Episode Ten Transcript
Episode Ten – Less Booted, More Suited
This podcast contains lots of swearing and violence, occasional use of the n word, and other content that some people may find disturbing or offensive.
The story told backwards now is that the Coalition and other groups basically ended the rise of white supremacist groups in Oregon in the 90’s. That's not at all true. We were part of an effort that broke the back of the neo-nazi skinhead youth movement, which was a particular faction of the right. But we did not end white nationalist organizing here.
That was Scot Nakagawa, from the Coalition for Human Dignity. What happened to this group of scrappy activists who for a few years in the early 90s, Portlanders saw on TV news every week fighting neo-nazis? Where did the team of researchers stuffing filing cabinets with right wing intelligence end up? What was their legacy? Welcome to Episode Ten of It Did Happen Here, Less Booted More Suited. I’m Celina Flores
And I’m Mic Crenshaw. In this episode, we tell the story of the metamorphosis of the Coalition for Human Dignity. But before we get there, we need to talk about one more group, the Northwest Coalition against Malicious Harassment, a Washington-state based anti-bigotry group. Here’s Devin Burghart:
The Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment was formed a couple years before CHD. It was formed by Bill Wasmith, a former Catholic priest from Coeur D’Alene, who participated in a lot of the early responses to the Aryan Nations. In fact, he had his house blown up by the Aryan Nations and barely survived one of their assassination attempts on them. So Bill was an ally and close supporter of CHD in the many years that he was the head of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment. In many ways, divided along the lines that the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment was doing a lot of the organizing work, CHD was doing a lot of the research work. That was really how things were working throughout the mid-90s up until Bill ended up having to step down from his role as executive director because he had ALS. When CHD moved some of their personnel to Seattle, initially, we worked out of the same offices. So we worked really closely together for a long time. Then with Bill stepping down, it felt like it was a decision to remove some of the duplication of efforts and bring both the research and organizing aspects under one roof.
Skinhead hate crimes continued throughout the 90s. In 1993, Portland police reported three separate attacks on two Black men and an Indigenous man, resulting in serious lasting injury. So it’s not that violence itself disappeared from Portland, but that racist skinheads retreated from open displays of menace on the streets. Where in 1990, punks could expect to run for their lives just trying to go to a show or the corner store, by 1993, attacks became more like infrequent ambushes from a car of neo-nazis. As for the homophobic Christian Right, the Oregon Citizens Alliance petered out after leader Lon Mabon’s unsuccessful run for US Senate in 1996.
The Coalition for Human Dignity’s migration to Seattle represented a move into a larger sphere of influence. The Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment worked in a six-state region. So in 1998, the CHD relocated its entire operation up to Seattle and eventually merged with the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment.
I think once the merger happened, the organization lost its I think its core driving force and those external events helped make it really hard for the organization to continue as it was.
One of the external events to which Devin refers was a lawsuit centered on the militia-based Aryan Nations. In 1998, Victoria Keenan and her son were returning from a wedding near the Aryan Nations compound in rural northern Idaho when their car backfired; a compound security guard thought it was a gunshot coming from the car. He chased Keenan, shot up her car, and held the terrified mother at gunpoint in front of her son before releasing her. With the support of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Keenan sued the Aryan Nations for $6.3 million as well as for the deed to the 20-acre compound, which bankrupted that white nationalist organization.
This gave the impression to a lot of folks around the region that the problem of white supremacy in the northwest was gone; that it had been, in effect, litigated away. So it was a blow to efforts to organize and to fundraise for a newly merged organization that was trying to do that kind of work, because there was no longer the same kind of urgency that groups like the Aryan Nations provided in a lot of areas around the region. They started running out of money, they also started losing interest, which meant that the large network of grassroots local community groups that they'd helped build up around the region started to slowly wither and die. At their height, they had over 125 local groups on the ground that were doing work to counter white nationalism, but a lot of those folks stopped doing it after the Aryan Nations trial, they thought that they had won or they moved on to doing diversity work in local communities and but had given up doing a lot of the programmatic work around fighting white nationalist or militia type activities.
Coalition for Human Dignity’s researcher Jonathan Mozzochi weighs in on the decision to move the organization to Seattle:
You know, I think at some point, folks in the Coalition wanted to take a different tack. They wanted to do different stuff that perhaps didn't rely on a research-driven mechanism. We became more of a think tank. For me, personally, when I was training judges in how to understand the arcane arguments of Christian patriots around the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, this was not very effective, at least for me. I left in, I think about 1998. I was always singularly focused on research and intelligence. That was my role. The offices moved to Seattle. I was like, “okay, go ahead and take the files, whatever.” And then the folks who ran it for the couple years after that, merged it with the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment. They were a more establishment kind of outfit. So they had cops on their boards, and stuff like that. So when the Coalition was moved up there, and merged with the Northwest Coalition, I didn't really have anything to do with it.
Here’s CHD activist Abby Layton:
But mostly, I think it was just the people were growing up and changing, and that they saw other ways to do this same work in a bigger arena. What I recall, at the end of Coalition for Human Dignity is that we, like every nonprofit group, we just got broke. [laughter] And I don't think that was any one thing.
CHD activist M Treloar shares some positive outcomes that showcase the distinctive character of the Coalition's unique and effective methods that combined research and boots-on-the-ground mobilization to repel encroaching racists:
I think we succeeded in two ways. One, we left a little bit of a crumb trail for the future to say, "okay, if you do direct confrontation, you can do open, direct confrontation to these people. And win, win politically, so that people don't leave discouraged at the end of it." The second thing was, we prevented the neo-nazi gangs and neo-nazi formations from cohering here in Portland. And the best example of that is with the American Front, which was a San Francisco-based grouping that had a fairly dynamic leader called Bob Hike. So, Bob Hike announces he's moving north to Portland to take over the neo-nazi movement in the U.S., establish this as his base, and establish American Front as the neo-nazi grouping in the US. We had decided we would not allow any grouping to emerge. So we attacked the American Front almost from the beginning of their existence here. They did some things that have not recurred, but gave us pause then, and should give people pause now. They demonstrated in front of the abortion clinic, I believe it was Lovejoy. That'll put them to a line of support from the theocratic right. They did an action in front of a lesbian poetry reading. They called for a public gathering in downtown Portland, which they pulled off, though we disrupted it. So they were thinking big, they were thinking in large scale terms. We went after Bob Hike. We destroyed his living situation. This is in the front page of the Oregonian. He ended up appealing to the Portland Police 'cause he said, “my house has been attacked three times, they've destroyed it!” Yeah, we did that. We said, "if you come to Portland, we will make your life hell." And we made his life hell. The American Front fizzled out here in Portland. That was what we were looking to stop, and I think we succeeded on that limited level.
As contradictory as it sounds, the success of the Coalition for Human Dignity and other groups in eradicating the visible presence of racist skinheads, played a role in the CHD’s demise. With limited funds available to support leftist causes, funders directed dollars elsewhere. The single-minded focus on a specific kind of racist–the young neo-nazi skinhead–gave the false impression that once the streets were cleared of the violent white gangs, racism was solved, and ‘Skin City’ was no more.
The conversation led by city leaders, the media, and even sometimes anti-racist activists themselves, promoted the idea that we had quote, "won." This seductive conclusion has had dangerous long-term consequences. CHD’s research work on white nationalist and Christian identity groups showed how they were embedded across the state. That message had little resonance on mainstream politicians, media and the voting public.
Breaking the back of the skinhead youth movement was a huge accomplishment for Portland. But CHD research always showed a more complex story, one of a guy at a feed store who stockpiles guns and distributes propaganda on Jewish control of the media. A doctor at a clinic who informs immigration services on a patient in crisis. Parents who homeschool kids in order to provide a curated history recasting white Christians as an oppressed group.
Once the neo-nazis were driven out of Portland, where did they go? Steven Gardiner, a Coalition writer, researcher and organizer, elaborates on the evolution of white nationalists:
There's this older generation of neo-nazi and white nationalists who emerged and setting ideological agenda that was, as they said at the time, “less booted, more suited.” And so it was more about what's a strategy for capturing public policy? They strategically came to understand immigration as the single biggest threat to white identity. It doesn't mean that they don't continue to be anti-queer, anti-Black, and so on. They are. It's just a step back from that, and focus on immigration. And now of course, they have people who are only one person removed from white nationalist thought leaders, who are setting the immigration policy of the United States.
Again, Scot Nakagawa
White nationalist organizing hero continued. It’s continuing now. Many of the young people who are in skinhead groups have transitioned into professional neo-nazi organizations and other kinds of white nationalist and alt-right formations. You know the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City occurred. That bombing caused so much carnage, so much damage. Children died, there was a childcare facility within the building. You know, hundreds of people were affected. Finally got the federal government to put white nationalist groups, and Christian patriot groups in particular, at the top of their FBI watch list. They recognized that their own assets, their own interests were at stake. And so, you know, they escalated surveillance and repression of the violent arm of the white nationalist movement. So, it forced the movement underground. But they continued organizing there. During the Obama years, people were making the claim that we're post racial, the right merely consolidated and expanded underground and Obama was like a shot of adrenaline in the arm of the Islamophobic faction of the right. So those organizations grew in number and in support until the Trump election, when his ascendancy basically turned on the green light. A movement that had gone on the ground and become alienated from mainstream politics decided to step out into the light of day and began organizing and vying for power because they believed their time had come, and that the Trump election was an indication of it.
In these times of right wing fascist influence within the legislative and political chambers locally and nationally, the CHD provides inspiration for effective anti-racist community organizing, but it’s important to remember that it was a group that formed within a specific landscape in response to historical events of the 80s and 90s. This is Eric Ward:
We look to the Coalition for Human Dignity for a lot of direction. They certainly sparked our creativity and I think Coalition for Human Dignity helped shape our understanding of what it really meant to take on white nationalism. We also had to understand that hate groups didn't come to town bringing racism or anti-semitism, homophobia, or other forms of bigotry to our community. These hate groups simply organized the bigotry that already existed. One cannot step in the same place in a moving stream twice. I forget which Greek philosopher said that, someone said that. The past should help us by informing what we might do, but it shouldn't be the decision maker. The decision maker is always the current political and social reality, and the culture of a community. Those are the things we have to be responsive to in shaping strategy, and tactics and fighting hate.
It can be hard to remember how much things have changed in a relatively short time; the Coalition for Human Dignity was organizing before hate crimes against LGBTQ people were routinely prosecuted as criminal acts, during a time when discrimination based on sexual orientation was the law of the land; before the Americans With Disabilities Act–just to name a few landmark civil rights which are now established and protected by federal legislation. Chronic urgency permeated CHD day-to-day activities; regular death threats and violent confrontations overshadowed group process and undermined the essential work of creating equitable conditions within their organizing efforts. The CHD existed inside the patriarchy it was trying to combat. Like other leftist groups of 30 years ago, it often fell short of professed ideals, especially in leadership representation. Looking back, we hear some of the external shortcomings of the CHD, but it's just as important to acknowledge the internal culture. This is CHD activist - Krista:
Because I'm somebody who also is really focused on process and on spaces being inclusive, as I became more involved with Coalition for Human Dignity, who at the time were doing some really valuable work, researching the nitty-gritty of the rise of neo-nazis in the Northwest. There were a few individuals putting a lot of time into working, connect more deeply in the punk music scene and work with punks in Anti-Racist Action and SHARP, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice and make sure that we were understanding both. This is what we were working against, and the different aspects of resistance in primarily white communities. I mean, I'll say that, I think, at that time, Black United Front and Urban League and a lot of folks were really leading those struggles in other spaces and Coalition for Human Dignity, say, more of an ally organization. My role in that ally organization, in part was to point out the importance of us, not recreating some of the dynamics that give rise to bias and leave folks out. I came to that work as a young feminist, who was often the person to say, "wow, this meeting has not really had a lot of female voices happening and participating," and I think that was a widely held view of women involved in the organization at the time. Not to not give full credit to the fact that there were several men who really helped found the organization, worked hard, but lots of experience to it and yet it was hard for women to move beyond being the photocopying committee. Some of my work was really about trying to remind those of us doing the work that by creating more space, and sometimes that meant stepping back to create more space, we'd actually have more power.
Here’s M Treloar again:
Here's a failure on our part. The Lesbian Community Project, a couple members of that grouping, started the Homophobic Violence Reporting Line. This is before hate crimes existed as a federal thing, and before anybody was tracking them. And while the OCA was doing its organizing, those incidents spiked. I mean, dramatically! Unfortunately, a member of the community here in Portland, decided to start faking hate crime incidents. We have to, then and now, be open to the fact that we're going to be misled by some people. She had an elaborate ruse set up that deceived people. When that came forth, dozens, if not hundreds of people, basically washed their hands of political work and organizing for a while. You could only feel for those people, as to how disillusioned they were. She’d appealed to us for help. Two of our organizers, Pat and Cecil, had gone and investigated, then they came back and said, "this isn't real." The error on our part was, we did not tell everybody else. For that, I apologized then, I apologize now. When you make certain political mistakes, you have to own up to them, otherwise people are gonna say, "well, I'm not going to have anything to do with this in the future."
Again, Scot Nakagawa:
Those of us who are able to take action need to do so, and need to do so assertively and boldly, and we need to do it in public. change comes about, not as a result of doing the easy things, like sending an email or taking a picture. They result from doing the hard things. The CHD did that kind of work of forcing people to do something different. We attacked the cultural landscape, and knew that whoever owns it owns a very important tool to define ideology at that time. And we put up posters, we spray painted out Nazi graffiti, we put on concerts, we did things like that that would interrupt the life of the alternative music scene, and the life of young people in the city of Portland. We were assertive about it. We were in the media. We were in the news cycle practically every week. The story about the fight against white supremacy in the state of Oregon, was listed among the top two stories of the 20th century by the Oregonian by the time groups like the CHD were done. We put the story in your face and we forced people to have to deal with it. We took young people and marched them up and down the bus malls, downtown Portland, in protest to neo-nazis, so that people would begin to see that this was a real problem. They could not just go to work, we were in their faces. And so that kind of thing, I think really makes a difference. I also used to be a member of ACT UP. ACT UP activists put their lives on the line, they put their bodies on the line in order to make the case that something needed to be done about the AIDS crisis. If it were not for ACT UP, I do not honestly believe we would have made the kind of progress we finally were able to make under the Reagan administration, the Bush administration, to do something, to make some funding available to start to deal with prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS. These kinds of things happen because people didn't just take a picture or send an email. It happened because they took an action, and they worked with people one on one in person and mobilized people in groups in order to really change the way that people were going to experience their day to day lives.
Former SHARP member Pete Little offers a hindsight perspective of the importance of the Coalition for Human Dignity:
The significance of CHD and ARA is, I actually think that the best of those, is there were a lot of political radical veterans in there. And they actually played a significant role, both in providing the important social base outside of the subcultures to sustain support, defend the young militants, and as well, significant elements of them actually did a good job in helping to cultivate a level of political understanding, consciousness, and awareness that would hopefully, allow that militance to be utilized in more thoughtful in productive ways. So, I would say the dominant subcultural tendency within the scene at that time was very anti-political, like we don't get involved in politics. We hate nazis, but the political stuff: that's its own thing. I think at the same time, it's important to acknowledge that CHD, and the folks around it, were really important in being a people who'd been through previous epics of struggle, who could hopefully cultivate deeper awareness and thoughtfulness and strategy to young folks who were just passionately throwing themselves against this new thing that was reemerging.
Devin Burghart started as an intern at the CHD and is now the president of the think tank watchdog group Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.
CHD played an integral role in the larger community of anti-fascists. I mean, I can't even count how many people that are still doing this work today either worked at CHD or had, had contact with CHD. So it really was a magical place in providing that inspiration and the kind of spark that allowed people to continue doing this work over the long haul. That's something that not a lot of organizations can tout. And I'm really proud to have played as small a part as I did of that.
Again, Abby Layton:
They stood up for me. They stood up for my daughter. They stood up for Mary Steiger, the old woman who opened her house. They held me when I cried. They gave me information. They taught me how to take a stand and how to be brave and. You know, I, I still feel so impassioned, about the work, about life in general, and about the gift of meeting them when I did.
Jonathan Mozzochi looks back and to the future of research-driven community defense:
For a few years, we got some pretty decent funding, so it allowed us to hire a few staffers. Never a great number, but a few, three, four people, if not full-time, then part-time. And again, back then, when you're maintaining a clipping service and maintaining files, and you've got to, oh god, write grants, you know, you've got to do applications to foundations to get money. This is really time consuming and takes, it takes away from your organizing, frankly. And a great deal of it is, I don't know what the situation is today, but I can, I can guess. Many NGO’s many, fight-the-right groups are probably stuck in the same difficult position where you're having to justify your existence and justify your work to funders who are philanthropists. So, skip forward to today. I don't think you need an office to do this anymore. The antifa and other anti-fascist groups understand that, they're right. So what that also means is that you don't necessarily need a foundation-driven approach to this. And, maybe we're better off not having foundations involved in this directly. And that perhaps there's a new model.
How do the former Coalition activists view the landscape today? Here’s Gillian:
Back then, it felt like things were going in a bad direction and fear of how, of all of the things that were happening. But it just felt like we could turn the tide, we would turn the tide. Right now, it just feels like there's such a global shift, and that global shift is reaching the upper echelons of power. It feels much more terrifying to me. All of the things that we were doing then, and that we had success with. and coming at it from different angles, to me, it felt possible to create the change that we were looking for. There's something that's happening now that is way beyond us taking action in the streets. That has something to do with internet, and propaganda, and fake news. It's hard to figure out how to combat it. Our tactics that we used feel small and inadequate. Maybe necessary, but not adequate to the task.
It's very important to see these movements as woven into the society. Like, they're not separate things. What you, what we’re seeing now is this kind of exuberant white supremacy. David Duke is overjoyed right now. They finally have someone in the White House that actually supports them. So that's the difference I see. This is woven into the society, it’s, we, never can get it to go away. You can't unweave it.
That was Abby Layton, and here’s Steven Gardiner:
The work continues to be urgent today. It's everyone's problem, to the extent that we care about the kind of society that we live in, and recognize that there are large-scale trends that are pushing the politics, making it more vibrant on the far right, and those are demography, the ways in which the demographics of the United States are changing. Those are migration, that is going to be driven increasingly by climate change, and militarization, and, and authoritarianism, which are the typical responses of states when they feel their legitimacy is being challenged, including by right wing, far right movements that are responding to the climate change, migration, and identity threat, as they perceive it. So, I anticipate from the state increasing moves towards authoritarianism, in the name of fighting, quote, unquote, nazis, and in fact, historically, those state resources have usually been used much more broadly and much more intensely against communities of color and the left.
Again, this is Eric Ward:
I would just offer this humble wisdom, to be taken or ignored, right? We didn't build political power. We didn't consistently build a constituency that would allow movement against bigotry, to challenge policies and rules that create space for organized bigotry. Who holds positions of power in our community really do matter in these moments of crisis. The second lesson is around subculture. Many of us came out of subculture. So when we created an anti-bigotry movement, of course, that anti-bigotry movement resembled the subculture. Subcultures are not effective in this period. This is a moment where white nationalism is on the rise. It has not peaked yet. They are dependent on mass base. We have to respond in scale as well. We need more people involved. And subcultures are not good containers for mass base organizing. It is our role to challenge and to influence Portland's culture, not just our own political subculture in this moment. The third is, is this, I didn't learn this lesson until recently, and I learned it here in Portland from street protesters: find joy in resistance. That it is so important that we not replicate the toxic masculinity that we are experiencing from white nationalists and the alt right, that we don't try to respond in kind, that we lead with our values. We can effectively respond to toxic masculinity through joy, through celebration, through spectacle. It was an incredible gift. And so I really am just thankful for the women, non-binary leaders out there who really brought that home to us.
Thanks for listening to Episode 10 of It Did Happen Here. There are show notes with links, transcripts, and other relevant content at our website : ItDidHappenHerePodcast.com. You can also listen to the podcast at the KBOO website, and on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and more. This episode, interviews were by Annette Newelle, Celina Flores, Ender Black, and Erin Yanke, and your hosts were Celina Flores and Mic Crenshaw. This podcast is produced by Celina, Mic, and me, Erin Yanke. Our next and last episode of the series, number 11, Nothing is Final, will be out on January 29th. You'll hear about the end of the boneheads taking public space in Portland on the streets and in the punk scene, and the legacy and lessons of all this organizing. Music in this episode is by Xlyo Ziko, Kai Engel, and Anitek, all from the Free Music Archive, and by Last of a Dying Breed. Thanks to the bands for the music, thanks to the participants for sharing their stories and experiences, and thanks to the Marla Davis Fund, KBOO Community Radio, and Cait Olds, and to the rest of our production team: Icky A, Julie Perini, and Moe Bowstern, and thank you for listening.