Last Saturday, Portland in Oregon saw the largest far-right gathering of Donald Trump’s presidency. Over 500 far-right activists came from across the country to demonstrate under the slogan “End Domestic Terrorism,” with the aim of taking out the local Antifa movement. The protests featured some of the US’s most active far-right groups, including the self-described “western chauvinistic” Proud Boys and a host of smaller groups ranging from the Three Percenters to Patriot Prayer.
Far-right groups declared the demonstration to be a “victory” – a bold claim considering police largely contained the protests. That victory, however, was largely symbolic. The protests were a show of force for the far-right, which got Donald Trump tweeting that “major consideration” would be given to naming Antifa a “terror organisation”. The Proud Boys and their acolytes’ ability to draw several hundred protesters to Portland emphasised a disturbing fact: the under-estimated threat of far-right street protests.
After the Unite the Right rally two years ago, the shock that followed Heather Heyer’s death and the white supremacist violence that unfolded in Charlottesville led to a clampdown on far-right groups. Many members of far-right organisations took a step back from street protests, while only a radical core remained active. Last week’s rally in Portland, however, served as a reminder that far-right protests, far from being in decline, have enjoyed a gradual revival. This revival has largely gone unnoticed.
A firm bastion of liberalism known for its hipster culture, Portland has become one of the epicentres of America’s culture wars and the revival of far-right protests. Rally organiser and former Infowars staffer Joey Gibson has staged nearly 20 protests in the city since 2017. Portland is not alone in attracting far-right protests. Since Charlottesville, other West Coast liberal strongholds have seen confrontations between far-right and antifascists groups, including Berkeley and Seattle.
The risk of far-right protests is not limited to the US. In the UK, the “Free Tommy” protests demanding the release of former English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson drew around 15,000 people last summer – numbers the EDL would not have dreamed of in its heyday. A study for the Commission to Counter Terrorism showed that far-right protests are attracting the largest numbers since the 1930s. Last summer, thousands of far-right protesters took to the streets in the eastern town of Chemnitz in Germany.
The nature of far-right protests is changing fast. Organised online, they use social media to broadcast their ideas, galvanise supporters and appeal to broader support bases. In the run-up to the Portland rally, dozens of messages appeared in Proud Boys’s Telegram channel, calling for violence against antifascists. “DEATH TO ANTIFA!!!” Biggs tweeted, with a picture showing a spiked weapon. He also posted memes about death squads killing left-wingers.
While most far-right protests can still be linked to one personality or group, the message is increasingly crafted to appeal to broader audiences. The Free Tommy protests went beyond Tommy Robinson’s traditional theme of “Muslim grooming gangs” to encompass a broad anti-Muslim and anti-elite populist rhetoric, drawing different UK groups and representatives of the far-right from different European countries. In the US, opposition to liberalism, political correctness and left-wing activism is allowing groups like the Proud Boys to rally substantial numbers.
A new cycle of election campaigning in the US and continued uncertainty over Brexit will provide fertile ground for far-right groups to exploit grievances on both sides of the Atlantic in the next few months. Portland organisers saw Donald Trump’s refusal to condemn last week’s protests as an endorsement. “The President is with the boys today,” a message in the Proud Boys’s Telegram channel read. Proud Boys’s chairman Enrique Tarrio has vowed to come back to Portland “every month”.
This might be pure bravado, but the Portland rally has certainly emboldened right-wingers. As Charlottesville has shown, the risk of far-right street violence is real. We need a better security and political response.
Cécile Guerin is a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD).