Photos and video by Gary Christenson
There was a woman on one side of the street shouting into a megaphone about racism and murder, while a man on the other side, dressed like Captain America, stood flipping her off and making other vulgar gestures. In between them was a line of riot police. A lot of riot police. Law enforcement was clearly expecting the worst.
There were hundreds of officers. All geared up with rubber bullet rifles, vests loaded with what turned out to be flash-bang grenades and pepper-spray canisters, and hundreds of zip ties on their belts ready for protesters who got out of hand. There were also several dozen police medics in full riot gear. Just in case.
My first impression was that they might need it all. And that coming here to wage peace might have been a terrible idea.
All this attention was focused on one small public square in downtown Portland, where a hyper-conservative group called Patriot Prayer organized a free speech rally that attracted a large number of alt-right, white supremacist, neo-Nazi types. There were also a decent number of people simply there to make a conservative, pro-Trump statement in one of the most liberal cities in America. But their less inflammatory messages were overshadowed by the guy waving a KKK flag and the signs that read “Diversity is code for white genocide.”
In a city like Portland, a demonstration like this would draw counter-protesters under normal circumstances, but the timing of this event was especially unfortunate. A week and a half ago, a white supremacist named Jeremy Christian verbally assaulted two girls, one of whom was Muslim, on the city’s light rail. Then he stabbed three men who tried to intervene. Two of the men died from their injuries. Christian was openly proud of his actions. “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism!” he shouted at his arraignment last week.
Portland is understandably furious. People are angry, hurt, sad, and looking for an outlet. So when the mayor asked Patriot Prayer to reschedule their rally to avoid conflict and they refused, it became a boiling point. Thousands turned out to make the alt-right feel their wrath.
I went to the Portland protests with a very specific idea of how I wanted to participate. Picking a side wasn’t an option. There was too much hate coming from both sides, and hate is an ineffective way to make change.
You simply can’t hate people into loving each other.
I wanted to stand in the gap—in between the vitriol being slung from both sides—and offer an alternative: peace.
At first, my husband was understandably not a fan of this idea: “They’re expecting violence... so you want to go stand in the middle? You understand how crazy that sounds, right?”
But he also saw my point (and recognized my resolve) and gamely drove the three hours to Portland so we could wage peace where others wage war.
I was nervous the whole way and nearly backed out several times.
No one would blame me, I told myself. This is a stupid idea. What if the news reports are right and the alt-right demonstrators are armed? I’ve got kids at home. I’ve seen photos of the Portland anti-fascists. They’re terrifying. Dressed in all-black, wearing masks, protective eyewear, and rubber gloves… strongly implying that they came directly from making explosives.
Then I thought, What if no one shows up to wage peace? What if it just turns into the civil war we’re all too afraid to mention out loud but definitely feel the possibility of? What if I can make just one person think? What if it stops them from doing something stupid? What if that makes the difference?
It’s a ridiculous thought. I’m only one person.
Then, in the midst of all my conflicting thoughts and feelings, I came to a realization: Everyone is just one person. It’s how you leverage your personhood that makes a difference.
We showed up and got a lay of the land. On one side of the square was a public park where hundreds of counter-protesters were visibly seething at the taunts being slung at them from the alt-right crowd, whose freedom of speech was being protected by lines of police and armored Homeland Security vehicles.
All of a sudden the counter protesters surged toward the cops, who pulled out their batons in response. Water bottles and other objects started soaring through the air toward police. Then a flash and BANG. Screams and running. Flash BANG!
More running, more objects being hurled at police. An authoritative voice rang out over a loudspeaker, “This is the Portland police. This park is being cleared due to criminal activity. Please relocate north.”
I saw police throwing punches and pepper spray shot into faces of those undeterred by the smoke grenades.
As the counter protesters were forcibly dispersed, the taunts grew louder from the alt-right demonstrators. They triumphantly waved goodbye, cheering and mocking their opponents with gross hand gestures.
There was no peace here. And if there was ever going to be any, someone had to make it. Someone had to be the one to get off the crazy train of hate and decide to love anyway. Even though, in that moment, everyone sucked. No one was behaving the way they ought to. No one was loving.
So, why not me? Why shouldn’t I be the one to choose differently? Not because I condone one side or the other. Not because I think that racism is OK—I absolutely do not—but because hate is not going to change anything. It’s only going to make things worse. It will make the racists feel justified in their hate, the same way the counter-protesters feel justified in theirs.
There was a break in the crowd as people reshuffled away from the commotion. Shaking, I stepped out into the middle of the street wearing a “Love Anyway” shirt and holding a sign that said “Us Vs. Them is a False Choice.”
And I stood there. In between the anti-Fascists and neo-Nazis. In between the guy holding a Black Lives Matter sign and the woman holding a giant sign that said “BLM are racist thugs.” Flanked on my left by at least nine heavily armed federal and city police officers.
And it happened. Everyone, including the riot police, read my sign, looked me in the eyes, and left me alone. There was a slight pause from all sides. No one knew what to do with me.
Emboldened by my move, a couple of counter-protesters tried to step off the curb into the street, and the cops pushed them back up. A woman stepped up right next to me and raised a fist in support, but she was wearing an anti-fascist sticker, so she too was forced back onto the curb, into their permitted area.
But the authorities left me alone because neither side wanted to claim me. They let me and my message of peace stay.
It turns out not picking sides has its benefits. But it’s also lonely business.
I stood there, by myself, for what felt like forever. No one was willing to abandon their side to join me. Both groups just kept slinging their hate past my sign.
My arms ached. I wondered if this was absolutely pointless.
Then a woman with a sign that read “Love makes the world go ‘round” stepped out toward me.
“I thought they went well together,” she said, motioning to our signs. “Mind if I join you?”
“They do! Thanks...it was getting lonely out here.”
Then a guy with a Bible verse about welcoming the stranger (Leviticus 19:34) came up to join us. That made three of us. Standing in the middle. With riot police and white supremacists on one side and masked anti-fascists on the other. Surrounded by violent swearing, rude gestures, and frequent suggestions that the other side should do the world a favor and kill themselves.
We stayed until the police opened the street and told us that unless we wanted to get run over, we needed to move.
On my way out, a young demonstrator stopped me. “I disagree with you. But I appreciate what you were trying to do,” he said.
“Thanks?” I replied.
I almost asked what part he disagreed with and what he thought the alternative was, but the side he chose made it pretty clear. In fact, simply the fact that he chose a side make it pretty clear.
I don’t know how much of a difference I made. But I made more of a difference than I would have if I had stayed home.
I showed up on my frontline and stretched myself to love anyway when I didn’t want to love at all.
We need more peacemakers. We need more people willing to stand in the gap and offer an alternative to hyperpolarization. We need more people who will fight hate with preemptive love by choosing to love anyway.
Will it be you?