I learned of the upcoming June 4 anti-alt-right counter protest while I was attending the vigil at the Hollywood MAX station on the evening after the train killings. Someone handed me a flyer that proclaimed “Portland Stands United Against Fascism!” It described the planned pro-Trump “Warriors for Freedom” rally, and urged readers to join the anti-fascism (or “antifa”) counter demo that would be held simultaneously, more or less in the same place. It looked like trouble, like a scene where a guy could get his head bashed in. But, freshly grief stricken with the rest of my city, I felt the call.
I let friends know, via email, that I was looking for a sign to hold with a peaceful message, maybe something about love, and one friend came through with an “Everyone Is Welcome Here” placard, featuring the kindly face of a woman wearing glasses and a hajib. This pretty much perfectly captured the sentiment I wanted to project (though I’d also come up with my own slogan – “One human race. One human family.” – and were I a sign maker myself, those are the words I’d have put on my sign).
In the days before the event, I learned there would also be a more mainstream (so to speak) “Portland Stands United Against Hate” counter demo in front of City Hall, attended by a likely less-volatile crowd than the antifas. And an hour before those rallies were to begin, a Buddhist-sponsored meditation for peace (“Standing Together for Justice”) would be held at Lownsdale Square, a block or two away. That looked like a good grounding keynote for the day.
About 40 people showed up for the meditation, which seemed modest, though the friendly atmosphere was fortifying. As we meditated with eyes open (as instructed) around the war memorial statue, we could hear the spirited chants and drumming from the already-amply-populated antifa demo two blocks to the south, which was not even due to begin for another hour.
After the Buddhist closing circle and prayer, I shambled over to the counter demo in front of City Hall, kitty corner to the antifa demo in Chapman Square, and directly across SW 4th Ave. from Terry Schrunk Plaza, where the pro-Trumpers were. (They were actually boxed in and outnumbered on three sides all afternoon, with my chosen City Hall demo to their west, the antifas on their north side, and a riled-up union-led rally across 3rd Ave., just east of them.)
The area in front of City Hall was already thick with counter protesters when I arrived, attendees vigorously chanting stuff like “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” The pro-Trump group across the street looked pitiably tiny by comparison. (I had not been aware that their rally wasn’t actually scheduled to start for another hour and a half, and that the folks I was looking at were the early birds.) With a few biker-type exceptions, they looked pretty normal to me (what was I expecting?): clean cut families, including some children. Some of them waved American flags. Two people unfurled a Trump banner. One guy had a sign that said “BLM is racist.” When our side began chanting “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” they hurled back: “All lives matter! All lives matter!”
I flashed on an early 2016 Hillary-Bernie debate (ah, remember those days?) during which a young black man, via youtube, asked Bernie: “Senator Sanders, is it ‘black lives matter’ or ‘all lives matter’?”
Without a beat of hesitation, Sanders replied, “Black lives matter.”
I don’t remember the rest of his answer. But I was impressed with his strategic emphasis. In this highly charged, nuanced, symbolic, ongoing debate about words, Sanders had found a way to thread the needle (at least for the moment). By coming down with just a little bit of stress on the word matter, he had avoided denying the other proposition. He had skirted the either/or crux of the question, rendered it tangential. I deemed it astute of him, clever, not dishonest.
I stood on SW 4th Avenue, having threaded my way to the front line of my counter protest, as close as possible to the cordoned-off pro-Trump crew. Having achieved a privileged spot to stand, I implicitly felt I should do what most other people around me were doing; namely, chanting and shouting and raging at the people facing me some fifteen feet away. But that felt silly. Instead I just held my sign and maintained a mournfully serious expression.
At one point, the other side began chanting “USA! USA!” and our side retorted (effectively drowning them out) “You are not the USA! You are not the USA!” Which, when you think about it, was exactly the same message, just broadcast in the opposite direction. I started shouting “We are ALL the USA! We are ALL the USA!” One or two people sympathetically joined in with me for a round or three.
Altogether, I found the other side’s signs more interesting than ours. A few were demented and creepy – “CNN is ISIS” for example – but they were all pretty different, and some of them were downright discursive. I don’t remember the exact wording but there was one sign that – I swear – conveyed (in BIG letters!) all of the following information: “Jeremy Christian [the MAX train killer] is not alt-right. He is not a Trump supporter. He voted for Bernie!”
I believe that sign was accurate. I’d read an article online about this. Christian had been a Bernie supporter. Also, I had watched some footage of Christian at a previous Portland alt-right demo, screaming things like “Die, Muslims!” and a big bearded redneck-looking guy holding a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag was insistently telling the camera person “Hey, that guy’s not with us! He’s not one of us!”
Another sign – actually a series of small signs draped over the cordon by the pro-Trumpers – read: “No fascism.” “No hate.” “No KKK.” “YOU are the fascists!” I could believe that they might really feel that way, especially when our side was chanting “Go away, Nazi scum! You’re outnumbered ten to one!”
One guy on the pro-Trump side had put together an attractive sign with multi-colored block letters which read “If you are here legally, welcome home.” I registered a guilty little rush of tingly warmth upon reading those words. It occurred to me that our two signs – his sign and my own “Everyone is welcome here” – summarized the opposing viewpoints that animate our national debate over immigration, and by extension the character of our democracy. I imagined that this particular gentleman and I could have had a civil and interesting conversation. (Although, as I conceived it, the point of my sign had little to do with immigration per se. It was primarily an anti-racist message; a statement about diversity and tolerance.)
But the most intriguing of their signs, to my mind, was another highly legible, carefully wrought specimen, hoisted high by a scrawny, self-conscious looking young man whom I deemed to be no more than 21 or 22 years old, possibly only a teenager. It said:
It was a head scratcher, all right, and I puzzled mightily over it. Only hours later, far from the demo, did its intended meaning dawn on me. The lack of clarity had been due to the sign maker’s poor punctuation skills. His sign should have read:
Or, to put it more prosaically (and perhaps nauseatingly to some readers): “Love of President Trump is what trumps hate.”
It’s kind of a complicated thought, isn’t it? And honestly, I don’t think it’s without merit! I mean, that’s a deep discussion and I won’t get into it here but …
… here’s the thing. I’m a former English teacher and the young man’s rogue apostrophe and faulty capitalization did not sit well with me. In fact, had he been a student of mine, and had he turned in a paper with that depth and idiosyncratic quality of thought, yet with such abysmal punctuation, I could never in good professional conscience have awarded his efforts anything higher than a B.
So does my reflexive, visceral disdain of his inability to punctuate reveal me to be a blinkered, overeducated liberal elitist? And is this emblematic of our American cultural divide? Truth be told, I do find superfluous apostrophes kind of deplorable.
I’m sure I’ve been to over a hundred demonstrations. There is something about demonstrations (or, in this case, a counter-demonstration) that makes you feel like you’re supposed to know what to do, what posture to assume, what attitude to wear, when it’s appropriate to greet your friends, how it’s appropriate to greet your friends, how to feel inside. And of course you should certainly know what it is you’re doing there, what your purpose or objective is in having come.
But sometimes there’s an existential moment (I speak for myself, and I suspect for others too) when you realize you don’t actually know any of that stuff, you’re just lost in some flow with no internal compass.
Such a moment occurred for me at about 1 p.m. I’d been at the counter-demo about half an hour, staring at the same defiant, mostly red-clad Trump supporters across the street, intermittently chanting (or enduring a chant), or just milling around and taking it all in. Since the opposing demo wasn’t even really due to officially start until 2, and as I had limited energy for demonstrating, this seemed a good time for a break.
So I walked some blocks away to regroup. I peed discreetly (truly) in some office building shrubbery. I took the novel I was reading out from my fanny pack, sat on a concrete bench by some bushy manicured landscaping and read for a while. (I was reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which is excellent, and apropos for the occasion, being post-apocalyptical.)
I reflected on why I had come — to try and contribute some semblance of a peaceful presence, to honor the recently fallen, and to express, however faintly, a prayer for them and us.
I returned to my counter demo at 2. I held my sign above my head, though I was too far back now for any of the Trump people to see it. But my comrades could read it and many of them glanced in my eyes and smiled at me sweetly after looking up and doing so.
I felt no imperative to emotionally work myself up. I found a comfortable place to stand, something metal to lean against (a signpost? a parking meter? don’t remember) and continued to hold up my sign, switching arms every few minutes and periodically checking my cell phone for the time, because I’d decided I would permit myself to leave at 2:30. I did want to go home.
A bit after 2:30 I moved to go, weaving my way out of the thick of things. I had to cross Madison Street in order to go around the Trump protest (the police had it all well circumscribed). In the midst of the crush of people on my destination sidewalk danced a gleeful-eyed, smartly dressed young man, Walkman ear pods in, his two hands holding up, at chest level, a huge sign that said “Jesus is weed.” His merry eyes caught my own, and he transferred his sign to one hand to gather me in for a brief embrace with his free arm. A goofy, heart-lifting little surprise, that.
Before disengaging entirely from all the action, I felt drawn to check out the antifa scene. I entered their demo zone, the spacious, shady lawn of Chapman Square. By and large, the antifas struck me as young, mellow (yup), and innocent-natured. I received much generous eye contact from above face kerchiefs, likely in response to my signage. There was one stocky, bearded, tough-looking dude (in black, like nearly all the antifas) who was blasting a music loudspeaker in the direction of the Trumpers, and I was delighted to recognize that the song was the old pop hit “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent. I blatantly boogied to it for a few minutes and then prevailed on the guy for a brotherly fist bump before proceeding to my bus stop.
By then it was just about 3. I learned the next day that if I’d stayed another 20 minutes, I’d have seen rubber bullets, tear gas, and some violence. I felt lucky to have missed that.