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«In this type of political
environment, I can’t be safe
living in an American city»

By covering political protests, undercover journalist Andy Ngo became an enemy of Antifa and got beaten up several times. He says that society cannot tolerate political violence.

«In this type of political  environment, I can’t be safe  living in an American city»
Demonstranten lieferten sich an einer Anti-Trump-Demonstration im November 2016 in Portland, Oregon, ein Gefecht mit der Polizei. Bild: Alex Milan Tracy/SIPA Images USA.

Lesen Sie die deutsche Version hier.

Andy, you grew up in Portland, Oregon; a lot of people know it from the TV-series Portlandia. The city used to be known to the world as the heart of liberal politics where left-wing hipsters live. How has Portland developed in the last 20 years?

Portlandia helped to mainstream the arguably nice things about Portland. People liked that it was quirky, weird, and had a sense of left-wing politics that was overbearing, but in a way a bit endearing. Things took a critical turn in 2016, when Donald Trump became the presidential nominee for the Republican Party, and was holding campaign rallies around the country. The press and his critics really coalesced around an accusation and a narrative that made him out to be a fascist candidate and that his platform and political rallies were built on racism and white supremacy. In that environment, this claim took hold across the United States. In Portland, however, it was taken further than elsewhere because it has a homogenous left-wing societal monoculture.


How did that monoculture manifest itself?

After it became apparent that Trump had won the 2016 elections, Portlanders took to the streets in the thousands in downtown, and Portland had some of the largest demonstrations in the United States over the election results. Although left-wing political violence had manifested before, that was the first time that I myself and most Portlanders saw widespread Antifa political violence.


You decided to start going out onto the streets with your camera to film the protests to investigate what was happening. Why?

I was an editor at the student newspaper at Portland State University. I was told by my editor-in-chief to go film some videos or take photos of the protests. So, I went out with my iPhone to record the events. It was extremely shocking to see the level of violence and destruction that had happened downtown: Fires, broken windows, cars smashed up – the police were completely overwhelmed. Portland became a really big flashpoint in the United States for street fights and brawls between the left and the right.


So the right was also acting out violently?

Though Portland doesn’t really have an organized right-wing movement, some of President Trump’s supporters from neighboring cities decided to exercise their freedom of expression by supporting him. They deliberately went to places where they were not welcome – and that was Portland. Every time they came, thousands of counter-protesters appeared, and Antifa would show up to be explicitly violent. The police struggled to contain that type of violence, especially during the summers from 2017 to 2019. The public prosecutors in Portland primarily targeted those on the right who engaged in criminal violent activities. Their excuse for this selective targeting was that they couldn’t identify those, namely Antifa, who had their faces covered. Over time, there was hardly any opposition in any regard to the violent far-left protesters.


How should the government handle Antifa?

Citizens, journalists and politicians cannot tolerate political violence. The use of extra-judicial violence for whatever cause is intolerable. I’ve seen it weaponized in the United States under causes that are portrayed as very noble. That’s why the far-left is so manipulative, deceptive and effective. Their violence was done in the name of fighting for black lives – and against racism, white supremacy, guns and fascism. Unfortunately, significant numbers of people and politicians found that acceptable; they agreed with the alleged cause so much that they accepted these violent actions.


What do people have to know about Antifa? 

Antifa itself operates quite differently from country to country. The political culture of the society where they organize, as well as the legislation involved, affect their goals and tactics. The American Antifa take their inspiration from the most violent Antifa in the world, which – historically and at present – come out of Germany. Their tactics consist of property destruction in public. In the USA, depending on the city they’re in, they’ve been able commit violence very effectively and without hindrance, in Portland and Seattle, and to a lesser degree of New York City and Oakland. These are left-wing cities where Democrats have supermajorities and tolerate this sort of violence. Antifa have also tried their shtick in more moderate cities with some degree of success.


Also in Switzerland?

I know that in Switzerland, Antifa organizes in Bern, but they haven’t been violent like in Germany. That has a lot to do with Swiss culture, where things are ordered and run well. They would have a lot of issues organizing in your country because the public and even your liberals would not tolerate mass property destruction. You also have a healthier press here, with a good balance of center-right and center-left media.


When did you last speak to someone from Antifa?

I’ve spoken to people who are sympathetic to that ideology, but not to active members. Anyone who is fully entrenched in that ideology, performing in an organizational role actively, is not going to talk to me, as they see me as the enemy. To speak with the «enemy» is one of the ways to get excommunicated from their community. They’re fundamentalist in a religious way, and look at the world in a binary way: «You’re on our side, or you’re not; you’re a fascist, or you’re anti-fascist.»

«To speak with the «enemy» is one of the ways to get excommunicated from their community. They’re fundamentalist in a religious way.»


The US mainstream media covered the riots in Portland and other cities. Was it doing its job?

For years, the establishment media had covered political violence from the left as «mostly peaceful protests», «some small violence» or «some property destruction» – even when it was extremely violent. The media had zero curiosity about why people were on the streets destroying property. It portrayed these mobs as flash mobs of people who just came out and spontaneously became violent. But they were organized, carried weapons, tools and uniforms.


What solutions are there to the problem of Antifa?

It’s about making changes in the culture. Obviously, in the United States, there are laws against murder, assaulting people, arson, etc. But the laws become a dispensable detail when the society no longer views those laws as legitimate. In the minds of many on the mainstream left, they don’t regard things such as petty crime, thefts in stores, or camping out in public as criminal matters anymore. They consider such things unimportant and see the people engaging in this type of behavior as victims deserving of pity.


While the media and the establishment allow Antifa free rein, do they try to censor or suppress right-wing groups who sometimes get violent in street protests? 

In the United States, domestic organizations cannot be banned based on ideology. So, you can have Islamist, neo-Nazi, and Antifa groups. The First Amendment protects their right to organize and speak freely. But for many American left-wing politicians, this is quite frustrating. So they delegate the censorship of right-wing groups to civil society, to social media for instance. The Twitter-Files have revealed how various governmental organizations were pressuring Twitter to censor specific content that they themselves did not have the legal authority to ban. As for the media, if the public were adequately informed about how extreme and violent some of these left-wing groups are, their recruiting power and ideas would become much less palatable. In contrast, civil society is very good at destroying right-wing organizations.

«The First Amendment protects their right to organize and speak freely. But for many American left-wing politicians, this is quite frustrating. So they delegate the censorship of right-wing groups to civil society.»


You were badly beaten by Antifa. Can you tell us about that?

In 2019, I was severely beaten in downtown Portland at an Antifa demonstration that I was covering. I was beaten on the head and punched repeatedly by an Antifa mob, very close to the nearby police station. After that, they stole my camera equipment because they didn’t want me to publish the videos I had made that day of what they were doing. I was by myself and I had to call the police, get in an ambulance, go to hospital.

Andy Ngo nach einem Angriff der Rose City Antifa im Juni 2019 in Portland, Oregon, USA. Bild: Moriah Ratner/Getty Images.

Did you suffer grave physical or psychological damage?

I was diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage. This has a really high fatality rate, so I was kept in the hospital, and was very lucky to survive. But I had cognitive and physical issues which took many months of therapy in a medical setting to address. My assault was celebrated on social media by the radical far left. They were very open about their celebration of violence. They claimed that I had faked my injuries.


That was not the last time you were assaulted, I take it?

Antifa keep an eye on people’s body shapes, their heights, they try to look at your posture, your shoes, even at what type of phone you have, and put all this information online. In Portland, I was confronted by a group of them that demanded that I remove my mask, and I didn’t. One of them pulled it off. I took off running through the streets of downtown. They beat me severely, had me begging for my life, held me in a chokehold. I was completely bloodied from that initial assault, and then I ran into a nearby hotel. The staff would not call the police, so I had to call the police myself. That’s the second major beating I suffered, which led me to emigrate to the UK. In this type of political environment, I can’t be safe living in an American city.

Eine versprayte Mauer in Portland, fotografiert von Andy Ngo.

What is your message to Switzerland about Antifa?

The Swiss people should not become complacent and think that what it has now will last forever. Just look to neighboring countries. In France and Germany, there are really radical political movements that engage in a lot of public violence. It’s motivated by a political ideology that can cross borders. So, I’m a little bit concerned about Antifa organizing in Bern. Yes, they are very lawful at present: people holding banners, chanting, and so on. However, that’s how radical leftists in America began. That said, I do have faith in the political institutions of Switzerland. Its political system is quite unique because it forces political rivals to collaborate, which works towards the stability.

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