I invited them over, and they called me a White supremacist. I mean, when you call me a White supremacist, that battle is over, you know? It was done.”

    Davis said that he is sympathetic to anti-fascist activists who are concerned about White supremacy. “They want to punch a Nazi in the face,” he said. “I get it, but you know, that does not work. I know a lot of Nazis. I know a lot of Klansmen. And while I don’t agree with their views, I can tell you one thing: I’ve never seen anybody punch the Nazi out of a Nazi. It doesn’t work. All it does is empower them, enable them.” He said that fighting always escalates. Fists are traded for guns. “You put a bullet in somebody, they don’t come back.”

    Contributed By PatrickTomassi Patrick Tomassi

    Patrick Tomassi is a teacher and writer in Portland, Oregon, his native city. He helps organize the annual New York Encounter and is a contributing editor at Veritas Journal.

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