Episode Six Transcript
Episode Six: House Defense
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.
I had joined Coalition for Human Dignity. It was something that I was interested in as a Jew, and wanted to help with. So, two weeks after I had joined nothing was purposeful on this at all, but that what happened was my daughter and two of her friends were coming home along SE 39th, they were between Hawthorne and Alder. And a truckload of skinheads went by, about seven of them. Some in the back and some of the front. And they were doing sieg heils, shouting Nazi slogans.
Carloads of nazi boneheads would drive around and look for people to attack. They were driving along Hawthorne Blvd. Three teenagers, a young woman and two men, were walking along Hawthorne, and one of the nazi boneheads gave a nazi salute, so the young woman, young Jewish woman flipped 'em off with both fingers, you know. They grabbed their baseball bats and chased them for blocks.
So, they took off running and the skinheads followed them, and started chasing them with baseball bats, two by fours. Luckily my daughter knocked on someone's door. She screamed, “help us, please!” Thank God, the woman, Mary Steiger, an 80 year old woman, opened the door and let my kids in.
So here are these terrified kids who ran to this house that a older woman said, "yeah, you can come in here." The truckload of nazis attacked that household right away. Threatened to kill her for not giving up the kids and bashed in her car.
Later on that night, a group of skinheads went back to Mary Steiger’s home and broke all of her lower level windows, yelled death threats at her. This is an 80-some year old woman.
She had done the right thing, she had defended and guarded these young kids. A household full of elderly people, fearful for their lives, appealed to the police, the police basically said, "well, we can't do anything." So somehow word got back to us, and we said, "do you want us to sit on your front porch?" And she said, "I want you in my front parlor! Wherever you best feel that you can guard my house. I haven't slept since then, 'cause they'll drive by and they'll yell stuff and I'm completely scared out of my wits." So, we did. Some of us said, "we're gonna bring whatever's necessary to defend that household," and other people who were pacifists said, "well, I'll just use my body," and we said, "that's ok." We did not try and tell people, "you must be armed or you must not be armed."
This exchange between Coalition for Human Dignity activists Abby Layton and M Treloar describes one incident when local boneheads terrorized teenagers and elderly citizens after a minor affront in response to open hate signaling. Not an uncommon incident in those times.
Mary Steiger’s request that activists sit round the clock in her parlor marked the first time Coalition for Human Dignity activists participated in a support strategy that came to be known as a house defense or–when they took place at night–a vigil. After that, members of CHD and other community organizations routinely guarded the homes of people who had been threatened or attacked by neo nazis.
The willingness of coalition members to show up in response to direct requests for support, to move beyond research and tracking, solidified their commitment to direct action on behalf of the community. These vigils also strengthened bonds between the CHD and other anti-fascist organizations like Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, and Anti Racist Action. I’m Celina Flores,
and I’m Mic Crenshaw. We’re your hosts for It Did Happen Here. In this episode we focus on defense strategies. The house defenses were not publicized or defined aspects of CHD’s parameters. Coalition for Human Dignity intelligence czar Jonathan Mozzochi describes how these house defense projects were organized.
You know we had community defense projects where we would protect groups, families, who were under attack by racist skinheads, and there were a number of those incidents. So, part of that community defense project involves having a hotline where people could call in racist activity. And at one point up on SE Belmont, there was a family of Vietnamese who were being attacked by racists. We mobilized vigils there to protect them. So here you had Anti-Racist Action with Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, folks with you know, a pretty powerful community leader in Donna Redwing. Donna was head of the Lesbian Community Project, who was at many of these early community-based coalition meetings. Some of the anti-racists had weapons, including firearms. So, it's just sort of mixing in this coalition of people coming together to fight against these folks that I think was very unique. Outside of that, perhaps those communities didn't have a lot of interaction. But there they could. So that stuff worked early on because the threat was very local, and the threat was a vigilante group, kind of like protecting folks from the Klan. The Coalition for Human Dignity played an important role in that kind of community-based self defense.
We had put out a public banner as, "we're here, we're gonna drive these folks out." People started calling us up. We had a physical location that people were living at, so there was a place mail could be received, and we had a phone that we would answer and call people back. I can't stress how important that is, call people back if you're politically organizing. We never took a penny or we never tried to publicize that widely. We felt it had to be done, and the police would not do it. They just would not guard these houses that were under attack, that were under obvious attack. So we did that. We did several others including when there was an altercation at a convenience store when the future members of Volksfront jumped and beat almost to death a Black man in the northeast whose family then appealed to us for defense of their house. Again, we said, "well, what do you want us to do?" And she said, "I want you sleeping in my front room 'cause I'm scared." He was still in the intensive care unit at Emmanuel Hospital during the entire period that we were doing house sitting. He was there for a couple weeks. And people asked her, "well, what should we bring?" She said, "well, you're gonna bring weapons aren't you? Let's get real! You're gonna bring something in case they try and get in, I want you to kill 'em." She didn't say that; it was clear that that was her attitude, "they're gonna be here to kill us, I want you to stop 'em." So, Randal Krager went to prison for this and then, while he was in prison, along with some of these comrades helped form Volksfront.
Volksfront was a white supremacist organization founded in Portland out of the scraps of other Portland racist skinhead groups, including East Side White Pride. Volksfront disbanded only in 2012 after 18 years of their existence. Their members carried out hate crimes across the region and maintained ties to national and international white neo-nazi groups. And what happened to the skinheads who chased Abby’s daughter and attacked Mary Steiger’s house and car?
A man named Scott Garl, who was the head of this group, we had him arrested, with evidence, and we took him to court. We came to court, many of us with rainbow ribbons, and with good witnesses and he was put in prison for two and a half years.
Other notable Portland racists sent to prison were the three boneheads who killed Mulugeta Seraw. One died in prison, one disavowed racist politics and disappeared from the public eye, and one is a zealous Trump supporter. Did these incarcerations lead to safety for the community? Were Portland activists just removing boneheads from the city, so they could develop racist organizations in the suburbs or across the river in Vancouver, Washington–or as M Treloar noted, in prison?
While imprisoning boneheads may result in a temporary grace period, in the brotherhood of prison, racist skinheads have access to recruitment of new members comfortable with criminality and violence. It is well documented that neo-nazi prisoners have successfully organized national and international racist networks. Antifascists in the 1990s, much like today, did not always agree on the best way forward. Much like today, there was no ‘best’ way forward. For some, locking up a racist skinhead signals a victory; for others, incarceration was just one of many methods of defense–and a problematic tactic at best. Jailtime kept fascists off the streets and functioned therefore as community support but most understood it as a temporary fix to systemic problems–problems that increased when attackers and assailants found warm receptions behind bars.
Time has also shown how incarceration and gentrification work conveniently together; efforts to drive the boneheads out of Portland dovetailed neatly with pro-development strategies to remove perceived undesirable elements from the inner city; prison was–and still is–considered an expedient substitution to the challenge of creating an alternative to the carceral state. As Jonathan Mozzochi noted earlier, house defense worked because the threat was local, immediate, and well within the ability and skill set of the CHD. The problem was, and continues to be, long term solutions to the violence of hatred and poverty–whether that violence is delivered by a fascist kick or by municipal neglect and institutionalized racism.
We have heard one coalition member talk with satisfaction about sending someone off to prison while others talk about not trusting cops.The argument often came down to a choice between directing personal violence of the body against groups of racists, versus marshaling resources to direct institutional violence of the state against fascist individuals. Jonathan Mozzochi speaks on this directly:
This is from James Baldwin, “I do not claim that everyone in prison here is innocent, but I do claim that the law as it operates, is guilty, and that the prisoners, therefore, are all unjustly imprisoned.” The point of that is that we cannot fight the right by using the justice system, we cannot fight them with cops, that does not work. It will never work. It’s a flawed system. It's deeply racist, and it's deeply classist, and back then, the efforts of the Southern Poverty Law Center to essentially, you know, sue the Klan or to sue, sue the far right, were, I think, the least important part of the kind of work that they did. That it was more, you know, fighting death penalty stuff and helping unions organize in the South. The Southern Poverty Law Center had a great deal of programs that were not narrowly focused on fighting the far right. And still do.
In 1990 The Southern Poverty Law Center, a national civil rights legal organization, prosecuted white nationalist Tom Metzger. Metzger was a California-based leader of the national neo-nazi group, White Aryan Resistance. Through White Aryan Resistance, Metzger cultivated political relationships with violent skinheads, and aggressively recruited kids like Ken Death to a white nationalist agenda which, it was argued, involved Metzger as an instigator in the death of Mulugeta Seraw.
We had a very contradictory relationship to the Metzger trial, especially ARA and SHARP, but also people in CHD. It was really hard to be around, because it was not really central to any of our work and what we organized around. You know that was sort of stage-managed American justice. Metzger basically fell on his own sword. And he didn't even hire an attorney, he represented himself. So when the trial came about, there was a great deal of, you know, media around it. But fundamental to it is the trial was theater, and really stretched the judicial principles and whatnot, but we didn't really care. For the first time in a while, at least, it was bending towards fighting racists. While I could care less that he had resources taken away, and I'm glad that they went from him to the family of Mulugeta Seraw, but to defend the Metzger trial as, I don't know, a principled opposition to the far right is problematic. I don't agree with that.
Portland Police have a long history of sheltering white supremacists. When police work hand in hand with fascists in a hierarchical system, the need to organize one’s own security becomes a priority. M Treloar describes this undertaking:
We told the cops at our larger things, like the march of 5,000 people during the trial of Metzger, "we don't want you around." We didn't trust them. You know, they're gonna do the wrong thing. They're going to not protect us, so we were doing our own house defenses and our own security at events. There was always that threat of bonehead attack, whether it was armed or unarmed, it was always there at any public thing we did. Those house defenses and members of ARA and Coalition for Human Dignity set those up. That was one of the things that I think made things real for a lot of the members who had not been in direct confrontations. So, the violence increased. We were not attempting to ramp things up, but we always said we would defend ourselves in public actions and we trained fifty plus people in basic self defense with the help of a martial artist who said that she had talked with some of her comrades in Europe who were dealing with nazi boneheads and that this was a good thing. So she trained a bunch of our people who then did our own security at events. We were trying to get away from a more macho model of, "I'm gonna get tough, I'm gonna get weapons, I'm gonna attack these nazis." That works at a certain level, but it also leads to a bad intra-group dynamic of, "those are the people who will do the security, those are the people who will have weapons, those are the people who will directly confront the nazis, and the rest of us'll just kind, of you know, do our stuff." That's not a good dynamic. The dynamic we were trying to get, and I won't say we had total success, but we did develop a number of people to feeling, "yes, I'm part of the security of this group and I won't back down."
Meet Krista, a young college student from Colorado who was an activist with the Coalition for Human Dignity:
The experience of really confronting violence in the streets, the way that many communities of color have, was essential. Also simply outnumbering the bigoted right was a huge thing that happened I think it happens over and over and it's still happening when the proud boys show up it seems like folks can really count on thousands more folks showing up in resistance and I think in the long run, that not only helps to confront that movement, but I think it means a tremendous deal for people who are threatened and are unsafe in that context to know and see that there are allies and that there are resistance. When I hear people talk about some of the most painful times around the oppressions they face, it’s when they feel like they're standing alone. I remember there was some huge talk about, I can't remember if it was White Aryan Resistance or who was organizing this May Day event and how they were gonna have White Workers' Day. They actually showed up with fifty people, maybe, facing off with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of folks there to confront the right. It makes them feel silly, that feeling of power goes away when you just look small. When actually there are so many vibrant and diverse people standing in resistance. That was certainly an important thing that happened in that time.
Here’s Jason from ARA:
I’m gonna give CHD so much credit in the same way that the Northwest communities down in Eugene. There were so many groups that worked with us. Radical Women, Leonard Peltier Support Group, Lesbian Community Project. These were people that wanted nothing to do with violence in a lot of ways, and were really hesitant to put their name in there, but they really knew that it was important and do what they had to do to provide some cover, in a lot of ways. But the other part of that was, we very much reached out to them, and we asked them, "how can we do this in a way that doesn't put you at more risk, or that actually supports you?" That was the big thing that was really lacking and frustrated a lot of mainstream activists, and even radical activists. A lot of the things were done with disregard for other peoples' safety and disregard for the care of what more vulnerable communities needed. I felt that we had done a really frickin' good job of that. We really wanted to know what people thought, and then we listened to it, and then we also supported them and said, "anytime you need us, we'll come do child care at your event. We'll come do security, happily. But we'll also do whatever else. We'll play music or we'll help with the sound, or anything. Anything that needs to be done." We also, I think, made a good effort to say, "and we'll do it the way you want us to do it. Do you want us to do it in a way that is very visible? Do you want it to be known that we're there supporting you and we're standing out front of your church that's come under attack for the last month and a half? Or would you rather have us, very discretely, inside where no one can see us and we blend in, or out front, in cars, where no one can see us and we're just there and so you feel better it?" It made a really strong bond that I still have, to this day, with a lot of those people. When I run into them in the street, or we're at events, it’s really, really cool. CHD was really solid about that. They rode that line really, really well. Jonathan never cared what anyone said about their support of anyone else and they decided that it was a thing that needed to happen and they were gonna do it. Everyone from that community went all out and we went all out on their behalf, as well.
We certainly helped to really shift the dial around bigots feeling called out and knowing that even when our police force won't confront them and I know, 30 years later that's still the struggle, that they're protected. They're protected within the police force, they're protected within municipal government sometimes.
By 1992 the Coalition for Human Dignity was running on all cylinders. They were participating in ongoing house defense, they were doing research, they were gathering intelligence, and they routinely still liaised between the militant anti-racists and various civil and human rights groups in the Portland area, all the while, as M Treloar says, under continuous threat from fascist attack. These were hard conditions for any group to meet, much less a group with no long term experience with each other, very little financial support, who made things work as they went along. It comes as no surprise that elements of internal culture suffered from the ceaseless stress, threat, and urgency.
We made lots of mistakes along the way in the way we treated each other, in the way we treated people who just came through the work briefly, and then were like, "I'm out." This isn't very fun, this isn't very safe, this doesn't feel good. There's not a place for my voice. Sometimes it takes extra work, to bring in the folks who aren't like in your social circle or one degree separated from your social circle. And I think in the coalition that that tended to be a shortcoming. And other folks might disagree, but it actually partly came from losing phone numbers when new folks came in. So we tended to fall back on organizing within our social networks at a time where I think not only could the organization have been more powerful and impactful, but also the process that we were working in could have been safer for the people doing it, safer for voices that were often silenced to be heard. That was true around gender. But it was certainly true around race, too. It was not a particularly easy place to be. And we all could have worked harder to change that and we all should have worked harder to change that that would have broadened and deepened impact and that sense of things being so urgent that there were skinheads out with baseball bats. So there's, you know, that always felt like there was something that had to happen right then it was hard to make space, I think for those discussions about integrating anti-oppression work into the work we were doing. It's hard for people to feel unsafe. We need to take care of each other, that internal work of kindness and of small acts. The way we treat each other individually is such a big part of us being successful organizers. So I'm super grateful for the things I learned, super sorry for mistakes that I made where I could have been a better ally, I could have been a better group member. But it was certainly like a gritty, messy process and a lot of really great things happened and I think that is something that certainly needs to be honored and we always have to stop and honor the shoulders of the folks we're standing on and the many brilliant organizers and activists who stand behind us and many who we're never going to know what they did. We're never going to know what their bravery was. We had such brilliant and brave people who had paved the way and I feel like, each round of it, part of the work is creating more space, making sure that we bring new and brilliant voices in who really feel safe to speak and when they need allies who are not in the room, then we go out and we find those allies and we make sure that we're creating spaces where we have new voices. We haven't won yet. We need more brilliant and committed folks at the table. But it's so great that we have these generations of us now.
Eric Ward is a longtime community activist who helped run CHD’s sister organization in Eugene. He moved to Portland in the 90s to work with CHD and other community defense organizations; he has a deep history in racial justice and the fight against white supremacy. Eric Ward is now executive director of the Western States Center.
What does community defense look like? The best way to answer that is to ask yourself, "what does community defense feel like?" The way that it often feels, is joyous, celebratory, empowering and beautiful. The best way to tell if one has been successful, is the feeling that is evoked in them at the end of an action, right? If one feels frustrated, if they feel angry, if they feel grief, it likely means we weren't successful at community defense. If people are able to realize that they've won a victory, demobilize, go home, and allow the entire city to feel what folks on the streets are feeling, that is successful community defense, and it is often a hard place to find, particularly for those who are engaged in direct action. So one of the key lessons we learned in the 90’s, was to ensure that we were really reflecting the joy that our communities needed to experience on the other side of being challenged by white nationalists who are committed to intimidating vulnerable communities or Portland itself.
Thanks for listening to Episode Six 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 on the KBOO website, on Spotify, and Apple podcasts. This episode, interviews were by Annette Newelle, Celina Flores, 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 episode is about the research and intelligence gathering wing of the Coalition for Human Dignity, and it drops in two weeks on New Year's Day. Music in this episode is by Xylo Zico, LG17, Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton, and Count Ossie & The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. 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 to the rest of our production team: Icky A, Julie Perini, and Moe Bowstern, and thank you for listening.