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It’s Time to Stop the Deadly Rhetoric and the Dangerous Dodge of Both-siderism

The fatal shooting of a man reported to be affiliated with the far-right group Patriot Prayer last Saturday night on the streets of Portland should not have happened.

I’m angry that Aaron “Jay” Danielson’s life was taken from him. I’m angry about every one of the lives taken in the 98 days since George Floyd’s murder. Whether the victims are Trump supporters, Black Lives Matters protesters, or law enforcement officers, the deaths that have occurred in this time of upheaval are wrong. We mourn each of these lives, regardless of ideology. And we mourn the lost futures of those who were convinced that taking the life of another human being is how we solve our societal problems.

For all we don’t yet know about what happened in last weekend’s deadly shooting, there are three things that are crystal clear.

First, the blood that’s been shed in America’s streets this summer is on President Trump’s hands. When he revived the racist call-to-arms “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” in May, Trump lit a match under two dangerous powder kegs: city police forces blighted with bias and addicted to militarized crowd control tactics, and a growing right-wing paramilitary movement, jacked up by conspiracy theories and internet hoaxes, armed with military-grade weapons and homemade bombs. On Sunday, the president responded gleefully to reports that his supporters were firing paintballs and pepper spray at Black Lives Matters protesters and journalists. In the aftermath, instead of using the deaths in Kenosha and Portland as a call for peace, Trump continued to foment fringe conspiracy theories and ratchet up his rhetoric.

Second, as martyrdom for Danielson is proclaimed on far-right social media, we must remember that the vast majority of the injuries and deaths that have occurred in the protests have been suffered by racial justice protesters. Charlottesville launched the far-right narrative that depicts armed vigilantes and organized paramilitaries as righteous defenders of communities and heritage. “Antifa hunting” has been encouraged by elected officials and law enforcement from the local level to the Trump administration. Attacks on peaceful protesters now represent an alarming surge in extremist activity, as documented in the Southern Poverty Law Center report When the ‘Alt-Right’ Hit the Streets: Far-Right Political Rallies in the Trump Era. And yet law enforcement seems all too willing to collude with or ignore these assailants.

Third: These deaths are preventable. They are unnecessary. They are symptomatic of the failure of civil society and democratic structures to rise above the bias and confusion of both-siderism.

Even before Trump famously characterized the deadly white nationalist riot in Charlottesville as involving “very fine people on both sides,” Portland was looking the other way as armed far-right formations came looking for a fight. Instead of recognizing, at the outset in 2017, the threat to the rule of law and democratic practice brought by groups like Patriot Prayer, Proud Boys, Identity Evropa, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters as they descended on Portland, the chaos they produced was characterized as a “street brawl” between “two sides” that were seen as – at best – equally culpable.

Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson admitted his strategy to a reporter just after Charlottesville. “They show up to goad leftists into a fury, then let them fight police while TV cameras roll,” Willamette Week wrote, adding, “whether antifa protesters brawl with his supporters or just clash with police, it’s a ‘win-win’ for the far right.”

Despite the transparency of the alt-right “street brawl” strategy and the known dangers posed by far-right domestic terrorism, a leaked internal investigation found that the Portland Police Bureau viewed far-right protesters as “much more mainstream” than their leftist counterparts. Other reporting has found active coordination between the bureau and far-right leaders as well as far-right adherents within the police force.

Promises by Portland city leaders to address the bias within the force and to reform police behavior toward protesters have gone unfulfilled. Targeting of protesters reached a dangerous crescendo in Portland in early August with pipe bombs thrown by a man who on video “appears to be a retired U.S. Navy SEAL and former Central Intelligence Agency contractor who has worked in Afghanistan — and spoken out on social media against the nightly Portland demonstrations,” according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. On August 15, a right-wing demonstrator fired gunshots at racial justice protesters from his vehicle. Even after these alarming escalations, when Proud Boys and other far-right extremists took to the streets on August 16 for a “No to Marxism in America” rally, Portland police took a hands-off approach to the vigilantes brandishing weapons and looking for a fight; police declared a riot and moved on protesters only after the alt-right groups had left.

The Trump administration has consistently downplayed the threat of right-wing extremist violence and subverted officials’ attempts to address it, as detailed by Politico in a recent analysis, “They tried to get Trump to care about right-wing terrorism. He ignored them.” The lack of any documented threat from the left hasn’t slowed the president’s bid to scare America into four more years. The night before a 17-year-old teenager espousing right-wing ideology drove across state lines with an assault rifle to open fire on civil protesters, the Republican National Convention featured the middle-aged white couple who brandished weapons against peaceful protesters.

The misplacement of federal attention, along with the cover provided by this president for racist and antisemitic violence and vigilante mobilizations, is coupled with inattention and confusion by the political center. Business and civic leaders are so busy parsing the distinctions among the overwhelming majority of peaceful racial justice protesters and those committing property crimes – some of whom are far-right provocateurs – that they’ve lost sight of their own role.

It’s time for leaders at every level to condemn physical violence unequivocally and stop the deadly rhetoric that encourages politicized violence – to come out from behind the false and dangerous dodge of both-siderism and draw a clear moral distinction between hate activity and political disagreement.

It’s time for the business community to do more than cut a Black Lives Matter commercial. For city leaders to do more than pass resolutions and then wring their hands when violent extremists come to town. For law enforcement to take seriously the threat to their own safety and the rule of law caused by anti-government formations and white nationalists in their own ranks.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown took a step in the right direction on Sunday when she made the connections: “from Charlottesville to Kenosha to Portland, we have seen the tragic outcome when armed right-wing vigilantes take matters into their own hands.” She stated, “The right-wing group Patriot Prayer and self-proclaimed militia members drove into downtown Portland last night, armed and looking for a fight. Every Oregonian has the right to freely express their views without fear of deadly violence. I will not allow Patriot Prayer and armed white supremacists to bring more bloodshed to our streets.”

Last year at this time, the city of Portland became a national model in the fight against bigotry. It was a proud moment when the City Council unified not only around confronting the white nationalist assault on our city, but also in understanding the unresolved bias that exists within policing toward Black, Indigenous and other communities of color and toward those engaging in peaceful civil protest. We need a unified Council now to do three things:

  • Portland must rein in the irresponsible policing tactics of the Portland Police Bureau. The bureau’s actions indicate a clear ideological bias against racial justice and antifascist protesters and remain muddled when it comes to containing and responding to the threat of right-wing paramilitaries. The level of police violence used against hundreds of peaceful protesters, journalists, and medics is so disproportionate to the property crimes committed by a very few that it stinks of a vendetta against the very fact of constitutionally protected civil protest.
     
  • City leaders must make clear that they will not allow Portland to be used as the battleground for a war by proxy. The leader of last weekend’s pro-Trump caravan is reported to be based in Idaho. Far-right social media has long encouraged troublemakers to flock to Portland; an Oath Keepers social media post responded to the shooting with the vow, “Civil war is here right now.” Portland must be united in saying: Not in our town.
     
  • Portland’s civic and business leaders must enact an economic recovery plan that leaves no one out. The impacts of historical structural racism are now compounded by COVID-19-related unemployment. Our city’s inability to manage crises in affordable housing and mental health only provides oxygen to those who seek to exploit vulnerable people for their ideological ends.

This needs to be the laser-focused work of our current City Council. And it’s past time for all mayoral candidates to hold a joint media conference denouncing white nationalist and armed paramilitary and vigilante incursions into our city, regardless of political ideology. While they may not agree on the specifics, we need to hear that each is committed to systemic police reform and has a vision for how to build a shared prosperity for Portland.

While this is a story playing out in Portland, it is a story of Everytown, USA. Every local elected official should be studying the lessons of the Rose City. Why? If the political center doesn’t stand against the obvious reality of ongoing and deadly race inequality, it will continue to be up to the young people with the stamina to come out night after night to press for change in the streets.

Defending our democratic freedoms and institutions should not be left wholly to the young people in the streets, now branded as “terrorists” simply for opposing extra-legal authoritarianism and sounding the alarm over the early signs of fascism. Defending our democratic freedoms and institutions is the job of business, religious, and municipal leaders. Defending our democratic freedoms and institutions is the job of the middle, liberals and conservatives.

It’s time to stop the deadly rhetoric and the dangerous dodge of both-siderism. It’s time for the center to step up.

Eric K. Ward is a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward, and executive director of Western States Center. Read his other writings on this topic on Medium.

July 1:
https://medium.com/@westernstatescenter/hate-crimes-the-gateway-drug-241fb388b87a

August 11:
https://medium.com/@westernstatescenter/remember-reckon-recommit-charlottesville-three-years-later-dfb960e6f997

August 28:
https://medium.com/@westernstatescenter/the-banality-of-evil-the-mainstreaming-of-both-siderism-35cb68b6dbc6

Photo by Getty Images/Anadolu Agency/John Rudoff​