Sep 7, 2021

Understanding A22 PDX: Never Let the Nazis Have the Story! The Narrative Aspect of Conflict

Proud Boys Rally at Delta Park, PDX in 2020. Photo from WaPo.com

The following is part of a series of responses to the events of August 22, 2001 (A22) in Portland, Oregon. They are part of the broader discussion surrounding A22 that we are highlighting. We support any and all genuine and honest discussion that is of use to our movements regardless of whether we agree with what is raised and put forward. We also understand that real debate can be sharp and at times raw. We will attempt to be conscious of this and as stated previously, a fundamental part of our guidelines are based on 

principled responses, not personal attacks or sectarian squabbles (or, for that matter, uncritical boosterism). We also ask that submissions take into consideration issues of movement security, remembering that both the fascists and the state will be searching for faultiness to divide our movements.  

We appreciate the responses we have received and look forward to those others working to contribute to this discussion. – 3WF 

*For additional articles please check Rose City Counter-Info who have also been doing good work in making their site a platform for discussion on A22 and antifascism.


Never Let the Nazis Have the Story!

The Narrative Aspect of Conflict

by Kristian Williams

On August 22, 2021, Portland saw yet another of its now-almost-routine street fights between Far Right and Far Left — roughly speaking, fascists and antifascists.

What should have been an easy victory for the Left turned instead into a total rout. The Left had won before the day even started, and then lost before the night fell.

The Right — Proud Boys, Three Percenters, and like-minded bad actors — had originally planned for a rally in downtown Portland, a spot clearly selected for maximum visibility and media exposure. Assorted antifascist forces organized a counter-protest for the same place and the same time, expecting but not exactly calling for conflict. In the days leading up to the event, the Far Right organizers did the math, decided that they didn't like the odds, and at the last minute moved their rally several miles to the east, to the desolate parking lot of a shuttered Kmart.[1]This, especially with their low numbers, made them look scared and weak, and a grimy parking lot in front of an extinct business served as a practical metaphor for their dead-ender ideology. Had the antifascists just stayed downtown, declared victory, and enjoyed the party, the narrative would almost certainly have been that hundreds of antifascists forced the Proud Boys out of downtown, leading them to hide in a vacant lot and cry.

Instead, a minority of militants — a couple dozen from a crowd of three or four hundred — left the main antifascist demonstration and went to attack the Right's rally. In short order, they were violently repelled, leading to an ignominious retreat. They abandoned two vehicles, which the fascists used as piñatas, and left behind the drivers, one of whom appears to have been fairly badly hurt. It was a debacle, by almost any standard.

This is one of those strange situations when history allows for an almost one-to-one comparison. About a year earlier, in September 2020, the last time the Proud Boys attempted a major incursion into Portland, a broad antifascist coalition had a rally in a populated and lively neighborhood, while the Proud Boys moved their demo to a remote part of the city. Almost a thousand people came to the antifascist event, and it went on for hours. About two hundred went to the Right's, and it lasted two hours or less. The antifascists had speakers and bands and managed to create a fun (or at least fun-like) atmosphere, despite the teams with automatic rifles standing guard. The Proud Boys moped around in a muddy park, looking desperately over-armored, and complaining about how Antifa didn't even show up. They looked ridiculous, weak, and basically unloved. Their rally was universally understood as a humiliating defeat.[2]

This year could have been a repeat of that, but even more so. The Right's numbers were smaller, their location was even more pathetic-seeming, and the sudden change of venue gave every appearance that they had been scared away from downtown. Instead, the narrative is "Antifa attacked and got their ass kicked" — which is exactly the narrative the Right wants.

Over the last few years the Right started using these confrontations as their main recruiting device. The image of these clashes is central to their propaganda, and an important element of their group identity and collective self-conception.[3]

To use these incidents in that way, they need to deploy two narratives in close sequence, a victim narrative and a victory narrative. In their victim fable, they are innocent patriots, just loving America and praying to God, and enjoying some old fashioned Constitutionally-protected free speech, when along come the intolerant goons of Antifa to violently attack anyone with whom they disagree. In the victory narrative, the bold, strong, resourceful, courageous heroes of the Proud Boys step forward to defend the freedom-loving patriots, vanquish the barbaric hordes of intolerant Antifas, and redeem their community, white masculinity, and/or America.[4]

The ill-fated black bloc offensive perfectly fed into this dual narrative. It produced a military defeat, and from the looks of it some people got pretty badly hurt. But what is far worse is that it handed the Right a political victory. It solidified their self-conception, gave them a perfect tool for recruiting, and amplified their propaganda points far outside of their creepy online echo-chambers.

The narrative dimension of conflict should not be treated as an afterthought or cynically dismissed as a matter of "public relations," "optics," or "respectability politics." In this sort of conflict, the control of the narrative is more important, and has more lasting effect, than the control of territory. We may hold or cede territory for a few hours or a few weeks, but the story that is constructed about that — not just victory or defeat, but the normative elements of right and wrong, heroic or cowardly, virtuous and vicious — can shape a conflict for years to come. The struggle for the narrative is the struggle for legitimacy, and legitimacy will determine almost everything else: recruiting, fundraising, alliances with other groups, the public's cooperation, and to some degree even the behavior of the press and the courts.

Of course, the narrative isn't everything that matters. But in this case, there was not even a trade-off. It is not like we won the battle but it looked bad on television. We handily lost the physical confrontation and it looked bad on television. It surely left the brawlers on the Far Right feeling more emboldened, and it makes it more likely that they will return — sooner rather than later, and in greater numbers. Naturally that is the opposite of what was intended.

Defending their decision to attack, one of the crews comprising that day's black bloc has composed a self-righteous and self-congratulatory communiqué entitled "We Went Where They Went."[5] This is an obvious reference to the first of Anti-Racist Action's Points of Unity: "We Go Where They Go. Whenever fascists are organizing or active in public, we're there. We don't believe in ignoring them. Never let the Nazis have the streets!"[6]

It is worth considering why this principle arose: The point of showing up where the Nazis are is to disrupt their organizing and interfere with their recruiting.[7] On August 22, that approach proved counter-productive and even self-defeating, in part because the Right's strategy has come to rely on these same confrontations.

This whole experience can serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of elevating tactics to the level of principles. Street-fighting is a tactic. Sometimes it is the right one. More often it is not. Treating it as a principle makes us inflexible and predictable. We fail to adapt to new political realities, and we rule out other tactics before they even receive due consideration. It makes us less effective than we might otherwise be. Worse, it makes violent confrontation an end in itself, which can have a corrosive influence on the culture of the movement, and can obscure our ends even from ourselves. Once fighting has become the point, winning or losing become secondary considerations.

We can go where they go, but we should ask ourselves why we want to, and we should not be surprised by what we find when we get there.

Tough-sounding slogans will only take us so far, because (as Orwell put it) "sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."[8]


Bio

Kristian Williams is an occasional contributor to Three Way Fight and the author of Gang Politics: Revolution, Repression, and Crime (forthcoming, AK Press).


[1] Tess Riski, "East Portland Proud Boys Rally Devolves into Street Violence with No Police in Sight," Willamette Week, August 22, 2021, https://www.wweek.com/news/city/2021/08/22/east-portland-proud-boys-rally-devolves-into-street-violence-with-no-police-in-sight/; Isabella Garcia, "Far-Right, Antifascist Protesters Fight in NE Portland; Police Refuse to Intervene," Portland Mercury, August 22, 2021, https://www.portlandmercury.com/blogtown/2021/08/22/36118630/far-right-antifascist-protesters-fight-in-ne-portland-police-refuse-to-intervene; and, "Shots Fired Near Downtown Protest, Dueling Demonstrators Clash Violently in NE Portland," Oregonian, August 23, 2021, https://www.oregonlive.com/portland/2021/08/demonstrators-congregate-at-portland-waterfront.html.

[2] Blair Stenvick and Wm. Steven Humphrey, "Proud Boys Come to Portland, Antifascists Counter-Demonstrate," Portland Mercury, September 26, 2020, https://www.portlandmercury.com/blogtown/2020/09/26/29082385/live-blog-proud-boys-come-to-portland-antifascists-counter-demonstrate; Maxine Bernstein, et al., "Portland Protests Bring Out Hundreds to Proud Boys, Opposing Demonstrations Saturday," Oregonian, September 29, 2020, https://www.oregonlive.com/portland/2020/09/portland-protests-bring-proud-boys-counter-demonstrators-saturday-live-updates.html; Ryan Haas, et al., "Hate-Group Rally Breaks Up in Portland, Turnout Far Below Expectations," OPB.org, September 26, 2020, https://www.opb.org/article/2020/09/26/live-updates-portland-under-state-of-emergency-as-hate-group-holds-rally/; and Zane Sparling, "Proud Boys Rally in Portland Ends, Smaller than Feared," Portland Tribune, September 26, 2020, https://pamplinmedia.com/pt/9-news/482137-388914-proud-boys-rally-in-portland-ends-smaller-than-feared.

[3] Shane Burley, "Alt-Right Gangs: A Q&A with Shannon Reid, co-author of Alt-Right Gangs: A Hazy Shade of White," Political Research Associates, December 16, 2020, https://www.politicalresearch.org/2020/12/16/alt-right-gangs.

[4] See: Laura Jedeed, "Making Monsters: Right-Wing Creation of the Liberal Enemy," B.A. Thesis (Reed College: History and Social Sciences, May 2019), https://laurajedeed.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Jedeed-Thesis.pdf.

[5] "We Went Where They Went – 8/11/21 Reportback," Rose City Counter-Info, August 25, 2021, https://rosecitycounterinfo.noblogs.org/2021/08/we-went-where-they-went-8-22-21-reportback.

[6] "The Anti-Racist Action Network's Four Points of Unity," in Confronting Fascism: Discussion Documents for a Militant Movement, by Don Hamerquist, et al. (Montréal: Kersplebedeb, 2017), 205.

[7] See, for example: Stanislav Vysotsky, American Antifa: The Tactics, Culture, and Practice of Militant Antifascism(Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2021), 95; and, Shane Burley, Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (Chico: AK Press, 2017), 257.

[8] George Orwell, "In Front of Your Nose," in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, IV: In Front of Your Nose, 1945–1950, eds. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 124.

Related posts:

Understanding A22 PDX: discussion and analysis for the antifascist movements

Understanding A22 PDX: Three Responses

Understanding A22 PDX: Broader implications for militant movements

Understanding A22 PDX: Response from a Comrade, "We Go Where They Go" as strategy for militant antifascism

There Will Always Be More Of Us: Antifascist Organizing

4 comments:

Jared Eno said...

I don’t think I understand your argument. I agree we have to think critically about principles, but it’s unclear to me how you think we should decide whether a confrontation is appropriate. If the narrative is central, then why wouldn’t it have been a better narrative for everyone to go and force the fascists out of even their second location? I also don’t think you answered the critique that labeling certain parts of the city “remote” implies that the people living there are less worthy of protection.

I don’t even live in Portland, I was just interested to hear your reasoning and am not following you.

Anonymous said...

I don't live in Portland and I am not an antifascist organizer, but I am following this series with interest.

I do not follow your arguments here. I understand that the narrative is important, perhaps central. But if that is the case, I feel like your position could equally argue that ALL antifascists should have gone to the K-Mart parking lot. That way, victory would have been more likely, and the narrative would have been that antifascists got ran out of town twice, and that no area of the city was safe for them. Because the narrative is important to their recruiting, as you point out, it seems to me that this would fulfill your criteria that "the point of showing up where the Nazis are is to disrupt their organizing and interfere with their recruiting." Basically, why doesn't your position support the decision to go to the K-Mart parking lot?

I also don't think you answered the critique that by designating parts of the city as more or less important, you are implicitly stating that residents of some areas are less worthy of being defended. We know that areas with marginalized folks are targeted for disinvestment. So places like a "grimy parking lot in front of an extinct business served" or a "muddy park" aren't necessarily just a "practical metaphor for [the Right's] dead-ender ideology." Often times, they are the living conditions of the marginalized. By contrast, "a populated and lively neighborhood" can often mean areas of privilege where marginalized folks are not welcome. I don't live in Portland so I don't know if this is the case, but I think that was what the piece from Rose City Counterinfo argued.

ThreeWayFight said...

Kristian Williams replies:

Jared and Anonymous-

You raise essentially the same points, so I will respond to you both
together.

Yes, a narrative that the fascists got run out of town twice would be
better than either of the alternatives I considered. However, we have
to choose among those courses of action that are available, not those
that we might merely imagine. So, had the decision-making process been
nimble enough to change direction as new information came in, and were
there logistics in place to transport a few hundred people across town
and have them arrive in a coordinated manner, and were all of those
people prepared to launch an offensive against a better-armed adversary
who had already established control of the terrain -- then you might
have a point. However, none of those conditions were in place on August
22.

You seem to assume that the only thing the black bloc action lacked was
sufficient numbers, but I don't think that that is true. Other
contributors to this site have already discussed the shortcomings in
communications, logistics, and tactics, so I won't go over that again
here. I'll just note that good intentions are not the same thing as a
fighting capacity, and mistaking one for the other is dangerous.

As to the question of geography: The area I describe as a muddy field in
a remote part of the city is Delta Park, where the Proud Boys had their
September 2020 sad-face tailgate party. Take a minute and go look at a
map. Delta Park is roughly triangular and bordered on two sides by
industrial areas, and on one side by an interstate highway. It is so
far north that it is almost in another state.

In contrast, Peninsula Park, home to the September 2020 antifascist
demo, I described as being situated in "a populated and lively
neighborhood." You worry that translates to "areas of privilege where
marginalized folks are not welcome." In fact, it is in an historically
Black neighborhood which, despite years of gentrification, remains
pretty integrated by Portland standards.

The Parkrose neighborhood, where the 2021 battle for Kmart occurred, is
a different matter. It is largely residential and (again, by Portland
standards) extremely diverse. As a whole it should not be written off,
and I am sorry if it seemed like I was being dismissive about it.
However, the Kmart parking lot is approximately seven acres, bordered by
four-lane roads on two sides, and has no direct street access to the
closest neighborhoods. This makes it a very defensible spot, but also
inaccessible and fairly contained.

We don't know what would have happened had the black bloc kept their
distance, or formed a defensive line at the border of the residential
area. (Other contributors have already detailed steps that were being
taken to help protect the area's most vulnerable residents.) But we know
what did happen: As a result of the antifascist attack, the chances for
violence in Parkrose increased from "possible" to "certain." And the
thing that drew the Proud Boys into the nearby residential areas was
their pursuit of retreating antifascists. In terms of actual effect,
this can hardly be characterized as "defending" the community.

I don't doubt anyone's intentions here, and I am certainly not saying
that we should *never* "go where they go." But I think that decision
needs to be made carefully, with attention to the tactical, strategic,
logistical, and (yes) narrative dimensions. I don't think it can be
assumed as a matter of principle.

Jared Eno said...

I appreciate the response, Kristian. The info about the locations is helpful to this non-Portlander. (Those comments were both me, I couldn't figure out the commenting system...)