PopMob, Antifa & ‘Sprayboy’
A deeper dive into Portland’s leading antifascist group, a major 2019 demonstration, and related questions and controversies
PopMob organizers say opposing fascism can be fun as well as serious.
“One way that PopMob has influenced my life is seeing the joy in resistance,” said Elizabeth, a member of this leading antifascist organization here in Portland, who declined to give a last name. (The name PopMob is short for “Popular Mobilization.”)
“You can resist, and it can be fun. It can be joyous. You can resist and love. You can make friends doing this. It’s transformative.”
The approach was very much on display at the PopMob-organized action August 17, 2019. Extreme right-wing groups and much larger counterprotests led by antifa and PopMob have faced off in Portland at least eight times since June 2017. The results have included street violence, arrests, national media attention and millions spent.
But many Americans have been alienated by what antifascist organizers refer to as “the creep”—plutocracy and venom from the Oval Office, exemplified by President Donald Trump’s misogyny, racism, xenophobia and aspiring autocracy. Interviews in late 2019 with Pop Mob organizers and protesters suggest this movement’s lighter approach offers antifascist activists its best chance to win new adherents. And one August 17 assault in particular shows why such rallies will continue to make headlines, and how deeply committed many antifascist protesters are.
“I want to be somebody you want to dance with against Nazis,” says Elizabeth. “Who doesn’t love a party against Nazis? I mean, I guess , Nazis.”
PopMob’s walking a tightrope of sorts: it’s centralizing a different approach from “black bloc,” while simultaneously declining to distance itself from the masked, black-clad activists that it views as a kind of security force. It uses hilarity to interrupt what a spokesperson called right wing extremists’ “toxic masculinity riot porn.”
PopMob spokesperson Effie Baum says outnumbering hate group participants is a main goal. It’s working: 1,000 counter-protesters attended the August 17 action, as opposed to 300 Proud Boys and allies at the “End Domestic Terrorism” rally, according to police.
Based in interviews with two organizers, a dozen participants at its August action and a review of social media, PopMob seems built on three pillars: opposing fascism, supporting the LGBTQ community (and other vulnerable or targeted groups) and creative hilarity.
“We basically see ourselves as trying to be a bridge between the community defense-oriented organizations and the more liberal moderate organizations, as a way to build that coalition as broad as possible,” Baum says. “Our entire goal is just to get as many people involved as possible.”
A Portland mayoral candidate, Sarah Iannarone, got involved in August, via a tampon box jenga fundraiser at the August action.
While social and traditional media is a focus — Baum spent three weeks doing media work (on top of a full-time job) after “milkshakegate” — PopMob is also a response to real-life violence. The FBI’s most recent annual hate crime report has documented rising violent attacks on the LGBTQ community, especially transgender individuals.
PopMob is closely connected to Portland’s LGBTQ community, and will mobilize to protect it, Baum said.
“The majority of the people in PopMob are queer and/or trans,” Baum said. “It’s not about us working with the LGBTQ community—we are the LGBTQ community.”
The one time PopMob organized an event not in physical proximity to far right groups, Baum says, was a “safety conference” called “Our Streets,” which responded to a rash of gay bashings in Portland in February 2019.
“Some of the far right in Portland were going around beating up queer people,” Baum recalls. “They attacked a trans woman with a baseball bat and left her bleeding in the snow. Somebody found her unconscious and called the police and paramedics, and the police dismissed it and said that she just got drunk and fell and hit her head. Which is completely false because she remembered being attacked by multiple assailants with baseball bats. And there were two far right folks that went online and basically took credit for that attack.”
Other LGBTQ individuals were attacked, Baum said, and PopMob took action, holding self-defense workshops and handing out safety supplies in a local art institute’s warehouse space.
But that action was a telling exception; the group’s bread and butter are its counter protests, which it views as standing up to an all-out assault from right wing extremists backed by “state repression.” For Elizabeth, “just showing up is a success.”
Who and what is PopMob, exactly? It’s a collective with no official leaders, protected by some anonymity.
Baum, the spokesperson, works in health care full time and is transgender. Elizabeth is an academic professional and calls herself a “queer, slutty single mom.” Elizabeth does volunteer work in harm reduction and sees her activism as defending not just herself and her transgender child, but others she sees being targeted, including drug addicts and houseless people.
Elizabeth says she was radicalized at the WTO Seattle protests in 1999 — which Baum also participated in.
“That was my very first action when I was a baby leftist,” Baum said. Elizabeth said she’s been involved in “all sorts of anti-state repression movements” including WTO, labor, and queer organizing.
PopMob was founded in summer 2018, but Baum traces PopMob’s roots to the “huge” neo-Nazi scene in Portland in the ’80s and ’90s and the high-profile murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw, which brought a federal court case involving the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a judgment against White Aryan Resistance that led to prison time and fines.
That case “kind of catapulted a lot of the action and a lot of the organizing and coalition-building,” Baum recalls. “One of the organizations, which was the Coalition for Human Dignity, later went on to become Rose City Antifa, and was associated with anti-racist actions. The people that are doing the organizing now are literally from the same lineage of the folks that were doing the organizing in the ’80s and ’90s. In fact, one of our organizers is the son of one of the organizers from those organizations.”
Baum said antifa groups like Rose City Antifa, which some have called the nation’s oldest active antifa group, have ratcheted up actions to stand up to extreme right groups. In Portland, that includes Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer (Vancouver), the Hell-Shaking Street Preachers, Wolves of Vinland and Identity Evropa, among others.
“So when people say, ‘oh, why is antifa happening here now,’ it’s always been here, but it got steered underground,” Baum said. “[Antifa] did a really good job of getting some of those neo-Nazi groups to stop being so public, but that doesn’t mean they left. They just went underground, and when Trump started beating those drums and empowering all of these awful far right racists and homophobes to feel like they can be safe with those viewpoints in public again, they crawled back out from under the rock where they’d been hiding.”
Have PopMob organizers ever been in Rose City Antifa?
“I don’t want to talk about whether I’ve bloc’ed up,” Elizabeth said. “I may or may not cover my face.”
Baum and Elizabeth say PopMob follows the St. Paul Principles, whose roots seem to lie in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Occupy movement, not the Christian saint. The idea means respecting a “diversity of tactics,” keeping disputes “internal to the movement,” maintaining a “separation of time or space” in actions and tactics, and opposing “state repression,” including not assisting law enforcement.
So the intent is peaceful protest, but despite the fun, music, dancing and costumes, PopMob is ruling nothing out.
“I’m not a pacifist,” says Sariah Zambrano, the head “Safety Banana” of the Unpresidented Marching Band, a feature of the August 17 demonstration. “I think it’s going to take every tactic,” Elizabeth says.
To antifa and PopMob, it seems, the idea of nonviolence is almost quaint. Asked about nonviolence, Baum says they “push back” against “that language.”
“It’s a way to say ‘oh, well this is the right way to protest, this is the wrong way to protest,’” Baum explains. “We really don’t want to play into any of the ‘good’ protester, ‘bad’ protester stuff.”
A Rose City Antifa member wearing a black scarf with red roses and surrounded by fellow black bloc August 17 said calling antifa terrorists is a “tactic by the state,” to distract from the real carnage committed by white supremacists.
“I can say assuredly that the purpose of antifa is not to create revolution, the purpose of antifa is to protect our communities from people who are trying to harm them,” said “E. Rose,” who declined to give a real name. “If that can be done nonviolently, then that’s of course ideal.”
Do you believe in nonviolence — or opposing fascism regardless of tactics?
“I’ve got a lot of thoughts on that, but I’d rather not answer it in an interview format,” E. Rose said. (Rose City Antifa, among the oldest antifa groups in the U.S., declined to let a reporter shadow its members August 17.)
Elizabeth and Baum say it’s black bloc — not police — that ensures safety at its protests.
“All of the PopMob events, Rose City Antifa has been alongside us,” Elizabeth says. “The reason that we can create that space is they are helping to protect us to create that space. We all don’t like fascists together. It’s a real easy alignment.”
Not all who were present August 17 agree with a “diversity of tactics.” One masked antifa supporter in the crowd, a Filipino Navy veteran, said he’s been hurt trying to stop violence from antifa — interrupting the interrupters.
He served with the U.S. Navy during the Gulf War, he says, and has Filipino immigrant parents. He came to the action “for solidarity,” because things are at the “boiling point” and because he’s “really upset about what’s been going on.”
Wearing sunglasses and a bandana over his face, the Navy veteran said he considers himself antifascist, but not antifa. He said he’s been to every protest, “interfered with” violence from antifa at times, and was hit in the head twice. “I put my arm up there and blocked them, like ‘you can’t do that, this is why we get a bad name,’” he said.
Nonetheless, he says he’s clear about what the real problem is in society right now: racism, xenophobia, President Trump’s hateful rhetoric, deporting veterans and denying people “a chance at life, a chance at opportunity.”
Not antifa. Not PopMob.
“We’re just basically here defending ourselves,” he said. “We’re here for a common cause.”
Sariah Zambrano, the “Safety Banana” leading the Unpresidented Marching Band with a megaphone, says hitting the streets is a crucial manifestation of the American First Amendment right to peaceful assembly.
“Silence equals death,” Zambrano says. “If you are not an active part of the solution, then you are consenting to the violence that these people bring, and you are a collaborator.”
The Unpresidented Marching Band or “Banana Bloc” keeps its focus on “fierce joy,” Zambrano says.
Last August, its influence was evident.
As the thump of helicopters overhead mixed with a sternwheeler’s shrill whistle and train horns, a large group of people began running through the crowd, for reasons unclear. They headed right towards Zambrano and her marching band, about 15 people dressed in yellow banana suits.
As the energy surged, Zambrano remained unruffled. Clad in pointy-top yellow fabric, she scanned the crowd from behind shades and a fake mustache, holding a flag and megaphone. Band members kept up their playing, some holding tiny folders of sheet music with one hand.
As the runners reached the area, the panicky energy crashed on the wails, honks and booms of saxophones, trombones and tubas. The flash mob, or whatever it was, evaporated as quickly as it appeared.
Zambrano quickly got back to business. “I’m sorry,” she added, turning away. “I love you, and I’m glad you’re here, but I have to do my job.”
Considering the thousands milling around, some holding weaponry, the event was remarkably peaceful.
There were a few who came to provoke, or lash out, however. There were scuffles, and assaults. One in particular seemed to epitomize the unwavering commitment of antifascist activists.
For much of the morning, the PPB and a dozen outside law enforcement agencies maintained a separation line, fortified by concrete. But they couldn’t keep the two sides — a few dozen on the right, maybe a thousand on the left — apart after the right-wing protest broke up.
Once the neofascists marched across a bridge that officials had closed and the police dividing line came down, stragglers from the right began mixing with antifascist counter protesters in a series of repeated interactions characterized by posturing, profanities, cameras, and occasional outbursts of violence.
In one instance this reporter witnessed, a scrum gathered around an apparent Proud Boys sympathizer in pink madras, who faced off with a couple masked, black bloc-clad individuals, surrounded by gawkers. A man held a cell phone speaker to a megaphone, blasting Pete Seeger’s distinctive banjo chunking.
Then a man in black T-shirt, black pants, goggles and a black Raleigh bicycle helmet sprayed the madras guy in the back of the neck, recalled Sarah Vhay. When she and her husband Dan tried to intercede, he sprayed them in the face.
CBS News captured the assault, and Sarah Vhay shared a photo of the man she later, almost endearingly, called “Sprayboy.”
After, the couple crouched in the grass, weeping and swearing, as a woman named Rose Long and a black-clad antifascist with gas mask, helmet, goggles, bright yellow smiley face suit rendered assistance with Crisco oil, milk, honey and baking soda.
“The canola oil’s good for the skin, but what you want to put in the eyes, this is a mixture of milk, honey and baking soda,” Long told Sarah Vhay as she flapped her arms in pain.
“That makes sense,” Sarah Vhay said. “Thank you, oil lady.”
“That’s actually agave, I didn’t have any honey at home,” Long admitted, smiling. “It’s Portland honey,” Vhay responded, tears mixing with laughter.
I captured the aftermath in a short video, below.
A hundred feet away, on the other side of a small building, a “rapid response team” of bicycle cops stood under a grove of trees, apparently unaware of the assault. The Portland Police Bureau reported 13 arrests at the event, mostly for stuff like disorderly conduct or assault, and confiscated knives, shields and bear spray.
Sarah Vhay says that after the spraying, she and her husband tried to report the assault to police, but Portland police were “dismissive,” refusing to get out of their cars. Then the pair did something she admitted was “dumb” — they followed the assailant, “Sprayboy,” and another man, taking photos.
“I was pretty pissed, and I thought, if the police aren’t going to do anything, I’m going to follow them — because I’m an idiot,” Sarah Vhay said a few days after the event. “Spray boy pulled out his aluminum baseball bat and threatened to bash my head in.”
“I just kept telling him he shouldn’t spray people with pepper spray. Like a mom: ‘you were naughty.’
“My son’s like, ‘you’re insane.’”
Sarah Vhay’s opposition to fascism never flagged, even amidst intense pain.
“I stand with [antifa],” she said as she wiped weeping eyes, her voice quavering. “I’ll take pepper spray for them. That’s brave work.”
Vhay’s story reflects the chaos that has come to characterize at least eight dueling protest events in Portland since 2017. All resulted in violence and arrests, and many were covered in the national media.
On August 17, the chemistry between costumed “everyday antifascists,” battle-gear-and-business black bloc and a few random Proud Boys supporters proved combustible, but not explosive. At times, within scrums that formed, there was a brief, surreal intimacy of tactics between the two politically polarized sides, a dynamic akin to a danse macabre, or “dance to the death.”
One right-wing woman stood on a corner at the center of a hundred people yelling profanities at her. She changed her pose every few seconds, chin in the air, eyebrows raised, perhaps imagining herself a model on a hostile runway. It was mesmerizing. It was dangerous. It was amplified by cameras and social media accounts.
Gregory McKelvey, a veteran leftist organizer who now manages Iannarone’s campaign for Portland Mayor, describes it as baiting.
“It’s always people on the right, like alt-right propagandists, or just alt-right protesters, [who] specifically go into a crowd of leftists and try and provoke,” McKelvey said as he and a reporter sought refuge from a high-decibel police loudspeaker. “I don’t necessarily think that they want to be punched, but they try to incite a reaction so that they can show that the left and antifa is violent.”
Randy Blazak, head of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes, who I interviewed in The Sun Magazine, believes antifa shares history and tactics with elements on the far right going back to the 1990s, when racist neo-Nazi skinheads and anti-racist Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice or “SHARPs” went toe-to-toe.
“There’s a direct line from the SHARPs to antifa, Blazak says. “People involved with antifa were part of the SHARP movement.”
Blazak says he’s antifascist to his core, but is concerned that antifa “may actually be helping the other side.”
“Even though it feels good to punch a Nazi in the nose, I don’t know if they’re winning hearts and minds by doing that.”
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of antifa organizing, one which includes a significant minority of those at rallies such as August 17, has been the propensity to “mask up.” The action is increasingly popular worldwide amongst activists, perhaps partly a response to sophisticated surveillance and facial recognition technology — currently the target of a possible ban by Portland city government.
PopMob encourages participants to wear masks, Baum says, as self-defense. Not necessarily black masks, “but like any mask, because it is really dangerous to be out there sometimes, because fascists like to take pictures and doxx people.”
“Wearing a mask serves a lot of different functions; the main reason we encourage people to wear masks is because the police love to use pepper spray.”
The masks and costumes are not the point, PopMob’s organizers say: The fascist “creep” is the problem, not people rising up to defend themselves.
“[Antifa] shouldn’t be a dirty word,” Baum said. “It should be controversial to be a fascist.”
“The whole idea that one group is advocating for the genocide of people that are literally being held in cages at the border and there was a Proud Boy talking about how he wanted to smash immigrants’ heads into the sidewalk — so you’ve got that group showing up with weapons, and wanting to instigate violence and hurt people, and then you have a group showing up with milkshakes? Last I checked, a milkshake never hurt anybody.”
Jeff Mandel and Jim Labbe bicycled to the August 17 demonstration early, with a certain jauntiness, chatting about politics and toting pastries and coffee. Mandel was clad in a red jacket with white tape spelling “Mutual Aid.”
He wore red-and-black shoes he made himself, because he’s a shoemaker with a workshop in Union Station, complete with modern technologies and medieval instruments.
Arriving in an office filled with tools like a huge, old-fashioned stock knife for cutting shoe lasts, Mandel took out the pastries, divided and arranged them inside his vintage suitcase, beneath a New Yorker cartoon. Mandel supports Portland’s Democratic Socialists of America, a frequent antifa organizational partner. (Portland DSA also declined to let a reporter shadow on Saturday.)
Bringing treats and dressing up as part of the “Red Scare” is how Mandel shows up for economic equity.
“This is the nature of what we’re doing — mutual aid,” Mandel said. “We’re supporting one another. It’s not about rugged individualism, which is really just a code word for vigilantism and mercenary military campaigns. Mutual aid is the very nature of socialism and communism.”
Mandel believes the hilarity and silliness helps “take the tensions down a notch.” But he also admitted antifa behavior can get “pretty dicey.”
“You want to see what a nice demonstration looks like? Let the women organize the women’s march.” Mandel was part of the 2017 Women’s March which brought 100,000 to the same park where Saturday’s event was held.
Many at the event said their participation was born from a belief in protest as democratic. For Kathleen Hannan, that reflects knowledge of America’s unequal history, and a desire to stand up to anti-democratic trends.
“My Irish grandfather fought off the Klu Klux Klan with a logging saw in Colorado a hundred years ago,” said Hannan, who sang in Yiddish at the “Love Conquers Hate” rally. Her family were considered “inside-out Negros,” she added. “We cannot be silent in this fight.”
Hannan said she moved to Portland partly for its politics, leaving Arizona “because of the heat and the hate.”
Zambrano similarly recalls the menace of white supremacy from a youth spent in Southwest Idaho — and she’s not going backwards, either. “I’m not a pacifist,” she said. “I take this very personally.”
Got feedback, a tip? Something isn’t right? Email thachmid [at] gmail.com.