After receiving several text messages asking wth is up in PDX these days, I went looking for more information myself. I saw this post on r/OutOfTheLoop that someone put a lot of time into explaining. Thank you for doing that...
A brief history of fascism
The antifa movement takes its name from the German group Antifaschistische Aktion, which was formed in the 1930s as a way of protesting the Nazi party and their fascist ideology. But what actually is fascism?
At a base level -- and you can consider this the ELI5 explanation; I'm convinced that someone will pop up to correct me on the finer points of the Northern Conservative Fascist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912, but I'm more interested in providing a primer than a PhD thesis -- fascism is a right-wing political philosophy that began in the early 20th century. Pinning it down exactly is very difficult -- political science definitions tend to be fiddly at the best of times -- but it (generally) includes:
- Authoritarianism; a tendency towards the ideal of a strong centralised power structure, with limitations on political freedoms outside of that.
- Extreme nationalism; a focus on one's own country (as opposed to a policy of globalism).
- Strong militarism; promotion of the army as a means of control, both at home and abroad.
- Strong opposition to disagreement or dissent; fascist governments often attempt to quell protests against them.
- Use of propaganda; state-sponsored (or at least, state-friendly) media are used to sway the public perception, often by appealing to nationalist, classist and populist rhetoric.
As a quick side note, before someone else inevitably posts it: there's a list of fourteen traits of a fascist government that has been going around the internet for a while, written by a man named Lawrence Britt. Britt is often cited as Dr. Lawrence Britt (he's not a doctor) and a historian (although that's not his profession; he's actually a novelist and businessman), but the content of his fourteen traits has debatable levels of accuracy. Some people agree that they line up pretty neatly with modern scholarship; others say that there are some flaws. /r/AskHistorians has a better rundown of the topic than I can give here, and is worth a read.
Additionally, it's important to remember that not a lot of organizations openly describe themselves as 'fascist' anymore; since the whole ghastly business with Mussolini and Hitler went down in the forties, it's become somewhat of a loaded term that is usually used as a pejorative. However, it's equally important to note that the fact that you claim your organization isn't fascist -- or communist, or Neo-Nazi, or whatever-the-fuck -- doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't, because definitions aren't just things you get to apply to yourself. (See also: attempts by far right organizations to claim that the Nazis were in fact the real socialists, because it's right there in the name.) If there are questions about why the antifa movement targets people who don't obviously identify as 'fascist', they mostly come down to an issue of political branding.
So where does antifa fit into all this?
The antifa movement in the United States took its lead from Antifaschistische Aktion in the twenties and thirties, based on the principle that use of violence in counter-protest is a justifiable response to violence perpetrated in the name of fascist, racist or homophobic agendas. This idea of 'direct action' -- an individual using their own power to effect change, as opposed to the indirect action of appealing to politicians and others to bring about change for them -- extends not only to physical violence, but also to things like doxxing Neo-Nazis and a policy of 'no-platforming' (that is, encouraging organizations not to invite members of far-right and alt-right groups to speak at conferences, denying them the opportunity to spread their rhetoric.) In short: the right would paint their activities as 'domestic terrorism' -- more on that later -- but antifa organizers would almost certainly see it as more in line with the civil disobedience of things like the suffragette movement. It's not, however, a strict left-right divide, despite efforts to paint it as such; many Democrats have spoken out against the antifa movement's methods, calling for peaceful protest as a solution to their problems instead.
(It's relatively common to see the group as a whole called Antifa -- capital A -- but this can be a bit misleading; there's no hierarchy to the organization, merely different groups each of which may have their own internal structure. The actions of one group may have a lot in common with each other, but there's no superstructure.)
Portland is a weird sort of a place -- not for the reasons you're thinking -- because it's got a reputation as being an absolute liberal bastion but is located in a not-particularly-liberal state. Here's a map of the way Oregon counties voted in the 2016 Presidential election; there are no points for guessing where Portland is located. Somewhere between one in six and one in seven of Oregon's population lives in Portland proper, with more than half of Oregon's population living in the Portland metropolitan area.
When I say that most of Oregon is not-particularly-liberal, that's a bit of an understatement. Historically, Oregon has had some... let's say, issues concerning race. In 1844, before it became a state, it passed black exclusion laws that forbade any black residents -- free or slave -- from remaining in the territory without facing a whipping of between twenty and thirty-nine strokes, repeatable every six months. When admitted into the Union in 1859, it had a clause in its constitution that forbade any black residency, and that law stayed on the books until 1926.
There have been several recent issues with regards to right-wing activism in the region, most notably the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016, in which an armed group lead by Ammon Bundy stormed a government run wildlife reserve and illegally occupied it for five weeks in protest of what they viewed as government overreach. Ammon Bundy, it's worth pointing out, is the son of Cliven Bundy, who pulled the same shit in Nevada after refusing to pay grazing fees. (Side note, that has nothing to do with the main story but that amuses me greatly; part of the left's counter protest in response to the group requesting supplies from their supporters was to send them boxes of dildos, which is about as clear a way of saying 'Go fuck yourself' as any I've ever heard. That said, in all the ridiculousness of the story it's easy to remember that this was an armed response to the legal orders of the government, and that it ended when one of the occupiers was shot by police.)
So Oregon -- and specifically Portland -- is a popular choice for protests on both sides.
The Proud Boys
It wasn't really a surprise, then, when the Proud Boys picked Portland as the stage for their 'End Domestic Terrorism' rally. The choice of title is deliberately pretty contentious, given that the 'domestic terrorism' they're talking about ending is from antifa and other antifascist movements, which is... complicated, let's say. (Hold on tight; there'll be more on that later.) Either way, it was deliberately intended to provoke a reaction from Antifa. As the Guardian put it:
In promoting the rally on social media, [organizer and Proud Boys member Joe Biggs] has brandished a Trump-themed baseball bat, appeared in videos wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Training to Throw Communists Out of Helicopters” – a reference to the Chilean Pinochet regime’s methods for executing dissidents – and has taunted antifascists, saying “You’re not gonna feel safe when you go out in public” and “I’m gonna stomp your ass into the ground, Antifa”.
He later asked people to tone down their rhetoric regarding the rally, after he was visited by the FBI in connection with his posts.
They were founded by Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, who did his best to distance them from the 'white ethnostate' alt-right groups (although how far that goes depends on just how much credit you want to give them; there are certainly non-white members of the group, but they also have close ties to organizations that are objectively focused on white supremacy) before leaving in 2018. (It's worth noting that McInnes has said some straight-up racist shit in the past, so it's not like the Proud Boys' leadership is necessarily fighting the good fight on that one.)
For more on the rally in particular, the Proud Boys and whether Antifa really is worth calling a terrorist organization, click here.