[not] violence in response to very concrete issues,” says Heaney, the co-author, with Fabio Rojas, of “Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11.” “People are clashing now because they see the world in a different way ideologically – and they detest the beliefs that the others have about the world. We have two camps in our society that are not communicating civilly any more. This violence … is one manifestation of that decline in civility.”
Turning down the temperature
Progressive organizers say they are seeing several shifts in response to the stubborn street battles, as people try to turn the emotional temperature down. The Grannies may be the most colorful – if not the most quirky.
The blue-vested Portland Peace Team has seen applications skyrocket since the MAX train stabbings. Progressives in Berkeley have utilized a tactic of empathy tents at rallies, offering 10 minutes of nonjudgmental listening to help ease tensions. Organizers in Portland are being trained as “vibe-watchers” to look out for brewing trouble.
Native American groups, too, have urged peace to bring antifa and the self-described alt-right back from the brink of battle.
Part of the message is getting through. One antifa group, Rose City Antifa, said they would stay away from a July protest, choosing instead to do a fundraiser.
At the same time, mainstream organizers are struggling to persuade the antifa flank that violent tactics are counterproductive. Instead, antifa, who often hide their faces to avoid legal repercussions, have accused the Portland Peace Team of trying to unmask them.
For her part, Granny Denise Busch, she of the cherry hat, says she has been treated warmly by antifa protesters. In turn, she has engaged some of the hooded anarchists with pleas to not fight, some of which, she said, seems to have worked.
“We become idealized grannies to them, and they don’t want to disappoint us,” she says.
Or, as Portland resident Tom Hastings says, “It’s very, very hard to go making nasty, rotten claims about a granny.”
Long-time civil rights protesters, like the Grannies, say they are dismayed by the left fringe’s embrace of violence. While punching Nazis may be a popular internet meme, they argue, the answer to hatred cannot be more hate, and peace movements shouldn’t be in the business of hurting people.
“Movement leaders sort of agree to what is known as a diversity of tactics, but my question now is: Do you want diversity of tactics or do you want diversity of people?” says Mr. Hastings, a Portland State University professor and a veteran of Portland’s so-called nonviolent army. “If there’s a violent flank in a movement, your recruitment numbers go down, which correlates with a much lower chance of succeeding with your announced goal.
“Therefore, God bless the Grannies.”
Rocking chair rallies
The Raging Grannies were founded in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1987. A satirical temperance-style union, they cite “a history of trouble-raising when not listened to,” as Ms. de Shaw wrote on the group’s web page. “Even in our times, we grannies have raised a few mountains, caused a few floods.”
Requirements to be a Granny are: being at least 55, and a “willingness to make noise” tempered by “an open heart to learn something new.” “No singing ability” and “no color sense, obviously,” are required, writes de Shaw.
Since Trump’s election, the Portland Raging Grannies’ ranks have almost doubled, to 55. Their oldest member is well into her 80s. They employ a strategy exemplified by the Otpor (“resistance”) movement in Serbia, which helped undermine political and law enforcement support for strongman Slobodan Milosevic through humor, satire, and street theater.
They are also not beyond civil disobedience. Grannies have been arrested during events held by the North Carolina protest movement known as “Moral Mondays.” And a hero of the national group tied her rocking chair to a train track to protest a planned oil rig. She calmly knitted a sweater until police arrested her.
In 5-1/2 years of existence, the Portland Grannies have fine-tuned similar tactics, sometimes to great effect.
“They went to a military recruiting center, a place where I’d been doing candlelight vigils for a year, and they were very gung-ho,” says Hastings, the veteran anti-war organizer. “They put a whole bunch of rocking chairs in front of this recruitment center – a rocking chair blockade. When police came, they warned the Grannies. The Grannies took off but left their chairs, so the police had to load up the chairs. The picture in the paper: Police arrest grandma’s rocking chair.”
The Grannies “show people what it means to be an activist, and in that way it highlights something else that social movements do: They sort of provide therapy for disaffected people,” adds Purdue’s Ms. Einwohner, who studies the dynamics of protest and resistance.
Portland’s protest history
Portland has a long history of protest – 40,000 protested the decision by President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003; a decade earlier, President George H.W. Bush’s Secret Service nicknamed the city “Little Beirut” for its raucous anti-war protests.
“What’s happening in Portland is really just the latest chapter of an old story – sort of the frontier spirit where the margins are celebrated and where to be a registered Democrat is something of a stodgy, boring position to take,” says Randy Blazak, who studies hate movements at Portland State University. “There are probably more anarchists out admitting their political position than dyed-in-the-wool traditional Democrats. May Day is the biggest holiday in the city, much bigger than Christmas.”
The roots of the current conflict can be found in the skinhead wars of the 1980s and ’90s, when punks-turned-antifascist rumblers took on similarly attired neo-Nazi skinheads after the 1988 beating death of an Ethiopian college student by white supremacists. Then as now, antifa would look for tattoos or jewelry that suggested Nazi sympathies – and then attack – verbally or physically.
Alexander Reid Ross, author of “Against the Fascist Creep,” told Portland’s Willamette Weekly earlier this year that antifa – in his view, rightly – understands that “the alt-right has to be understood as a fascist movement.”
Their opponents include rally organizer Joey Gibson, who advocates for free speech rights for conservatives. While Mr. Gibson says he does not welcome white supremacists, some regular attendees admit that part of their mission is to defend themselves – and their cause – by “kicking some antifa [butt],” as Tiny Toese, a self-styled Samoan patriot who was arrested after a brawl in July, told followers on social media.
The stated aim of that Sunday’s “Patriot Prayer” rally was to accuse antifa of domestic terrorism by using tactics to hurt conservatives, including calling their bosses to inform them of their political activities. The focus on leftist agitators is part of a deeper political shift, as well. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice has disbanded a unit on right-wing extremism and is now monitoring Portland and other cities for evidence of “domestic terrorism” from the left.
“We’re seeing kind of the children of [the skinhead wars],” says veteran Portland organizer Jamie Partridge. “The Proud Boys are the street fighters who aren’t really that ideological, but they are mad as hell. They see in Donald Trump a beacon of hope for bringing back the America that they think once was, but that they’ve never known.”
‘Don’t hurt people to be peaceful’
There are growing concerns among organizers like Mr. Partridge that the self-described alt-right, despite its embrace of white nationalism and white supremacy, is having success in recruiting as a result of the attacks from antifa. The addition of Oath Keepers, a national group of retired law enforcement, as volunteer security has helped give the “Patriot Prayer” movement legitimacy in broader conservative circles.
“The thing about the left, we tend to be Chicken Littles: ‘Oh, this is Hitlerian,’” says Hastings. “We tend to default straight to the bottom of the slippery slope, so our credibility has been radically compromised. Yes, there are spooky parallels between what Trump is doing and what Hitler did. But antifa can’t operate with violence and expect it to produce anything other than a [backlash] in the general population.”
It also is having an impact on rally attendance. On that Sunday, noticeably fewer activists on both sides showed up for dueling rallies before the fighting began, only to quickly dissipate.
Fredric Alan Maxwell, a Portland writer and activist, stayed home from that event with his cat. At an earlier melee, he was left slumped and scratched up after a group of antifa swept past him. Afterward, he wrote that his attackers were “hiding their faces under bandannas as though robbing not speech but a stage….”
Such decisions by longtime peace activists to stay home, as much as the fighting itself, is driving the transformation of protest in the Trump era, including for the Raging Grannies.
In response, the Grannies have adjusted their clothing policy, replacing at times their traditional dresses and hats for black T-shirts for mourning and white T-shirts with sashes for observing rallies – and engaging with edgy young protesters.
“Our message right now is: Don’t hurt people to be peaceful,” says Granny Diana Richardson. “Instead, rally the troops by naming what is wrong. We have to realize we’re part of a huge community, which is the whole world