By Brian Martel
In the wake of the massive fires which have engulfed the west coast, reactionaries in Oregon have begun forming armed patrols in search of looters and ‘antifa’ arsonists. The rumors of ‘antifa’ being behind the wildfires first began online, and were then popularized by reactionary, Trump-supporting ‘QAnon’ conspiracy theorists. These rumors began circulating only days after Portland celebrated their 100th consecutive night of combative protests since the May Uprisings.
Tribune of the People spoke with Alden Rainier, a wildland firefighter from Oregon, who described this year’s wildfire season and the reactionary rumors surrounding it.
Rainier, explaining the current shortage of firefighting labor across the west coast, said that they may have enough firefighters to contain one big fire, but not all of them. This shortage has led to an incredibly taxing season for these firefighters. “I worked 40 hours overtime in one week and I’m not even very busy,” he said. “People are exhausted.”
The hardest part of firefighting though, according to Rainier, is the human element. “People are losing their homes and people are being evacuated,” he said. He described the intense emotional toll of “not hearing from friends and not knowing if they’re alive or not.”
According to Rainier, wildland firefighting has always seen people as secondary to protecting private property. He says that in a typical briefing, wildland firefighters are given a list of priorities – the first being “protect firefighter and public safety” and second “protect timber capital.”
“The way I see it,” says Rainier, “if the first priority was to protect firefighters we wouldn’t fucking be there, so the first priority is timber capital.”
The prioritization of timber capital has meant an aggressive firefighting policy which has lead to a buildup of fuel for these massive fires. Additionally, as Rainier points out, “logging is the largest contributor to climate change in Oregon.” The timber industry that firefighters are hired to protect is also one of the biggest factors in the intensification of these fires.
According to Rainier, most of the fires in Oregon are caused by downed power lines, and the few cases of arson are not organized or connected to any political movement, nor are they unique to this year’s fire season. This is what his crew has been telling people who bring up the baseless accusations of ‘antifa’ arson, but the rumor continues to persist.
“The first I heard of it was Tuesday night after all the fires started,” Rainier said. “A lot of people were asking questions. One guy came up to us and said ‘I hope they catch these sons of bitches … it’s antifa you know.’”
Rainier brushed off this first encounter, but in the following days he had a series of similar interactions with bystanders, with others echoing the sentiment of “If you see those sons of bitches just shoot them.”
Rainier’s experience with these reactionary rumors came to a head when a black pickup truck pulled up to his worksite and a man stepped out to speak to the firefighters. He wore camouflage fatigues and body armor along with patches of the American flag and another reading, “We The People.” He was armed with a handgun and carried enough extra magazines for a prolonged firefight. The man had come to tell them that he and his group were searching for “antifa members” starting fires. When Rainier asked if they were part of any group the man said they were with the “Sheriff’s Office Fugitive Task Force.”
At the beginning of this month, a Federal Fugitive Task Force assassinated the hero Michael Reinoehl, sending a message to all reactionaries that extrajudicial killings of revolutionaries are now sanctioned by the state. It is with this in mind that the rumors of ‘antifa’ arson circulated. Fascists in the pacific northwest have declared an open season on ‘antifa,’ a label which they apply indiscriminately.
Rainier told Tribune that reactionaries would often talk to his crew to give them “tips” on these ‘antifa’ arsonists. Rumors and profiling by reactionaries included seeing a Prius with plates from Washington sate, seeing a green sedan “squirting gasoline from a spray bottle,” and seeing people throwing molotov cocktails out of car windows. “Its like they want antifa to come,” Rainier said.
While these rumors may seem ridiculous, they are actively creating a cover for fascist militias and assorted reactionaries to begin utilizing lethal force against anyone they choose. Rainier said that one person whom reactionaries had accused of arson was actually just trying to put out a fire. On another occasion, freelance reporters Gabriel Trumbly and his partner Jennifer Paulsen traveled from Portland to Paulsen’s childhood home of Molalla in Clackamas County where reactionaries began circulating pictures of their car online, calling them ‘antifa’ arsonists. This eventually led to a group of armed men hunting them through the streets.
Low level law enforcement has also shown support for these rumors. Two reactionaries from Portland filmed themselves on patrol for “antifa and looters” in rural Clackamas County. They spoke to one officer who told them “if you see something, you’re gonna report it right?” They also filmed Clackamas County sheriff Mark Nikolai who explicitly affirmed these rumors, saying “antifa motherfuckers are out causing hell,” and that the police “need the public’s help.”
Nikolai was seen in another video explaining to vigilantees how to arrest or kill ‘antifa’ while avoiding legal trouble. In the video, Nikolai can be heard saying “You throw a fucking knife in their hand if you shoot them that’s on you.”
Armed fascist militias like these are made up in part of rural Oregon residents who have chosen to stay in evacuation zones to protect their property, citing concerns of ‘antifa’ looters. Signs have been seen outside of homes throughout Oregon saying things like “looters + arsonists will be shot” and “We won’t call your family. Your body will never be found. Bang Bang!!” Fascist militias have also created several illegal roadblocks where they demand IDs from drivers at gunpoint hoping to find anyone who isn’t from the area.
“One group called Patriot Rescue has been trying to dig fire lines,” Rainier said, “but they are getting in the way of firefighters doing their job.” According to Rainier, Patriot Rescue was also seen handing out supplies while peddling the reactionary rumors of ‘antifa’ arson. This shows an attempt at winning over the most backward sections of the people to their reactionary politics through relief programs, a tactic frequently employed by organized fascists during times of crisis.
“The primary motivation for this is the need for fascists to find scapegoats,” Rainier says. Unwilling to condemn the failures of US imperialism, fascists always blame capitalist crisis on their enemies. In Germany and Italy, the economic devastation of the great depression was blamed on Communists, Jews, and others labeled ‘enemies’ by the fascist parties. This has been echoed in the US with fascists’ criminalization of immigrants and antifascists, which is increasingly being enabled and endorsed by the further reactionization of the state.
Rainier says that most people, including his coworkers, see these vigilantes as “nutjobs who are getting in the way.” Even several sheriff’s departments have made official statements against the ‘antifa arson’ conspiracies as a public relations move, understanding that endorsing it would remove any semblance of legitimacy the police are still clinging onto and alienate some of their dwindling supporters. These fascist militias still don’t have the broad support they need to present a tactical threat to the people, but with US imperialism spiraling deeper into crisis, fascists inevitably become more organized and bolder in their actions, with the ultimate goal of maintaining power for the ruling class.
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