Lessons From 30 Years of Fighting the Right

ROP recently experienced a new round of harassment and threats to our building and staff, which we believe to be tied to right-wing elements that oppose our goal to build equitable and welcoming communities for all across rural Oregon. While, thankfully, that harassment has eased in recent weeks after a strong show of solidarity by our amazing supporters in Cottage Grove, we know that other members of the network across Oregon are still facing down threats and intimidation. Earlier this week, we sent a ROPnet on recent Proud Boy activities in Southern Lane County and shared Robert Leo Heilman’s essay about vandalism to his Douglas County home after he published a column criticizing the rhetoric of those who see COVID-19 restrictions as “tyranny.”

While moments like these can be frightening, we find it helpful to remember that this is not the first time that ROP and courageous human dignity groups across the state have confronted and won victories against hard-right, white supremacist, and/or fascist shows of force. In 2016, friends of ROP in Harney and Grant counties and allies across the state united to denounce militia groups’ attacks on our democratic institutions. In 2010, ROP worked with partners in John Day to organize “Not In Our Town” meetings that successfully deterred the Aryan Nation from setting up a training center in their community. Today, we’re diving even deeper into our archives to bring you three stories from the early years of ROP’s 30-year history of fighting the right. We hope these examples might inspire you, as they have us, to imagine new ways of taking up that fight in your life and your community.

Understanding the Past → Predicting the Future

In 1994, 22 years before armed militias took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge demanding the release of two members of the Hammond family who had been arrested for starting fires on federal land, ROP’s founder Marcy Westerling sent a copy of a newspaper ad for a “Citizen’s Rights Rally” in Harney County to Tarso Ramos, who worked at Western States Center at the time. The rally was to feature a speaker from the American Land Rights Association currying support for the Hammonds in their refusal to honor regulations protecting the refuge. Marcy wrote: “Tarso—500 people turned out in our largest county w/ only 7000 people in over 10,000 sq. miles. Militias are next. Take care.” In 2016, during the ramp-up to the Malheur occupation, many members of the Burns community were being harassed by militia members who had come to town to support the attack on federal authority. Though we take no pleasure in the fact that Marcy was right about the political conditions in Harney County being ripe for exploitation by militia groups, this episode illustrates how careful and sustained monitoring of far-right organizing can help prevent us from being blindsided and unable to meaningfully respond when such groups enact or threaten violence to silence our communities. 

Citizen's Rights Rally flyer with Marcy Westerling notes
Section of an August 10, 1994 newspaper ad for a “Citizen’s Rights Rally” in Harney County with ROP founder Marcy Westerling’s handwritten comment.
Pushing Back Against Weaponized Dishonesty

Social media has given a potent new tool to those who advance their political goals by driving wedges into communities through scapegoating our neighbors. But it’s important to remember that those tactics are much older than Twitter or Facebook, and that while a lie may make it halfway around the world before the truth can get its pants on, disinformation can still be countered. Fighting back against falsehoods and misrepresentations was a crucial part of ROP’s successful campaign against the homophobic ballot measures advanced by the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) in 1992 and 1994.

When the OCA sought to drum up support for these measures by stoking fears about queer “recruitment” and associating homosexuality with child molestation, the groups that would one day form ROP talked back, refusing to cede the narrative. The West Valley Human Rights Coalition, based in Sheridan, partnered with the Yamhill Coalition for Human Diversity to organize an event called “True Stories / False Lies,” in which courageous gay and lesbian residents of Polk and Yamhill counties shared their biographies with their neighbors. One participant, Ann Durley, told the local paper that people “need to know who we are, where we are and why we’re here” to counter the hateful caricatures the OCA was peddling. Coos County Citizens for Human Dignity sponsored a talk by Douglas Hamill, a local pediatrician and Catholic friar who presented scientific evidence disproving a link between child abuse and queerness, as well as historical context on how that myth was created.

Looking back on these campaigns from 2021, it is easy to see how many victories we have won regarding how gay and lesbian people are portrayed by the media and in political life. However, we can also see obvious analogies to contemporary attacks on the rights of trans people. Today, many on the right mischaracterize trans youth as a threat to others (a purported “danger” used to justify school bathroom bills) and trans adults and allies as a threat to kids who might be “led astray” into transitioning (the flawed “reasoning” behind bans on gender-affirming care for minors). Just as the OCA did in the 1990s, those who hope to roll back LGBTQIA+ liberation use the tactic of the moral panic: spread lies about queers hurting kids, then leverage the emotional response people have to kids being hurt to foment fear and hatred that can turn out voters to take away queer rights. But as this story from ROP’s archives shows us, organized rural communities can counter false lies with true stories, and remind those who might be vulnerable to fearmongering that queer people are not some scary bogeyman, but their own neighbors, colleagues, and friends.

gay & lesbian panel discussion flyer
Flyer for the “True Lives/False Stories” event held at the Polk County Fairgrounds on September 27, 1994
High School Students Fighting Fascism

Throughout 1996 and 1997, white supremacist groups in Salem were openly recruiting students at Sprague High School. Skinhead students then brought their ideology to school in the form of Nazi symbols worn over school clothes, racial slurs and white supremacist slogans shouted in the hallways, and antisemitic flyers targeting a teacher who lived nearby. ROP worked with students Pernita Duggal, Miriann Hernandez, Shellene Chambers, and Hannah Castanette to facilitate a series of planning and educational meetings which culminated in the adoption of a school accountability plan approved by both youth and community leaders. The students’ demands included training on the white supremacist movement for teachers and administrators, opportunities for students to participate in anti-racist workshops and projects during school hours, and the keeping of files on skinhead activity at Sprague and the school’s actions to address it. After getting buy-in for the plan, students turned their attention to raising awareness in the broader Salem community about the racist threats happening in their midst. Michele Lefkowith of the ROP human dignity group Clergy and Laity Concerned, now Community Alliance of Lane County, helped the students continue to document racist incidents, and the students worked with ROP to put on school events featuring the Growth & Prevention (GAP) anti-racist theater company and an exhibit on Anne Frank’s life.

Sprague High anti-racist meeting notes
Excerpt from an outline of the June 12, 1996 meeting at which Sprague High students in Salem presented their demands for administrative response to white supremacist activity at the school

Sadly, racist incidents are not an issue that has been overcome at Sprague High, or at many other schools across Oregon. In recent months, ROP staff have supported a student in Cottage Grove who was receiving hate on social media after painting a Black Lives Matter slogan on the school’s “spirit rock,” where kids are encouraged to express themselves and their vision for the school. The ROP’s support of students past and present in responding to racism and right-wing harassment is illustrative of the importance of organizing that crosses generational lines. Many ROP members, including our Executive Director Jess Campbell, have been involved in the network since their student days and have decades of experience building relationships and making change in Oregon communities. One way ROP seeks to facilitate intergenerational organizing is through our fellowship program, which brings together young people from across the state to strategize, connect, and grow together with experienced organizers. Learning from the past and honoring the victories of those who came before us can help inspire and prepare us to move forward into the future with a new generation of powerful and passionate leaders.

Lessons from the Archives

We hope you found some moments of inspiration in these stories of how the ROP network has resisted right-wing backlash and the harassment and violence that often accompany it over the past 30 years of organizing in Oregon. We also want to hear about what you’re seeing on the ground. Is anyone in your area being targeted by the right for harassment, surveillance, or threats? What do you do to help support the young organizers in your life and in your community? How can we push back against the false narratives and misinformation that we see all around us? We’d love to hear from you not only so we can strategize, but also so that we can fight back in the way history shows us is most powerful: together.

More generally, did this ROPnet spark your interest in drawing your own lessons from our 30 years of records reflecting the actions, strategies, and research of ROP and human dignity groups across Oregon? If so, we’d love to hear from you! Since November 2020, we have been developing an archival program to preserve and share stories like these with organizers, researchers, and the general public. If you are interested in learning more about the history of your human dignity group, your county, or your issue area, or if you would like to volunteer to assist with that work, we would love to hear from you! Email us at office@rop.org to connect!

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