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What is Going on with the Protests in Portland?

In which I attempt to answer the questions: Who are the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer? And, What Does It Mean For Our Country When We Speak the Same Language But Can No Longer Understand Each Other? And Have We Forgotten How To Belong to Each Other?

September 25th 2020

            Tomorrow there is another chance for extreme violence in Portland, Oregon as the Proud Boys (a “Western Chauvinist” and far right neo-fascist group) plan to stage a demonstration in Delta Park on Saturday September 26th.[i] The location itself is an affront to anyone who supports the black community of Oregon as it is where the former historic black neighborhood of Vanport used to be located before it was demolished by a flood. These Proud Boys are demonstrating for “Love for American and Western values” and protesting the death of a member of Patriot Prayer who was shot last month in downtown Portland. They also want to free Kyle Rittenhouse (the teenager who murdered two protestors in Kenosha last month, who then walked towards the cop with his hands up and was politely cuffed).

Meanwhile, counter anti-fascist protestors are holding a community solidarity event against fascism in Peninsula Park, so while the groups should be separated by a few miles, there is also talk of a smaller counter protest against the Proud Boys that is going to take place in Delta Park, and it’s also possible that the Proud Boys will drive over to the counter protestors site. Who knows what’s going to happen (I plan on going to the event at Peninsula Park and will let you know!)

It is important to note that many of these Proud Boys and members of Patriot Prayer (more on them in a sec) are not even from Oregon—though some of them hail from Vancouver just over the Columbia. Some of them are literally traveling to Portland looking for a fight. And while the City of Portland has denied them a permit to gather, they are coming anyways. Whenever these types of events happen, violence is sure to follow.

The violence and guns brought to the streets of Oregon since early August have only increased. Last month, after over 90 days of protests, a caravan of over a thousand Trump supporters in big lifted black trucks with blue flags came to downtown Portland from Clackamas to instigate violence, (shooting BLM and anti-fascist protestors with paintball guns and spraying them with gas) when someone finally ended up dead. The man who was killed was a member of Patriot Prayer. His killer, a self-described Antifa member, was later shot and killed by police when they came to arrest him a couple days later.

These same Trump supporters, Proud Boys, and Patriot Prayer members showed up the weekend before to pick a fight and the Portland Police Bureau were nowhere in sight, only showing up to arrest those on the left later in the evening (PPB claimed they were “understaffed”).

Unfortunately, these street brawls between Antifascist groups and alt-right groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer are nothing new in Portland, they’ve been going on since Trump was elected. But last month ended in the first death of a member of Patriot Prayer. Patriot Prayer is an alt-right “Christian” group, mostly from Vancouver, WA, who have ties to white nationalist ideology. As a Christian myself, as someone who truly does his best to try to follow the way of love and of Jesus, the group makes my blood boil (I haven’t even been able to write about them before this because of how angry and depressed I know I will become just thinking about the group’s existence.)

The leader of Patriot Prayer is Joey Gibson, a controversial figure to say the least. A man whose failed bid for public office seemed to lead him to a darker place of political organizing. The group claims to be about “freedom,” and some other fairly generic, conservative talking points, including, of course, the second amendment, but for some reason wherever they go, violence follows (though they say the same thing about “Antifa”). Patriot Prayer rallies were once attended by Jeremy Christian, a man who later slashed the throats of two men on the Max train who stood up to defend the two Muslim women he was harassing (though Patriot Prayer distanced themselves from Jeremy Christian and claims he was not a member, still, there had to be some sort of rhetoric that drew Christian to Patriot Prayer in the first place). Many of these people wear cross patches stitched onto their bulletproof vests while holding AR-15s, literally claiming allegiance to God, Guns, and Country.  

            If I can take a step back and look at it objectively (and not see Patriot Prayer’s own twisted nationalist version of faith as a personal affront to the God and Jesus I know and the entire message of the Gospel), I find the group objectively fascinating. Sergio Olmos, an incredibly brave reporter who has covered the Portland protests nearly every day for Oregon Public Radio since the spring, spent some time getting to know Patriot Prayer and “freedom fighter Joey Gibson,” last year finding that “those in Gibson’s orbit find a sense of purpose, camaraderie in violent right-wing nationalism.” In an article for The Columbian Olmos interviews Brad Galloway, who for 13 years led the Canadian chapter of Volksfront, a violent neo-nazi gang founded in Portland:

“They’re seeking belonging, identity,” Galloway says. “there’s this sense of loneliness, especially in this age of the internet, sitting around hour upon hour, in echo chambers online. And they find (their identity) in the collective identity of the group.[ii]

In Olmos’s article, Gibson talks about how he used to be a football coach and misses that comradery and team effort. Now he gets the same solidarity by bleeding in the street with his Patriot prayer brothers battling Antifa: “So, at a rally, you show up, right, and you yeah, when you bleed together over and over again, you build that camaraderie.”

I can only think that something is sincerely wrong with our society, (and men in particular) when the only way for us to find belonging and community is by street fighting other groups of people. Yet in other ways, this is nothing new. Perhaps Portland’s return to a Gangs of New York-style-street-brawls are the greatest indicator that modern society is not as “progressive” as we would like to think, or that the United States of America has been built on a myth all along, one that is finally crumbling.

In my opinion, many people join groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer because they are seeking this type of belonging. I mean, if the pull of belonging wasn’t so strong, I can think of no other reason why someone else would join a violent radical group like the Proud Boys. Belonging is so powerful it not only makes you commit yourself to sex cults, but to groups that shun masturbation entirely!

Yet, as polarization grows, it seems as if we have forgotten how to belong to each other in this country. And if we don’t consider ourselves as belonging to each other, than how are we to change our society?

As the activist Grace Lee Boggs says: “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and taking responsibility for it.”

I am not very hopeful however.

In a New Yorker article titled “The Myth of America,” writer and contributor Robin Wright says that after the Civil war:

“The cultural divide and cleavages are still deep. Three hundred and thirty million people may identify as Americans, but they define what that means—and what rights and responsibilities are involved—in vastly different ways. The American promise has not delivered for many Blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asian-Americans, myriad immigrant groups, and even some whites as well. Hate crimes—acts of violence against people or property based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or gender identity—are a growing problem. A bipartisan group in the House warned in August that, “as uncertainty rises, we have seen hatred unleashed.”

When Athens and Sparta went to war, in the fifth century B.C., the Greek general and historian Thucydides observed, “The Greeks did not understand each other any longer, though they spoke the same language.”

If we can no longer speak the same language, if we live in our own echo chambers and consume different types of media and news (due to social media algorithms), if we can no longer agree on what is truth, i.e., facts, if we disagree with science and can’t even agree to wear masks because we are so stubbornly independent, than what future do we have?

 Ironically, the same ideals of rugged American individualism and freedoms we hold to so dearly, are now the same ones making us incapable of adapting to the modern world. Yet the way in which we have approached politics and the various conservative/liberal ideological issues over the past decade shows our lack of willingness to belong to each other. As Sebastian Junger says in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

“The eternal argument over so-called entitlement programs—and more broadly, over liberal and conservative though—will never be resolved because each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past. So how do you unify a secure, wealthy country that has sunk into a zero-sum political game with itself? How do you make veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place? I put that question to Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Yehuda has seen, up close, the effect of such antisocial divisions on traumatized vets. ‘If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different—you underscore your shared humanity,’ she told me. ‘I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another, and not on the things that unite us.” The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone … The ultimate betrayal of tribe isn’t acting competitively—that should be encouraged—but predicating your power on the excommunication of others from the group.” (Tribe 128)

I for one, am indifferent to the notion of the “United” states. I say we break it up. Let Texas and California and Alaska go. All hail Cascadia! Let’s make the U.S. into some sort of Amerizone. That way people can move to whatever part of the country they find ideologically drawn to and we can quit fighting with each other. I mean, at this point, I don’t think a Civil War is that far away, seriously.

I still find it tremendously sad though, that we have forgotten how to belong to each other in this country. I mean, what has happenend? It’s like a portion of the population is under some type of demonic force or dark, magical spell. Maybe that’s the spell of nationalism. Or just plain stupidity. For as anti-Nazi theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote about Hitler’s rise to power:

“Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.[iii]

I can think of no better words that sum up those who have fallen under the spell of nationalistic fervor and Trump devotion.

What do we do then? I struggle daily to not give in to despair and defeatism, yet while there might be violence tomorrow, I can only hope and pray that we can create a society in the future where everyone belongs.

If you don’t feel comfortable going to the protests in person to protest fascists, one thing you can make sure to do is vote this November, and I would encourage you to look at your vote this year as not for Trump or Biden, but as one for either autocracy or democracy.


[i] https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/proud-boys-rally-on-saturday-raises-concerns-of-more-violence-in-portland/

[ii] Olmos, Sergio, Idealistic ‘Freedom Fighter’ Joey Gibson Offers Inner Circle a Kind of Kinship” The Columbian. September 19th 2019.

[iii] Holmquist, Annie. “Bonhoeffer on the ‘Stupidity’ That Led to Hitler’s Rise. https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/blog/bonhoeffer-stupidity-led-hitlers-rise/

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