A Dissenting Report on the Controversial Right-Wing Free Speech Rally in Portland, Oregon

This is a report from Paul Cienfuegos in Portland, Oregon on his experience attending the “Alt-Right” pro-Trump legally-permitted free speech rally held on June 4th in downtown Portland, less than a week after a white supremacist terrorist stabbed three men while they attempted to defend two young women on a train – both Black, one Muslim. Two of the three men who were defending the women were killed. Portland’s residents have been in a state of severe jitters this past week, and the last thing they wanted to have to deal with was a major right-wing rally in their downtown. Hundreds of conservatives (mostly non-locals) attended the rally. They were surrounded on three sides by thousands of outraged Portlanders demanding they get out. More than 100 heavily armed and riot–prepared police (local, state and federal) kept the two groups apart throughout the day.

I attended the entire right-wing pro-Trump free speech rally today (June 4th) in downtown Portland, Oregon. I listened to more than a dozen speeches – by men and women, by a number of people of color, by the chair of the county’s Republican Party, by even a transgender woman. Here’s my initial report of what I witnessed.

Speaker after speaker insisted that their movement was not racist or white supremacist, although many of the speakers profess both belief systems in their writings and speakings elsewhere. I watched their internal security crew – a newly created local militia – force two folks to leave the rally who held white supremacist signs.

I’m a left-wing populist, and I found about 20-30% of their speakers messages to be things I could agree with, such as their concern about the corporate elite running the country, the fact that we really shouldn’t trust the news we get from the corporate mainstream media (for some that included Fox), and the need to return to a government that actually serves We the People.

Many speakers described themselves as being active Christians, with many references to God and Jesus Christ.

They were incredibly naive about who the thousands of demonstrators were who surrounded their police-cordoned rally on three sides, with speaker after speaker insisting that those people were Communists, even including Rose City Antifa in that category (even though that group’s members would likely refer to themselves as Anarchists). One even stomped on a Russian flag to show his disgust with the Communists outside of the rally.

Many speakers also shared their outrage at the murders that took place here in Portland a week ago, insisting (as our locals also have) that the murdered and injured men were heroes and patriots, and that all decent US’ians should do the same thing to defend the safety of those young women on the train.

Not a single speaker ever made an obviously racist or homophobic or sexist or white supremacist remark. Given that the speakers and the audience were overwhelmingly Trump supporters, it seems impossible to me that they couldn’t see Trump’s endless anti-woman, Muslim,  and immigrant tirades as being racist and sexist. Most likely, the speeches were toned down to sound much more acceptable because the major media were present, and because the leadership was very much wanting to recruit more mainstream local conservatives to their cause.

From my perch inside the rally, the local Portlanders who surrounded the “free speech” rally appeared to spend the entire afternoon chanting and shouting at their opponents. There seemed to be very very few progressives who had chosen to come into our rally space simply in peaceful witness. I was there to listen, to observe and to engage. I started many conversations with rally attendees, all of whom were eager to talk with me and all of whom were civil, and many of whom expressed their personal frustration that there was so little interest on the part of the outside progressive demonstrators to actually engage in real dialogue. I had to agree with them on that point, as my own anti-corporate-rule teaching and organizing work over the past two decades (most recently with Community Rights US) in some very conservative parts of the US has convinced me that many conservatives are hungry to find common ground with progressives, but that progressives would frequently rather mock conservatives than actually engage with them respectfully. Divide and Conquer has always been a very successful strategy of the 1%, and I continued to see it unfolding today between the left and the right. We absolutely MUST become more open to finding common ground across this manufactured chasm if we are to ever win our society back from overwhelming corporate rule.

For example, one outside demonstration had a huge banner implying that the rally was basically a Nazi event (“Nazis? Never!”). I personally never saw a single obvious Nazi or white nationalist insignia at the rally, although it was later pointed out to me by left allies that many of these newer groups have insignia that I had not been aware of, such as a green flag with KEK emblazoned on it. Imagine what a different outcome there might have been if even 2% of the progressives at the opposing adjacent rallies had instead come into the right-wing rally to listen and nonviolently engage and provoke healthy conversations. My guess is that at least one-third of the rally attendees were not ideologically white supremacist, so what’s the advantage of shouting “NAZI!!” at them instead of respectfully reaching out to them?

I’m not trying to make any claims about the level of honesty of the speakers I listened to, or the folks I started conversations with, but many of them seemed genuinely freaked out about how profoundly anti-democratic our society is, and how locked out average people feel. And I met a number of Trump supporters who had voted for Bernie in the primaries, and previous national news stories have confirmed that many current Trump supporters voted first for Bernie. So there’s no question to me at all that many folks at this rally would truly have appreciated the chance to have genuine conversations with progressives. (I’m not making the same claim about most of the speakers, who seemed to me to be ideologically pretty darn scary.)

Rose City Antifa was the group coordinating one of the three adjacent opposing rallies. I continue to be very concerned about the group behavior of these mostly young radicals wearing masks, as they have a history locally of breaking storefront windows, throwing things at the p0lice, lighting trash receptacles on fire, and tossing newspaper stands into the streets during their marches. This behavior both alienates potential allies, and is an easy target for those with their own disruptive agendas to join in anonymously and cause serious harm in their name. In this particular event, Rose City Antifa published an impressive pre-rally Statement on Strategy & Tactics for June 4th Rally which I recommend reading.

My personal belief is that property destruction or violence from “our side” increases the chance of violence from our opponents, which just further normalizes violence everywhere as background normal. And in this already very tense moment in Portland, with the recent racist murders here, and more racist attacks being threatened at the upcoming Good in the Hood Multicultural Festival & Parade, no increases of tension originating from “our side” are helpful at all.

Interestingly, some of the “free speech” rally speakers asked why their opponents’ faces were all covered? What did they have to fear? And what does that say about their own collective commitment to solving these growing social crises? Perhaps it’s time for Portland’s progressive community to start insisting that Antifa take off their masks.

The right-wing rally speakers made it very clear that they were planning to return to Portland on a regular basis, to force our progressive city to start coming to terms with the fact that Oregon is full of conservative residents, whose voices are being ignored and even silenced. (I’m reporting here what I heard, not what I personally believe.) So we locals better start thinking about more creative next steps than just shouting at them across a line of riot police. That does no one any good at all.

More than 280 people shared and/or responded to Paul’s original facebook posting, which he has substantially updated in the version you see above, in response to helpful critical feedback from some of those readers (in addition to quite a few vitriolic comments as well). You can view all of those responses HERE.

Paul will soon be posting audio of the entire rally, plus some of the conversations he had with attendees. Until then, you can watch the rally via this video, beginning at 2’36”.