Social Democrats Organized Diversion Against Efforts to Drive Fascists Out of Portland
How Do You Spell Class Collaboration? ISO
Social-democrat/liberal rally at Portland City Hall, June 4.
Ever since the election of Donald Trump last November, assorted white supremacists, anti-immigrant racists and outright fascists have been staging confrontations around the country.1 In several cases, the result has been inconclusive brawls between the relatively small fascist squads and poorly organized counterprotesters. In Portland, Oregon a “Trump Free Speech” event was nationally advertised for June 4, with several of the more violent fascist media celebrities invited. This was a grotesque provocation, especially after a local Nazi murdered two anti-racists and severely injured a third the week before as they came to the aid of two young black women he was threatening.
The June 4 alt-right event brought several hundred reactionaries from out of town, but it was vastly outnumbered by up to ten times as many anti-racist demonstrators. At least 3,000 ringed Terry Schrunk Plaza where the race-hate rally was held under the protection of an army of city, state and federal police. There were three separate counterdemonstrations. The first was called by antifa (anti-fascist) groups in Chapman Square to the north; a second, to the east, by Portland Labor Against the Fascists, initiated by Class Struggle Workers – Portland (CSWP), called for unions to stop the racist provocation; but the third, by social democrats and liberals on the steps of City Hall to the west, was called explicitly to avoid confrontation with the fascists.
A number of observers and participants wondered why there were three different protests and if it wouldn’t have been possible to prevent the fascist provocation from taking place at all. The International Socialist Organization (ISO), the main organizer of the reformist/liberal “Portland Stands United Against Hate” event at City Hall, wrote that: “Our counterdemonstration was based on the belief that we wouldn't have the numbers to either occupy the plaza where the far right was rallying or push them out once they started, as the other two counterprotests wanted” (Socialist Worker, 12 June). Against this, we in the Internationalist Group, which along with the CSWP played a leading role in the labor mobilization, wrote:
“With the racists vastly outnumbered and the Plaza surrounded on three sides, if it was not for the massive police presence and the diversion by the liberals and reformist leftists who organized the City Hall rally in coordination with the mayor/police chief, the racist provocation by white supremacists and Nazi lovers could have been stopped.”
–“Portland Labor Mobilizes to Stop Fascist Provocation” (8 June), The Internationalist No. 48, May-June 2017
So why the division? The main reason was the bitter determination of the ISO to undercut any effort to drive the fascists out. The call by Portland Labor Against the Fascists for a massive mobilization to “stop the racists and fascists in their tracks” was the outgrowth of months of efforts that resulted in coordinated resolutions by eight area unions calling for “mobilizing against the clear and present danger that the provocations of racist and fascist organizations pose to us all.” The first motion, initiated by CSWP members in Painters (IUPAT) Local 10, was passed the week after Trump’s election. Then when the June 4 race-hate provocation was announced, we proposed that the unions take the lead in organizing protest against it.
We got an enthusiastic response. CSWPers with the backing of Local 10 and IATSE (stage hands) Local 28 went to the Northwest Oregon Labor Council (NWOLC) on Monday, May 22 with a resolution for such a mobilization. The reception from the labor bureaucrats was chilly. Still, we were able to make the case and the Council agreed to distribute the call to all 52 affiliates of the NWOLC, which was done. This was important in bringing out members of at least 14 different unions at the labor mobilization on June 4.
However, barely an hour after the Labor Council meeting ended on May 22, Jamie Partridge, a retired Letter Carrier who was at the meeting, along with two other prominent supporters of the ISO in Portland, sent out a call for a planning meeting for a “vigil and rally” to be held “on a separate day (possibly the next evening) from the far-right’s rally to avoid placing people in the middle of any possible violence” (our emphasis). This was a deliberate attempt to undercut the labor mobilization.
In a post-protest wrap-up article (“How Did Portland Stand United Against Hate?” Socialist Worker, 12 June), the ISO slams Jesse Jackson for flying into town to declare that any protest should be on another day. Jackson’s move, it wrote, was a “cynical maneuver to disorganize and demobilize” any anti-fascist protest on June 4. Yet on May 22 the ISO proposed the exact same thing, in a cynical maneuver to disorganize and demobilize the protests calling to stop the fascists!
Portland Labor Against the Fascists went to the May 26 planning meeting called by the ISOers. Sure enough, they proposed an event for June 5. Wael Elasady went on at length in opposition to antifa strategy of physically confronting the fascists. The spokeswoman for the labor mobilization explained that organizing was already underway for a June 4 protest, that having a rally the next day would do nothing to stop the fascists or build confidence that we could stop them, that we were in communication with the antifa protest organizers, and that a planning meeting would be held the coming Wednesday, May 31. In response, the overwhelming majority of those present voted to build for the protest on June 4, and agreed to “fold their organizing into the meeting on Wednesday.”
Late on the afternoon of May 26 on the MAX light rail line Nazi thug Jeremy Christian carried out the murder of Ricky Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and the near-murder of Micah David-Cole Fletcher. At a vigil on Saturday the 27th, Portland Labor Against the Fascists put out a statement and hundreds of fliers for the upcoming labor mobilization were handed out. Many in the crowd catcalled when Mayor Ted Wheeler spoke. But after giving in to having a rally against the racists on June 4 instead of their original proposal for the day after, the ISO then called for a meeting to plan a separate rally at the same time but at a different location, on the steps of City Hall, deliberately dividing the forces of those opposing the fascists.
The ISO-initiated Portland Stands United Against Hate (PSUAH) emphasized that it would be a “peaceful event.” It eventually pulled together a typical liberal/left “coalition” with a long list of endorsers including a number of religious groups, various liberal activist groups, two or three union locals, immigrant rights groups and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Socialist Alternative (SAlt). They sat down to coordinate with Mayor Wheeler, who is also police commissioner. After trying unsuccessfully to get the federal government to deny a permit to the alt-right event, the mayor “opted instead for massive police deployment combined with the City Hall ‘unity against hate’ love-in,” as we wrote in our article on the anti-fascist protests.
In a post on the PSUAH Facebook page, an ISO document containing an “Open Letter” complains of “an irresponsible and dangerous online smear campaign” that it claims is spreading “lies and distortions” about their actions on June 4. They say that they didn’t expel any masked antifa activists and that only one person had an “all lives matter” sign, which may be true. They emphasize their rally had the “explicitly stated goal rejecting a strategy of physical confrontation between the far right and a relatively small number of activists,” and claim that this “allowed anti-racist Portland to break through their fear and terror, to stand up to bigots.” In reality, the Facebook page for the reformist/liberal rally had so many references to people being “scared,” the need for a “safe rally,” to be peaceful, to have a “family-friendly event” (really, bring kids?), that it amounted to fear-mongering.
The “Open Letter” objects to the accusation of collaboration with the police, saying they merely asked for (and received) a permit for a rally on the steps of City Hall, and got an agreement that the “police would not wade into our rally,” and instead would rely on the rally’s “trained peacekeepers.” In fact, the City Hall rally organizers relied on the line of police around the fascist/racist event as their main line of defense. The day before the event, the main local newspaper, The Oregonian (3 June), reported:
“Cari Luna, the chair for Portland Democratic Socialists of America, said organizers are ‘100 percent committed to a non-violent rally.’ The group is one of several co-sponsors for the event.
“The organizers met with Portland police and [Mayor] Wheeler to discuss keeping the rally peaceful, Luna said. The demonstrators will not confront the right-wing protesters and police will provide a buffer between the two groups, Luna said. Peacekeepers trained in de-escalation tactics will also be present, Luna said.”
On the day of the event, the ISO distributed an update for those who wanted to “peacefully stand in opposition” to the bigots, complete with “our pledge to non-violence” saying participants would be “nonviolent under all circumstances” which would be read to the rally.
But this commitment to “non-violence” had a sinister side to it. On June 1, the City Hall rally organizers e-mailed a letter to Portland Labor Against the Fascists and to antifa “asking” that:
“a. You respect our commitment to have a totally non-violent City Hall rally.
“b. You respect our desire to have no physical contact with the Joey Gibson group [of Patriot Prayer and Warriors for Freedom, the groups sponsoring the alt-right rally].
“c. You respect our Peacekeepers (orange vests) attempt to de-escalate any harassment, intimidation, provocation or violence from whatever source.
“d. You respect our security arrangements with the Portland Police, which include shutting down part or all of 4th Avenue from Madison going south a block or two, depending on the size of our rally.
“We understand that, while you may not intend to provoke violence, that you may physically respond to provocations from the police or Joey Gibson’s group. We ask that you attempt to direct any confrontations with the police or Gibson’s group away from, not into, our space.”
Let’s be clear: this letter is a lawyer’s brief to use in case their “explicitly peaceful,” police-“buffered” event should experience some altercation, in which case the labor and antifa protests could be blamed for the “violence.” This shameful letter is a set-up for repression.
In the ISO’s post-demo articles it never calls for dropping all charges against the arrested protesters. It only has a brief mention that the Portland police used “excessive force” and that its attacks on the antifa activists were “unwarranted.” But in the next breath it claims that when the police launched a full-scale attack on this year’s May Day demo with tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets, “Black Bloc protesters undermined a march of some 1,000 people by provoking police” (“Anti-Racists Show Their Strength In Numbers,” Socialist Worker, 6 June). On that occasion it also did not call for freeing the more than two dozen people arrested that day.
While the ISO, DSA, SAlt and other social democrats frequently talk of united fronts as a cover for their class-collaborationist popular-front blocs with Democrats, from Bernie Sanders to local officials, in this case they justify their splitting tactics by blaming militants for “provoking” police. An earlier (May 4) Socialist Worker article about May Day reported that “local and national media laid the blame on protesters for a march that had ‘turned violent,’” and then proceeded to do exactly the same thing, saying that Black Bloc protesters were “incredibly irresponsible,” that they “give the police an excuse for attacking protesters,” etc.
On June 4, the ISO didn’t wait to put the finger on militants after the fact, but did so before the event, which it deliberately split in order to have nothing to do with anyone who sought to actually drive out the fascists.
In its June 12 wrap-up article it claims that its policy of “challenging the far right, but not physically confronting them or attempting to deny them the space,” was only “tactical,” and “was a way to build confidence and organization, and break through the fear barrier that was being fanned by the media.” It pretends that “our aim should be to build our numbers and confidence so that we not only protest the far right, but ultimately are able to drive them from our streets.” This is nonsense, perhaps to assuage any of their own members who may be uneasy about the dirty tactics they used in Portland.
The grotesque actions of the ISO in Portland did not come out of the blue. They are not an aberration or exception; on the contrary these actions are a vivid example of what the ISO’s politics means when applied in a situation of sharp struggle with real stakes. Its effort to help Portland’s rulers head off militant mobilization to stop the fascists, while seeking to preempt blame for “confrontations” by casting it on other leftists, is a stark illustration of what Trotskyists mean when we characterize the ISO as a social-democratic organization. Behind these actions is the ISO’s entire political method of adapting its “socialism” to bourgeois liberalism and Democratic Party “progressives.” It is the politics of class collaboration.
The social democrats pretend that the only alternatives are small-group skirmishes with the fascists or “peaceful legal” protests protected by the police. Not only will such reformist/liberal love fests not prepare for more militant action later – in fact, they undermine that potential – it is a false dichotomy. The organizers of Portland Labor Against the Fascists, including Class Struggle Workers – Portland and members of several area unions, put forward a very different strategy, of mobilizing mass labor-centered action that can vastly outnumber and overpower the fascists, who today are still quite small in number.
This is the strategy put forward by Leon Trotsky in Germany and France in the 1930s, and carried out by the American Trotskyists who led the Minneapolis Teamsters in organizing workers defense guards and who surrounded a Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden with 80,000 workers and youth determined to shut it down. The key is to mobilize the power of the workers movement, that can not only promote public safety by sweeping the fascists off the street but can defend against the racist police terror and anti-immigrant raids that are the greatest immediate danger today. The initiative by Portland Labor Against the Fascists was an historic first step in that direction. ■
- 1. See “Donald Trump, the ‘Alt-Right’ and Fascism,” The Internationalist No. 46, January-February 2017, and “Milo Yiannopoulos, ‘Free Speech’ and the Assault on Universities,” The Internationalist No. 47, March-April 2017.