This past Saturday, June 29th, protesters representing a group called Antifa congregated in downtown Portland. Antifa (“anti-fascist”) demonstrators gathered to show their opposition to a rival group called The Proud Boys, a rightwing group of sorts which describes itself as an association of “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” The Proud Boys were nowhere nearby, however, when certain Antifa activists set their ire upon an independent journalist and Portland resident Andy Ngo. Ngo was kicked, struck with fists and blunt objects, and drenched with milkshakes as he attempted to cover the demonstrations.
Bruised and cut, Ngo was eventually seen by paramedics, interviewed by police, and taken to the emergency room. Attending physicians determined Ngo suffered “brain-bleeding” due to impacts sustained to his skull. In the following days, outrage on the center-left and the right over the beating has boiled over, not only against Antifa, but also towards a local media and a political establishment in Portland accused of enabling this violence. Americans on the progressive left, meanwhile, have voiced concerns that this incident has been blown out of proportion, making Antifa violence seem like a larger problem than it is. Some even claim that Ngo himself is the villain in the story. What are the real lessons to be learned from the beating of Andy Ngo?
I happen to know Andy. Andy is an editor at Quillette, where I contribute occasionally as an author. He lives in Portland, where I have had dinner with him alongside mutual friends on a couple of occasions. He’s a quiet man, thoughtful and unassuming. The friend-group that we share is one full of talkers (myself included). While others talk, however, Andy focuses on listening. He is a fascinating person to observe in the act of observing.
This, of course, is the quality of a professional journalist, which Andy is. But Andy is a particular kind of journalist. Independent, skilled with the medium of video and photography, much of Andy’s work has focused on exposing the radicalism of leftist groups like Antifa, a movement that he and many others see as a swelling menace to peace, safety, and intellectual freedom on campuses and cities across America. Antifa has become particularly aggressive in the city of Portland, holding demonstrations that frequently turn to violence. Local law enforcement rarely intervenes, and the mayor pays little attention, according to Andy and others active in the city.) As soft-spoken as he is, I have seen Andy talk about this subject with seething intensity.
I have also heard him and others express concerns about personal safety and the exposure of their families. Indeed, Andy had been doxed—his and his family’s personal information has been revealed online—and attacked before by Antifa members, though never so brutally. But despite all this, Andy’s passion for covering this group’s activities on the front lines has remained unabated. It was clear to me, sitting with him in Portland when we last met, that there was a great personal risk for him in this. But these were risks Andy believed were worth taking.
I don’t know much about Portland’s politics, though it is one of my favorite cities. But it’s been interesting to observe, in the aftermath of the beating, the different lessons Americans are drawing from the event, and the ensuing coverage and commentary surrounding it. The question for those of us who are committed to cultivating a society in which understanding flourishes across political lines—and one in which political violence is diminished—is “what are the important kernels of truth in the different narratives? What is the new story these truths tell when taken together? How might we talk about them in a way that opens the door for understanding and social progress?”
Within a few days of the event, what was first a local incident became a national imbroglio. While Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler defended his handling of the incident, Texas Senator Ted Cruz leapt to accuse the mayor of politically-motivated negligence and corruption, calling on federal authorities to investigate. The Twitter duel between the Texas Senator and the Portland Mayor continued for several rounds.
Meanwhile, centrist outlets like Quillette and conservative outlets like Fox News decried the left-leaning media’s perceived apathy towards this particular attack, and the extremism of Antifa in general. An editorial at Quillette expressed the hope “that our fellow journalists might awaken from the delusion that Antifa is a well-intentioned band of anti-fascists with a few bad apples sullying the cause.” The article linked to a piece at The Post Millenial including a list of professional journalists who seemed to celebrate or justify Andy Ngo’s assault on Twitter, including figures from The Independent, NBC News Think, The Huffington Post, and Vox. Michael Knowles of the conservative Daily Wire took to the airwaves on Fox News to accuse the mainstream media of turning a blind eye to the event entirely, with some showing support for the attackers according to Knowles.
According to the right-leaning website Newsbusters, MSNBC, NBC, CBS and The New York Times had all given the story no coverage as of three days after it happened. In fact, it was conservative outlets like Fox News and Breitbart that jumped on the story first. But the New York Times has since printed an article about it, and CBS made passing reference to the attack on Ngo in a generic piece about violent protests in Portland. CNN covered the story fairly early, interviewing Andy Ngo live on air. CNN reporter Jake Tapper has since been vocally critical of the demonstrators—
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) June 29, 2019
This lends some credence to the view of left-leaning journalists and publications, such as Zack Beauchamp at Vox, who argue (as Beauchamp does in a thorough examination of the incident) that “in the dominant narrative, pushed by the conservative and mainstream media alike, the attack on Ngo is evidence of a serious left-wing violence problem in America.” Part of the problem with this narrative, in Beauchamp’s view, is that while the Antifa attack should indeed be condemned, it obscures the fact that there is a larger problem with right-wing populist violence in America that is itself under-recognized.
This is specifically true in Portland itself, according to Andy Campbell at The Huffington Post, who quickly followed the event with an against-the-grain piece entitled Far Right Extremists Wanted Blood in Portland’s Streets. Once Again, They Got It. In this writer’s telling, the violence against Andy Ngo was the exact result that right wing Proud Boys were hoping for by provoking counter-demonstrations in response to their own violent activities. “In an instant,” Campbell writes, “the underlying problem―that extremist gangs have for years been hosting bloody skirmishes in coastal cities like Portland, often with tacit support from local police―was lost amid a media circus of pearl-clutching and punditry.”
The point about the complicity of law enforcement in enabling right-wing violence in Portland is particularly noteworthy. Andy and others complain that Portland police, with direction from the mayor, have been made to pull back from enforcing the law against left-wing demonstrators because of political considerations. But evidence of a warm relationship between a lead organizer of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer (a group that sometimes overlaps with The Proud Boys) and the Portland Police have led left-wing activists and journalists who cover their activities to suspect local law enforcement of having sympathies that run the other way.
Several months ago, I found myself speaking at a conference on a panel alongside Christian Picciolini, with whom I struck up a friendship. Picciolini, famously, is a former Neo-Nazi who left a life of destruction in the white nationalist movement to dedicate himself to de-radicalizing his former brethren. In speaking to Christian about his work after the cameras had gone and the audience had disappeared, I could see in his eyes the earnest intensity of a man whose cause was just, and who felt as if he was pressing against the apathy of the world. “People don’t understand how serious the threat of white nationalism is.” It was the same look I saw in Andy Ngo’s eyes—the look of someone willing to put their body on the line to reveal the truth about a great evil the world around them largely seems content to ignore.
In Christian’s case, he can point to statistics that show that, in spite of our focus on Islamic terrorism in the United States, that most domestic terrorist activity (including murders) has come at the hands of white nationalists since 9/11. This supports his claim that white nationalism is the most pressing problem contributing to political violence in America. He can point to polls that indicate that as many as one-fifth of white Americans sympathize with the views of white nationalists.
Others, including Clare Lehmann, chief editor at Quillette, argue that while left-wing political violence is not as broad a phenomenon as its right-wing counterpart, it is more insidious because it is more implicitly tolerated by our major institutions. Not just Andy Ngo, but many others, are convinced that the reason Antifa has been able to spread and thrive in Portland is because of the Mayor’s political fears. Bret Weinstein, of Intellectual Dark Web fame and the professor at the center of the moral panic at Evergreen State College, has argued that the reason far left-radicals were able to storm his classroom, and later physically harass him on his own campus in response to good faith criticism he had made of the racial politics being practiced on campus, was the college administration’s tolerance (and fear) of the college’s own community of activists.
Indeed, both conservatives and progressive critics such as Weinstein have made similar observations about the undue influence of student and faculty activists on campuses and universities across America. They can point to Hollywood celebrities who seemed to cheer Antifa radicals as they rioted and burned in the city of Berkeley while protesting an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos, to politicians’ support of Black Lives Matter in spite of violent excesses in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson.
But on the other hand, those concerned about not merely the violence but the institutional influence of the Alt-Right can argue that white nationalist support may literally have tipped the balance that allowed Donald Trump to become President of the United States. And it was candidate Trump, some will insist, who pretended not to know who Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke was, who had campaign officials who courted the Alt-Right, and who equivocated when given the opportunity to condemn Neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville.
The challenge for those who would seek to build a bridge of understanding is to be able to recognize and speak to the reality of each of these concerns in the same breath. It is possible that both left-wing and right-wing political violence are problems in this country. It is possible that there are degrees to which our politicians and institutions are enabling of some of the elements that spawn their violent outcomes (whether wittingly or not.)
Is the important question which of these problems is worse? That is a reasonable question, to be certain. But it is not the important question.
Is the important question, which of these narratives is more accurate? That is closer to the question we should be asking. Yet it is also the question one asks if one is focused on winning an argument. It is not the real question we should be asking.
We must not seek to win arguments as a matter of first priority. We must instead seek to identify our common interests so as to solve our common problems. If we can agree that political violence must be opposed, regardless of the source, the question that must follow is how can Americans defeat political violence in America? The partisan context of this violence is not irrelevant. But the fundamental question here is not a partisan one, but an American one. It is this framing that may allow our tribal defenses to settle and our capacity for reason to show.
This frame of conversation requires us to humanize our fellow Americans whose focus may be different from our own, in terms of the political and social violence their experience leads them to be more prone to acknowledging. Yet to truly confront political violence in the United States, it may be necessary for us to extend our empathy beyond even our peaceful political opponents and unto the perpetrators of violence themselves, as hard as that may be to imagine. Still, it is what has allowed Christian Picciolini to be effective in turning young men away from white nationalist radicalism.
It is also might be what Andy Ngo believes will be necessary if we as a society are to ever fully turn away from the violence of which he became a victim. At the end of a recent appearance on Bret Weinstein’s podcast discussing his assault Weinstein stated, in spite of everything, that with respect to Antifa “the danger of the movement is different than the individuals that make it up.” To this Andy responded with a story about a message he received several years ago in response to a video he had uploaded, wherein he had been aggressively confronted by an Antifa protester. The person who sent Andy the message was someone who knew the protester. The protester was a young man from a broken home, with a history of mental illness and many terrible struggles. In Andy’s words: “It allowed me to see that there was a whole different person behind that mask…a story I would never have known.”
Antifa does not know Andy Ngo’s story. White Nationalists do not know the stories of the people they oppress enough to feel their humanity. We do not know each other’s stories as Americans. If we do not open the doorway towards understanding, we never will. If we never do, we will have missed the fundamental lesson in the beating of Andy Ngo.