Antifascism, coalition for human dignity, Dan Quayle, Eric Foner, George HW Bush, Howard Zinn, Little Beirut, Oregon, Portland, Portland Protest, Regis Debray
Back in the late 1980s, in the embryonic days of the Coalition for Human Dignity, together with a small group of student radicals I cobbled together something called the Antifascist Archives Project. It amounted to little more than a poster featuring a bundle of sticks with the blade of an axe protruding from the top being broken in half. The symbol is that of the fasces, the Latin term from which fascism derives. Together with our fanatic hearts and a pile of research files to inspire the breaking, we began ferreting out fascists wherever they might be, in whatever stage of development they had progressed, at whatever cost to ourselves. We operated from the second floor of a warehouse space located at 333 SE 3rd Street in Portland, Oregon known as The Matrix. From the beginning my antifascism always involved no small amount of rebellion.
Below our second-story ramshackle office was a tortilla chip factory where (in my mind’s olfactory eye) I can still smell those fresh tortillas cooking. After being cut into chips, they would slowly make their way down a small conveyor belt where they would be bagged and often consumed, hot and fresh, by yours truly. My memories of this collective space are bound up with the smell of those tortilla chips and that of another: the fresh ink that emanated from the giant offset printing press which periodically disgorged the finished broadsheets for the long defunct, and somewhat bizarre, Portland Free Press.
Fronted by Andrew Seltzer, the cantakerous and idiosyncratic editor and publisher, the newspaper had a short run of a couple years. I was listed on the masthead as “Staff Researcher”. In late 1989, I dug up a connection between the local top representative for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and government surveillance of the left. Seltzer told me to call the local FBI office for an interview, which I did. To my surprise, I was granted an audience with the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) of the Portland, Oregon FBI, a guy named Danny Coulson. Two of us marched up to his office and were allowed to record the proceedings (where is that tape recording?). We grilled him about the FBI’s Cointelpro (Counter Intelligence Programs) of the 1960s-1970s, armed with the accusation that such efforts to “infiltrate, disrupt and neutralize” the left were continuing, in particular around groups such as CISPES, (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). I was young and well on my way to a political philosophy that does not appear on any conventional ideological map. The interview didn’t win me a Pulitzer, but it was an interesting peek into the top office of America’s Secret Police.
The Matrix warehouse collective was a motley crew of antiracists and anarchists, Earth First! environmentalists and anti-gentrification activists (some of whom would burn to the ground a number of rowhouses being built by developer Phil Morford, and get away with it) antiauthoritarians who had stools alloted them at the Laurelthirst Pub, cop watchers and ACT-UP militants (some of whom I joined in occupying a federal office building more than once) anti-repression activists and numerous denizens of alternative music venues such as Satyricon and the Pine Street Theatre. The Matrix was a crucible for radical politics and an incubator for a subculture of resistance that would later be dubbed, “Little Beirut.” On more than one occasion I had a tasty meal procured from dumpsters at the back of a local grocery store. On other occasions, following rolling street brawls featuring Anti Racist Action and SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) activists fighting racist skinheads, comrades armed with shotguns and rifles patrolled the roof of The Matrix.
Around the same time I was interviewing the Portland SAC, my comrades and I were organizing the first protests against Dan Quayle and George H.W. Bush. The two would visit Portland over the next few years for a series of very expensive, very posh, private fundraising dinners, mostly held at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Portland. Chuck Palahniuk, by the way, doesn’t know shit about any of this, and neither do the scribblers at Willamette Week. Allow me to fill you in on a few details left out of these sanitized versions of what took place. First, the earliest of these protests were conceived, planned and carried out by militants in The Matrix collective. Get that right.
The symbolic protestors of Reed College who were self identified as “Reverse Peristalsis Painters” and who swallowed ipecac and food coloring so as to vomit in red, white and blue, were a sideshow, and came much later. The main events involved something quite different: gauntlets organized at two entrances to the Hilton Hotel, through which the well heeled Republican millionaires had to travel if they wanted to eat dinner. We disrupted the fuck out of that dinner party. Projectiles of all kinds–fruits, vegetables, eggs, rocks, etc., hit their mark. Cops were unprepared for the first two events, and rolling battles took place in the streets. I know, because I was there. One group of us dressed in the manner of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–straight out of the sewers. What animated us was one main objective: raise the social costs of staging such events by interfering with the material capacity of the organizers to carry out such events. Symbols and imagery were secondary.
“Everything we want is in the end of you.”
That gauntlet, by the way, was what earned Portland the moniker ‘Little Beirut’, not the kids from Reed College and their ‘shocking’ performance art. And we threw all manner of projectiles, soiling the fur coats of the rich, burning newspaper boxes and cars. For a brief moment in time, at a few intersections in downtown Portland Oregon, the rich were on the run from impending violence. You don’t see that often enough.
History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors and they write whatever necessary to justify their continued dominance. Let this missive from a ghost of antifascism past be a token of resistance to that history.
Socialism, the great revolutionist Regis Debray reminds us, “was born with a printer’s docket around its neck.”
“Writing collectivizes individual memory; reading individualizes collective memory. The back-and-forth between them fosters the sense for history by unearthing potentials within the present, creating backdrops and foregrounds; it is fundamental for the idea of socialism. When it is cold outside and the night is long, memory means that we are not alone.” “Socialism: A Life Cycle” Regis Debray, New Left Review, No. 46, July-August, 2007.
For a new generation of radicals at the barricades I ask this: What happens to a society that no longer writes or reads, but posts and records in the manner of a compulsive self-documentarian? The selective timelines and creepy sanitized nostalgia of Facebook displace historical memory. Not that history by the victors was objective to begin with, but for every Richard Hofstadter or John Lewis Gaddis there is a Howard Zinn or an Eric Foner. Who shall replace them?
Socialism was born with a printer’s docket around its neck, and a molotov cocktail in her hand.
Long Live Little Beirut.