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Kessler falls flat in D.C., but the radical right marches on

To look at the pitiful showing of Jason Kessler’s Unite the Right 2 outing last weekend, the casual observer might wonder if the racist “alt-right” was routed. But to mistake Kessler as a one-man bellwether for the strength of white supremacist ideas is to misapprehend — and underestimate — the movement to which he belongs.

Kessler’s tiny racist rally in Washington, D.C., on Sunday didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was the second of three significant right-wing rallies planned across the country in August. The first was in Portland on August 4, and the third, a loose collection of rallies in cities all over the U.S., takes place this weekend.

Part of a pattern

The constellation of far-right factions at work in the U.S. extends well beyond Kessler, or the racists like Richard Spencer or Matthew Heimbach who achieved infamy after the violent, deadly “Unite the Right” rally last year. The Proud Boys (an SPLC-designated hate group started by Vice co-founder, original hipster and self-described Islamophobe Gavin McInnes) and Joey Gibson’s Patriot Prayer, have found great success recruiting converts to their cause in the Pacific Northwest with an approach that focuses on the same old reactionary politics and fear, just with fewer vulgar racist overtures and more Americana. And another thing: they offer their right-wing converts a chance to duke it out in the street with people they disagree with.

On that promise, they deliver.

The violence and chaos that characterizes a typical Patriot Prayer rally has been a critical part of far-right organizing since early 2017. Melees in Berkeley, California, that spring brought together various factions, including polo-sporting white nationalists, hardcore Trump devotees, nativists, rightwing conspiracy theorists and violent racist skinheads. Fighting was encouraged; violence, especially violence caught on camera, was rewarded. In March 2017, Kyle Chapman became a star for beating a man over the head with a stick – the movement dubbed him “Based Stickman.” That May, Nathan Damigo was celebrated for punching a 95-pound woman in the face. The momentum around that kind of street-level activism provided the impetus for a rally to “Unite the Right.” Patriot Prayer had been active in the Pacific Northwest since April 2017, but did not have a formal presence in Charlottesville and thus escaped the worst of the backlash that rose after a man drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators and killed Heather Heyer.

Gibson’s group now carries the torch for the tactics popularized in Berkeley: an unrelenting strategy of agitation and physical intimidation, to travel to other cities and communities, antagonize local activists and create the perception that open street fighting is the new normal. At a Patriot Prayer rally on June 30, where one counter-protester was put in the hospital with a skull fracture and brain hemorrhage, Ethan Nordean, aka Rufio Panman, was recorded knocking down a counter-protester with a single punch, and he joined Chapman and Damigo in the canon of men revered by the right for their acts of violence.

Gibson and the Proud Boys brought hundreds of supporters to Portland. In contrast, Kessler — a unpopular character even within the far right — saw his event served with disavowal by his ideological allies in the weeks and months leading up to August 12.

What happened in Portland

Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson, who just lost the Republican Senate primary in Washington State after receiving two percent of the vote, has hosted rallies regularly across the Pacific Northwest, often billed in support of “free speech.” But based on Patriot Prayer’s conduct at many of these events, which often descend into violence, talking is low on the priority list.

Early on in promoting the most recent showdown, Gibson noted Portland police had made little effort to separate his group and the Proud Boys from antifascist protestors at previous events. He said a Portland police officer had told him the department considered it “mutual combat” between opposing sides. One of his supporters wrote on Facebook that they had a “green light” to brawl.

Gibson posted videos to Facebook to raise the hype around the rally, encouraging supporters to bring guns to the city for the march. His group saw a surge in popularity after videos of right-wing protesters beating counter-protesters at his June 30 rally were widely shared and celebrated online, including on Infowars, and the momentum was undisputable on August 4. Reports from the rally vary, but as many as 400 Patriot Prayer supporters and members of the “western chauvinist” Proud Boys showed up dressed for combat. Ultimately, they were sorely outnumbered by local counter-protesters. The out-and-out melees that characterized June 30 were kept to a minimum by police efforts to separate the sides, and by apparent reluctance by some leaders in the far-right group to strike the first blow. But that wasn’t always the case.

Early in the rally, before the vast majority of the many counter-protesters arrived, and before Gibson even arrived with the remaining members of Patriot Prayer, several rallygoers seemed ready to rumble. A cluster of Proud Boys, including Nordean, charged across Southwest Naito Parkway at a small crowd of counter-protesters.

Gibson’s right-hand man Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, who has his own reputation for violence at rallies and who allegedly attacked a Portland man on the street in broad daylight in June, called them back. Police officers tensed up and looked on during the exchange but did nothing to stand in the way of a potential altercation.

The Patriot Prayer group ignored or defied police directives at every turn. Most attendees refused to consent to a weapons search police set up at a checkpoint into the park, and then they left the designated rally area the police had cordoned off in the park to march along the waterfront and into downtown. But the event descended into chaos when police fired crowd control devices into the gathering of counter-protesters, injuring several.

As the flash bangs went off one woman was struck in the chest and arm, and another man sustained a frightening head injury when a canister pierced his helmet. From the vantage point of the right-wing rallygoers, it was difficult to see most of the commotion, and they laughed, whooped, cheered victory and thanked the police. Then they marched up Market Street, where they continued to taunt local protesters. Although police soon declared the entire gathering an unlawful assembly, the Patriot Prayer group was allowed to remain assembled back at the park for hours as leaders debriefed their supporters and people gradually peeled off and departed the city.

By the time the weekend was over, Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys declared their event a success and vowed there would be more like it to come.

What happened in Washington, D.C.

Kessler’s Unite the Right 2 did not have the benefit of Patriot Prayer's cresting momentum last weekend. The event, long-anticipated and controversial even in the alt-right, was disavowed by movement heavyweights in the lead-up to the anniversary of last year’s bloody Charlottesville rally. Andrew Anglin, proprietor of the infamous neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, disavowed the event and discouraged his readers from attending.

Brad Griffin of the website Occidental Dissent, who freely offers his opinions about the movement’s optics and strategy, told readers they were free to attend, but advised he wouldn’t be going and recommended against it. Griffin, who prefers to call himself a “Southern Nationalist,” said he didn’t want to be associated with the alt-right label anymore, and that it “has become increasingly tainted by violent incels.”

David Duke, a movement elder who rarely misses a chance for publicity, was offered a speaking slot at the D.C. rally, but he was nowhere to be seen on August 12.

Kessler and around 25 others made their way to the Vienna Metro station in Fairfax, Virginia — his planned meeting place — with less than a ringing endorsement from the power players of white supremacy. They were shepherded from the parking garage by police, who stood between the group and a small gathering of counter-protesters, but also boxed out most of the press.

When the little bloc of attendees made it to the park, their presence was dwarfed by thousands of counter-demonstrators. The massive crowd was kept separate from Kessler’s event, and was for the most part peaceful. But throughout the day, press reported witnessing outbreaks of violence from a few members of the crowd’s more radical antifascist (“antifa”) factions.

Participants in Kessler’s rally included Jovanni Valle, aka Jovi Val, a man most well-known for a violent altercation in a New York bar last year where someone struck him with a bottle. He claimed the attack was unprovoked, and that he was victimized for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Francis John Gilroy, aka Father Francis of Stormfront Action Radio, also tagged along. Others wore masks. One anonymous attendee covered his face with an American flag and was pictured doing a Nazi salute while marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. Another, wearing a skull mask and a batting helmet, warned journalist Ford Fischer about the “Zionist Occupied Government.”

Kessler, during his remarks, shirked responsibility for the violence at last year’s Unite the Right. He also apologized for the disorganization of his D.C. rally, and suggested that they might improve their procedures at “more demonstrations in the D.C. area in the future.” At the end of his speech, he got in a heated exchange with reporters who asked him about the attack on DeAndre Harris, who was cornered and beaten by six assailants in a parking garage. Kessler became agitated and placed the blame for the attack on Harris. “He attacked one of my guys, so it’s a little hard for me to have sympathy for him,” Kessler said.

Harris was acquitted of misdemeanor assault and battery, while four of Harris’ attackers have so far been arrested on charges of malicious wounding; three have been convicted.

Val, who has hosted right-wing demonstrations in New York and claimed membership in the Proud Boys, was a speaker at the event, where he said, “There’s a big difference between white supremacy and white nationalism, okay? If someone’s a white nationalist, what’s the problem? They want to preserve their culture.” According to a post on social media, Val was booted from the Proud Boys the day after the rally.

Another speaker, Charles Edward Lincoln of New Orleans, is a former lawyer who says he was disbarred because “I have been fighting for civil rights for people who aren’t supposed to have any, namely white people.” In fact, it appears he was disbarred because of a five-count indictment in federal court following an incident in 1996 when he used a fake social security number to open a checking account. Four of the charges were dismissed, but he pled guilty to falsely representing his social security number, a felony. Lincoln delivered rambling remarks for about 15 minutes before being told by organizers to wrap it up.

The protest ended quickly once it began to rain, and police ushered Kessler and his group into vans that took them out of downtown to the Rosslyn Metro station. Preliminary estimates show the puny rally cost the city a whopping $2.6 million in security costs.

The specter of “leftist violence”

As the U.S. faces down a third straight weekend of right-wing rallies, this time with an event that will be coming to cities across the country, including Seattle, Austin, San Jose and Boston, Americans affected should rightly wonder what the participants in the “National March Against Left-Wing Violence” stand for. What do they want?

But an answer is hard to find when right-wing factions spend all their time talking about what they’re against instead of what they’re actually after.

So, for some insight, here are a few of the supporters of Patriot Prayer, a group which intends to take to the streets again tomorrow, this time in Seattle. The Proud Boys, whose presence can always be counted on at a Gibson event, were named an SPLC-designated hate group for their rhetoric attacking Muslims, women and trans people, as well as their affiliations with extremists. On August 4 marchers hurled anti-gay and misogynist taunts (a Patriot Prayer supporter asked the opposition “Is there something in the water that makes you all f------?”, then told reporter Mike Bivins that he wasn’t being homophobic because “‘F-----’ is just a retarded idiot,” and another man mocked a counter-protester by saying, “I can see your f------ labia from here, you pansy!”). One Gibson ally, Bikers for Trump member Jimmy Willingham, sports a tattoo of the Nazi Waffen-SS lightning bolts, as photographed during the Portland rally.

Making a bogeyman out of far left-wing violence is an effective recruitment tool because it’s based on a fundamental distortion — that all leftists, not just those who make up a violent subculture, want to physically harm those who disagree with them. It’s also a propaganda tool, because it distracts attention from the violence at the core of the reactionary far-right ideology.

In Portland two weeks ago, as the right-wing marchers and those opposing them faced off across Market Street, Patriot Prayer supporters yelled things like “Cowards! Come over here!”, beckoning them across the road. One man even got down on his knees and folded his hands in mock supplication. “I’m begging you,” he said. “Come over here and start something.”

But when they provoke a reaction, it’s true there are members of the organized antifascist movement eager to take the bait and jump into the fray. There is nothing wrong with reasonable people condemning that, but there is a difference between criticizing the tactics of groups who have been documented participating in violence and just denouncing your political opponents wholesale as “violent antifa.” When radical right-wing agitators get away with that unchallenged, they malign and disempower peaceful counter-demonstrators and anti-racists. The tactic is used so much the label “antifa” is often so vague it’s rendered meaningless. U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart just tweeted this week that his opponent in Virginia, incumbent senator and former vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, was “antifa,” along with the rest of the Democratic Party.

Lately, this rhetoric has been effective in influencing the mainstream. Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw lent credence to it when she condemned leftist protesters who came to the August 4 rally “in flak jackets and bringing guns and wearing helmets,” while saying nothing of the many Patriot Prayer agitators who did precisely the same thing. That plays into a strategy of normalization, so right-wing extremists can justify their tactics as a defense of “freedom.”

Just take one of the T-shirts sported by Patriot Prayer leader Tiny Toese and several others on August 4 (and sold for a short time on the Proud Boys' official store).

The back of the Right Wing Death Squads "Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong" shirt. After the rally, it was being sold as official Proud Boys merchandise.

The shirt, produced by a white supremacist clothing brand previously known as Right Wing Death Squads, read “PINOCHET DID NOTHING WRONG!”

That’s a reference to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew a democratically elected government and killed, detained and tortured tens of thousands of his own people. The phrase has become popular with the alt-right and other far-right extremists. It often, as it did on the back of Toese’s shirt, accompanies an illustration of someone being thrown from a flying helicopter, a tactic used by Pinochet’s death squads to kill members of the country’s left wing.

When HuffPost reporter Christopher Mathias asked him during the rally about the shirt and the people killed by Pinochet, Toese responded: “Aren’t they all communists?”

Nick R. Martin contributed reporting. Art by SPLC.

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