Content Warning: This article discusses racism, violence, facism, and other possibly triggering topics.
Modern-day Portland has a reputation for being very liberal and left-wing, but it hasn’t always been like this. Portland in the ‘90s was known as “Skinhead City” because of “racist skinheads” and “anti-racist skinheads” who were fighting at the time. Other than that, many contributing factors led to this stain on Portland’s history, the effects of which are still felt today.
Fascism is often associated with World War Two and the conflicts of the mid 20th century within Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Francisco Spain, but unfortunately, facist ideology didn’t end with the war. Afterwards, various facist groups were created that had similar beliefs as the ones active during the war. Portland has had a history with violence relating to these groups within the city. During the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, far right groups violently counter-protested the movement. But why does Portland have such a struggle with neo fascism, and why is a left-wing city often the targeting point of far-right/neo-facist groups?
“Oregon has been attractive to white nationalists due to its origin as a state that excluded minorities,” states Cassie Miller in an ABC interview. She is a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, who has been keeping watch on the far-right/facist activity within Portland. In 1844 when Oregon was still a territory, it passed its first Black exclusionary law. Though this law did ban slavery, its main focus was to prohibit Black people from living in the territory of Oregon for more than three years. It achieved this through many horrific practices, one of them being the infamous Lash Law. If a Black person stayed in Oregon for more that three years, they would be punished severely with a public whipping of 39 lashes every six months until they left. Oregon would go on to pass another law that would bar Black people who were not already in the area from entering or residing in the territory. The final law passed would be ten years later, when Oregon became a state in 1859, a law that prohibited Black people from owning property or making contracts. These horrendous laws no doubt contributed to the constant presence of far right groups within Oregon.
Chinese Americans were also barred by the state from owning property by the same rules that applied to Black Americans. There was an anti-Chinese movement throughout Oregon and the rest of the United States in the 1880s, specifically in Oregon; this was shown as buildings in Portland’s Chinatown were burned down. In Eastern Oregon, a group of white nationalists murdered 34 Chinese miners in 1887. By examining the state’s horrific history, it’s clear to see that it’s deeply rooted in anti-Blackness and racism.
In 1921, the terrorist group The Ku Klux Klan was increasing in influence in the state and was often holding rallies and gatherings in Portland. The historical presence of terrorist groups in the area is another reason alt-right groups will always be attracted to Portland and its racist history.
The rise of National Socialism (the ideology of the Nazi party) in Portland and Oregon was not surprising given the historical racism of the location, and even in recent times, alt-right presence can still be felt. Portland in the ‘80s was seen as a liberal city; however one particular event really shined a light on how outright racist Portland really was. On November 12, 1988 a group of three men from a group called “East Side White Pride” murdered a man named Mulugeta Seraw who was an Ethiopian immigrant. This specific hate crime lit a fuse for more far-right enforcement to compile into Portland and cause more violence. At the time Randy Blazak (currently a professor at Oregon State University) was undercover in a neo-facist group studying them. “That event really put Portland on the map,” he says. Neo-fascists believed this murder was going to start their “Racial Holy Wars,” according to Blazak.
Around 1990 Portland started to become known as “Skinhead City” because of the facist skinheads and the anti-facist skinheads in Portland that were fighting around downtown Portland, and just Portland in general. According to The Guardian, far-right leaders like Richard Butler from “Aryan Nations” imagined the Pacific Northwest as a “white ethnostate.” A notable group from this period was The White Aryan Resistance, a group of Neo Nazis formed by a man named Tom Metzger, and he was actively attempting to recruit members in Portland in the 80’s. He wanted to capitalize on the skinhead youth and how organized they were, then turn them into a serious politicalized facist movement. Portland was an important part of this plan, as it was a hub for racism and facism at the time.
When 2020 arrived and a large wave of BLM protests started in response to deaths like that of George Floyd, a huge anti-progressive movement also began as a counter-protest to the BLM movement. Groups such as the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other extreme right militia groups would come to counter-protest and mace protestors and Antifa (anti-facist group(s)) members, attacking the demonstrating group of people. The main goal of these counter-protests was to start conflict and riots to use as propaganda to label the BLM protestors as violent, and in large part, it worked. Media portrayal of BLM protests made many believe that the BLM protesters were violent and unprovoked, which was not usually the case. As the conflicts started to rise, it attracted more and more far right groups to come, even from out of state, to create more struggle with the demonstrators.
Portland has shown that it has deep racist roots which continue to create conflict in the present-day, attracting more attention from far right groups than other cities. Even though modern day Portland is liberal, outside of its major cities, Oregon is very conservative, with 40.7% of votes during the 2020 Presidential Election going to Republican Donald Trump from the state.
Portland will most likely continue to be a target for facist groups because of its largely liberal population and the fact that it is still under a spotlight from the effects of the BLM protests and counter protests. Racism is not fading out; far-right propaganda is still mainstream, creating a national divide which leads to more conflict and encouragement to repeat these acts of violence and oppression and to keep these fascist movements going. A prime example is the resistance to Critical Race Theory and other racial lenses being taught in schools to help students understand the racism underlying our history and our policies. Oregon citizens should not forget about our racist history. Historical policies like the Lash Law, racist exclusionary acts, and redlining show up in different, current ways and are still relevant and affect us today.