...And yet, as many within and without the city have begun realizing, Portland is a town leavened with a history of rampant racial strife. As the whitest major American city, Portland blossomed in the lone state that constitutionally barred blacks from living there through the 19th century, that acted as one of the primary concentration centers for incarcerating American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II, that redlined as severely as any major metropolis elsewhere. That in 1922 saw its chief of police posing alongside hooded Ku Klux Klan members. That brought Jim Crow to the Pacific shoreline.
It’s the type of legal legacy, the type of nod-and-wink encouragement of white supremacy, that not only welcomed any number of Confederate families to relocate to the region in the aftermath of the Civil War, but that, toward the close of the 20th century, saw neo-Nazi and skinhead groups begin to extend their tendrils through the area. Before “Portlandia,” there was “Skinhead City.” In the mid-1980s, skinheads began marching through downtown, hauling bats, pipes and axes. Not long after, the city birthed Volksfront, a neo-Nazi contingent that eventually expanded internationally. In 1988, a trio of skinheads bashed Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student, to death; the three all received prison sentences, with one tabbed as a “prisoner of war” by other white supremacy groups.
Locals began pushing back. In 2007, a group called Rose City Antifa took form, borrowing the shortened form of “antifascist” for its name. The crew pointed to similar European movements, which had, in places like Germany and Italy, arisen in response to the fascist movements that would eventually crater Europe in World War II. It also tapped into regional currents of anarchism and latent communism. These were the political strains that had sparked, among other things, the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” protests against the World Trade Organization, which resulted in millions of dollars’ worth of property damage in the city.
From its inception, Portland’s antifa contingent cloaked itself in anonymity; as a 2009 story in Portland’s Willamette Week noted, “Little is known publicly about Rose City Antifa.” And little seems to have changed in the decade since. Its unofficial uniform comprises blood-red and black bandanas and hoods, but the group doesn’t keep any official membership rolls, let alone share last names with anyone outside of its circle. “Why do we wear masks? Because [of] instances of antifa people [who] have been assassinated,” says David, a member of Rose City Antifa who, like all group members before him, declined to share his last name with POLITICO Magazine. The historical examples are not recent, but they are well-known in the group: Skinheads murdered a pair of anti-racist activists in Nevada in 1998, luring them to the desert outside Las Vegas, and local antifa have claimed that a 2010 incident in Portland—a shooting that left a self-described anti-racist skinhead in critical condition—was also politically motivated.
For much of its existence, the group largely relied on shout-downs and public displays of force as their primary tactics. Recently they’ve added the cyber weapon of doxxing—exposing personal information such as addresses, places of employment, and dates of birth and schools, even if it means innocent families mistakenly targeted by antifa begin receiving threats. Such tactics have been “effective because they raise the cost of participation,” Stanislav Vysotsky, who researches political extremism with the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, told POLITICO Magazine.
But now, for antifa, it’s not enough to simply outscream their opposition; rather, those far-right forces must, in a bizarre nod to the Bush Doctrine, be preemptively denied a voice from the outset. “We are unapologetic about the reality that fighting fascism at points requires physical militancy,” Rose City Antifa’s Facebook page reads. “Anti-fascism is, by nature, a form of self-defense: the goal of fascism is to exterminate the vast majority of human beings.” The group does not specify what physical militancy means, but their page makes clear that the definition includes “any means necessary.”