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Fascist Free 503: Notes On Holding The Streets In Salem

A report back and analysis of a recent antifascist mobilization in Salem, Oregon against the far-Right.

Far-Right groups announced their March 29th car rally event from Sandy to Salem a month ahead of the event. People in Salem began planning a counter-demonstration early on. In January, Proud boys assaulted residents in Salem and also damaged a local business near the capital. Residents knew from prior experience that Salem Police and Oregon State Police wouldn’t do anything to protect them from the potential violence from right-wing fascists. People began to network and organize the basic essentials of a protest: medics, interpreters, legal observers, evacuation routes, maps, volunteers to monitor right-wing accounts and streams. People prepared medical equipment in case protesters were injured by riot munitions or exposed to tear gas. Trusted friends and family were informed what to do if their loved one was arrested. In the 5 weeks leading up to Sunday the 28th social media was filled with calls for support for “Fascist Free 503” and solidarity with Salem, Oregon.

Several people who had never protested before came to counter-protest the right-wing car rally. Many of them were there supporting their children, partners, friends and siblings. A few people even brought their dogs. Although people may not think of it this way, Salem is diverse and multiple communities came out to support counter demonstration efforts. A few of the Salem demonstrators also took the time for a brief vigil to remember Hattie May Cohens and Brian Mock, two queer people who were murdered by white supremacists in Salem in 1992, in order to tie the present resistance against white supremacy to the long time history of reactionary violence in Salem. It was sobering to learn about their deaths as a queer person who was raised in Salem. At around noon on March 28th I arrived at the capital and | was encouraged by the turnout of counter-demonstrators already there. There were at least a hundred people at that point. The weather was windy and rainy but the cherry blossoms were beautiful and so many of us were happy that others were there to join us.

The crowd in front of the capitol steps ended up waiting about 3 hours for the caravan to arrive. The situation was exacerbated by a traffic accident on I-5 heading towards Salem. Both right-wingers and people coming to counter-demonstrate were delayed by as much as 2 hours. Some protesters had brought a small wagon filled with drinks and snacks and went through the crowd handing out the refreshments. There was a lot of concern among counter demonstrators that after right-wingers drove through that they would spend the afternoon and evening wandering the streets of downtown Salem looking for vulnerable people (minorities or
gay/trans people) to harass or assault.

Another concern expressed by both Salem and Portland organizers was the potential for vehicular attacks. Car attacks have increased significantly since the murder of BLM protester Heather Heyer in 2017. Seattle and Portland protesters had both witnessed car attacks during the previous summer during BLM protests, one of which resulted in the death of Summer Taylor. Although no one was hit or killed by a vehicle on Sunday, there was an instance where a vehicle came dangerously close to hitting someone. Available video shows a truck on Sunday accelerate quickly through the counter-protest and jerk left and right before coming to a loud halt. At that moment many of us feared the worst. A protester was directly in front of the truck as it halted and they stepped out of the path of the vehicle as the driver turned and accelerated away from the crowd. Thankfully, that protester wasn’t physically harmed although they were understandably shaken by the moment.

Between 2:45pm and 3:30pm the Salem police used the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) to make 4 announcements. The first three threatened arrest against anyone who didn’t clear the area because the event was not permitted. It’s important to note that the city of Salem is not currently issuing any permits due to COVID and neither event was permitted. The 4th and final LRAD announcement threatened arrest and tear gas. Not long after this the police began to form riot lines on state street just west of the capitol building. I was with a few other people who had never experienced anything like this. | pointed to a few of the other protesters and said, “If
that person isn’t afraid, I’m not afraid,” to reassure them. I continually chanted my mantra of “walk, don’t run,” in order to reduce panic which could result in a trampling.

A few things began to become clear to me around 3:40pm. First, the far-Right didn’t have the numbers to come through the bottleneck that counter-demonstrators had been waiting at for the past 3 hours. Second, that Salem Police and Oregon State Police were about to clear the state capital lawn of any counter-protesters in order to accommodate the potential passage of the truck convoy.

At approximately 3:45pm the SPD started the first of multiple bullrushes. Police formed riot lines and then without warning ran full speed at counter-demonstrators. Video from that time on Sunday shows police shoving people over, speeding toward groups of protesters in police cruisers and conducting targeted arrests where as many as 4 officers pile on top of one protester. After a few bullrushes the group of counter-demonstrators gathered up again. A part of the crowd left but the remaining group marched from the capital lawn toward the North with the intent of continuing to counter-demonstrate. Members of the crowd had heard that right-wingers were rallying their truck caravan at the Heritage Mill Museum nearby.

Some group members disagreed with this tactic arguing it would be unsafe to try to counter-demonstrate with our numbers so reduced. After this the centralized event seemed to fizzle out. The rest of the evening was filled with texts and notifications of reports of Proud Boys targeting people around downtown Salem. Community organizers worked through the night making sure every protester was safely evacuated and those who had been arrested had adequate support. 4 people were arrested during the events of Sunday, none of them were Trump supporters or on the far-Right. Even the man who brandished a handgun at counter-demonstrators was detained and released without charges.

To many of us who were there on the 28th the day felt like it was a small victory. People from Salem and all across the Willamette Valley had successfully come together and deterred the far-Right from coming to the Salem capital. While Salem Police department and Oregon State Police accommodated the right-wing convoy, local activists and their friends and family members banded together and collectively told the encroaching truck parade that they were not welcome in Salem. We exercised our capacity to mobilize against groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front.

Looking forward, Salem organizers have expressed that there has been a boost in morale. Sunday’s small victory has inspired hope that events other than just counter-demonstrations could happen in Salem. If Salem is adequately defended from right-wing violence then there is potential for mutual aid events that support and uplift members of the community that may otherwise be vulnerable or targeted by right-wing violence. Salem protesters have expressed that they would like more events focused on supporting local communities, like food drives and queer pride events, but there is a need to ensure these projects can be done without threat of violence from right-wing extremists.

A month before the large counter demonstration effort on March 28th, a video surfaced online of a woman being assaulted by members of the Proud Boys in Salem. In the video you can hear the woman say, “Why are you assaulting me?” as she’s hit and pushed backwards by another woman, “why are you assaulting me?” My mind goes to how she must have felt. She was alone, she felt scared, she felt vulnerable. I never want another person to experience what she experienced, especially in Salem. I hope that the efforts to counter fascists like the Proud Boys and Patriot Front on Sunday gave her some peace of mind. I hope she knows that that assault on her was an assault on every resident of Salem. All of the members of our community have a right to feel safe from violence, not just the members of the community that the Salem Police and Oregon State Police feel like protecting.

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