When Portland State University student Alyssa Pagan woke up on Friday, April 8, she found that she had 500 updates on her phone. Ranging from death threats to racist, transphobic harassment, the messages she received through social media came directly from the “alt-right,” a marginal overlapping sector of men’s rights activism, libertarianism, and white nationalism.
The previous day, Pagan had helped organize a successful demonstration against a meeting of a campus group called Portland State Students for Trump. Led by self-proclaimed “moderate fascist,” Volodymyr Kolychev, members of Students for Trump had found a useful umbrella in the candidate’s politics to spread a range of neo-reactionary and alt-right ideas, as well as obvious racism, on the Portland campus.
Pagan and over 100 other protesters engaged in open debate with the 12 Trump supporters at the PSU student union that day. But the disruption also brought the wrath of the alt-right down on Pagan and her fellow student activists.
On social media, Trump supporters generated pseudonymous profiles, or “sock puppet” accounts, to anonymously spread transphobic and openly racist messages against Pagan and others. Various Twitter handles heaped racist, transphobic, and anti-Semitic abuse on the demonstrators — and in some cases, even threatened them with rape and death. Members of Students for Trump also participated in and encouraged the harassment and doxxing of the activists. On sites like 4Chan and 8Chan, Trump supporters publicly exposed their places of residence and business, deepening the harassment and threats of physical assault.
“Much of the online alt-right’s assessment about my lot in capitalist hierarchy is correct,” Pagan told ThinkProgress. “A person like me should be too timid and mired in shame to dare challenge such open chauvinism. Black, Latina, Trans, poor, survivor, etc.”
“But their read of my feminist praxis as fragile is way off,” she continued. “I don’t get triggered, I don’t yearn for safe space, and I don’t have anything to lose.”
Hate Goes Viral
What may have initially been an issue on the Portland campus quickly became went viral after the Students for Trump received praise from various conservative media outlets.
The right-wing libertarian conspiracy theory website Infowars decided to make the “free speech” of Students for Trump their cause célèbre. The site ran multiple segments around the campus confrontation, discussing Students for Trump as a mantle of first amendment rights against the “crazed communists” of the left — and even invited Kolychev on the show for an extended interview.
Kolychev and other Trump supporters also received support from Richard Patrick Burke, the Oregon Field Director of the Trump campaign, who offered tips on Facebook dealing with “disruptive protesters” and suggested they join the campaign. “We will need volunteers in the Trump campaign office next week,” he said. “Let me know if you want to help.”
Burke, who is the Executive Director of the libertarian Western Liberty Network, told ThinkProgress over email that he supports Trump, because he “offers regular people the rhetorical tools and sanction needed to break Politically Correct speech which is the engine driving progressivist thought.”
Online right-wing provacateurs like Laughing at Liberals also helped promote the Trump students, while Breitbart ran stories in anticipation of the next PSU Students for Trump meeting. Meanwhile, the Portland State University Student Union, a multi-racial left-wing campus organization, prepared for an anti-racist protest to coincide with the next Students for Trump public meeting.
On Saturday, April 16, two weeks after the initial demonstration, PSU’s Students for Trump assembled a larger rally, thanks in large part to the publicity the students had received from the alt-right media. But while there were a large number of people present, only a small number of them (between 15 and 20) were actual PSU students. The rest of the demonstrators were not PSU students at all, but had gotten wind of the demonstration from Infowars. Their numbers were increased further by Patriot movement members dressed in uniform.
Over the course of the rally, the Trump supporters repeatedly shoved, harassed, and provoked protesters. One man from Infowars uniformed in black stood with his arm extended in a fascist salute in the middle of downtown Portland’s Pioneer Square, while others told white protesters to admit that they were proud of their race. Infowars staff members were there to provoke counter-protesters, putting cameras in their faces in an attempt to inspire reactions.
After Infowars founder Alex Jones beamed in to broadcast a live concluding address, Trump supporters claimed that a passerby threw a bottle of water at them, and they pursued and cornered him. Two bystanders told us that they saw a group of about 10 Trump supporters seize the man and threw him to the ground, chanting “Citizens’ arrest!”
Jennifer Chan,* an organizer with the Portland Solidarity Network who was attending the counter-demonstration, told ThinkProgress that in an attempt to drown out the noise being made by protesters, one of the leaders of the Trump coalition yelled, “Does anyone have any bullets so we can make America great again on these steps?”
“The Trump rally was a scary experience for me. It was surreal to see a surprisingly large group of people (mostly white men) voicing support for such blatant bigotry,” she said. “Trump’s campaign has become a platform in the U.S. for bigotry, racism and sexism to be seen as legitimate. Trump rallies and events are being used as recruiting grounds for white supremacist and white nationalist groups.”
‘Moving To The Right On Race’
The fight on the Portland campus has since further devolved into hateful activity hiding behind the presence of college students and a political campaign.
After the initial series of events, online publications began to reveal older pictures and social media posts from Kolychev where he was more explicit about his “race realism,” a pseudoscientific attempt at creating a racial hierarchy based on genetic differences, where people of African descent are ascribed a lower IQ than whites.
As these revelations continued, the Students for Trump leader dropped much of the pretense, posting on Facebook that he was “moving to the right on race,” and that he felt “like I am now free to fash out as much as I want.”
With the Oregon primary now over — in which Trump won 70 percent of the Republican vote — the Portland State Students for Trump have moved to other contentious issues.
In the lead-up to a May 10th “walkout” event calling for campus security disarmament, pro-Trump students disseminated and posted flyers and bills around campus reading “Thug Lives Don’t Matter,” an obvious reference to the Black Lives Matter contingent involved in the Disarm PSU campaign. At the event itself, which brought out hundreds of students and supporters, a handful of pro-Trump students darted into the rally, disrupting a speech and holding up “Thug Lives Don’t Matter” signs and screaming over the speakers.
After the disruption, we asked Kolychev about his identification as a “moderate fascist,” which he laughed off as an oxymoron.
“It’s supposed to be a joke, I mean listen to the term ‘moderate fascist,’” he said.
But after telling us he could identify as a neo-reactionary, we asked if he saw a difference between fascism and neo-reaction. “No, personally I don’t see that much of a difference between authoritarian ideologies,” he said.
While he denied that members of Students for Trump encouraged or participated in doxxing or harassment, despite the evidence, Kolychev did admit to us that PSU had approved a no-contact order against him due to rape threats sent to campus organizers.
Kolychev and the PSU Students for Trump are clearly not backing away from furthering racial hatred on campus anytime soon. For their third official meeting on June 10, they are planning on building a replica wall, based on the wall Trump has said he would construct between Mexico and the United States. “Mexico and Black Lives Matter are going to need help paying for the wall so we’ll be holding a collection,” reads the inciting event description. “Bring your donations!”
As the general election approaches, Trump’s campaign will likely continue to serve as shelter for hate groups, including on PSU’s campus. But Pagan and her fellow organizers say they will con-tinue to fight against the bigotry, despite concerns for their safety.
“It is my intention that such high visibility and open agitation will help others like me to also break through the yoke of self-doubt,” Pagan told ThinkProgress, encouraging others to believe that they too can make a difference in fighting hate. “You are already good enough!”
*This activist’s name has been changed to protect her privacy after threats of harassment.An earlier version of this piece said that courts had approved a no-contact order against Kolychev due to rape threats sent to campus organizers. The no-contact order was actually from PSU.Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon.Alexander Reid Ross is an experienced researcher of the right and author of the forthcoming Against the Fascist Creep (AK Press).