Scenes from Half a Race Riot
By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
1) In the Japanese American Historical Plaza of Waterfront Park, a boy of perhaps twelve leans against a sculpture, his knee bent to rest his foot casually behind him. He wears a black hoodie, a white helmet, and a black cloth over his face to hide his identity. Heâ€™s here on a sunny Saturday morning with about two hundred others to demonstrate against a white nationalist march scheduled to occur this morning in downtown Portland. The only problem is that he, nor anyone else present, seems to know where those white nationalists are right now. 2) It is 11:20 AM, which is much too early for a ska band; there is one blasting over the loudspeaker anyway, attracting the curiosity of a few Saturday Market patrons. A few people mill around with signs (â€œWhite Flower!â€ â€œIâ€™ve Got 99 Problems And White Supremacy is All of Themâ€), others with red flags held above their heads. In an interesting display of modern activist aesthetics, over half of the crowd are clad in black denim skinny jeans; many have bandanas over their faces, their eyes darting about the crowd nervously. â€œWe are getting live updates on the location of the White Man March,â€ a woman says in between the ska bandâ€™s songs, â€œand we will announce it soon.â€ By my count, all but about fifteen of the assembled protesters are visibly white. 3) â€œI heard on social media that there would be a white supremacist rally here today,â€ a woman named Leigh tells me, â€œand because Iâ€™m staunchly anti-fascist, I decided I would come and try to disrupt it.â€ She is effusively happy, her pink-lipsticked smile lighting up her face, the very model of a rad, queer, intersectionality-minded activist. â€œIâ€™m from Atlanta, and both of my parents did a great job teaching me that racism is a real thing and not some distant memory that weâ€™ve moved past. It was a huge part of my education.â€ â€œMoving to Portland, though,â€ she continues thoughtfully, â€œpeople really love to protest. They love to talk about how much they know about anti-racism. Itâ€™s quite different than in Atlanta.â€ Her eyes widen; I turn to see a crowd of men entirely clad in black walking into the crowd with dead serious scowls on their faces. â€œWait!â€ she exclaims, â€œAre those the Nazis!?â€ â€œNo,â€ her friend says, â€œfalse alarm.â€ Leigh laughs at her error. â€œThis is what Iâ€™ve been asking myself every five minutes!â€ She says, grinning. â€œYou canâ€™t tell where the white male anti-racists begin and the Nazis end, so to speak.â€ 4) A tangible sense of unrest is present in the crowd. Factions are clearâ€”the queer activists standing in a colorfully-clad group, a handful of spectators standing in twos and threes on the outskirts of the demonstrations speaking quietly to one another, the black-clad bandana-wearing folks not talking to anyone. As I move through the crowd, a man follows me about fifteen paces behind. Each time I turn around, he snaps photos of me. 5) â€œWhy should I believe you when you say youâ€™re a journalist?â€ a woman holding a red flag asks me. Her eyes are filled with the perhaps-justified paranoia of an exhausted activist, underlined with heavy bags. â€œYou donâ€™t have a press pass.â€ My hand runs along the cord around my neck, pulls out the laminated pass with my photo with â€œPRESSâ€ printed along the bottom that has tucked itself into my jacket. She looks at it suspiciously, turns it over, looks back up at me. â€œHow do I know you didnâ€™t just make this yourself?â€ â€œWell,â€ I reply, â€œI helped found the newspaper, so in a sense I did make it myself.â€ We look at each other, the corners of her mouth pulling down towards the bricks below, the weary gears in her head turning. I donâ€™t get the sense that her activist training told her what to do in this situation. 6) â€œI was honestly afraid to walk up to the demonstration,â€ a self-identified queer Latina woman tells me, giggling nervously. â€œI couldnâ€™t see any other people of color here. From across the street, I couldnâ€™t tell if I was walking into the nazi protest or the counterprotest!â€ 7) â€œWe are still waiting to find out where the Nazis are,â€ a woman tells the crowd over a loudspeaker to a crowd that has shrunken notably over the last twenty minutes. â€œWe will march soon.â€ Near her, numerous cardboard signs lay in piles on the groundâ€”â€œThe Cake Is A Lie,â€ one reads cryptically, almost covered by another reading â€œFree Wifi.â€ Behind the speaker, an Asian family takes a picture of their daughter striking a pose on the waterfront, impervious to the demonstration unfolding right behind them as they snap photos. I turn to walk away, see the photographer who has tailed me take one more photo before scurrying back into the crowd. As I walk away up Davis Street, I see one more piece of cardboard sitting on the ground, this one too with paint still wetâ€”â€œBaby! I went home,â€ it reads in a generous scrawl. â€œIâ€™ll see you there.â€ Nick Mattos (@nickmattos2) is a writer for PQ Monthly and El Hispanic News who doesnâ€™t like Nazis either. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.