From “The Matrix” to “The Shop”.
“The Matrix” collective at 333 SE 3rd Street in Portland, Oregon.
“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. We pulled our logo from the militant Italian anti-fascist movement of the 1920s, the Arditi Del Popolo. 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 finished broadsheets for distribution by wild-eyed radicals such as myself.”–—Back to Little Beirut.
“The Matrix” housed many radical political groups, but frequent armed attacks by neo-Nazis throughout 1990-91 had anti-fascists patrolling with rifles from the rooftop. The only entrance to our offices on the second floor was through a steel-reinforced door on a warehouse loading dock. This afforded us some protection. Regardless, our presence endangered activists not accustomed to facing down boneheads. We had to relocate.
“In winter the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest wind finds its way through split bricks and cracked beams. It is fended off with wood stove and blankets, occasionally the warmth of a kindred spirit. From my office in this ramshackle warehouse, set next to a railroad crossing busy with jostling container cars and the occasional furtive hobo, surrounded by artists, counterculture types, and a few working-class intellectuals (some of whom work at Powell’s Books, a temple for what remains of the graphosphere) I engage in my phantom labor: interrogating the past so as to excavate the future.” —The Trumpen Proletariat Goes to Mars.
Comrades who have been following the “It Did Happen Here” Podcast and KBOO Radio show (https://kboo.fm/program/it-did-happen-here) know that there was a network of anti-racist groups that fought the far-right in the Pacific Northwest (especially Portland, Oregon) from 1988 into the early 2000s. I was a founding member and sometime staffer for the one of the groups profiled, the Coalition for Human Dignity (CHD). CHD was known for cutting-edge research and intelligence that targeted the far-right, together with grassroots community defense efforts. For about ten-years comrades and I waded through newspaper clippings, files, primary documents, databases, videotapes, books and cassette tapes with an eye toward operationalizing our findings. Put another way: Unlike most academics, who often craft elaborate postmortems on this or that element of the far-right, comrades with the Coalition for Human Dignity created our own “facts on the ground.” CHD activists didn’t collect data for posterity; we gathered intelligence to attack the far-right and fascists. In many ways, we were more effective at this than any of our contemporaries.
We also made mistakes, some of which will become apparent throughout these archival posts. That said, beware critics who either knowingly or naïvely wring their hands about this or that tactic wielded by comrades in the fight against the far-right. Too often they forget (if they ever knew) that the far-right and fascism are always present within the United States body politic; regardless of what stage of development such bigoted movements may be in, they must be fought using methodologies unique to those threats. Remember: fighting fascism means fighting fascists.
Today, the far-right and fascist threat is worse than at any time in my 54 years, so too the need to fight back. Trump’s ignominious departure from the White House should provide only cold comfort; the social base and political economy of fascism remain intact.
I offer this archival material so that we might compare and contrast methodologies for fighting the far-right and fascists and thereby improve our fighting capacity. Obviously, the information ecology during the 1980s-1990s was in many ways quite different from that of today — slower, less complex, more centralized, labor intensive, and analog, or pre-digital. I have long argued that the formation of “The Shop” as the intelligence wing of the Coalition for Human Dignity was necessary in order to obtain a comprehensive overview of various far-right formations then active throughout the Pacific Northwest. That overview could not be achieved without the labor-intensive work carried out by staffers and volunteers in the research wing of CHD. It was absolutely essential. In order to aid communities under attack by the far-right — in real-time — one had to operationalize research. One could not possibly coordinate efforts to fight the far-right and defend communities without the most up-to-date research and intelligence. Journalists couldn’t do it, cops were a part of it, politicians were afraid of it and academics were too busy with their post-mortems. At that time there was only one way to do it: “The Shop.”
Some of the archival material I will be posting here I’ve managed to preserve, some I’ve more recently dug up. I left the CHD around 1999 after having transferred the many filing cabinets, videos, databases, and a highly specialized library, to offices in Seattle. Sometime thereafter the group imploded but not before sending the CHD files to a kindred organization in Chicago called the Center for New Community, which also collapsed. Somewhere in these transitions the CHD files were lost or stolen; the activists who are responsible for this shocking neglect of basic movement security and respect for research deserve to be met with the harshest of criticism. You know who you are, and you should be held accountable. Anti-fascists with integrity should revisit this sordid chapter in our history, if for no other reason so as to prevent perhaps some of the same people from doing it again. And again. What happened to the files?
“The Shop” refers to the semi-secret office space maintained by CHD for about six years through a sub-lease from two professional photographers. Thanks to their generosity we were able to file our reports, stuff our filing cabinets, organize our databases, and destabilize and destroy organized bigots. The boneheads never found us, either.
CHD researchers set out to create a hybrid of library science and spycraft to fight the far-right menace. We had some limited success, for a time.
For all those older anti-fascists who have continued doing salt-of-the-earth work, I commend you and offer my sincere appreciation and support. Younger anti-fascists today operate with a sophistication, breadth and effectiveness we could only dream of. Groups like Rose City Antifa and the Pacific Northwest Anti-fascist Workers Collective continue the anti-fascist tradition. But they also face a far more dangerous menace. They need our unwavering support.
As I am no longer technically literate in any 21st-century sense, please excuse in advance what are sure to be many frustrating oversights and discombobulations. If you dig or ask me questions, I’ll do my best to clarify.
Allen’s Press Clipping Bureau (Established 1888!)
Allen’s Press Clipping Bureau was an important addition to CHD’s toolbox. Allen’s clipped articles from hundreds of newspapers across the Pacific Northwest according to keywords we provided like “racism”, “Measure 9”, and “white supremacist” then stuffed them into envelopes and mailed them to us. We would index these articles according to names, organizations and issues, then enter that information into databases that linked to the clippings, which were in turn photocopied and stored in wire-frame, legal size folders that hung inside Hon brand filing cabinets. Always Hon, always legal size (rather than letter) because there’s nothing like getting 8 1/2 x 14 size documents and trying to fit them in 8 1/2 x 11 folders—it just doesn’t work. This process was expensive and time consuming. Today, such information is generally available to anyone with a cell phone and a search engine. But not then. Did I mention it was expensive? Also, if you try Googling “David Irving 1992 Portland, Oregon” you won’t find much. Like so much of our work it was pre-internet, and has been buried. Let’s dig it up.