Last Sunday afternoon, I spent a couple of hours at a right-wing “free speech” rally in downtown Portland, Oregon. I described parts of the experience in a story I wrote earlier this week, but I’m still thinking about what I heard and saw.
The rally, organized by an area group called Patriot Prayer, was held in a small park across from City Hall, and it wasn’t large—I’d guess there were a couple of hundred attendees, not counting all the curious onlookers and the journalists like myself. The park was green and shady, and during the rally, it was an oddly peaceful place. The speakers were worked up, and they worked their crowd up, but they couldn’t hope to match the energy of the thousands of counter-protesters who surrounded them, and whose chants rolled through the streets like waves. The park, protected by a solid cordon of police in riot gear, felt like a tiny island of quiet in a stormy sea, sparsely populated by an isolated tribe.
I listened to the inhabitants of that island, and here’s what I heard: Praise for patriotism, for love, and for God. Praise for free speech. Praise for the police. Praise for one another, especially for their courage in gathering in the heart of liberal Portland. I also heard half-hearted calls for restraint (“Please don’t beat up anybody on your way out of here,” organizer Joey Gibson said in closing) and full-throated calls for violence (“I’ve heard live rounds work better!” one man yelled at the police as they used stun grenades to herd a group of counter-protesters away from the park). Over and over again, I heard bitterness and anger toward the counter-protesters and the left in general, and toward anyone who had labeled the islanders as racists or fascists or Nazis—anyone who had somehow made them feel ashamed of being conservatives, or white people, or Christians, or men.
What struck me most about the speakers on the island—all of those I heard—was their near-total self-absorption. They didn’t seem fully aware that the city around them was in mourning, shocked by the recent and fatal stabbing of two men who had tried to protect a pair of teenage girls from racist invective on a commuter train. They didn’t seem to understand, or be willing to acknowledge, that their own rhetoric, which had briefly attracted the attention of Jeremy Christian, the man accused of the stabbings, could have real and tragic consequences if taken to its logical extreme. They didn’t seem to understand that the constitutional right to free speech is simply the right to speak freely, not the right to speak freely without challenge, from any platform. They also didn’t seem to understand that racism and bigotry are defined not just by explicit insults against other groups but also by a lack of real concern for people different than oneself—and that while most speakers were innocent of the former, almost all were guilty of the latter.
Earlier this year, Laurie Penny described the young followers of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous as real-life Lost Boys, and I think that’s an apt comparison—more than anything, the members of Patriot Prayer and the rest of the so-called alt-right seem to be deliriously at war with responsibility. While their deliberate ignorance of consequences is frightening, these Lost Boys and Lost Girls aren’t frightening people. For the most part, they seem to be walking wounded egos, dressed up in online aliases and bulletproof vests.
Which is why the counter-protests, as large and noisy as they were, were ineffective at best. When you’re playing war, you need an opponent, and the counter-protesters—some of whom brought their own costumes and weaponry—were a perfect foil. Their insults inflated the Lost Boys’ already exaggerated sense of grievance and self-importance, and their alleged violence provided a fairly dull rally with a thrilling climax: When the police announced that one group of counter-protesters was assaulting officers and had to leave the area, most of the Lost Boys immediately turned away from their own speakers and raced to the edge of the park, taunting their adversaries with fierce joy. Much of the press covered the afternoon as sports event, which in a way it was.
But what if one side had showed up, and sat out? Imagine if the counter-protesters had responded to the Patriot Prayer rally not with deafening chants, but with silence. Imagine if they had stood in quiet rows, their arms locked in solidarity, their backs turned to the park and its speakers. The Lost Boys are playing a deadly game, and what they seem to want, most of all, is someone to play it with them. Imagine if the rest of us were grown-up enough to deny them that.
Top photo: Flickr. Creative Commons.