Saturday afternoon and a racist rally: A Portland story

As a general rule, while I primarily use this space to share my thoughts on all things anti-racism related, for a myriad of reasons I rarely talk about my actual work. So much so that a local community member recently expressed surprise to learn that my actual job is serving as an executive director of an anti-racism organization and that I have been doing that for nine years now. 

Over the course of my time at Community Change Inc., I have seen the racial climate in the United States shift. Conversations that once existed in only academic or activist spaces have become mainstream. Mainstream enough that many people in leftist or progressive spaces have allowed themselves to become a bit delusional—believing that racial justice in the United States is happening on a massive scale and progressing at a healthy clip. Nothing could be farther from the truth. 

The Department of Homeland Security itself has stated that the single greatest threat to this country is coming from inside the house—violent home-grown extremists, most notably white nationalists and others of the same flavor. This was made public almost two years ago, and the available data as of a few weeks ago for 2021 supports the department’s statement. Hate crimes in the United States in 2021 were up by 11.6%, and that is only the crimes that are reported—we know that reporting is often at the hands of local law enforcement, which often likes to keep certain data off the books. Depending on your locale, it is often white people deciding what is a crime or not. So who knows how many hate crimes go unreported due to lack of understanding about bias, agreement with the white nationalists, or pure laziness. 

Yesterday in Portland, Maine, was reminder of the threat that continues and is growing. For those not familiar with Maine, Portland is our largest and most racially and ethnically diverse city. A group of white neo-Nazis from NSC 131 decided to march through our downtown on the middle of the afternoon this Saturday.

NSC 131 is a New England-based Nazi group that was formed in 2019 but started attracting the attention of folks like myself in 2020 at the height of the George Floyd protests and America’s so-called racial awakening. I will say this, NSC 131 is a group to be very concerned about, especially because Northern New England continues to be seen by such people as a place ripe for the development of a white ethnostate. 

In the last 18 months, as I have written before, these groups are feeling increasingly emboldened to come out of their caves and make themselves heard. To be frank, the average community or white person is not prepared to deal with this. Instead of seeing a festering problem, they choose to see these incidents as random, isolated acts perpetrated by a handful of hateful people.

But, much like the decades of careful work the right wing put into seizing power throughout local government and state government and on up to make their minority philosophies mainstream and difficult to uproot now, these actions are just one prong of a sustained attack focused on everyone who is not “properly white.”

These are attacks that, when put together, are reflected in local municipalities across the nation, as well at state houses around the country. Anti-semitism, violence against the LGBTQ community—especially our trans family—and attacks on Black and brown people are escalating after three years of a so-called racial awakening. The average white person is still harping about whether they actually have white privilege and working through their feelings about being called on to recognize how foundational white supremacy is in this country. 

No offense, but I need you to get up to speed and start activating—like yesterday. As a Black woman living in a still predominantly white state, it scares me to think that my so-called allies are nowhere near the John Brown level of activism. Not only are white allies running behind their white racist counterparts in terms of activism, the average white ally won’t even invest in the infrastructure to create solid organizing in their communities and regions if it means parting with their cash. Then they wonder why the other side appears to be winning.

I am sorry, but anti-racist book clubs, memes on social media, and the occasional protest are not how we are going to win the fight. These people are playing a long game and, at present, they are better financed and better organized than us. They are intentional in all that they do, whereas the folks supposedly on my side still struggle to name racism in its totality, instead reducing things to the simplistic statement of hatefulness. Yes, these people are hateful, but racism is not simply about hate. I hate broccoli but I am not waging war against the growers of broccoli. 

Racism at its core is about power and privilege. It exists at the institutional, structural, cultural, and interpersonal level. Racism is based on the concept of whiteness and enforced by power and violence. The white nationalists know this, but white allies as a whole still struggle with this and while it is great that you want to center BIPOC people in your anti-racism work, this Black woman thinks you also need to do a bit more. Because, honestly, some of y’all in simply centering our voices without doing much else are just adding a few more targets to our backs. 

Back to Portland’s local Neo Nazi rally, though. Local media and police reported that while there were minor skirmishes, there were no official complaints or reports of serious injuries. I imagine if you were a local Black or brown person minding your business yesterday and came across this crew, though, you might feel otherwise. There is a video circulating on social media of a Black man being called a nigger by these clowns. I know what it is like to be called a nigger by a hostile group of white men. It is a deep blow; it is an assault on your humanity. There are very few slurs in our society that come close to the weight of a white-bodied person hurling nigger at a Black person, but there are those who see it as just words. They aren’t. They mean potentially imminent threat to our safety or even our lives, beyond the psychic sting and the dehumanizing effects.

Every Black person understands the weight of “nigger” when uttered by a white person. It is designed to stop you in your tracks, and make you lose track of your own humanity. It is to reinforce white superiority over Black bodies. Years ago, I wrote about how my own family had been called niggers in downtown Portland by a carload of young white men, and how my son ran after that car—prepared to meet death or jail—for what he saw as the harm they inflicted upon me and his sister. 

As a middle-aged Black woman, I harbor no illusions about safe spaces for my Black body outside of my house (and even that isn’t an assured place of safety—it’s just the closest thing I have). Leaving my house is an act of faith, trusting and praying that I won’t encounter a racist but steeling myself for that very real possibility. Any illusions I still harbored of safety were finally shattered in 2019, when I was accosted by a racist on vacation on the island that I live on. That incident took away my last hope that there was any safe place in my state for me. It just is what it is. However, one would like to believe that when they are in the middle of a downtown, in the largest and most diverse city in their state, in the middle of the afternoon, they might not be called a racial slur.

And if they were, someone, just someone will come to their defense, right? Or maybe not. With the local media and police reporting this story as if there was no harm inflicted, I find myself wondering: How many people were threatened and thus harmed by this group, who did not have the wherewithal to stop and record their trauma in action? How many targets of the Nazis faced hateful behaviors and overt threats against them yet had no one stand up for them because keeping the peace was more important? 

Other than the work we are doing at Community Change Inc. to bring more white folks together to learn to organize in their communities or through our May symposium on Confronting White Supremacy, I don’t have any immediate answers. But I know that if the left and the progressives and other white folks who wish to be anti-racist can’t move beyond self-reflection and inner personal growth, things are only going to worsen. You can count on that.

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1 thought on “Saturday afternoon and a racist rally: A Portland story”

  1. Thanks for making us aware that this happened. I am taking it seriously and organizing among white people but most are in deep denial. Sorry this happened to you, your kid, and everyone in Maine who has reason to fear violent white supremacists operating in the open.

    My excuse for not knowing until Monday what had happened on Saturday is that I spent it with my young grandson, the one who is concerned about people “being mean” to one of Portland’s Black city councilors. He knows I am concerned about that, too.

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