Watch: This armed group is trying to become the new face of left-wing activism
I sought out the anarchists to learn more about what they see as their role in the growing anti-Trump resistance movement, and how they justify their extreme tactics in the face of criticisms from both the left and the right.The group of nine is multi-racial and comes from varying economic backgrounds and regions of the country, although most claim Pacific Northwestern roots. Most seem to be in the millennial age range, although they tell me the organization has "tons of old heads" working with them. Some came into the anarchist movement after Occupy Wall Street, which one called "protest school." Others were introduced to anarchism at punk shows, or were seeking out something more extreme than "typical American liberalism," which they all reject. They all have jobs, but refuse to describe them for fear of being identified—they've all been involved in various illegal protest-related activities, and only agreed to speak to me on conditions of anonymity. (All names have been changed.)They see their brand of anarchism as an evolution of an international movement that has been standing up for the disenfranchised for decades. That mission goes beyond the tactics that have caused so much controversy. The group told me about the classes local anarchists provide in first aid, self-defense, and other topics; the left-wing community outreach group Portland Assembly; and the anarchist effort to fill some of Portland's many potholes after the government failed to do so. (That last item represents probably the only good bit of mainstream press the anarchists have gotten as of late).
As for the debate over whether political violence can be justified, to them it's not a debate. "I abhor violence against people for the most part—but these aren't people, they're Nazis," said an anarchist I'll call Sean, to laughter from the group.A man who goes by Rip described how it felt to be in the bloc, charging into literal battle. "I feel more logical than emotional," he said. "There are so many things going on, from the cops, to making sure your people in the bloc are OK, to staying vigilant for a crazy Trumper with a gun… Adrenaline is definitely running high, but the result isn't so much excitement of exhilaration as it is closely observing and calculating the risks. It's a strange calmness in the chaos that's born out of vigilance and trust in your people."When I mentioned the bad press black bloc tactics got both the election and recent May Day protests here in Portland (both devolved into violence and destruction and were declared riots by police), Clay snorts and said, "Yeah? Nobody was paying attention to the Portland protests until we made them. Suddenly the whole world's eyes were on Portland. We're willing to put ourselves on the line for this. 'By any means necessary' is something we take very seriously."I asked the group to respond to criticism that its tactics may turn people away from the causes it endorses, and Clay, speaking with such fervor the tables behind us looked over, noted that other political parties in Germany attempted to reason with Adolf Hitler during his rise. "The neoliberals may not know it yet, but the militant anti-fascists are the ones that history will remember as fighting the rise of fascism in this country—not them."
"We're willing to put ourselves on the line for this. 'By any means necessary' is something we take very seriously."
Those engaged in tactics like the black bloc see these sort of concerns as part of the larger problem of bowing to a corrupt system. "In an atmosphere in which the president and his representatives can outright ignore basic truths and freedoms, more and more people are realizing there is no room for the tepid debates of the past," said an anarchist I'll call Lauren.To understand how this group thinks, it's important to realize that when they see conflicts like the "Battle of Berkeley," they regard them as progress."The fascists are organized and collaborating nationally. We have to be as well," Clay said. "They are violent and empowered, and we will continue to meet them with equal aggression. They need to know this. We are ready. We're not the ones the cops are out there protecting. It's the fascists on the right getting the police escort."The rhetoric isn't likely to cool down anytime soon. Last weekend, two men were fatally stabbed, and a third was critically wounded while defending two teenaged women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, from a man screaming racist insults at them on Portland's light rail system. At his court appearance, suspect Jeremy Joseph Christian shouted "You've got no safe place!" and "Death to the enemies of America!"In the wake of that stabbing, Portland mayor Ted Wheeler has asked a right-wing group to call off a rally scheduled for Saturday, but they are unlikely to heed him. The anarchists I spoke with would not comment on that rally, but chances are they'll be there with masks on.But for all the anger in the air, few people seem likely to go full black bloc, even if they believe the cause is just. To belong to the group I spoke with, you need to not just oppose the far-right thugs willing to fight in the street, but also the government and the police. That's a tall order.Stamper surprised me during our talk when he said he thinks people hitting the streets is the most viable form of protest, and that he understands where the rage comes from. But when I asked what he thought of the black bloc, he replied, "If you think there are nothing but bad apples in the police department, why provoke them? That's a battle the anarchists will never, ever win."Follow Donovan Farley on Twitter.
"The fascists are organized and collaborating nationally. We have to be as well."