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Weekend Read: When the Constitution is just a pretext and the “free speech” being defended is a threat

The threat of violence hangs over a rally that’s being staged by far-right groups in Portland, Oregon, today, nearly a year after the deadly white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys have held more than a dozen rallies throughout the Pacific Northwest over the past year, events marked by street violence and harassment and buoyed by a wide array of racist and antigovernment extremist allies.

David Neiwert, who frequently writes for our Hatewatch blog, has been covering the rallies from the beginning. In a piece for The Baffler, he describes the last violent rally they held in Portland on June 30th

The Proud Boys and Patriots were primed for battle. Indeed, the whole point of the event was to try to provoke a fight that they were not simply prepared for, but were keen to take part in. Prior to the onset of street hostilities, the alt-right crowd bristled with warlike talk about martyrdom as the price of freedom and “taking down” the antifascists across the street. Periodically they’d break into chants of Queen’s mock-authoritarian seventies anthem “We Will Rock You,” which they dedicated to British Identitarian Tommy Robinson.

As I watched the last of the Proud Boys—waiting for the final school bus that had brought them to the rally to arrive so they could leave, clustered on a street corner and haranguing the counter-protesters across the way—I mused about how conservatives’ sudden concern to safeguard civility in American discourse is a crude, cynical manipulation. Its operational logic is very similar to the Proud Boys’ insistence on claiming that their protests are about nothing more than the assertion and protection of free-speech rights.

That, after all, has been what Gibson’s Patriot Prayer events have been ostensibly about since they were launched in Portland last year. Gibson and his comrades claim that they’re standing up for “conservative speech,” which has always translated into a lot of immigrant-bashing, Islamophobia, “constitutionalist” gun nuttery straight from the Bundy Bunch, and a heavy dose of Deep State/globalist conspiracy theorizing. Unsurprisingly, the gatherings attracted more than their share of extreme rightists, including a broad array of skinheads and white nationalists; last year one of the more unhinged such fellow travelers showed up to one of the earliest Patriot Prayer events draped in a flag, and then began shouting that he was a Nazi and using racial epithets. Organizers kicked him out.

His name was Jeremy Christian. One month later, in May 2017, while riding a Portland MAX commuter train, he began harassing two Arab teenage women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, using ethnic slurs against Muslims. Three men riding the train tried to intervene; Christian pulled out a knife and stabbed them, two of them fatally. At his arraignment, he was still protesting Joey Gibson style: “Free speech or die, Portland! You got no safe place. This is America—get out if you don’t like free speech!”

Patriot Prayer had a previously scheduled rally just over a week after the murders. Civic leaders urged the group to cancel the event amid burgeoning anger in the community, but Gibson and his cohorts held it anyway. It turned into a gigantic melee, with the Patriot crowd heavily outnumbered, and a number of assaults and arrests on both sides. It was some of the worst crowd violence Portland had seen in decades.

Since then, Gibson has organized an ongoing series of “free speech” and “freedom” rallies along the West Coast and elsewhere—in Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, and Olympia and Vancouver, Washington. He’s denounced white supremacists after Charlottesville, but also openly embraced the Proud Boys, the group founded by the white identitarian hipster journalist Gavin McInnes, who’s long been a presence at Gibson’s rallies. The June 30 event was originally intended to commemorate the post-murder event, but it took on a life of its own after an early June rally in downtown Portland also dissolved into violence.

Gibson made a pitch for help from supporters across the nation, and the Proud Boys gladly obliged, putting out the word on their regional social media sites. As a result, a considerable number among the Patriots were wearing black polos and red MAGA ballcaps, and they came from all over the country, especially California.

Listening to them bait the counter-protesters with ugly speech, and talk among themselves about fighting tactics, it was clear the “free speech” they wanted to defend was bigoted and threatening. The lofty constitutional principles were little more than a pretext: they were there mostly to bash some “leftist” heads.

Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys were emboldened by the fighting at that June 30 event. Organizers have discussed coming to the rally armed; open carry is legal in Oregon. We will be monitoring the event closely and reporting live on Hatewatch and Twitter.

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC’s Weekend Readings are a weekly summary of the most important news reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequality, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Readings every Saturday morning.