Written by Shane Burley. Photos by Daniel V. Media.
As the speakers began sharing survivors’ stories of sexual assault and trauma, the crowd of several hundred rally attendees stood in breathless silence in a downtown Portland, Oregon, park on Saturday, November 17. This event, called Survivors Are Everywhere: A Survivor Shout Out, had been organized by the anti-fascist coalition Pop Mob (short for Popular Mobilization) and was meant to bring together survivors’ stories as a challenge to another event being held only feet away, one organized by affiliates of the far-right Patriot Prayer organization. In response to the growing movement toward accountability for sexual assault and abuse, Patriot Prayer followers organized a #HimToo rally to address what they claim without evidence is a rash of “false rape allegations.”
In Oregon, Patriot Prayer has been front and center of this far-right revival, and the far-right events have escalated into vicious strikes on counterdemonstrators. Along with aggressive policing tactics, Portland has become dangerous for the growing number of activists who flood the city streets to stop Patriot Prayer from advancing.
“The ‘alt-right’ is trying to silence survivors, erase trans identities, control the bodies of women and people of color, and criminalize families and individuals seeking safety,” Alyssa Pariah, the co-chair of Portland Jobs with Justice and rally speaker, told Truthout. Instead of just organizing to counter the far-right contingent that was occupying a public park, organizers decided to use this as an opportunity to make the stories of survivors a hard edge of the anti-fascist resistance.
“Anti-fascist action cannot only be our masked-up comrades who are brave enough to confront the fash physically. It is our duty to foster popular antifascism,” Pariah said.
It is that model of popular struggle that has motivated Pop Mob to bring together multiple organizations and intersecting issues to show that the experiences of survivors are part of what can give power to an evolving anti-oppression mass movement.
A Challenge to Survivors
The explosion of far-right politics has come into direct conflict with the growing movement to confront sexual assault and abuse — often because the #MeToo movement confronts the abuses of patriarchal power that fascist political actors hope to sanctify as the model of the “traditional family.”
Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, the street gang that became Patriot Prayer’s base, have taken up this cause. Haley Adams, a loud Trumpian internet personality who trails alongside Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson, has become an aggressive force in this scene. After sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh surfaced, Adams decided to start promoting the #HimToo movement. #HimToo is a hashtag that became a far-right counter to the #MeToo movement during the Kavanaugh hearings, taken up by online reactionaries in the vein of the so-called men’s rights movement. The goal of the far right in the #HimToo campaign is to raise the voices of victims of “false allegations” of sexual assault, a specter they are using to defend the accused and to demonize survivors telling their story. False rape allegations are largely considered a red herring, since allegations proven false are a tiny percentage, while an estimated 63 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.
Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys have themselves incurred a steady stream of allegations of abuse and misconduct, including a recent report that Patriot Prayer rally host Quincy Franklin (aka Quincy Anatello) was seen by multiple people yelling “some women deserve rape” through a megaphone at a rally in Seattle in January. Meanwhile, Proud Boy and Patriot Prayer supporter Matthew “Deme” Cooper was charged with two counts of forcible sodomy against someone under the age of 13 in 2016, and Robert Zerfing, also a Proud Boy and Patriot Prayer supporter, is alleged to have engaged in domestic violence as well.
There are multiple allegations flying around about those involved in Patriot Prayer’s inner circle, so it did not surprise many people that they decided to center in on the #HimToo messaging. The Portland Street Preachers, with whom Quincy Franklin is involved, are known for their loud public pickets of student and LGBTQ events, and the Preachers regularly join Patriot Prayer, often carrying large, misogynistic signs indicting women who defy what they say are their feminine roles. Feminism is a key social issue to be refuted during Patriot Prayer rallies, whose supporters say that it unfairly targets men.
During Saturday’s #HimToo event, the President of Oregon Patriot Prayer, Jay Harris, said that some women treat sexual assault allegations as a “game,” and that the people attending the survivors’ event were targeting people because they were male. Edie Dixon, who was introduced at the far-right event as transgender activist, spoke about the “deep state” putting “estrogenic chemicals” into the environment to destroy the “bravery” of masculinity. All of this returned to the theme that masculine men were responsible for the great events of history, and that women should be reserved to their prescribed gender roles and should be considered suspect.
“Men and women are different. We have different roles. We were meant to create a modern family, and I refuse to apologize,” declared Haley Adams during her opening speech.
These behaviors are in line with reports that find misogyny to be a key component of white supremacist movements, and the far right often resorts to arguments advocating sexual assault, such as suggesting women “owe” men sex and should be to blame in cases of attacks.
Centering Survivors in Resisting the Far Right
In response to Adams’s and Patriot Prayer’s announcement of the #HimToo event, Pop Mob decided to take a new approach. This time, supporting survivors of sexual assault and abuse was the crux of the organizing effort. Rather than just focusing on halting the presence of Patriot Prayer, the voices of survivors needed to be heard by the general public, since disbelief of abuse narratives is not just unique to the far right.
“When Haley Adams decided to throw this event … during the Kavanaugh debacle, so it’s more about trying to combat their incredibly harmful narrative, which is that men are under a threat of becoming victims of false rape allegations,” said Effie Baum, an organizer with Pop Mob. “This is an incredibly dangerous and patently false claim.”
Earlier in the month, Pop Mob held a public event about survivorship and began soliciting stories from survivors. That event included self-defense and jail support trainings, “know your rights” information when dealing with law enforcement, and a focus on the ongoing call for the narratives of survivors of trauma and abuse. People could write up their experiences, send them in with their name or anonymously, and they would be read out publicly at the event. That would be mixed with other speakers who identified as survivors, standing in solidarity. This even would also include male survivors, who organizers say are often silenced by the same toxic masculinity that is at play in denying survivor experiences.
“Men are more likely to be a victim of sexual assault then they are to be a victim of a false allegation,” Baum told Truthout.
“We know that stories and narratives are where the real power is. We want to direct the media narrative away from their event, and instead focus on the very real epidemic of assault, violence and rape culture in this country,” Baum said.
A host of organizations joined together in support of the survivors’ event, creating a broad coalition attempting to link up the issues of assault and abuse with the encroaching violence of far-right street gangs. The Portland Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization that has been growing at a breakneck pace the last two years, organized an entire contingent to march over to the event, joining together with rest of the community.
“We are building strength and power in our community. As disempowered people see that there are so many others who will stand with them and support them in their struggle, we work to build a society that amplifies voices who have been historically silenced,” said Jody Folkedahl of the Portland DSA.
“Women are feeling empowered to speak up against patriarchal systems that have [been] used to oppress them. The more it becomes normal to hear and share these stories, people will begin to question systems that we were taught were ‘the way things are,’” Folkedahl said. “People are beginning to see how deep systems of oppression are ingrained and are fighting to change things in ways that’ll be meaningful to those most vulnerable and marginalized.”
The antifascist bloc surrounded the speakout in support, but also acted as buffer to the far-right that was forming. Rose City Antifa, as one of the longest-standing antifascist organizations in the city, led this effort, offering an option for participants of the speakout to move from story sharing to a more confrontational protest of Patriot Prayer as they entered. Rose City Antifa has been known for centering the voices of survivor’s in their work and for creating an organizing culture that confronts interpersonal abuse and oppression, using a feminist praxis as a core component of their work.
Speakers addressed critical issues that were at play both in the #MeToo movement, but also those that had been missed in much of the key narratives that have been popularized.
“There seems to be a lot of … what I see as a focus on famous women,” said Shiloh George, an Indigenous feminist activist who spoke about the issues that are at play when reclaiming identity in an era where mass trauma is so prevalent.
“So especially as [an] Indigenous woman, the murder [of] and missing … Indigenous women and girls is something that has been left out [of] that movement as well. But I think that there is always space to keep trying to get our voices heard,” George said.
“Regardless of my color, my accent, my race … my pain is real. And it should be acknowledged,” said Hadie,* an immigrant from Sierra Leone who shared her experience trying to report her assault to authorities. “I ask myself every day, ‘Why is he getting away with it?’ I thought they said if you report it, you have done the right thing. I have been failed by the justice system. But, I tell you this, I will not be silenced. This is my body, and I get to say who should touch me and who shouldn’t.”
Some speakers told stories of their own experiences of sexual assault, from co-workers to acquaintances, all punctuated by the experience both of trauma and of the collective support that people in their community provided. In between speakers, Effie Baum read out stories that were submitted anonymously, highlighting the unique experiences that sex workers and immigrants have with regards to assault.
Keeping Them Separated
While the event had a positive tone and saw attendees passionately supporting each other, including handing out sheets of survivor resources, the city did not seem to have the same response.
The police had cordoned off half of the park where the survivors’ event was held in an attempt to secure a “buffer zone” between those participants and the #HimToo assembly. While Patriot Prayer had police in riot attire surrounding their event, only the survivors had police fencing installed, restricting their movement.
Once the survivors’ event had ended, participants were welcomed by the organizers to stay and demonstrate against those who were amassing just across the street, yet police pushed them back, off of the sidewalk, and created an armed line in front of them, each officer adorned with zip-ties, as if they were ready to engage in mass arrests.
Meanwhile, as Patriot Prayer members left their rally, they tangled briefly with counterdemonstrators before police overwhelmed the attendees of the survivors’ event, firing a flash grenade into the crowd and arresting six counterdemonstrators while ignoring the #HimToo attendees.
These clashes have become routine over the last two years as far-right formations try and stoke conflict in cities like Portland, and these attempts at victimization get at the core of why organizers have centered on a survivor-centric model of counter-organizing.
“It is an event centering the stories of survivors. But we also want to expand the narrative,” said Baum. “This includes sexual assault and abuse survivors, but it also includes people of marginalized identities, trans and queer people, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews — everyone who has become a target.”
By re-centering the actual narratives of what “surviving” means, it has the possibility of reframing the narrative from one of fear to the power that comes acknowledging the suffering that has happened and responding with structures of solidarity. This means continuing to challenge far-right formations, but to also add an added dimension of collective healing as a part of that opposition. Pop Mob organizers and survivors are doing this in a way that undermines Patriot Prayer’s use of fear, accusation and shame: it tells their stories.
Pop Mob is continuing to solicit the stories of survivors even past the event to keep up the model. In doing so, they hope to continue building a movement of resistance to the far right that focuses on those who have survived attacks, both of their unchecked bigotry and the institutional structures of oppression that continue to target marginalized communities.
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Originally published at truthout.org.