Updated at 10:30 a.m. ET on August 25, 2019.
I haven’t seen Justice Hans Linde in more than a decade, but I thought of him last Saturday, when I found myself locked in a science museum with frightened parents and children while neofascist thugs marched by. Hans was a child in Weimar Germany; I suspect he would have known how I was feeling.
The museum was the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in Portland. The occasion was a rally organized by the Proud Boys, an all-male group that exalts “Western values” and promotes Islamophobia. Other affiliated groups joined in—a loose conglomeration of racists, chauvinists, and just plain thugs. Some of them were connected to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago, at which a right-wing marcher drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman named Heather Heyer. The Proud Boys aren’t from Portland, but they have selected the Rose City as the site for their rallies, threats, and clashes with local “antifa,” or antifascist activists. The rally Saturday was nominally to demand that Portland suppress the antifa groups so that the Proud Boys can march unopposed whenever they choose.
As a washed-up reporter who covered 1960s street protests, I felt the impulse to watch what happened when the Proud Boys confronted both police and a mix of local groups, some seemingly violent and others committed to overwhelming the occasion with harmless absurdity. (Some dressed as bananas, others in unicorn costumes.)
But Saturday was a family day. I was with my son, my daughter-in-law, and two little boys under five years old. We did not want my grandchildren anywhere near fascists. The Portland police bureau had published a map promising that OMSI, across the river from the planned site of the rally, would be safe. Alas, as police defused the main rally, some of the fascists found their way across the river and marched past the museum.
While the kids played in the beautiful Science Playground, the public-address system announced that the museum was in “lockup”; no one could enter or leave until further notice. We could not see the street; none of the staff knew what was going on; no one could tell us how long the lockup would last; no one knew whether the marchers might assemble in front of the museum, making escape impossible.
In any event, the group of marchers near the museum was apparently relatively small; within a few minutes, the lockup was lifted. But the walk back to the light-rail system through a stark industrial area was, for me at least, heart-in-mouth. We had no place to hide on the street if something went wrong. When we made it back to our hotel, I felt relief, unreality, and fury.
Citywide, the rally was largely anticlimactic; Portland police kept marchers and counterprotesters separate. Only after the main event ended did sporadic violence occur. Willamette Week described the aftermath as
a game of cat-and-mouse that felt more like a Tom and Jerry cartoon—and kept the two groups more than a mile apart at all times, even as some said they wanted a confrontation. Police made 13 arrests, and the few moments of violence arrived mainly as the right-wing groups attempted to leave downtown in two small buses. Antifascists were seen on videos shattering the bus windows, and a right-wing protester appeared to attack the leftists from inside the bus with a hammer.
I am glad the violence was not worse. But I’m sure I will never forget that moment in the museum. It was the second time in one week that my family’s vacation was disrupted by groups simulating a war zone on Oregon streets. The previous Saturday, we had planned to show my grandchildren the sheer magic of Eugene’s Saturday Market, where artisans sell their own creations, local bands perform, and farmers offer fresh produce from all over the lush Willamette Valley. But then a shadowy group calling itself “God, Guns, and Trump” (later changed to “God, Guns, and Liberty”) announced a pro-gun rally across the street from the market. The group’s Facebook post proclaimed that only “bold conservatives” should attend; those who had no firearms, it suggested, should buy them for the occasion. The group told those who wanted to march with Confederate or Nazi flags to stay away.
That rally was largely peaceful, with counterprotesters tangling with marchers using only words. But we couldn’t have predicted that in advance. Saturday Market was out. Who would bring a child near this unknown threat, only days after the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio? Across the river, meanwhile, Eugene’s LGBTQ community was holding its Pride rally. That gathering went on as planned, but there was anxiety throughout the city.
What has this to do with Hans Linde? Hans was born in 1924 to a prosperous Jewish family in Berlin. He once told me that his first clear memory was of watching from the family apartment while Nazis in brown shirts brawled with Communists on the Kurfürstendamm below. When Jewish life in Germany became untenable, the Lindes relocated to Denmark, and then, by good fortune, obtained U.S. visas. The Lindes settled in Portland; Hans attended Oregon public schools, and then Reed College, in the city’s Eastmoreland neighborhood. He served in the Army, attended law school at UC Berkeley, and began a brilliant career as a U.S. Supreme Court clerk, a Senate aide, a law professor, and finally the greatest justice ever to serve on the Oregon Supreme Court. I came to know Linde because, many years ago, I wrote a profile of him.
Linde’s jurisprudence sparked a national movement to revive judges’ interest in the constitutions of American states. State courts, Linde said, should construe their state’s constitution first before diving into the Supreme Court’s federal case law; a state constitutional text might make a federal ruling unnecessary. Linde left the bench nearly two decades ago, but his “first things first” approach lives on. As recently as last year, Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the Sixth Circuit, in his book, 51 Imperfect Solutions: States and the Making of American Constitutional Law, called on state judges to “revive Linde’s idea—to make constitutional arguments the first line of defense in individual rights disputes.”
Perhaps the most important legacy of the Linde years were his opinions interpreting Oregon’s free-speech guarantee much more broadly than the federal First Amendment. That protection has helped preserve Oregon’s wide-open democratic culture, where ideas from the Neanderthal to the utopian can contend, and where human experience comes in many shades.
That very culture, I suspect, is what has drawn out-of-state fascist leaders to focus on Portland. From years of study—and personal experience—I know about Oregon’s dark racist past and the shadow it casts over the state today. Nonetheless, in recent years, leaders here have worked to create an inclusive culture—one that the fascists would like to discredit, stigmatize, and eventually destroy. Since the Saturday demonstration, the Proud Boys have announced that they will be back every month until the City suppresses the antifa movement, whom they call “domestic terrorists.”
The impudence is striking. The Proud Boys are threatening violence to achieve political change. That is the textbook definition of terrorism. Moreover, even before Charlottesville, domestic terrorism had emerged as a danger from people motivated by the far-right ideology—that is, from the political forces (if not the actual individuals) now demanding that the government crush their enemies so that they can own the streets. Consider a very partial list of horrendous crimes motivated by right-wing racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism: a mass killing at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina; pipe bombs sent to public figures who oppose Donald Trump; a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue; and 20 people—mostly Latino—gunned down at an El Paso Walmart.
Meanwhile, some antifa protesters have worn masks or armor, or have shouted down speakers; some beat up the conservative journalist Andy Ngo at a demonstration earlier this year; some have thrown milkshakes, and some have threatened violence or physically fought at right-wing rallies. But the number of mass shootings committed by people identified with antifa is zero, and so is the number of lives taken. The demonstrators that trapped my family in the museum were there to disrupt the politics of a city they have no stake in. Many, if not most, of the counterprotesters were there to defend their hometown. Most of them were nonviolent and came to oppose violence.
Having lived in the Northwest for many years, I am familiar with left-wing forces that use violent tactics. Violence is self-defeating and morally wrong, and I want no part of it or them. But there is simply no equivalence here.
Although no major political figure has embraced antifa activism, the Republican Party has begun to embrace the Proud Boys. Last fall, the Metropolitan Republican Club invited a Proud Boys leader to speak at a club event. (After the event, two Proud Boys beat four protesters so badly that a jury on Monday convicted two of them on charges of assault and riot.) The Republican activist Roger Stone has said he was initiated as a Proud Boy, and Proud Boys appeared at a federal courthouse when he turned himself in on charges brought by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Stone and the Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson posed in the Fox greenroom with two Proud Boys accompanying Stone.
This summer, Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Bill Cassidy are sponsoring a resolution that would designate antifa as a “domestic terrorist group.” No mention of the Proud Boys or any of the other neofascist groups who feel empowered by the ascent of Trump.
But the group’s greatest triumph came on the morning of last Saturday’s march. Trump tweeted, “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an ‘ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.’ Portland is being watched very closely. Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job!” One Proud Boy leader hailed the tweet as part of the protest’s aim: “We wanted national attention and we got it,” the organizer Joe Biggs told The Oregonian. “Mission success.”
Linde’s life was shaped by gangs of thugs deployed to shatter democratic order and impose racist dictatorship. Portland provided his family a haven and a life as citizens of a democratic nation.
Now the right has targeted Linde’s haven for destruction. The real target, though, is not Portland or antifa but all of us, and our sense of security that we are free citizens of a democratic nation, free to take our children downtown to play or to assemble peacefully to advocate values that the Republican Party does not approve. That party under Trump is now taking sides in the uneven war in Portland’s streets—and it is taking the dangerously wrong side.