Magazine December 31, 2018, Issue

Whose Streets, Indeed?

(Thomas Patterson/AFP/Getty Images)

In which our correspondent briefly, inadvertently leads an Antifa march.

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In which our correspondent briefly, inadvertently leads an Antifa march

Portland, Ore.

So there’s this really whacked-out young lady just absolutely spitting high on rage with one of those weird Chelsea Girl fringe haircuts like skinhead molls used to wear back in the Age of Reagan and she is right at this moment very fixated on — and I am not making this up — kettle corn, that weird repulsive caramel-coated Dutch mutant popcorn varietal sold at state fairs and any place men in laced-up pirate blouses are gathered, and she’s just going on and on about it, screaming at the top of her skinny little lungs: “It’s salty and sweet! It’s salty and sweet! It’s salty and sweet!” and ain’t nobody listening, but that’s pretty clearly beside the point, psychically, from where this particular specimen is standing and chanting, working herself up into a kind of lathery confection-oriented trance as she contemplates the ineffable yin and yang of it all, kettle-corn-speaking.

I imagine that her head would explode if she found out that Oreo is making a kettle-corn-flavored sandwich cookie, and that it is — saints above! — vegan.

The kettle-corn girl is but one of many madcap escapees from the great mental ward of the Pacific Northwest out here making strange noises on the mean streets of downtown Portland on Election Night 2018, and her ecstatic om mani padme hum devotional to kettle corn is soon drowned out as her thuggish black-masked comrades begin their more straightforward and politically meaningful and considerably more comprehensible chant:

“Whose streets?”

“Our streets!”

“Whose streets?”

“Our streets!”

“Whose streets?”

“Our streets!”

The thing is, the pointy-headed little black-shirted goons aren’t entirely wrong about that.

The official target of tonight’s march is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — an agency within the Department of Homeland Security that some Top Gun–loving bureaucrat surely christened thus so that it could be called “ICE,” which sounds about 35 percent more jackbootilicious than you really want a law-enforcement agency serving a free people in a still-functional constitutional republic to sound. “Abolish ICE!” is the official theme of the evening, and the blackshirts return to it from time to time, but the real subject of tonight’s fugue is, pardon my Anglo-Saxon, “F*** the police!” which is developed in a kind of sloppy exposition in three or four different chants.


“All cops are bastards!”


“All cops are bastards!”


“All cops are bastards!”

And these absolutely are their streets, as the two neutered Portland cops following them dutifully around make clear. The goons and thugs occasionally take a moment to amuse themselves by messing with the cops, screaming obscenities at them or committing flagrant but relatively minor violations of the law in front of them, daring them to do anything about it. The cops trudge and trundle on, calm as monks, pretending not to notice as the hoodlums pound on passing cars, block intersections, and menace bystanders. At the most public of public spaces in Portland, Pioneer Courthouse Square — “Portland’s living room,” they call it — the goons encounter a little bit of counterprotest, not from sad incel Proud Boys or the Klan or simply from other pissant neo-fascists wearing slightly different-color shirts — but from a young black man who intuits, not inaccurately, that this is mainly a bunch of rich-white-kid play-acting by little runts who make pretty good thugs when confronted with people in wheelchairs or little old ladies — more on that in a second — but who are basically chickensh** poseurs who are Down for the Cause only to the extent that it doesn’t stand between them and a soy latte and an MFA. He says as much, at higher volume than probably is really necessary — and the weaselly little munchkin blackshirts who had just a second before insisted that all cops are bastards! and boasted of their control of the streets turn immediately to the police for help. And the police, damn their eyes, help: They evict an actual peaceable protester, if a loud one, from the public square — in order to make room for mask-wearing, law-breaking, little-old-lady-assaulting hooligans.

A police vehicle cruises down the street a respectful distance behind the mob. The purported lawmen inside announce over the loudspeakers that they are there to assure this rabble of miscreants that they are there to help the mob “exercise your First Amendment rights safely,” so please stay on the sidewalk and obey the traffic laws. Naturally, the mob responds to this by immediately stepping off the sidewalk and violating the traffic laws. Not that there’s any need to — they just want to remind themselves, and the police, that they can.

Whose streets? That’s pretty clear.

On Portlandia, the mayor of Portland is played by Kyle MacLachlan (of Twin Peaks) as a goofy and generally earnest middle-aged municipal careerist trying to be cool. In real life, Portland’s mayor is Ted Wheeler, a sniveling little runt of a bureaucrat who professes to be “appalled” at the political violence that is now commonplace on the streets of Portland but complains that he is effectively unable to do anything about it. When Antifa thugs attacked a march held by Patriot Prayer, a local right-wing group, police reported seeing people brandishing guns, clubs, knives, and pepper spray. They made no arrests.

Owing to one of the eccentricities of Portland governance, the mayor is also the police commissioner. The police chief, who bears the wonderful inaptronym “Danielle Outlaw,” answers to him, as of course do the police themselves. According to Andy Ngo, a local journalist who has written for the Wall Street Journal and other publications about the Portland fascists who style themselves anti-fascists (and whose work on another topic appears elsewhere in this issue), the police are under orders to avoid creating “flashpoints,” meaning confrontations between police and hooligans that might look bad on video.

“The police are getting pushed from all sides,” Ngo says. “The Right feels like the police allow anarchy to happen on the streets, and the Left says that the police are protecting the ‘fascists.’ The mayor’s constituents are people who are sympathetic to Antifa. He’s come out verbally very hard against the right-wing groups and has been inaccurate in his description of them, describing them as white supremacists, which I don’t think is a fair description of Patriot Prayer or the Proud Boys. When it comes to Antifa, sometimes he condemns their violence — but never their ideology.”

Mayor Wheeler did not avail himself of the opportunity to comment for this report. He did tell reporters after an earlier riot: “This is the story of Goldilocks and the two bears. The porridge is either too hot or it’s too cold. At any given moment in this city, the police are criticized for being heavy-handed and intervening too quickly, or they’re being criticized for being standoffish and not intervening quickly enough.” Fair enough. If only Portland had some sort of city leader who in his official capacity might be relied upon to make such judgments and see them put into place through city policies. Perhaps an elected official something like what the Spanish call an alcalde.

The problem is most dramatically on display in Portland, but it is hardly limited to the city “where young people go to retire.” Everywhere pointy-headed progressives are given unchallenged power, the same thing happens: Berkeley surrendered to political violence, too, along with Washington and other cities and practically every college campus.

Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, forthrightly described Antifa as a group of “people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland.” And elsewhere, of course.

And in spite of the ridiculous rhetoric surrounding Antifa, this is very much a Democrats-vs.-Republicans issue. As the blackshirts marched through Portland on the evening of the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic-party workers and campaign flunkies wearing official IDs on lanyards around their necks stepped out of the Hilton and the other places where Democratic grandees gathered to watch the returns, pumping their fists and chanting along with Antifa, sometimes looking around at one another a little guiltily. Nice young well-scrubbed college-educated political professionals and volunteers cheering on a mob of masked terrorists explicitly committed to a campaign of political violence.


Antifa, in Ngo’s estimate, is made up of “young people who are ideologues wanting to be heroes. With the ideological monoculture in Portland, people here really think that they are in some kind of cosmic battle with fascists. So whenever there happens to be a gathering of Trump supporters — and they do it in Portland to be provocative, coming from out of town to make a point — these people, who don’t have a lot of meaning in their lives, take to the streets to fight.” Ngo notes that the majority of them reject religion, suggesting that in street violence they have found, or tried to find, a substitute.

‘The crisis of democracy is not a peculiarly Italian or German problem, but one confronting every modern state. Nor does it matter which symbols the enemies of human freedom choose: freedom is not less endangered if attacked in the name of anti-Fascism or in that of outright Fascism.” So wrote the Freudian-Marxist social critic Erich Fromm all the way back in 1941. He knew whereof he spoke: Only a few years before, London had seen the so-called Battle of Cable Street, in which Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists had attempted to march — lawfully, it is worth adding — through the city. They were attacked by thousands of anarchists, socialists, and union workers organized by the Communist Party and armed with bombs and other weapons, including bags of feces, a kind of low-rent biological weapon favored by their imitators today. They had to go through 6,000 police officers, many of them mounted on horses, to get to their enemies, and they did so, crippling police horses by tossing marbles under their hooves.

Antifa has hijacked the name of an earlier German organization, Antifaschistische Aktion, a front for the Communist Party of Germany, itself a creature of Moscow and no stranger to authoritarianism, political repression, and political violence. (The Communist Party of Germany was banned in 1956 by the same constitutional court that prohibits neo-Nazi organizations.) Germany of course had some genuine fascists to fight, but, as in the Soviet Union itself, “anti-fascist” came to cover action against everything displeasing to the Kremlin. It probably is worth noting that these black-bloc hooligans do not always call themselves “Antifa.” The Portland march was organized by Abolish ICE PDX. Sometimes they call themselves “Smash Racism” or something else. But they are the same people, and their goal is the same: They are fascists, albeit fascists whose idol is the proletariat rather than the nation. The helpful people at Merriam-Webster remind us that fascists seek “severe economic and social regimentation and forcible suppression of opposition.” Senator Warren pursues the former, and the blackshirts pursue the latter. Their efforts are perfectly complementary.

It is tempting to think of the street brawls between Antifa and the Proud Boys and their ilk as a kind of midget Battle of Stalingrad during which all good republicans should stand to one side and cheer for casualties.

But it is more serious than that. Once political violence is out of the box, it is hard to put it back in. Left-wing militias such as Antifa beget right-wing militias that cite the existence of left-wing militias as justification for their own, and on and on it goes. We have seen this before in many contexts, and it rarely ends well. The original German Antifa served an enterprise whose worldwide affiliates would murder some 100 million people in the 20th century alone.

But those were sober times. Our own are a little less so.

If you want to see what a bunch of half-baked idiots and kettle-corn psalmists in a political march are up to, the easiest thing to do is to march around with them, as I did for a while in Portland. I do not look much like Tucker Carlson, and I remain, for the moment, able to blend in with such groups.

Which I did — and a funny thing happened: As the march began to peter out, a group of Antifa loitered for a bit on a street corner, and I loitered with them for a while, observing. And then I got tired and decided to bring my labors to an end and go on my merry. As I walked off, a contingent, apparently believing that we were once again on the move against fascism, began to follow me, pumping their fists and chanting, until they figured out that I wasn’t leading them anywhere. And thus did a National Review correspondent end up briefly leading an Antifa march through Portland.

Of course they followed me. They’ll follow anything that moves.

Kevin D. Williamson is a former fellow at National Review Institute and a former roving correspondent for National Review.

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