Tag Archives: antifascism

1959: The Year Portland’s Antifascist Judge Took on the Police

Shoemaker, 1956

Raymond Duncan Shoemaker, (1894-1977) hardly fit common stereotypes of a political radical. Yet in 1959, this respected judge accused local police of attempting to run Portland, Oregon like a police state, igniting a public feud sixty years before Black Lives Matter dragged law enforcement accountability into the national conscience. It was no singular outburst, but instead represented one fair minded man’s long time effort to enact social justice from within the legal establishment.

Raised near Glasgow, Montana, Shoemaker never cut an imposing figure, with a slim build and standing only 5’6” tall. Still, he gravitated towards heavy industries, employed on local cattle ranches and the Great Northern Railroad in his youth before traveling to Colorado where he labored in the Durango gold mines. Already curious about different peoples and cultures, he spent time learning Spanish from his co-workers. By 1916, at age 22, Shoemaker returned to his home state and joined the 2nd Helena, Montana contingent of the National Guard shortly before their deployment into Mexico during what became known as the Punitive Expedition.

This came about following many decades of political coercion and military conquest, through which the United States reduced Mexico’s territory by about 50%. Unsurprisingly, economic and social turmoil became common during those years, culminating in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Various political factions and figures colored that conflict, but none more famous than the insurgent leader Pancho Villa.

Villa naturally considered the border an illegitimate boundary and didn’t restrict military operations below it. The US government also ignored borders when convenient, most notoriously with its invasion and occupation of Veracruz in 1914. Then in 1916, Villas’s troops raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, creating mass public outcry for vengeance. Subsequent National Guard mobilization eventually pulled young Ray Shoemaker far from home on a futile chase that drew US soldiers deep into hostile territory.

Shoemaker learned much from the experience. His Spanish fluency proved useful communicating with locals and only furthered a fascination to explore other cultures. He remained in military service through World War I, earning the rank of corporal. All these life experiences made him what people in those times called a Free Thinker.

This loose term encompassed many political stances later considered liberal, such as opposing racism, advocating for women’s rights, supporting organized labor, and deep religious skepticism. He avidly read leftist and anti-fascist literature, including the Little Blue Book series published by the socialist writer E. Haldeman-Julius. Shoemaker made extensive notes in English and Spanish between the margins of particular favorites, from The Lies of Religious Literature to The Ghastly Purpose of the Parables and Volney’s Ruins of Empires.

Shoemaker focused on veteran’s issues, joining the American Legion in 1919, the same year it was founded. However, his concern for comrades-in-arms didn’t equate a militaristic mentality. During the mid 1920s, he dashed off the lines:

How cruel are most of man’s emotions,

How mad are many of his ways,

But the cruelest of all his silly notions is war.

Shoemaker began studying law and was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1923. He married, had four sons and a daughter, then lived in California for a time before moving to Portland. All the while his political consciousness developed, in 1926 writing: 

The poverty of the masses in all ages has been the direct and logical result of their slavery = chattel slavery, feudal slavery, wage slavery. [G]iven economic freedom, all men and women can earn and enjoy a good, secure living.” 

In another comment that year, he was even more direct, stating: 

Man must improve with the times, and the relationship of men to property must change = or the majority must get off the earth, because no food will be allowed them.

While other Americans adopted more drastic left or right-wing politics as the Great Depression spread during the 1930s, Shoemaker remained optimistic social change could occur within existing systems. Then, once the US entered World War Two in 1941, his anti-war ethics were tested. Shoemaker viewed American imperialism skeptically but saw German and Japanese fascism as greater threats to humanity. All of his sons enlisted in the armed forces and, by now too old for combat duty himself, Shoemaker served overseas as a Chief Yeoman with the famed Navy construction battalion, the Seabees. 

After the war, Shoemaker took up practicing law once more and by 1951, became notable enough that when a circuit court position opened, Oregon’s governor appointed him. This awarded rare institutional power to a true believer from the old Free Thinker movement. Still, what difference could one judge make? Besides that, Portland’s police department was notorious for right-wing connections, after openly deputizing Klansmen in the 1920s to unofficial “Red Squads” who monitored domestic political activity. Even its first union president in 1942 was a longtime member of the German-American Bund, a Nazi party offshoot who marched with swastika banners and fought anti-fascists in the streets. 

Portland also held a reputation for organized crime activity in those years. FBI investigations and even a US Senate Committee probe five years later revealed corruption spreading deeply from the top down. Illegal gambling halls operated semi-openly, with payoffs to beat cops who looked the other way. Any reasonably savvy official in the criminal justice system understood this and Shoemaker was no fool. In 1952 he penned a frustrated editorial titled: “Judges Under Wraps” declaring: 

It seems absurd that a judge who holds his position because of his fairness, impartiality and integrity should thus be compelled to sit as a helpless referee, unable to express an opinion or judgment upon fallacious arguments, palpably false stories, or in any way to guide the investigation or help the jury to ascertain and determine the truth. 

If anything defined Shoemaker’s early years on the bench, it was great kindness. Local media reported about how on April 22, 1952, he relocated his entire court proceedings to the living room of a housebound woman and later that year showed mercy on a man whose truck operator’s permit was revoked because of epilepsy. Many times he threw out cases against minors possessing alcohol or situations involving expired licenses. Other judges took a harder line with offenders, from levying hefty fines and long sentences to requiring “greasers” shave their distinctive haircuts before appearing in court. When Shoemaker saw crimes as victimless, he typically reduced or waived financial penalties and prison time. 

For Judge Shoemaker, by then divorced, his personal life took a major turn on July 3, 1952 when he married again, this time to Frances Bertram Hine, a woman thirty-one years his junior. Preferring the name Billie, she came from an East coast family and worked as a Spanish teacher and swimming instructor. Their relationship was quite tender, and many intimate letters between them survived. A great purveyor of nicknames, she dubbed him “Fuzzy” and Shoemaker in turn addressed letters to her as querida, Spanish for dearie. Over the years, media accounts treated their bilingualism as a great novelty. On one occasion where the judge conducted a wedding in Spanish, Shoemaker seemed bemused at the sensation this caused, making an apology that his Arabic and Thai were terribly rusty.

Billie Shoemaker in 1957

Interestingly enough, Billie’s father, Henry Francis Hine, was a prominent clergyman from the Anglican church who delivered a public address in 1940 labeling atheism “the real Fifth Column” before claiming “The only reason our country is still free from enslavement is the church…” It presumably caused quite a shock discovering his new son-in-law was an atheist. Despite this glaring difference, the two men developed quite a warm friendship, attested throughout personal notes and family photographs.

Shoemaker in 1954

Over the next several years, Judge Shoemaker grew less wary of controversy. In September of 1956 he infuriated the Oregon Temperance League after returning alcohol to an underage married man, explaining to news outlets, “It is my opinion… that any man with a family and a job who is supporting his family, doesn’t come within the spirit of the law prohibiting minors under 21 from having liquor in their possession.”

That same month police officers raided an establishment connected with gambling in North Portland. The four arrested men were Black and given well known corruption in that industry, it wasn’t surprising initial evidence connected two white city officials, who denied involvement and were apparently not investigated further. This bust drew much sensational press coverage so it made quite a splash when Shoemaker released the men with only minor fines and even returned cash that police seized, but never connected with illegal activity. One irate local minister even delivered a sermon fiercely condemning the judge.

In Shoemaker’s next published letter, during September of 1957, he called white crowds protesting Black children attending an integrated school during the Little Rock Nine affair “beasts.” His anger came across so strongly that a reporter pressed him some days later, apparently seeking a more conciliatory spin. Shoemaker responded with a personal example, citing one recent case where an all white jury found two Black defendants innocent, despite the aggrieved party being a “good-looking, well-dressed white woman…” 

Also in 1957, Shoemaker revisited a favorite subject, advocating more understanding for young people, pointing out in an editorial: “I have heard many respectable adults brag a little about their own youthful exploits beyond the law” He urged less public funds be spent incarcerating minors and instead direct resources toward improving schools and better mental health treatment for “disturbed” individuals. By now, it was apparent the judge posed a regional political influence. Newspapers reported Shoemaker’s opinions on most any matter and even kept readers regularly informed about construction progress of a swimming pool at his house. 

More importantly, 1957 was the year of accountability for many prominent officials involved with organized crime, including the police chief, indicted for “incompetence, delinquency and malfeasance in office.” So Portland’s Free Thinking judge grew even bolder. In April of 1958 he wrote an article condemning fascism, as recent surveys indicated many Americans believed “some super-authority should decide what is best for the people. . . that freedom of the press should be abolished. . . . [and] that some people should be denied free speech.” He particularly warned against increasing police powers to search individuals and advocated a more communal mindset among youths “whose duty it is to preserve the freedom we can so easily lose.”

Shoemaker being sworn into office after reelection in 1958

An example of the policing powers Shoemaker feared soon arrived. Around late March of 1959, a radio personality named Alfred Alexander spied an intoxicated man prowling near his neighbors’ house. He confronted this individual who reacted belligerently. The encounter turned violent, with both men trading blows until the interloper revealed himself as Officer Wade Chatfield before placing Alexander under arrest for assault. The station deputy who booked Alexander reported Chatfield had been drinking, was off duty, and wearing plainclothes while apparently earning extra cash as a process server which explained his snooping.

Shoemaker summarily dismissed all charges against Alexander. The radio host then filed a lawsuit of false arrest, which also named Multnomah County Sheriff Francis Lambert. Unfortunately for Alexander, a less sympathetic judge deemed his complaint groundless and Chatfield received no further known consequences, though Lambert eventually forbade his deputies from “moonlighting.”

The police saw Shoemaker’s intervention against one of their own as a declaration of war. Sheriff Lambert certainly felt threatened, yet hesitated before taking action personally. Officer Chatfield’s drunken escapade made law enforcement look bad and further scrutiny might increase demands for civilian oversight. So Lambert waited until a better excuse came along. Street level cops, however, were far less cautious. They launched an unofficial strike against Judge Shoemaker beginning May 1st which almost immediately dropped his traffic offense caseload by 75%.

Then, after turning a blind eye or possibly encouraging their conduct for several weeks, Sheriff Lambert announced a formal police boycott on Shoemaker’s court on May 28, 1959, which he termed too “lenient,” declaring “all traffic and misdemeanor arrests” would be rerouted to Gresham. When questioned for specifics, Lambert claimed two of his officers were poorly treated when they visited Shoemaker to dispute his handling of a “motorist charged with reckless driving and resisting arrest.”

Shoemaker acknowledged the encounter and pointed out “it is the job of deputies to arrest a man, and not judge the case in court.” The judge sharply added he considered attempting “to discuss a case after it has been disposed of” to be “contempt of court.” He declared Lambert’s boycott unconstitutional, pointing out: “The law requires that the arrested person be taken to the closest and most convenient magistrate.”

Officers began making anonymous complaints about Shoemaker, echoing Lambert’s criticism and adding: “He makes a fool out of you in court and makes accusations against you so that it seems you’re the one on trial instead of the accused person.” Shoemaker fired back, stating: “A judge has a duty to stand between the public and some of these deputies who want to make a police state out of this country.” Amidst all this, one State Representative stepped forward in support, claiming Lambert’s actions “smacked of [an] attempt to intimidate the judge.” 

News reports claimed officers who supported this boycott were “in the majority.” Still, it’s unclear how Lambert expected a police mutiny would play out long term and his resolve quickly faltered. Within twenty-four hours, Lambert called off the boycott following a “peace parley” arranged by the local district attorney. It concluded in victory for Judge Shoemaker who denied any wrongdoing and made no promise to run his court more harshly. When questioned, Sheriff Lambert “declined comment on the settlement.”

Their feud ignited again in October 1960 after officers chased a man for speeding who became verbally abusive once pulled over. They towed his vehicle, which was apparently not typical. When Shoemaker heard the case, he bristled, interpreting this as petty abuse of authority and struck the impound fee off a $25 traffic fine (around $222 today). The cops argued, with predictable results from Shoemaker, so they next brought their complaint to Sheriff Lambert.

Lambert assailed Shoemaker publicly, this time threatening to file an affidavit of prejudice, adding that he wanted “to get along . . . . but it is apparent that the public interest is not being served.” Shoemaker responded, framing the incident as an unjust confiscation of private property, saying officers did not have “the right to tow the car just because the man gave them a little lip.” He wondered why Lambert lacked enough “grace” to simply discuss their disagreements before “issuing press releases” because“it is up to the courts to protect the rights of individuals and the sheriff is not going to tell me how to run my court.” Once more, Lambert backed down, earning the sensational newspaper headline: “Sheriff Drops Plans to Attack Judge Here.” In 1962 he chose against seeking election again.

Judge Shoemaker continued conducting court as he saw fit and in 1964 was reelected with a popular landslide. Then, life took an unusual twist. Around the mid-1960s, his wife Billie began an affair with Dr. Babette Ellsworth, a prominent university professor. In those days Ellsworth was known for regional geology and history expertise but later gained fame as a transgender pioneer. The two carried on a romantic relationship, eventually gaining Shoemaker’s knowledge and consent. By 1969 the judge retired and in 1971, Dr. Ellsworth moved into his and Billie’s home. 

Years later Ellsworth recounted how this dynamic unfolded: “Shoemaker took me into his office privately. He explained his wife loved me and as a wilful individual, would certainly leave him if forbidden to see me… He feared solitude and proposed a solution. I could reside in his house and we would all make the best of things.”

Over the next several years Dr. Ellsworth and Billie took care of the former judge as his health declined. It’s unclear how their relationship avoided scandal, as in times past, even Shoemaker family Thanksgiving plans made the papers. This shift was simply mentioned without comment, as seen in a 1973 article where Dr. Ellsworth and Billie were photographed grinning widely as they pedaled together down a country road. A reporter noted the pair “ride their old bicycles together on Sauvie Island most weekends.”

In 1974 all three took a road trip through Montana, stopping in Glasgow where local media honored Shoemaker’s return with some fanfare. He toured the town, pointing out changes in scenery and reminiscing about the old days. Then on April 30, 1977, Ray Shoemaker went for an afternoon walk around their neighborhood and immediately suffered a fatal heart attack upon returning home. One of the last Free Thinkers would never again infuriate Portland’s police department or dispense courtroom mercy to those in need. A man who told the newspapers upon retirement: “I’ve always felt a just judge has to have a kind and understanding heart.”

In retrospect, it’s worth examining how he got away with everything. After all, Shoemaker was a former Colorado miner whose fellow workers were machine-gunned by private militias and the US military some few hundred miles away during the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. He was a leftist who made powerful enemies among law enforcement during the “Red Scare” when many other careers were destroyed over hints of so-called “Un-American activities.” The answer draws largely from deep reservoirs of goodwill he spent decades cultivating and deep roots in respectable civic groups. 

Shoemaker was a devoted member of many fraternal organizations, particularly those with patriotic appeal, from various Masonic groups to the Elks and Eagles. He regularly performed community services, such as visiting high school classrooms to explain the criminal justice system and participating in free legal forums. Simply declaring police officers should operate by the same accountability standards as everyone else and running for election as a “sympathetic, just, [and] understanding” candidate won him great popularity.

Despite his wife’s lover, Dr. Ellsworth, being the subject of various FBI investigations from 1950 until at least 1978, a Freedom of Information Act request indicated no such file existed on Shoemaker. It’s difficult imagining no attempt occurred, given his high profile controversies. In the case of Ellsworth, agents extensively questioned her friends, colleagues and neighbors for information about potentially subversive political views. Though a notable academic figure, Dr. Ellsworth counted on few friends in high places, spoke with a thick French accent, and struck many people as odd, even if her transgender status remained unknown.

Dr. Ellsworth on the Oregon coast in the mid 60s

By contrast, the judge boasted numerous influential allies, besides serving as a longtime American Legion commander. If suspicious officials ever visited his Montavilla Post #163 to pose insinuating questions, they likely found an unreceptive, if not hostile audience. Shoemaker also avoided making systemic criticisms. Even many of his most incendiary comments were phrased in calculated ways. It’s important to recognize that as an American who came of age when consequences for unpopular political speech might be prison or worse, he recognized limits and carefully avoided crossing them.

This may seem like naked self interest…after all, Shoemaker lived a long life, surrounded by comfort in his later years and the companionship of an unorthodox love triangle. Yet at least for those who experienced justice in his court, this judge made a difference, one that still resonates whenever Portlanders stand up for police accountability and insist all citizens be treated equally under the law.

The Judge and Billie, 1954

All citations, references and quotes not from Ray Shoemaker’s personal papers or my own book Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth are from the The Portland Journal, The Oregonian and The Star newspapers.

The Portland Park Mass Shooting

Since 2004 I’ve written about gun politics and conducted defensive small arms training among threatened communities. This background provided much perspective on the escalation following Donald Trump’s election which energized domestic fascist movements and set loose waves of assaults against immigrants, minorities and others along the left political spectrum. Everyone knows how this newly respectable xenophobia amplified right wing violence. Mass shootings, vehicle attacks and death threats against groups organizing to protect themselves. 

Previously, most conservatives I encountered appreciated my efforts expanding gun culture outside it’s unfairly stereotyped niche of Republicans, rednecks and hillbillies. Now even mentioning that I do such work often draws comments that I should be killed. It’s a real shift. Over recent years protecting groups marching against state sanctioned terror, I’ve lost count of the times big trucks adorned with American flags and Trump banners revved their engines and raced toward pedestrians, only swerving away at the last minute. 

The many victims at Charlottesville, El Paso, Charleston, Pittsburgh and the Portland MAX attack, to name only a few, were less fortunate. I know others beaten by fascists or severely injured from crowd control munitions during anti-Trump or Black Lives Matter protests, but always returned home safe myself. Most people close to me also came away relatively unharmed. 

That grace period ended last weekend when a Portland man opened fire on activists peacefully demanding police accountability in a local park. He murdered a sixty year old disabled woman and wounded four others, several critically. One of the survivors is a dear friend of mine. She is likely only alive today because a nearby security volunteer shot back and disabled the man before his rampage continued.

Details are still emerging about this individual, but some things are clear. He was a fan of right wing figures and groups, from Alex Jones and Andy Ngo to the Proud Boys, plus idolized Kyle Rittenhouse, another armed man who went out looking to fight anti-fascists. His own longtime roommate has since spoken out, describing a trajectory of increased racism and misogyny that made her fearful, stating she believed the person who shot him “saved my life.”

Most who nurture imagined grievances, like the presidential election being stolen or Covid vaccines containing microchips, or that organized pedophiles are responsible for their woes, don’t engage in physical violence, yet still enable a toxic conspiracy culture. It took purely insidious motivation to convince someone that a sixty year old walking with a cane presented some threat requiring gunfire to solve.

I have much more to say about that, but at least there is one concrete thing we can do. The survivors here in Portland need financial assistance and if anyone can spare some dollars, I’ve verified that their GoFundMe account is active and going directly to help those affected. Thanks to everyone who can pitch in and help.

GSG MP-40 Review: Partisan Edition

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Several years ago German Sport Guns, most well known for producing .22 caliber incarnations of iconic firearms, released a 9mm semi-auto version of the MP-40, probably the most recognizable sub-machine gun from WWII. The first available cost around $650 and received terrible reviews. Probably worse than any I’ve seen before. Videos showed the bolt handle flying off, rear sight loose, a terrible trigger, magazines falling out, repeated failures to feed and more. I immediately put the thought of taking such a risk far from my mind. Three years passed and suddenly an ad showed up in my email. It was the prodigal GSG MP-40, only now priced at $477. I checked the internet and discovered new reviewers reported the gun performing quite well. It seemed GSG had gotten their act together. 

So I ordered one. When it showed up, the sheer weight felt impressive, yet improvements were definitely required. The charging handle was slender and secured by a weak spring inside the bolt but that proved easy to switch out with a thicker one and more robust spring combination. Likewise the trigger bar took only a few minutes to replace with an improved version. The rear sight seemed solid, with a flip up notch for longer range. It also came with several front sights which are easy to slip in place after removing the barrel nut. Original MP-40s used an under folding metal stock, available now as an extra for those who don’t mind the trouble of a tax stamp. I preferred a side folding SB Tactical brace which is much cheaper, avoids paperwork and aesthetically fits the style. 

C126F463-89A0-4BAC-8DD5-CBEE3B72D410I headed out to the woods for a range day, with an Evo Scorpion and PSA AKV as sub-gun comparisons. For my first test, I threw in a magazine of FMJ rounds, expecting it might need a break in period. Instead, each shot rattled off just fine, the trigger breaking crisply every time. I ran through three more magazines with zero problems. Surprised but pleased, I switched to a mag of Federal 115 gr. +P+ hollow points. Earlier reviews specified GSG MP-40s struggled chambering FMJ rounds and performed even worse with other varieties. Again, no issues. Next I tried the same experiment with Magtech flat-nosed 95 gr. JSP. They worked great also. 

Loading up again with FMJ, I made a serious attempt to make the gun malfunction. Some folks online claimed grasping the magazine at all while firing would cause jams while others suggested holding the extended magwell gently might not. I tried both ways, even gripping the magazine quite hard, yet nothing went awry. I shot it upside down, sideways, slow and rapid fire. The magazines are listed for 25 round capacity, while wartime originals held 32, but I squeezed in 28 several times. No matter what, the MP-40 cycled and went bang every time. All told, we burned through about 350 rounds without a single failure. Not the most exhaustive test, but for the subject of so many dismal experiences several years ago, quite an improvement.

BEB948A8-874F-429F-AEA0-B287CC2C52FAAccuracy was impressive. My partner and I fired casually at cans from about 40 yards and made hits easily. She appreciated how the long forward mass kept it steady in her hands.  I definitely agreed. If any contrast appeared between the other guns, it highlighted the advantage that heft ads for follow up shots. My Scorpion is a pure delight, but definitely bounces a bit from recoil. Same with the AKV, though less pronounced, as it has a solid steel fore grip. No such movement from the MP-40. It’s weight could grow annoying slung over your shoulder, but makes double taps feel like it’s tank mounted. 

One other interesting aspect are the magazines. The MP-40 came with a plastic loader which I immediately tossed aside, priding myself on always filling mags without such contrivances. Yet, these magazines defeated me. Their follower cants forward in such a way that it binds unless something narrow pushes it straight down between the feed lips, letting cartridges slide into place. I’m sure some other method could be found in a pinch, but the loader does make it easier. I’m unsure why earlier reviewers had trouble with magazines dropping out accidentally. Mine all locked solidly into place, though sometimes requiring an extra slap underneath when inserted on the closed bolt. They slid out easily with a touch of the release button.

Takedown is somewhat annoying. A screwdriver or stout fingernail removes a tiny c-clip allowing the retaining bolt to be hammered out with a punch or dowel. Odds are good that pesky clip will escape forever someday. Before that happens, I plan on replacing the retaining  bolt with one I can simply secure with a nut. To make it look more authentic and aid in field stripping, I cut the upper housing with an angle grinder. That makes it unnecessary to remove the charging handle, which is now spring-loaded solidly in place anyway. I’ve read others have chosen to weld it but for now, that seems like overkill. 

C7BC7DC0-A42C-42EE-9997-A912F31F0FC7The safety requires special mention. It’s a 360 degree spinning dial mounted under the receiver just behind the mag well. An arrow points forward for FIRE and crosswise for SAFE, assuming you have time to flip it upside down and check. I used red fingernail polish to highlight the F side and left it black for S which at least allows visual inspection from the side. Still, it’s a pretty questionable system. In times of urgent combat stress, unslinging the MP-40 and verifying its status seems dubious. I’d be curious to know what the WWII German manual of arms suggested regarding that. The best method could potentially be three main conditions. 

Option A requires remaining on SAFE while carried at low ready, a round chambered, and one hand below the receiver with support fingers resting on the dial. If enemy contact initiates, one click either way and you’re good to go. Option B would keep the safety on FIRE, with the chamber empty and bolt notched open. Under ordinary circumstances, the MP-40 could be slung that way, yet brought into action quickly by slapping the cocking lever home. Not very stealthy, but potentially less awkward than a haphazard spin of the roulette wheel searching for FIRE in an emergency. Option C is for storage or other low risk circumstances and simply leaves the gun on SAFE with its bold closed and chamber empty. 

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(above) Partisans with captured MP-40s

The final issue is political. It’s a cop out to simply buy a weapon so heavily tied to Nazism and think no explanations are in order. We live in a time of increasingly violent xenophobia where misguided individuals embrace trappings of fascism while dismissing any scrutiny as unwarranted. I appreciate firearms no matter their origin and have accumulated a variety for training and community defense, but recognize the need to differentiate my MP-40 from others keeping it as a totalitarian fetish. Therefore, I decided to customize the gun in tribute to WWII European partisans who fought bravely against high odds with captured weapons.

At first, painting the silhouette of a hydra on the MP-40 seemed appropriate, because German anti-insurgency medals from the period depicted a spear piercing this mythical multi-headed beast. Still, a rather obscure reference. It ultimately made more sense to use the well known Iron Front anti-Fascist arrows, broadcasting my affiliation loud and clear. To accompany this aesthetic, I wanted the gun to look as if it had seen action from Italy and Yugoslavia to the Warsaw Ghetto. That entailed painting the original shiny black finish matt grey and then hitting most of the edges with sandpaper for a well worn patina. I also painted the plastic grip, brace and side panels brown before giving them similar treatment.

In the end, more range time will be required before my MP-40s status can be settled. At the moment, it remains an interesting project, significant in the development of modern weaponry, yet more than just a display piece.

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Death Threats and Red Flags

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Above: this photo earned the author a death threat just ten minutes
after being
posted on a sub gun internet fan page.

”Extreme Risk Protection Orders” or “Red Flag Laws” present an interesting form of gun control, currently adopted by seventeen US states. These exist in various forms and allow temporary firearm confiscation, even if no laws were actually broken by the individual in question. They are typically granted by judicial decision at the request of family members, concerned friends or police officers and present one of the few gun control positions enjoying relatively broad support across the political spectrum.

In the two years since Oregon adopted a Red Flag Law, it’s most commonly involved domestic violence situations or suicide risk. For me, these social issues hit close. I’ve lost friends to suicide and also spent five years working in a women’s shelter. Any means for potentially making violent partners less deadly carries undeniable appeal. Still, I worry about the potential for abuse because laws are only as fair as those enforcing them. 

There’s plenty of reasons I feel trepidation. For example, one year ago a resident who was nearly nine months pregnant with an abusive ex-partner’s child, turned up covered in bruises after being beaten by him again. While she cried in the managers office, her ex raged on the sidewalk outside, screaming threats against her and my co-workers. Incredibly, he was still there when a cop showed up twenty-five minutes later. The responding officer then yelled at the woman for being too emotional and on his way out, actually gave her abuser a fist bump. The very next evening, her ex came back with a shotgun and was arrested attempting to break in. 

Given the notorious connection between police officers and domestic violence, this  camaraderie shouldn’t be shocking. It’s also worth observing the cop in question and the abuser were both White. The pregnant woman was Black. Of course, it goes deeper than personal anecdotes. There are countless other examples for why law enforcement has accountability problems, from Ferguson, Baltimore, Portland and everywhere in between.

During times where people distrust police, and Right wing terrorist sympathies originate from the president, it’s unsurprising marginalized communities are banding together around defense and mutual aid. Sometimes this involves training with arms.

Now, most sensational outrages by Fascist militants occur against relatively wide targets of opportunity, like the El Paso shooter who drove hundreds of miles to find a favorable location for slaughtering Mexican-Americans or the one who selected a particular Charleston church because of it’s Black congregation. As terrible as those events were, more dangerous are the less organized acts, a national pogrom occuring in plain sight yet receiving fewer headlines… the rising wave of violence against people of color, immigrants, Jewish and LGBTQ communities.

Against this background, the issue of Sgt. Shane Michael Kohfield presents many complications and deserves scrutiny. To sum up, Kohfield is a military veteran experiencing mental illness, substance abuse and PTSD who attended a 2018 Right wing rally in Portland. There, he claims anti-Fascist protesters assaulted him, yet without details of physical injury. Kohfield subsequently wrote a Texas politician demanding “Antifa” be condemned as a terrorist organization and declared if the government didn’t take action, he would orchestrate “genocide” against them. The FBI opened a file regarding this. Next he showed up outside the Mayor of Portland’s house while repeating his threats through a loudspeaker. This ostentatious display caused agents to temporarily confiscate his firearms using Oregon’s “extreme risk protection order.”

Kohfield’s case presents a unique political twist. Indeed, Kohfield’s own father testified he posed significant risk of committing murder.* Like many anti-Fascists, I’ve received my own share of death threats, so I’d be lying if the news such a person had been disarmed— no matter by who or how temporary, didn’t provide some satisfaction.   

4C64B5F1-F3D5-4FED-816D-44972AD14A4FThen this September, Kohfield appeared on the Lars Larson show, a Northwest conservative talk radio program. Their recorded exchange is well worth hearing. Kohfield sounded confused and nearly incoherent at first. Despite everything, I immediately felt badly for him. It should have been obvious this was someone who needed help, not a person in any condition to make public commentary. Instead, Larson vacillated between chiding him for muddled statements and then goading more extreme directions. Kohfield seemed reluctant to restate his earlier violent outbursts, perhaps feeling understandably ashamed, yet Larson prodded him into specifics.

Kohfield: First veterans join Antifa social media pages and groups, and get names of most active members and social media, along with getting the arrest records from rallies and write down all the names they see. The veterans will use background check programs to get all the home addresses of Antifa. Using the intelligence they have gathered, the veterans will take maps of the cities where Antifa are known to live there, grid overlays will be placed over the maps of the cities, the veterans will be broken down into squads, each squad will be assigned a grid and given names and addresses in their assigned grid square. There’s an ap called Route4me that can be downloaded on a phone with the GPS, it is an ap that allows delivery truck drivers to enter more than one address, unlimited addresses and ap plot turn by turn the best route to deliver the packages. The veterans would use Route4me to find the most expedient route to hunt down the most violent members of Antifa in their beds at night until every one was gone in every city in America, if need be, in a single well coordinated night. The losses for Antifa would be catastrophic

Larson: So you are planning to hunt down and kill members of Antifa?

Kohfield: No. No.

Larson: But that’s what you just described!

Kohfield then attempted to backpedal and equivocate his statement, both denying this plan endorsed violence but also declaring anti-Fascists deserved death if they became a lethal threat, something he clearly believed was reality, having earlier claimed “Antifa” chased “conservative” citizens around with knives while being protected by the police. Larson made no attempt to correct his fanciful imagination, but only pressed for more details.

Larson: What do you plan to do to them when you get to their home and they’re asleep in their beds?

Kohfield: According to the plan, it would be kill.

Larson let him ramble on for another 15 seconds and suddenly ended the interview, not before thanking Kohfield for his service. 

There’s a lot to be angry about here, and it’s more complicated than the fact an unstable man with military training openly contemplates slaughtering Americans in their beds. While Kohfield seems an obvious villain, Lars Larson more richly deserves that billing. It’s completely irresponsible allowing someone clearly in the midst of a mental health crisis to make murderous public statements that will follow them the rest of their lives. Larson blatantly exploited Kohfield’s disturbed state for radio sensation, without making any attempt to assist the man. Larson is someone with a widespread following who many on the Right take seriously. By not challenging  Kohfield’s toxic social delusions, he reinforced the fantasy that “Antifa” represents some sinister organization bent on killing others. 

But it’s only a relatively minor news story. One could imagine the national outrage if some progressive radio show let a Leftist militant describe plans for death squads around the country to assassinate sleeping bankers in their homes. Of course, in our consequence-free climate where the current president wantonly pardons war criminals, and the previous one authorized assassinating citizens without trial, perhaps Americans would accept that extrajudicial killings of anti-Fascists might be an extreme, but ultimately legitimate political stance.

This case also sets worrying precedent in firearms policy. Kohfield brought his threats to an escalated level by broadcasting them at the Portland mayor’s house, yet was convicted of no crime. The question for armed anti-Fascists becomes, at what point does this affect us? For some time there have been movements by powerful people in government toward declaring “Antifa” a terrorist group.  After taking action against a figure on the Right, state agencies may feel political pressure to next target anti-Fascists with  “extreme risk protection orders.”

Therefore, we must be very clear about what community defense means and make sure no excuse can be given for authorities disarming vulnerable populations during these fraught times. Everyone should agree:

It’s doesn’t mean assassinating people in bed at night.

 It’s doesn’t mean preemptively shooting anyone, no matter their political affiliation. 

It absolutely means firearms are for defending against immediate life dangers, not property.

It absolutely means keeping our friends and families safe through mutual aid, training for emergencies and with force as a clearly defined last resort. Guns have their place in the social justice toolbox, but only when all other means have been exhausted.

* Kohfield has disputed this aspect of the story and claims his father was misquoted in  media accounts.

 

The Trump Diaries: Confronting New American Fascism

“…in the age we live in, a well-displayed villany takes the place of all the finer qualities and the more infamous a man, the more people are disposed to credit him with intellectual force and moral worth.”

-Octave Mirbeau. The Garden of Evil, 1899.

“… you get beatings, burnings… They’re a package. And there may be even nastier things in that package. [His] supporters are more than a little seduced by [his] talk of making America great again.”

Octavia Butler. The Parable of the Talents, 1998.

 

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Lately, current events read almost verbatim from the pages of popular dystopian novels, with themes spanning Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984 immediately recognisable. Women’s reproductive freedoms rolled back, violent attacks against minorities increasing, gay rights on the defensive and President Trump’s doublespeak tweets mixing fact and fantasy across a media landscape where anything seems plausible. Mirbeau’s late nineteenth-century observation about the power of naked corruption brandished in full view seldom rang so true. Butler’s prophetic description of an apocalyptic demagogue hits even closer to home.

Yet among fictionalized worst case scenarios is one book most students of English literature are likely less familiar with. That is The Turner Diaries, published originally in 1978 by longtime racist activist William Pierce (aka Andrew Macdonald) and essentially a blueprint for the extermination necessary in creating a White Nationalist future. It’s not the only tome on xenophobic reading lists, with Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, enjoying high profile popularity (1) lately, but The Turner Diaries carries particular weight. This is because it inspired a murderous White power terrorist cell during the early 1980s and is generally connected with the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing. (2)  Not many authors have directed multiple readers toward such sensational militant actions.

While it may seem at present the chance of genocidal warfare is an exaggerated concern, amidst many reasons to oppose Donald Trump, his barely veiled support for White Supremacy tops the list. This began even before the 2016 election and was significant for why conventional wisdom suggested he could never become president. Promoting the bizarrely racist birther attack against Barack Obama was an early indication and it only solidified after Trump showed reluctance to disavow an endorsement from David Duke, the notorious former KKK leader.

In retrospect, this single act (or lack of one) stood out as a stark indicator of the changed world we now live in. Traditionally, most Americans have silently accepted the bureaucratic injustice of prison sentencing disparities and other ways institutional racism occurs, yet in modern times been repelled by overt bigotry, such as represented by the KKK. Still, Trump’s step over that line elicited merely a yawn among supporters and quickly faded, replaced by other scandals.

Trump clearly felt emboldened by the lack of consequence for this and other violations of the norm, like encouraging violence at his rallies, and as his unlikely technical win unfolded, a chilling wave swept across the country. In Portland I first heard about it from local friends of color who recounted strangers making racist comments in public as never before. One local Black woman, who sometimes wears scarves that people mistake for Islamic dress, told me she became fearful taking public transit after multiple people scolded her angrily to “go back home.” Most troubling was another Portland area Black woman beaten with a brick by men who shouted pro-Trump slogans during the assault.

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(Above) Unite the Right 2017

Rising violence against minorities is measurable nationally using crime statistics, even down to specific peaks following Trump’s mass rallies. Tragically, the Right wing body count is only growing. Nine killed by a White supremacist at a Black church in Charleston. Eleven murdered at a Pittsburgh synagogue by an anti-Jewish extremist. Even the New Zealand mosque shooter who massacred fifty Muslims cited Trump as inspiration. When asked by a journalist if growing White Nationalism was concerning, the president answered negatively, passing up another moment to distance himself from this toxic movement.

But no one should have been surprised. After one man murderously rammed his car into a packed crowd of of demonstrators protesting the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, an event organized by White Nationalists, Trump infamously declared both sides equally at fault. In telling priority, one of his first acts as president was defunding programs aimed at countering domestic terrorism, even one focused specifically on neo-Nazis.

There are many disturbing similarities between Trumpism and Pierce’s fictional ideology inspiring Americans toward race war. For instance, while the pages are full of hatred towards Leftists, traditional Conservatives and Libertarians are also marked for destruction. Just as those same elements within the Republican party found themselves sidelined by Trump’s bloc. Indeed, before 2016, most political observers believed he could never even become nominated because establishment forces opposed him as an extremist. Libertarians still experience difficulty accepting his authoritarian leanings and during the election, Democrats expected a landslide victory because Trump seemed to have as many enemies on the Right as the Left. What they missed, after eight years of a charismatic Black man serving as president, was deep xenophobia still buried throughout American society. Every drop untapped political fuel.

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(Above) Unite the Right 2017

While Republican policies of old at least paid tribute to limited governmental ideals or limits on centralized power, Trump simply doesn’t bother and his supporters remain unfazed… so long as big government aims its big guns at unpopular minorities. He has many times endorsed religious persecution against Muslims— a dramatic abuse of federal power, and enthusiastically supports state involvement in the economy, both by starting trade wars and then borrowing money to bail out businesses damaged by them.

Of course, Trump’s fiery campaign talk about breaking up banks and regulating Wall Street fell by the wayside long ago. Distractions range from his social media feuds to noisy focus on the southern border, where human rights abuses regularly unfold, dulling public outrage to the sight of corralled humans behind barbed wire in overcrowded camps.

Beyond that, Trump openly admires dictatorial leaders around the globe and has several times stated he would disregard unfavorable election results. Attempts to curb his blatant violations of executive power by other political branches have failed. In short, we are are tasting the emergence of New American Fascism:

– a strong government allied with corporate powers toward

furthering the agenda of an unaccountable figurehead at the

expense of marginalized communities-

While Pierce doesn’t use the term Fascism, it’s very clear his writing aspires toward an idealized version of Germany’s Third Reich. He drops occasional details noting the bravery of SS soldiers, coyly mentions Hitler as “the Great One” (3) and is murderously explicit about how all non-Whites should be wiped out. In the furtherance of this goal, one particular tactic bears current relevance. As The Turner Diaries concludes, Pierce’s race warriors brutally conquer southern California and enact strict segregation policies. They force away all surviving people of color in hopes they will overwhelm national resources, calling this tactic “demographic war.” (4) Anti-Fascists will be “trapped by their own propaganda line, which maintains that each one of these creatures is an ‘equal,’ with ‘human dignity’ and so forth, and must be treated accordingly.” (5)

This is essentially the same idea Trump has advocated by suggesting asylum seekers be diverted into so-called “sanctuary cities.” It’s unclear how this could be accomplished logistically, yet resonates among those who view non-White immigrants as ravening hordes of rapists, instead of simply workers and families seeking a better life. Just as Pierce hoped ‘demographic warfare’ would turn Whites against people of color, this proposal invites discord among urban dwellers, many who oppose iron fisted immigration policies, yet also don’t expect small numbers of localities to reasonably absorb so many newcomers alone.

It’s easy noting connections between The Turner Diaries and rising bigotry today, but much examination still gets important aspects wrong. For instance, a recent NPR segment declared the book is about “Jews and black people who disarm white Americans, take away their guns so that they can’t resist the government.” That’s actually the opposite of what happens. Pierce’s narrative describes how federal anti-gun legislation becomes enacted with the intention of disarming all civilians, but his White protagonists are the only ones who don’t comply. This makes it easy for them to eventually slaughter the ‘Jews and black people’ who trustingly followed the law.

At one point he writes: “…whenever we ran into Blacks near a filling station, we simply opened fire on them . . . It’s a damned good thing they have no firearms or we’d be in a hell of a jam now.” (6) Then later: “…good thing the civilian population was disarmed . . . years ago. If more Blacks had guns there’d be no way we could deal with them…” (7)

NPR bungles such basic elements just as most Democrats and Liberals continue misunderstanding the gravity of our current situation and confuse Trump with some rough incarnation of business-as-usual Conservatism. Fascism is a very different animal. It satisfies an increasingly violent thirst for change among Americans who feel shut out as the middle class disintegrates and mainstream parties falter at offering real solutions.

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Fascism can’t be successfully confronted by following traditional rule books, as should be obvious to those frustrated by the lack of legal consequences for Trump’s contemptible acts. This isn’t the old days where a president like Nixon could be brought down by intrepid reporters discovering some hidden crime that shocked the nation. Trump’s criminality take place in the open and crowds cheer him for it. Just as Fascism represents nontraditional alignments of Right wing power, robust and flexible Leftist politics are required to defeat it.

The Turner Diaries envisions a scenario where relatively small numbers of Fascists defeated enemies who lacked such flexibility. Trump’s administration grinds onward despite widespread unpopularity for the same reason. Timid response from the Democratic party are ineffective, only emboldening  Right wing reaction. Everyone who struggles against the New American Fascism must keep all options on the table and remain armed because White Nationalism goes hand in glove with genocide. The dangers have never been so real within most of our lifetimes.

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Note: I will be commercial fishing in the Gulf of Alaska for most of the summer and unlikely to post again for a while. Thanks to everyone who reads along and joins in!

 

1 Trump administration insider Steve Bannon positively reviewed it, for instance.

2 Timothy McVeigh read the book and even sold copies to others. His bombing attack bears similarities to an event described in the text but McVeigh never linked his personal anti-government sentiments with racist politics. A review of The Turner Diaries on one prominent White Nationalist website admits he was a “non-racialist” and the Leftist journal Race Traitor declared McVeigh “did not appear to be a white supremacist . . . He did not bomb a black church. He did not plant a white bomb.” John Garvey. “The Life and Death of Timothy McVeigh.” Race Traitor, Fall 2001. 7.

3 Andrew Mcdonald. The Turner Diaries. Barricade Books, NJ. 1996 (1978 original) 210.

4 Ibid. 155.

5 Ibid. 155-6.

6 Ibid. 145.

7 Ibid. 150.

Masculinity, State Torture and Gun Culture

Customization is an important part of being a gun owner. Discovering individual preferences that come into play through selecting different trigger weights, sights, hand grip and stock styles are major ways to become a more effective shooter. Making those adjustments yourself as much as possible creates familiarity that only helps the process. But it’s not just technical upgrades that are available. Some people prefer shiny stainless steel finishes and others classic gunmetal blue. Aftermarket options exist that can make the final product completely unrecognizable from its original state.

3CBDE02B-7005-4CB0-967C-D6D89A234AA2Still, it’s important to be sensible about your choices. I remember years ago reading an article by gun expert Massad Ayoob where he discussed ways juries become biased about armed defensive situations. He maintained the more aggressively a firearm was named or appeared played significant part in influencing verdicts. In other words, someone who defended themselves with a Masterpiece Arms Grim Reaper would come across as more sinister than the same person bearing an STI Lawman, even if all other circumstances were the same.

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Ayoob advised that anyone selecting a concealed carry weapon should always imagine how, worse case scenario, it might come across in court. For example, I once met a man who carried a Glock pistol he had engraved with an image of the mid ‘90s subculture comics character Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. The fellow laughed off my concern, but I remember declaring that should he ever actually used the pistol, it wouldn’t matter if a whole kindergarten was saved, he would still end up before a horrified jury trying to justify that name.

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Because gun culture is so embarrassingly hyper-masculine, it’s unsurprising many companies now offer customized versions of firearms catering to such unwise aesthetics. Massad Ayoob has written about his dim view of the comics vigilante Punisher skull that can be found emblazoned on many guns and several manufacturers make AR-15 lower receivers with not only death’s head graphics but even cast into actual skull shapes. As a design, the results are unavoidably tacky, but also point towards literal overkill. Firearms already look intimidating enough without excessive machismo making gun culture less accessible. 

Besides intimidating imagery, even worse are the political themes. One particular company, Spike’s Tactical, has become especially notorious on that front. Probably their best known offering is the AR-15 “Snowflake” lower receiver with fire control options ranging from:

“SAFE SPACE” (safe) 

“TRIGGERED” (semi-auto) 

“FULL LIBTURD” (fully automatic)

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Yet Spike’s most toxic product is the AR-15 “Waterboarding Instructor” receiver. This one lets operators select between:

“DRY,”

“WET” 

“DROWN ‘EM”

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In short, scoffing at serious war crimes. It’s simply shocking that a company who markets itself to law enforcement and the military would openly advocate state sanctioned torture, even disguised as a lame joke. Our grandparents generation executed Japanese officials after WWII for committing such atrocities. The permissive culture among modern day Right wingers merely sees an excuse to chuckle and make a few bucks.

However, Spike’s Tactical doesn’t limit their politics to just mocking sensitive liberals or applauding government sponsored terrorism. Just four months after the 2017 Unite the Right Rally, organized by White Nationalists in Charlottesville, where one of them murderously rammed a vehicle into massed counter-demonstrators, Spike’s issued a new ad campaign showing several men in tactical gear with AR-15 rifles facing down black masked figures. The copy read: “NOT TODAY ANTIFA,” with a list of multiple cities where anti-Fascist actions had occurred, including Charlottesville. In a press release, Spike’s described their graphic as simply reacting against Antifa, a so-called “violent group,” dodging the fact it clearly demonstrated solidarity with groups committing actual violence across America whose rising death tolls have required stringent anti-Fascist responses.

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Unfortunately these regressive trends are only growing among firearms manufacturers. Most recently Palmetto State Armory got into the game with their “Build the Wall” AR-15 receiver, marked:

“DETAIN,”

“DEPORT” 

“10 FEET HIGHER”

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This is particularly sickening given that President Trump’s wall building rhetoric has accompanied horrific abuses along the border region. In fact, at one recent rally, Trump simply laughed when one of his supporters advocated shooting immigrants on the Mexican frontier. We truly live in a culture beyond parody. How much longer until some marketer comes up with a special “Muslim Ban” or “Proud Pussy Grabber” themed firearm?

For the moment, it’s definitely an uphill battle, but Leftists need to tear gun culture back from the Right wing forces who have dominated it far too long. The human rights of self and community defense belongs to everyone, not only those burdened with fragile male egos and stunted political views. Let’s hope for a day when someone makes a Harriet Tubman rifle receiver. They can label its fire controls:

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Fascist Complexities: A Personal Encounter

B7803FA3-CB60-4CFB-AD79-774431D8DFDBFor a longtime Leftist, my familiarity with Fascism is more complex than most because I spent several years living in the basement pantry of a WWII era Nazi sympathizer and published a 2014 memoir (Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth) about our relationship. That individual was Dr. Babette Ellsworth, a well known Northwest intellectual and college professor. Originally American, she was taken from her birth family as an infant and raised in France among aristocrats that supported Germany. Decades later, I took daily care of her through regional lecture tours, international travels and many more bizarre adventures. It was a fascinating time that provided unusual insights into the world of Right wing subcultures now taking more violent form.B2CC0546-85A7-4DA8-B055-3EF572E88854

(above) Ross Eliot with Babette in 1999

This occurred during my early twenties as the late ‘90s anti-globalization movement unfolded and I took part with great enthusiasm. It was a bizarre contrast; morning meetings with anarchist groups to plan strategy, maybe being thrown out of a newspaper office in the afternoon while distributing anti-capitalist flyers, then serving Babette tea in the evening, surrounded by historical artifacts, including wartime medals her relatives won fighting alongside Axis troops.

It’s important to mention at this point, Babette was a trans-pioneer, active in the local LGTBQ community and who maintained close friendships with people of color and Jews plus any number of others generally considered antithetical to Nazi beliefs. She defined her values as influenced by Hitler, but only selectively. We often argued about politics, before viewing old mystery films together or playing marathon Scrabble games which she virtually always won.

Personal stakes felt much lower in Portland during that time. Several years before, racist gangs had been kicked out of town by anti-Fascist skinheads and punks through violent clashes at shows and in the streets. Subculture youths like myself floated dreamily along, enjoying a peace dividend hard won by our elders with fists and baseball bats. The idea of combating bigotry in a meaningful way through physical confrontations seemed naive. May Day marches and anti-globalization actions drew token Right wing counter-protesters, but few seriously worried any of them might ram a vehicle into our crowds. Everyone knew institutional racism and systemic injustices were the real problems, not scantily attended White power rallies or solitary madmen who assassinated abortion doctors. Big picture economic justice issues ruled the agenda, by comparison.

Because of that, Babette’s political inclinations felt like eccentric— even mildly charming character flaws. We could squabble over her adoration for the Chilean dictator Pinochet while cooking a lavish dinner together, before serving it to a group of her Hispanic students. While everyone ate, she might entertain us by lecturing about Latin American history in fluent Spanish. Frequently after such gatherings, I would lead guests downstairs for a tour of her extensive library where observant individuals might notice a first edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf or 1928 translation of Mussolini’s autobiography. When eyebrows raised at this I would sigh and explain: “Oh yes, Dr. Ellsworth is a bit of a Fascist.”B5148E82-F02C-41D0-B874-645AEF4D3D72

But reality shifted. In the age of Trump, America transitioned from a place where regressive bureaucratic policies like prison sentencing disparities and other aspects of structural racism flew under mainstream detection to one where emboldened White Nationalist candidates could openly run for office and receive thousands of votes. Where hordes march through the streets with torches while shouting anti-Jewish slogans in spectacles hearkening back to Kristallnacht. Where violent attacks on minorities are drastically increasing and domestic body counts stretching from the Charleston church shooting to Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Even the FBI acknowledges militant racist groups have strategically infiltrated the police and military.

Amidst all this, one iconic symbol of resistance became the image of Fascist leader Richard Spencer being slugged in the face during a television interview. Exuberant stuff…but punching Nazis? I used to chauffeur one to her medical appointments!

Babette came by her Fascism early, combined with Old World elitism from childhood. The wealthy family she grew up amidst came from generations of French landed gentry and their patriarch, Foulques de Lareinty-Tholozan, owned a grand chateau that dominated the southern Sigean region. They maintained close relations with the nearby Spanish upper crust and also many Russian nobles who escaped revolutionary purges following WWI. In fact, Babette remembered frequent visits from Prince Felix Yusupov, the man notorious for murdering Rasputin in 1916.

Particularly because of their Russian connections, Babette’s family were staunch anti-communists and this only hardened once the Spanish Civil War broke out. The Right wing dictator, General Franco, who eventually triumphed against anarchist and communist forces supporting the Republic, found backing from both aristocratic and church establishments. This dynamic repeated itself in France after their 1940 surrender to Germany and solidified when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Because young Babette absorbed first-hand atrocity stories from survivors of anti-communist conflict to the south and east, it’s not surprising she interpreted the Fascism her family promoted as necessary for saving Western Civilization. Of course, from a privileged social position, she understood little that motivated ordinary people to overthrow centuries of Czarist oppression or combat Franco’s murderous authoritarianism.

Babette was only sixteen by the time WWII ended in Europe and never backed up her Fascist ideals with a rifle, yet many relatives did exactly that. She fondly remembered one cousin, named Foulques Honore de Lareinty-Tholozan (after his father), a slender, fair-haired youth several years older who enlisted with a French division of the Waffen SS. Reports indicated he was last seen alive retreating among German soldiers in 1945 but counted as missing in action.465C4FDA-26F8-4533-B951-F1541F981F9D

(above) Babette riding behind her cousin Foulques in the 1930s

Most of the war geographically isolated Babette from its violence, but protections her family enjoyed quickly evaporated once Axis troops pulled back following the 1944 Normandy invasion. A local resistance group summoned the elder de Lareinty-Tholozan to explain himself, and, (presumably expecting the partizans could be bribed or reasoned with), he promptly appeared. They immediately sentenced him to death, but before the firing squad assembled, allowed him one final letter. He did so, addressing it to his old Russian friend, Prince Felix Yusupov.*

Fearing for their own lives, Babette fled with her adopted mother to Paris where they presented themselves on December 14, 1944 at the Swiss embassy and requested asylum. Even amidst the tragedy of a world war, it must have given officials bemusement seeing a posh French collaborator admitting her child was actually an American citizen and leveraging their status for protection. Still, the Swiss dutifully filed a report with the US State Department who investigated and verified Babette was indeed American, in Europe illegally, and a minor who rightfully belonged with her birth family near Yakima, Washington.**

Babette was sent back to the US, which she remembered as a terrifying solo journey into the land of the enemy. Customs screeners confiscated her portrait of Hitler, and it seemed a teenage French Fascist might find little sympathy among citizens so recently stirred into battle against Nazism. However, she soon realized the postwar world could be very receptive for anti-communists, and not very concerned about their activities pre-1945. Across Europe and Asia, former enemies were put back in power, from Greece to Germany and Vietnam to the Philippines. Most famously, under Operation Paperclip, the US imported hundreds of Nazi scientists and protected them from war crimes prosecution.

In this environment, by 1949 Babette felt bold enough to include pro-Hitler statements throughout college papers while studying at Portland University, and soon after, expressed such devotion to the Third Reich at a Portland radio station that the FBI was alerted and launched a probe. They eventually concluded her Fascist tendencies presented no threat, but several years later when Babette developed professional relationships with East German academic institutions, she was put under investigation as a potential communist. This surveillance stretched over decades, with the last unredacted entry in her extensive file dated from 1975.***

If anything valuable was learned from my relationship with Babette that can help activists opposing emergent Right wing power in our times, it is recognizing Fascism’s dynamic flexibility. All too frequently, Leftists view the ideology through obsolete prisms forged by decades of simplistic historical interpretation. Successful analysis must be sinewy and tough, not so brittle it splinters.

Here’s one example: A year or so ago, I marched with a column of anti-Fascists in downtown Portland during an action confronting Patriot Prayer, a Right wing group notorious for its association with a man who murdered two locals during a 2017 racist assault. We passed several people, apparently tourists, and they asked what was afoot, gesturing at the flags and banners up ahead. A comrade informed them we were opposing Nazis, at which point the visitors shivered in terror! Afterwards I called for a discussion about proper terminology, because if those tourists had ventured closer, expecting goose-stepping Aryans in Waffen SS regalia or White racist skinheads, they would have been confused by the largely suburban Patriot Prayer crowd which usually includes several people of color (including the founder) and no obvious swastikas on display. I recommended substituting Fascist in the future as a less sensational but more accurate description of them.

But Fascism is a slippery word, easily dismissed, then embraced or even used synonymously with other terms. After an original century-old use by Mussolini’s political party, the term drifted into a simple catch-all for any authoritarianism. Conversely, it’s most popular synonym, the word “Nazi” (thanks to Joseph Goebbels effective propaganda) became an almost admiring noun connoting ruthless efficiency and cold exactitude. Both are typically used when discussing members of the stereotypical Western status quo: White cisgender heterosexual men. Recognizing the limitations of such assumptions is an important first step in defeating Fascism.

Of course, that was a lesson I learned years ago from Babette. When my professor recounted initially seeing foreign troops marching through the countryside, she remembered not ethnic Germans, but East Indians. These were presumably some of many abandoned by Great Britain early in the war, or captured later, who resented being treated as cannon fodder by the brutal occupiers of their own country. Indeed, several thousand formed a Wehrmacht legion that was eventually absorbed into the SS. Patriot Prayer may not appear the way Fascists are popularly conceived, and indeed, our grandparents generation who triumphed over Nazism did not always fight people who looked like Nazis.

Babette operated as a high profile trans member of Northwest academia, but that should be no surprise, as Fascism maintains deep roots in queer communities. Many remember the pink triangle eventually worn on concentration camp uniforms, though in their early days, Nazis (particularly SA Brownshirts organized by the openly gay Ernst Roehm) were often derided for that association by homophobic anti-Fascists. Despite a close friendship with Hitler, Roehm finally fell victim to a 1934 purge, his sexuality vilified as partial excuse.

Fascism promotes itself as a meritocracy for the intelligent and strong, with charismatic leaders highly celebrated. Babette certainly embodied those qualities and built up a cult of personality over decades in Northwest academia. Always robust and passionate, even throughout old age, she loved flouting social conventions, and that formed a large part of how she endeared herself. My professor delighted in the subversiveness of having participated in the Catholic church while still male identified and then, following her 1994 sex reassignment surgery, as a women. In fact, I possess several smirking photographs of her in drag during the 1960s after attending Mass and later on, wearing a Benedictine nun’s habit.C6FA96C6-1549-45C3-A736-BC4F14652D8B

Yet her true mirth came through in the fact she was a complete Atheist privately and told me about such pranks as inserting pornographic pictures in Bibles and hymnals. Indeed, she once stole a pair of panties, forgotten at our house by my girlfriend, and later claimed she hid them in the pulpit at a church. Humorous antics like these made her politics more palatable, and not just to me. Years later, one longtime teaching colleague told me about a series of highly inappropriate jokes Babette told, before letting slip an admiring comment about Hitler. The other professor recounted laughing and then exclaiming cordially: “You’re not fooling anybody! We all know you’re an old Nazi!”

Because she presented a living connection to the Fascism of WWII, it’s unsurprising my professor maintained connections among far Right subcultures. I discovered she was longtime friends with Mark Weber, notorious for leadership in neo-Nazi groups since the 1970s and most well known as director of the Institute for Historical Review, an organization dedicated towards diminishing Nazi war guilt, particularly the Jewish Holocaust. It seemed astonishing that Babette, who possessed an encyclopedic memory and often lectured for hours on topics from astronomy to feminism or geology— in three fluent languages no less, could be taken in by, for example, poorly researched pamphlets declaring Anne Frank’s diary a fake.

In the right packaging Fascism can be seductive. It raises up leaders and asks the rest to simply follow. The exact opposite of what I’d always believed in. Despite my Leftist credentials, after years caring for Babette and mesmerized by her intoxicating life story, I felt ideologically worn down. A worldly individual who earned her Ph.D by age thirty-four from the University of Bordeaux, she dominated our conversations intellectually. Over time I wondered, was I perhaps a Fascist too?

When Mark Weber visited the area in 2000 and spoke with an Arab students group at Portland State University, Babette urged I attend and curious… I did. It was quite anticlimactic. The other youths brought up issues with him related to Israeli apartheid policies and their discourse took place as interchangeably as if Weber were one of many Leftists I’d heard lecture about Middle Eastern topics. The brief encounter left me less illuminated than ever.

Then on February 16, 2002, Babette passed away as sensationally as she lived, collapsing from a heart attack in front of forty students preparing for one of her renown local history tours. After calling my professor’s basement home for three years, this catastrophe made life extremely complicated. Amidst personal grief, dealing with her estranged family and a host of other surreal happenings, Mark Weber sent an invitation to a symposium his organization was hosting in California. Having dipped my toes into the waters of Right wing subculture under Babette’s guidance, another hand now reached out, ready to draw me in further.

So I took one more step. Seventeen years later, remembering the whole experience is a high-speed blur of contrasts. The presenters ranged from Tony Martin, a professor of Africana Studies to Said Arikat, a Palestinian writer and Joe Sobran, the former National Review editor. Most attendees were White men, but women or people of color well represented also. One moment I talked with a Jewish couple who were volunteer coordinators over the weekend and the next, overheard a lady nearby bragging she was listed by the FBI as one of the most dangerous White supremacists in the nation.

It felt easy dismissing Babette’s politics as harmless, something to roll my eyes at before buttering her toast or clearing the board for another Scrabble game. Her charming ways dulled the edge of something that now cut too deeply to ignore. My professor’s house welcomed everyone and she accepted my friends and partners from all backgrounds. Yet now I conversed with earnest young men who recoiled when I mentioned dating people who weren’t White. The fact they sat and listened politely when a Black academic lectured about the role Jewish merchants played in the transatlantic slave trade made as little difference as when early 20th century KKK members supported Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement in concert with the bloodstained Jim Crow system. The whole experience left me numb and I rode a Greyhound bus back to Portland, heavy hearted.

Despite everything, I’ll forever miss my friend who swept me through her whirlwind history into a moment of time when cognitive dissonance could make it seem like her version of Fascism was just another colorful identity without real consequences. But it wasn’t then and it isn’t now. Fundamentally, Fascism remains a system of genocidal exclusivity occasionally masked by popular inclusivities. A successful resistance must recognize what lies beneath the mask and hopefully awareness of Babette’s story can help raise it, before smashing what lies underneath for a better world that benefits everyone, not just an elite few.

 

*Much of my information about Babette’s early life comes from her personal accounts, private documents, interviews with the decedents of relatives in France and also the historical research of Jean-Pierre Géa-Torres in La sombre destinée du Château-du-Lac -Une histoire de familles.  Géa Editions, 2013.

**Freedom of Information Act (FOI/PA# 1308317-0 pg. 10-11

***FOI pg. 23