Nov 13, 2021

Understanding A22 PDX: The Scraps

The following is part of a series of responses to the events of August 22, 2001 (A22) in Portland, Oregon. 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



The Scraps


by Morris Beckman

But this gets back to a more important question, one that supersedes the question of effective antifascism and gets to something more fundamental: what was the goal of the counter-organizing on August 22nd? What does it look like to win?
Proud Boys and their allies at the abandoned Kmart near Parkrose.
Photo courtesy of The Oregonian.

As I watched the final confrontations on August 22nd, a few questions started to race through my mind. We were within earshot of Parkrose High School, the most diverse educational center in the otherwise largely white city of Portland, in the solidly working-class area of Parkrose. While surely on the path of gentrification, this neighborhood has largely remained a place where working families can buy a house, where union signs outpace American flags, and where people treat the houseless encampments as neighbors (with more or less success). That is to say that it is old Portland modernized: it has the working-class sensibility but with a slightly more left orientation and actual diversity rather than the tokenizing grad-school variety.

We were late into the afternoon and anything that could have been properly called a form of antifascist organizing had largely come to an end. Instead these were the final scraps: the left-overs yelling at each other, unclear what the function of the confrontation even was. This was the end of what, from other angles, had been referred to as a rousing success. The long and short of it is that the Proud Boys (amongst other far-right cliques) tried to hold a rally in the city center. Antifascist groups, including Rose City Antifa, mobilized a counter-demonstration, progressive groups staged a press conference, and the pressure ostensibly worked: the Proud Boys moved their rally out of the city center. Instead, they pushed it to the edge of Parkrose, where they staged a humiliating occupation in the parking lot of an abandoned K-Mart.

The counter-demonstration continued with the expected party vibe, ensuring that the far-right wouldn’t change their mind and try to filter in and attack protesters. But as the hours ticked away, a few people were unsatisfied with this and, in an incredibly defensible point, decided that leaving the far-right to the diverse Parkrose neighborhood was unconscionable. While the black bloc was here socializing the Proud Boys could be doing God-knows-what surrounded by working class communities of color. So small, uncoordinated, autonomous groups of antifascists began heading over to the Parkrose neighborhoods with confrontation in mind.
We were late into the afternoon and anything that could have been properly called a form of antifascist organizing had largely come to an end. Instead these were the final scraps: the left-overs yelling at each other, unclear what the function of the confrontation even was. This was the end of what, from other angles, had been referred to as a rousing success.
And people were not wrong to be concerned: the Proud Boys attacked press and counter-demonstrators, flipping over a van and reveling in their violence. But as groups came to engage in physical confrontation, it became clear that they did not have the numbers and had not arrived in time to disrupt anything of substance. Instead, they were there for the scraps, and this amounted to shouting matches with disturbed individuals barely grasping the political nature of the rally they just attended.

Tactical questions are often framed as moral ones, so we should be clear that those antifascists who showed up did so for legitimate reasons. More than this, there is a clear strategic argument to be made for moving over to Parkrose. The question we should ask is, why did it not go better? What could be different?

A basic assessment of effectiveness should be the bedrock of any form of organizing. (Pluses and deltas, anybody?) Without that, the subjective experience of attendees is preferenced over the results they claim to seek.

Sometimes it is important to break ideas down to their component parts, so it is worthwhile asking what antifascism is. While it is, well, against fascism, there is more at play when someone is using the term in the kind of context you often see in places like Portland, Oregon. It means strategies up to, and including, militant antifascism, which itself has a spectrum and a whole backpack full of tactics. But most importantly, antifascism is about defense above conversion: people need to be safe first, you could try and flip a Proud Boy later (if such a thing is possible). Antifascism suggests that disruption and “no platforming” are useful because when fascist groups have their functionality tampered with they necessarily begin to collapse their effectiveness and then, noting the first principle, safety is achieved. Another piece of this is the “we go where they go” idea, which is to say that fascists should not have the ability to move around antifascists and continue their operation.
Tactical questions are often framed as moral ones, so we should be clear that those antifascists who showed up did so for legitimate reasons. More than this, there is a clear strategic argument to be made for moving over to Parkrose. The question we should ask is, why did it not go better? What could be different?
With that last question in mind, a problem emerges with August 22nd: the far-right changed locations, effectively circumventing the opposition. This was exactly the situation critiqued by autonomous antifascists who came looking for them.

But this gets back to a more important question, one that supersedes the question of effective antifascism and gets to something more fundamental: what was the goal of the counter-organizing on August 22nd? What does it look like to win?

The first goal was clear, to get the Proud Boys out of their public event space, and it was an unimpeachable success. For years the far-right has staged these frenzied spectacles smack in the center of downtown Portland and has literally left blood stains on the concrete. It took years to build up the counter-organizing enough to create a spectre so large that antifascists did not even have to confront the far-right. Just the fear of the size of the counter-demonstration made them cancel their plans. This is the best-case scenario.

Proud Boys and allies at the abandoned Kmart near Parkrose.
Photo courtesy of The Oregonian.

“This is always the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that we actually do have to get confrontational! We don't want that,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins of the One People’s Project, who was at the August 22nd counter-demonstration, and referenced a New York event a couple of weeks earlier where antifascists held the line but refused to take the bait and get into visible fights with the Proud Boys. “We have to show that we are above their B.S... because when we confront them it's the last resort.”

But if we zoom out and see that the rally continued anyway, where is the victory? Community organizing is not built on absolutes, it is built on practical and measurable successes. In that way, the moving of the rally is clearly a measurable success. They have less access to people, the location they ended up in does not interface quite as much as the earlier location did. This is not the grand success a total cancelation would have been, but it is not clear whether that level of success is on the table. Instead, the moving of the event may have been as much as was practically possible in terms of pre-event pressure. That does not, however, answer the question of “going where they go.”

This question has to still be answered by a measure of goals. At the downtown rally location, the crowd was ready for there to be an incursion by the far-right. This left many activists on edge, which is behind a number of reports of internal squabbling and altercations with unaffiliated street preachers or random passersby. The question is not if those people are offensive—many certainly are—but whether they are fascists who require antifascism as a response. If they aren’t, then what’s the point?

In Parkrose, the same question remains. If the goal is to “no platform” the far-right, then an assessment has to be made as to whether or not that is possible. Instigating fights can get you and others hurt, and while that is not the ethical responsibility of antifascists (the far-right is always to blame for their violence, full stop), it is still something to be considered. If you do not have the numbers to go where the far-right is rallying and successfully counter-demonstrate it so as to stop its functionality, there is a valid question about whether or not it should happen. This is the kind of question that antifascist organizations ask constantly when making plans, and they make cost/benefit equations when making choices. They do not, for example, try to take on the far-right in situations where they would necessarily get their members or supporters hurt. This is exactly the choice that was made on August 30th of last year when the Proud Boys held a rally at Delta Park in Portland. The location is hard to get in and out of, and it was determined that the Proud Boys would have been more than equipped to harm a community counter-demonstration if they tried to crowd into the same space. So they held the counter-demonstration over a mile away, still close enough to respond if the Proud Boys strayed from their location and into the city looking for a fight. At the location itself, the Proud Boys attacked journalists and some reporters even had to come with armed security.

The question of confrontation is not a moral one, it is a practical one. Confrontation is not a chance for individual transcendence, to feel righteous or alive through action, its purpose is to stop people from hurting others and from growing their movement. But when only a small handful arrives and is unable to do anything other than act as a punching bags for fascists, it helps them build up their propaganda apparatus, claim victory, and possibly even recruit. It can have the opposite effect, even if the intention was to “go where they go.”

Autonomy is a critical piece of all social movements, and no formal organization should control a horizontal mass of people. Organizers rely on activists in the periphery who make up the majority of a given action—so no one expects everyone to act in perfect concert. But there is a clear disparity between the people who have done this work for years and those who have arrived with little experience and insist on calling shots for their “affinity group.” Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you are effective, warranted, or helpful, and this is a key piece of the problem. Autonomous organizing, which breaks away from collective responsibility and accountability, can help empower people. It can also send a fundamentally liberal message that individual orientations, emotions, and satisfaction is the same thing as revolutionary organizing. It can mean that your own ephemeral feeling of liberation (which is just a feeling since it is hardly upheld by material circumstances) is more important than the success of the larger social movement. There is a valid question about whether or not the Parkrose neighborhood should have been protected, but the equally valid question is whether or not the people showing up were in any position to defend it. Instead, several of the people moved into positions they weren’t able to defend, without the skills to do it, and ignited conflicts they had to be bailed out of.

In the end, several people spent their time yelling back and forth with people who had no agency in the movement and made up no constituency: none of it mattered. In those cases, the anger that percolates can turn on itself and become corrosive. A journalist was attacked in what could be interpreted as gender-based violence given the slurs that the attackers used. The question of that journalist is probably one for another article, there are certainly reasons that reporters taking photos are a problem, but what does this serve? Did this help defend Parkrose? At a moment when Antifa has become a scare word for the uninitiated, what did this do? Where is the goal?

Antifascism should not be about personal transformation. It isn’t about “doing your best.” You aren’t there to “join the fight, “do your part,” “take a stand,” or “make your voice heard.” You’re there to win. That means being strategic at all times, working backward from set goals. A screaming match may be effective, you cannot prescribe that in the abstract. But it also often isn’t since it’s unclear how any of this leads down the path to goals. Undermining them, going under the radar to combust their functionality, figuring out the way to really do damage, that is the task. We don’t come to antifascism to know ourselves. We came to win. Without that in mind, we have already lost. I, for one, have no interest in being heard or celebrating my autonomy. I have one goal in mind: destroy the far-right. And I work backwards from that. If I can’t describe how a series of tactics leads to the goal, in a way that builds on evidence and history, then it sets us back rather than takes us forward.
Autonomy is a critical piece of all social movements, and no formal organization should control a horizontal mass of people. Organizers rely on activists in the periphery who make up the majority of a given action—so no one expects everyone to act in perfect concert. But there is a clear disparity between the people who have done this work for years and those who have arrived with little experience and insist on calling shots for their “affinity group.” Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you are effective, warranted, or helpful, and this is a key piece of the problem. Autonomous organizing, which breaks away from collective responsibility and accountability, can help empower people. It can also send a fundamentally liberal message that individual orientations, emotions, and satisfaction is the same thing as revolutionary organizing. It can mean that your own ephemeral feeling of liberation (which is just a feeling since it is hardly upheld by material circumstances) is more important than the success of the larger social movement. There is a valid question about whether or not the Parkrose neighborhood should have been protected, but the equally valid question is whether or not the people showing up were in any position to defend it. Instead, several of the people moved into positions they weren’t able to defend, without the skills to do it, and ignited conflicts they had to be bailed out of.
There is a process whereby well thought out theoretical and practical radical ideas leave the context in which they were created and are then sometimes reinterpreted in the clumsiest and most confusing way possible. “We go where they go” is a fundamental piece of antifascism, but only when going there wins something and there is enough of a "we" to do something. Antifascism itself is only useful when we are up against fascists, not passersby with stupid bumper stickers. If we want to win, and I really hope that is the actual intent here, we have to know what winning is and apply just the basic modicum of responsibility necessary to take a plan to fruition. 

Author Bio: Morris Beckman is an antifascist writer and organizer.

Related posts:

Understanding A22 PDX: discussion and analysis for the antifascist movements

Understanding A22 PDX: Three Responses

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

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

It was no Harpers Ferry: August 22d wasn’t an accident, it was a product of our thinking

A Diversity of Tactics is Not Enough; We Need Rules of Engagement

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

Bet

I agree with the conclusion 100%

Would recommend removing "instigating" from "Instigating fights can get you and others hurt, and while that is not the ethical responsibility of antifascists (the far-right is always to blame for their violence, full stop), it is still something to be considered." The reason the far-right is to blame for violence is because they instigate fights. An antifascist, by ideological definition, cannot instigate violence because the fascist has already adopted a platform of violence.

No need to let comment go through, unity and all that. Thanks for the analysis.