As the director of the Portland-based racial justice and inclusive democracy organization Western States Center, it’s in Eric Ward’s job description to think about white nationalism and other threats to American democracy.
That’s been an especially heavy task over the last five years, and in the last week in particular. Last Wednesday, a violent pro-Trump mob breached the US Capitol as Congress was certifying the 2020 presidential election results. On Thursday, it was revealed that Oregon Rep. Mike Nearman had intentionally left the door open for a group of armed right-wing agitators at the Oregon Capitol in Salem last month.
In a recent interview with the Mercury, Ward, who is also a senior fellow at the hate group-tracking nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, remained optimistic about what Oregon leaders can do to combat alt-right violence—but also warned of a continued rise in white nationalism after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office next week.
Mercury: How are you holding up this week?
WARD: It’s been a really hard year, and I think folks want a new moment—and we’re still a little bit away from that. I think folks are exhausted, fearful, and angry. I’ve been experiencing all three from this last year.
Emotions are definitely running high this week—both with what happened in Washington, DC, and the news coming out of Salem, learning about Nearman’s actions. Nearman has already faced some consequences, but it feels like it’ll be hard to turn back from these violent right-wing rallies, and a lot of people are expecting more violent extremism in Salem and Portland in the near future. What are things that state leaders and community members can do to prevent that?
For state government, it is time to draw a clear moral barrier against political violence. That needs to be every state official, regardless of their political affiliation. Any elected official who doesn’t draw that moral barrier should be isolated, and they should be shunned. They should be penalized by their political parties in the state—similar to what we saw the Washington state Republican party do with state legislator Mike Shea, who was stripped of his budget, stripped of his staff. That resulted in him deciding not to run for public office again. We need to see that here in Oregon. [Editor’s note: While Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek has stripped Nearman of his committee memberships and called for him to resign, his fellow Republicans have yet to condemn him or take action against him.]
That’s the first piece. The second thing that needs to be done is that any elected official engaging in rhetoric that calls for the physical harm of any Oregonian should be removed from office. It is a serious time for our state… and it’s time for leadership who are serious about moving Oregon forward together, not manipulating Oregonians to further their political career.
We don’t get there until we start treating individuals who call for the physical harm of others like the individuals that they are. They are not part of the political community of Oregon.
The third piece is that there needs to be an immediate investigation by agencies of Oregon into the full impact of this far-right intrusion into the state house. We need to understand whether there was intentional support from elected officials [besides Nearman], and support from those who work for state agencies such as law enforcement—there is a lack of trust right now that our democratic institutions are functioning under the rule of law. We are a moment when government has to show that the rule of law exists for all of us, or it doesn’t exist for any of us.
What we saw at the state capitol in Oregon, and what we saw in DC, leads me to believe democracy is now under siege. Our elected officials need to step up and defend democracy.
"Political violence will not evaporate. It is likely to intensify after Trump leaves office."
That all makes sense as a long-term project. But Inauguration Day is coming up soon, and there’s reason to believe that will be an opportunity for more right-wing violence, here in Salem and Portland and in DC. What can communities do in that timeframe to prevent violence, beyond relying on law enforcement? And what do you think we should be expecting?
What we can expect is what we’ve seen in Oregon the last five years. We’ve seen a far-right mobilization that has been very clear they are willing to do political violence in order to achieve their ends. We’ve seen that nationally.
We should accept that we will continue to see violence escalate as we near the inauguration date. What communities can do ahead of time is that public officials and civic leaders need to speak in a single voice about what is acceptable behavior in their communities. That is newspaper editorials, business leaders, faith leaders, and elected officials, and people need to be unequivocal.
The second is to help people remember that we have more in common in our values than our ideologies allow us to remember.... It’s time to begin focusing on the core issues we are facing in Oregon. Oregon’s in a very tenuous position in terms of our economy, environment, and our future. This attempt to distract us from solving those issues has to be confronted.
What we need right now is for elected officials at the state level to come together and move forward a legislative agenda that shows every person in Oregon...that they are serious about responding to the crisis we are all experiencing right now. If elected officials will unify, I suspect all of us will begin aligning around trying to find creative solutions. We’re lacking a spirit of imagination amongst political officials right now.
Donald Trump’s term ends next week. What will happen to the movements that he’s galvanized—whether that’s the Proud Boys, or Q-Anon, or other groups—once he’s out of office?
Political violence will not evaporate. It is likely to intensify after Trump leaves office.
Right now we have the social movement called white nationalism, and its alt-right coalition, that has placed its bets on the idea of Donald Trump as an authoritarian leader in the United States. That intention appears to not have been successful. It will leave the movement in some ways rudderless, and in those moments is when you will begin to see the more significant acts of violence—in terms of physical violence and political rhetoric.
We should expect we will see increased violence after Inauguration Day, but what we have power over is the longevity of that political violence. We decide how long that political violence lasts in our state and in our nation. It’s why we have to get serious about solving the real problems Oregonians are facing.
Our problem is not the white nationalist alt-right movement in Oregon. Our problem is our inability to align our institutions to take that movement, and the underlying conditions it tried to recruit from, seriously. We need business leaders and elected officials to step up in this moment.
"We have now watched the situation that occurred in DC, that began here in the West. For five years, the paramilitary movement has used the streets of America to prepare for the assault on our Capitol."
If you look at US history, there have been spikes in public white nationalist visibility and violence. It tends to come in waves. Looking at previous iterations, what forced white nationalism back into hiding and out of the mainstream?
Typically, before the Trump administration, white nationalist movements tended to rise when Democrats came into power. We can look at the rise of Neo-Nazism after the election of Jimmy Carter, we can see the rise of the militia movement after the election of Bill Clinton, and then the rise of the Tea Party in the wake of Barack Obama. We can expect the same as President-elect Biden takes office.
However, those reactions can be managed. The way we managed it is ensuring that law enforcement in this country does its job in a way that is equitable, and respects civil rights. It’s critically important that law enforcement not be seen as an ideological tool.
We also have to understand that white nationalists and the alt-right are building off of people’s alienation and sense of loss. It doesn’t matter whether that sense of loss is real or a perception—people respond the same. And it’s time for people who believe in democracy and an inclusive America to begin to compete for the base that the white nationalist movement recruits from. That means statewide engagement that takes on this urban-rural myth that drives much of the resentment across Oregon. It prevents us from aligning on issues that affect all of us.
The last piece, which is critically important, is that media and cultural institutions have to understand: There is no race war that is coming in America. What we are seeing is a backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement in the last 70 years. But the truth of the matter is that the Black civil rights movement has delivered more for white American than the white nationalist movement ever has, or ever will.
The movement for equity in Oregon is one that benefits everyone, regardless of their race, gender, or religion. We need elected officials to step up and help Oregonians understand that.
I want to go back to what you said about needing law enforcement to act, and be seen by the public, as apolitical. I doubt whether that’s achievable right now, with so many examples of police bias in the news and with left-wing protests movements calling for police abolition. Do you think it’ll be possible to restore public trust in police, and to make law enforcement more equitable?
I certainly hope that is possible, and all of us as Oregonians should truly hope it is. If law enforcement isn’t able to carry out the rule of law in an unbiased fashion, it shouldn’t exist. I think we are now at that question. We cannot afford to have law enforcement agencies that function with racial bias.
We have now watched the situation that occurred in DC, that began here in the West. For five years, the paramilitary movement has used the streets of America to prepare for the assault on our Capitol. We allowed that to happen under our watch, and it was allowed to happen because of biased policing that saw Black people and racial justice activists as a bigger threat than individuals who threatened people with their weapons…. It has impacted our entire nation, and a lot of that was allowed to happen because of unconscious bias.
Is there anything else you wanted to add?
All of us should understand that this country continues to move toward our highest ideals…. We should not be so quick to allow others to usurp hundreds of years of sacrifice and struggle.
We need to take this moment very seriously.