For Trump supporters in Portland, the left is the face of intolerance

By Elizabeth Flock

Photography by Abbey Oldham

Athena Brown’s stomach was in knots as she arrived at the rally. She wanted to be more than a “keyboard warrior” for Republicans, but she worried she was putting her life in danger. She and other supporters of President Donald Trump were gathering in downtown Portland to assert their right to back the president without being labeled racists or bigots.

In the days before the rally, fear had spread through pro-Trump Facebook groups. Trump supporters worried they’d be a target for violent leftists. The park where the rally was being held was surrounded by tall buildings, and Brown had visions of being shot at from above.

But Brown, a recent convert to the GOP and a transgender woman, who switched parties after getting fed up with political correctness in the liberal LGBTQ community, told herself she needed to physically show up. “I thought that I had to have bravery in the face of fear,” she said later.

Brown was showing up because, like many Trump supporters, she felt that the division in the country stemmed not from the president but from how intolerant the left had become. Especially in Portland, a city described by the mayor as one of the most progressive in America.

In Portland, it seemed to them, free speech only belonged to those with a certain point of view.

As the Trump supporters gathered in the park plaza, counter-protesters surrounded them on several sides. Between the two groups stood two rows of police in riot gear. Since Trump had taken office, at least six rallies in the Portland metro area had ended in physical confrontations between the extreme left and right; this time, police were prepared.

Athena Brown at Multnomah County GOP headquarters in Portland, Oregon on June 14, 2017.

The city was also still reeling from a deadly stabbing on Portland’s MAX train, a week or so before, by a man who had been shouting anti-Muslim slurs, and so tensions in the city ran especially high.

As a result, Portland's mayor tried to get the rally's permit revoked, saying the "alt-right" could not be allowed to "peddle a message of hatred and bigotry" on the city's streets.

Even before the rally began, the Trump supporters were outnumbered by hundreds of counter-protesters, what seemed like five to one. Among them were members of Portland Stands United Against Hate, a coalition of local progressive groups, as well as radical leftists who called themselves “Antifa,” short for “anti-fascist.” Before the rally, local group Rose City Antifa had announced it would be “unapologetic” about using “physical militancy.” Words weren’t enough to stop white supremacists from organizing, it said.

Helen Church was nervous, because she was going to the rally alone. Church, a stay-at-home mom, didn’t normally attend rallies. And she couldn’t drive, so her husband dropped her off, though he had not wanted her to go. Her son had called her in the car and shouted at her to turn around, telling her that risking her life wouldn’t change anything. But Church disagreed. “I had come to terms with whatever was going to happen that day,” she said, “because I don’t want free speech taken from anybody, even people that I don’t agree with.”

Church had become frustrated with the labeling on the left — with how people immediately branded her and other Trump supporters racist. She thought it was important to push back. But when she got out of the car at the rally and saw the rows of black-clad Antifa, she was glad she had brought a black shirt to blend in with Antifa if things got dicey.

Inside the park’s plaza, the Trump supporters began making speeches. The speakers included two women who called themselves the Based Grandmas — “based” meaning a solid base of beliefs no one could shake. Kathryn Townsend, one of the grandmas, a grandmother of five, was excited to speak, even though police deployed stingballs, or grenades with rubber pellets, to disperse Antifa activists just before she got on stage.

In her speech, Townsend described being afraid at one of the first pro-Trump rallies she attended, but how the left's attempts to shut down the rally made her want to come back. “We’re sick of people stealing our hats and knocking over old people,” she said. “So we’re just going to go and [the left is] just going to have to deal with it.”

(After the rally, video emerged of what appeared to be Antifa activists laughing at an older woman as she fell down.)

Once Townsend’s speech was over, rally-goers came up to thank her, she said. They told her they rarely had the chance to wave their flags and say “God Bless America” without someone calling them a racist, bigot or xenophobe.

In Portland, Trump supporters are a small but increasingly vocal group, who hold a wide range of beliefs. Some are extremists. Others hold more moderate views. Still others are hard to pin down. They include independent voters like Townsend, who are becoming more active and strident as they see unprecedented efforts on the left to shut conversations down. They include people like Church, who, when slapped with labels, respond by showing up at rallies for the first time. And they include Republicans like Brown who have become fed up with what they see as the left’s PC culture.

A flyer for a June 4th counter-protest remains on a telephone pole in a retail and restaurant district in Portland, on June 13, 2017.

The NewsHour spent time with these three women as part of our two-part series on women who represent political minorities in their communities and face backlash for their beliefs. This reporting looks at Trump supporters in a Democratic stronghold. In May, we profiled three progressive women in the conservative town of Buckhannon, West Virginia.

The free speech rally ended that day in Portland with Antifa hurling bricks, rocks, marbles, tampons, urine and feces. It ended with graffiti messages left behind for the ralliers, including: “STAB A NAZI, TWICE :)” It ended with the counter-protesters shouting at their adversaries, calling them racists and bigots. To the Trump supporters, it was clear that the left did not really want dialogue but just wanted to showcase its anger. To the counter-protesters, the fear in the community had reached a level that compelled them to send a clear message: Portland won’t tolerate bigots.

But if the left’s goal was to shut down what the right had to say, it seemed to backfire, because Trump supporters left the rally feeling only more energized.

Sergeant Jeff Niiya of the Portland Police Bureau, who has been tasked with keeping the peace at the recent rallies, said that since Trump’s election, “There are more people that are willing to come out and in public hold a rally that is counter to the norms of what Portland has been for years, which is a progressive, liberal city.” This is increasing in part, he said, because of “all these labelings of the right.”

Years ago, Athena Brown carried around a copy of The Communist Manifesto. She considered herself on the far left end of the political spectrum. But as time passed, she found her views often diverged from her peers on the left, and when she challenged them, they’d grow upset. People told her that she had “internalized transphobia.” That maybe as a trans woman she hated herself.

“We live in a cisgender, patriarchal, heteronormative, white patriarchy,” she remembered her LGBTQ peers saying. No, thought Brown, we live in a constitutional republic.

Athena Brown found a welcoming GOP in Portland after negative experiences with the liberal LGBTQ community. Cookies sit on the table at Multnomah County GOP headquarters in Portland, Oregon on June 14, 2017.

The tipping point came after a gunman killed 49 people and wounded dozens more at a gay nightclub in Orlando last year. “All of us are victims,” a gay friend of Brown’s wrote on Facebook after the shooting. Brown disagreed, commenting that the people at the nightclub were the real victims, not her, and that the shooter had not said he was targeting gay people. Her friend, someone with whom she had worked and gone to protests, immediately blocked her on Facebook, Brown said.

She was startled, but not shocked, because the falling out came after a string of arguments with friends over various LGBTQ topics, patriarchy, and the wage gap. Each time, she noticed that when she disagreed, the response was emotional and angry, especially if she brought up evidence to the contrary. After this friend blocked her, Brown thought: Should I start looking for something else?

A month later, in mid-2016, Brown decided to see if there were any Republicans in Portland with whom she could connect. She went to a Multnomah County Republican street fair, where she met a group of women who were immediately receptive. (The county includes the city of Portland and some surrounding suburbs.) “There was plenty of warmth and acceptance,” she said, more than she’d ever felt on the left. “I’m a trans lesbian atheist, and they are conservative Christian. But not one single time has my gender come up, unless I’ve brought it up.”

When Brown came out as transgender in 2013, only two friends stopped speaking to her. When she came out as Republican, soon after her trip to the street fair, she remembered being blocked by roughly 100 people on Facebook, mostly from the LGBTQ community, she said.

The rejection hurt. Brown grew up without parents, and spent most of her life homeless, but then worked hard to create communities for herself as an adult. After wandering from Louisiana to California, Malaysia, and other places, she eventually found her way to Portland, where she made friends at LGBTQ meetups and got herself certified as a specialist in mental health. In Portland, she had a job and had friends. But when she became a Republican, many of those people vanished from her life overnight. (One friend who blocked Brown said it wasn’t just because she now supported Trump, but because she was so strident about it.) Brown also worried she would be fired for her new party affiliation.

When Brown came out as transgender, only two friends stopped speaking to her.

When she came out as Republican, she remembered being blocked by roughly 100 people, mostly from the LGBTQ community.

But she did not look back, because as the 2016 election wore on, she found she agreed with most of Trump’s policies, especially on economics and immigration. She disagreed with liberals who claimed that he was racist and sexist. On a website she started called 4th Wavers — meaning fourth-wave feminism, which Brown defined as mutual respect between men and women, instead of man-hating — she wrote long posts debunking liberal claims about Trump.

In September, Brown began designing a course for local GOP members entitled: “How to talk to leftists.” She felt uniquely qualified to design the class because she’d been a Democrat, and because, as a mental health specialist, she had been trained in the conflict resolution technique of “de-escalation.” Within the course, she said, that meant talking emotional liberals off a ledge. Democrats, she likes to say, have become the party of feelings, while Republicans must be the party of facts. Brown has now taught the course a few times, and has received requests from GOP party members to teach it more.

At the free speech rally, she also drew on her own teachings when two men from a local union came up and asked her if she was a Republican. What followed felt like a productive conversation — they calmly debated health care and the history of the two parties — but one all too rare in Portland. Brown and the other local Republican women have countless stories about abuse they say they’ve faced from the left.

Brown hopes to use her training in mental health to teach fellow Republicans how to get their message across to liberals. Here, Brown is pictured with Janice Dysinger and Cheryl Ellis Bowen, two fellow Multnomah County GOP members, at party headquarters in Portland, Oregon on June 14, 2017.

Little things, like people stealing Trump signs from their yards. People screaming at them that they are white supremacists. Or bigger things, like a story from one woman who believed an auto mechanic dangerously loosened bolts in her car after she entered the shop holding tickets to a Republican fair. At the local GOP headquarters, in a strip mall in northeast Portland, anarchist graffiti appeared on the building’s side. And several months before the June rally, Portland’s annual Roses Parade was canceled after organizers received threatening emails over the inclusion of a Republican Party float; disruptions had also been planned by self-described anti-fascists.

In a post online, Rose City Antifa, which had counter-protested the June rally, called stories from the local GOP about left-wing abuse “overblown hysteria.” And in an interview, “Angela” from the group, whose members do not give out their last names, argued that vulnerable populations were under attack from the right — not the other way around. They behave like they’re “the hunted minority,” she said. “But [the GOP has] every branch of government, so they objectively have privilege in every way.”

For Brown, though, attacks from the left have often felt very real — and very personal. Many have targeted her gender, which she finds ironic, considering how tolerant the left claims to be. She shared some of the hateful messages she has received on Facebook: “Athena you still are a guy it’s evident in the way you speak. You are a misogynist through and through,” “Athena you need help you want to be a woman but you hate us,” and: “Athena is not a person, and definitely not a woman.”

A rainbow flag flies outside Portland City Hall on June 14, 2017.

After Trump was elected in November, protests erupted around the country. But in Portland those demonstrations escalated into a riot, as protesters smashed store windows and set fires, leading to 26 arrests and more than a million dollars in property damage. Less than 18 percent of Portland’s Multnomah County had voted for Trump, though he carried many other counties in the state.

Portland is a city often viewed as a kind of progressive paradise, where the streets are lined with kombucha taprooms and juice bars, signs in cafe windows say all religions, races, and genders are welcome, and a rainbow flag hangs out front of City Hall.

It is also a city that prides itself on political participation, and a place well-accustomed to protest. Before Trump’s rise, protests in the city mostly came from the left, and sometimes the far-left, including the annual May Day demonstrations on behalf of workers’ rights. But there are also regular peaceful protests: against fur, in defense of labor unions, in support of Black Lives Matter.

Conversations around race can be especially charged in Portland, which has a fraught racial history. It has not been forgotten that Oregon’s early founders adopted exclusion laws that barred blacks from moving to the state, that the state was once a Ku Klux Klan stronghold, or that more recently, in the 1990s, Portland was dubbed “skinhead city” for its large population of neo-Nazis, and for having birthed the white supremacist gang the Volksfront.

Today, Portland continues to have among the whitest populations of any city in the country. On the ground floor of City Hall, a large exhibit asks the question: “Is Portland racist?” Many of the Post-it responses say “yes.”

An exhibit inside Portland City Hall on June 14, 2017. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler tried to get a permit for the June 4th pro-Trump rally revoked, saying the “alt-right” could not be allowed to “peddle a message of hatred and of bigotry” on the city’s streets.

And so it was, perhaps, that in the run up to Election Day, Helen Church found herself branded a racist. Her 15-year-old son came home from school telling her that his history teacher had said that Trump was racist, and that any parent who would vote for him was racist, too.

The comment stung. Church, whose grandmother was Portuguese and grandfather Native American, had always thought of herself as having a diverse background. What have I ever said or done for a teacher to generalize me? she thought.

After Church called and complained to the vice principal of the middle school, in the Salem-Keizer Public School district in the greater Portland metro area, she said, her son was moved to another history class. (A request for comment from the school was not returned.)

Up to that point, Church’s activism consisted mostly of writing letters to local and state representatives, and sometimes the White House. But as she watched people on the left continuously denigrate Trump supporters, she also became more active online. She joined dozens of pro-Trump Facebook groups, and as she spoke up, she said, she began getting messages from women who told her they admired her courage.

“The other side did a great job in trying to push Trump as this women-hating monster,” Church said. After his comments were leaked about grabbing women “by the pussy,” she looked into his past, and found that he had given high-level positions to womenincluding the first woman to build a skyscraper in New York. “You don’t give women opportunities like that, ground-breaking opportunities, if you hate women,” she said.

As Church became more active, she was targeted online by people with opposing views; some even threatened to come to her house and hurt her. The comments unnerved her, but she mostly tried to ignore them. She knew that bullying happened on both the right and left.

That worked until one day last spring, when she posted a comment on a story online about how the Affordable Care Act had hurt people she knew. After she posted it, she recalled, she got a private message from someone calling her a racist and saying it was clear she wanted children to die. The same day, she said, a pro-Trump Facebook friend told her that she should go join Antifa, because she didn’t seem like a true patriot.

As Church walked her dog near her home in Salem, a man confronted her for wearing a Trump hat. “Your kind isn’t wanted here,” she recalled him saying. “You need to just leave.”

Being attacked from both sides was too much. After so many people sent her messages telling her she should die, she said, “you hit that kind of level where you really are forced to wonder if maybe other people are right.” That day, Church said, she swallowed a number of Tylenol and Advil pills, intending to take her own life, though her husband intervened before she could take enough to hurt herself.

After that, Church saw a therapist to discuss the incident, which she saw as an example of adult bullying. She also never commented on a news story online again. But she kept sending letters to representatives, kept posting on Facebook and still went to the June rally alone, where she was surprised to find no one attacked her. Instead, she came home proud that she had been brave enough to go.

Wael Elasady from Portland Stands United Against Hate, the coalition of local progressive groups that counter-protested the rally, said he felt that the best approach to the ralliers was not violence but large numbers. This would show how many Portland residents did not agree with supporters of a president “who calls for Muslim bans, deporting immigrants, and who is sexist,” he said. “[We want to express] that the majority of people in this city, and I believe, around the country, abhor what they stand for.”

If that was the message from the left, at times it was getting through. The week after the rally, as Church walked her dog near her home in Salem, she said, a man confronted her for wearing a Trump hat. “Your kind isn’t wanted here,” she recalled him saying. “You need to just leave.”

In that moment, Church felt that nothing would change or get better. “Some people are just really mad right now, and I get that,” she said. “But we’re actual people. We have hearts. We have souls. And our feelings get hurt.”

Helen Church poses for a portrait outside the Oregon State Capitol building in Salem, OR on June 14, 2017.

Several hours north of Salem, in Olympia, Washington, Kathryn Townsend had her first intense experience with liberal intolerance, at a March pro-Trump rally. She went because she had voted for Trump as a businessman, and wanted to see what the fuss at all the rallies was about.

At the event, Townsend remembered, she watched an Antifa activist shout down a Gold Star mother as she tried to to speak. Intimidating a parent whose child had died in the armed forces crossed a line for Townsend, whose grandson is an active duty Marine, and whose father was a WWII prisoner-of-war and still bears the scars of his imprisonment.

“Something happened to me then. I wanted to get between them and wanted to protect her,” she said. “That was when I was decided I was going to go to more rallies.”

Townsend has now attended eight rallies around the Pacific Northwest, where she said she’s found a divided America she never expected to see again after the civil rights movement, whose battles she watched play out as a kid.

At a recent rally she attended, a protest against the supposed spread of sharia law in America, (fears legal experts say are based on myths and hysteria) a man with his “rage level at 10” came up to her and screamed that she was a Nazi, according to Townsend. It’s a kind of reaction she has come to expect from the left.

Antifa activists give Kathryn Townsend the middle finger during a rally at Evergreen State College on June 15, 2017.

To her, the violence at recent rallies nearly always seems to begin on the left, though she acknowledges there have been incidents where the right has acted as the aggressor, including in her own backyard. In January, for example, a pro-Trump couple was charged with the shooting of a protester at the University of Washington. But Townsend argued there were “wackos” on both sides, and that numerous speeches on college campuses were canceled due to threats of leftist violence.

Yet Townsend has also experienced rare moments of compassion, or at least understanding — moments when she managed to make a connection with someone on the other side of the political divide. At one rally, as she walked past a line of Antifa protesters, she remembered being struck by how young they all looked. They reminded her of her teenage grandson — and they looked hungry. Townsend had brought some sandwiches to the rally, and pulled one out of her bag. “I said: ‘Is anybody hungry? Does anybody want a sandwich?’” she said. “And a boy in the back with a mask on said: ‘I do.”

After Townsend passed the sandwich to him through a line of riot police, the boy thanked her, and Townsend thought: Okay we can build bridges.

We’re actual people. We have hearts. We have souls. And our feelings get hurt.

- Helen Church

But the feeling didn’t last long. Soon after, Rose City Antifa listed Townsend as a person to watch in what the group called the area’s “racist rage revival club.” The listing included her photo and a warning that Townsend, who lived in Gig Harbor, Washington, a few hours from Portland, but visited regularly for rallies, was known for traveling “across state lines.”

“Angela” from Rose City Antifa said the listings were an effort to highlight a more “coded” version of the white supremacists that have long existed in the city. “When people march in swastika costumes, everyone gets it,” she said. “With these guys it’s a grayer area and harder to unpack.”

A few weeks later, as Rose City Antifa encouraged its followers to contact the employers of the pro-Trump rally-goers, to try to get them fired, Townsend’s employer received an anonymous message. The message asked if the company was aware a violent right-wing extremist worked there. Being listed and targeted at work scared Townsend, who offered to resign her position. Her manager accepted.

But it also motivated Townsend to double down on her beliefs. “The very intent (to shut people up) not only doesn’t happen, but it amplifies our voice,” she said. “If Antifa was smart, they would just ignore us.”

Leftists in Portland are unlikely to start ignoring Trump supporters like Brown, Church and Townsend. Rose City Antifa, for one, seems to be only ramping up its efforts to target those they consider fascists, either by contacting people’s employers, or by “doxxing,” the practice of researching and publishing private information online. Ahead of the June rally, the group also advertised a training session with a flyer that showed a chainsaw sawing through Trump’s head. It is unclear whether more training sessions will take place as more pro-Trump, free speech rallies are planned around the Pacific Northwest.

The right hasn’t shied away from conflict either. A group that has hosted many of the Portland area rallies continues to attract followers online, and right-wing patriot groups, outfitted in tactical gear, are making increasing appearances at the events. Meanwhile, rally leaders and attendees seem to be becoming only more strident as the left tries to shut them down.

Townsend has also continued going to potentially dangerous rallies. In mid-June, another rally was planned, this time at Evergreen State College, a liberal arts college two hours north of Portland. The rally, organized by Trump supporters, was to defend the free speech rights of a professor who criticized an event called “A Day Without Whites.” In a viral video, students screamed at the professor that he was racist, and also demanded he be fired.

Joey Gibson, who has led many of the rallies across the Pacific Northwest, receives first aid after being hit with a can of Silly String at a rally at Evergreen State College, on June 15, 2017.

Rally organizers recruited from Portland, but Brown decided not to go, because she wanted to work on bringing her course on “How to talk to liberals” to more Republicans first. She also thought she might meet friendlier liberals at upcoming GOP street fairs — the place where she was first converted. Church, who felt sick and tired of all the negative conversation online, also decided to stay home. She said she wanted to have productive conversations in “less toxic spaces,” though she was not sure where or how that would be possible.

But Townsend said she would not miss the rally, and wanted to attend for all the women who couldn’t. On the afternoon of the event, she found herself walking through the forested campus in the pouring rain toward rows of riot police, wondering what would happen when her band of Trump supporters met a waiting group of students and Antifa activists.

As Townsend and some 50 pro-Trump supporters approached, PBS NewsHour in tow, they cracked jokes about “safe spaces” on college campuses. They carried flags for Blue Lives Matter and Pepe the Frog, a symbol that’s been adopted by both trolls and white nationalists. Some of the men wore camo and tactical gear. But it was clear that they were also nervous, unsure if violence awaited. Townsend put on a bike helmet, in case Antifa hurled rocks. She also carried a sign that said “No tax $ for crybullies,” because the college was publicly-funded.

Antifa activists, meanwhile, were busy stretching and twirling sticks at the college entrance. As always, they were dressed in black, with gas masks or handkerchiefs tied around their faces. Groups of students held signs that said “Community Love,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “America Was Never Great.” In front of both groups stood the police, outfitted in riot gear.

When Townsend and the rest of her group arrived, Antifa activists immediately began calling out: “ignorant!” “fascists!” and “white supremacists!” Many gave them the middle finger. Perhaps to taunt them back, a male leader of the pro-Trump group walked, with some swagger, up to a member of Antifa and said: “What’s up brother?” as he tried to shake his hand. Within minutes, another Antifa activist smashed a can of Silly String against his head. After he walked away, a third Antifa activist pepper-sprayed him, so that he was wet and bleeding and crying.

Suddenly leaderless, the ralliers weren’t sure what to do. It was raining hard, and the students and Antifa were playing music so loud there was no way Townsend’s group could make themselves heard. After a little while, Townsend decided to approach the police barrier, to try to rally her troops and also address the hostile crowd on the other side.

Kathryn Townsend delivers a speech made up of Martin Luther King Jr. quotes to Antifa activists and Evergreen State College students at a rally at the college on June 15, 2017.

Townsend had prepared a speech made up of quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., because she saw him as a man who had successfully brought together people with opposing views at a time of political division. She launched into the speech now, calling out to the crowd: “Who said this?” and then reading off a quote: “We may have come over on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.”

“We can’t hear you!” an Antifa member called back.

“Who said this?” Townsend continued, undeterred. She was still wearing her helmet, and spoke through a faltering megaphone. But her message was lost in the music and rain and commotion.

The free speech ralliers stayed on campus for several more hours, until it began to grow dark. By then, nearly everyone was soaked and too tired to fight. The male leader of the rally had finally recovered, after Townsend and others brought out first aid kits. There had been some scattered violence, and one Antifa member was caught with a knife, but the police had mostly kept the rally in check by keeping the two sides apart.

In the coming weeks, there would be more pro-Trump rallies in Portland, and more clashes with counter-protesters. Elsewhere on the West Coast, a pro-Trump rallier would be stabbed, and Trump supporters would show up on another campus, where they would be accused of holding rallies just to provoke violence from the other side.

That day in Olympia, Townsend and the other Trump supporters walked out of the rally feeling a sense of success and accomplishment. But when they got back to their caravan of cars to drive back to Portland, they found their tires had been slashed. It would take several hours to get them fixed before they could drive home.

Story published: July 25, 2017

OPENING PHOTO: An Antifa protester yells during a competing demonstration against Trump supporters in Portland, Oregon on June 4. Photo by Jim Urquhart/Reuters

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