On August 27th, 2022, over 200 people from across Northern California and the Central Valley converged in Modesto, a city of around 200,000 about an hour and a half east of the San Francisco Bay Area, to oppose the 4th annual "Straight Pride" rally which brought together a broad coalition of far-right groups under a white nationalist banner that openly attacked Jews and the LGBTQ community. While the counter-demonstration was violently assaulted by riot police several hours after it began when a small group of Proud Boys attempted to attack the much larger group, the counter-mobilization was successful in shutting down the rally with mass numbers and a clear antifascist, pro-LGBTQ and pro-reproductive freedom message.
The low turnout on the far-right side, especially among the Proud Boys, is also indicative of a wider trend: despite its increasing embrace by the GOP and Fox News, this hasn't manifested as big numbers in the streets. In fact, the opposite is happening: growing attacks on LGBTQ+ people and abortion access, both in the streets and the halls of power, are helping to build coalitions that did not exist during the Trump years.
The Grundmann Cometh
In 2019, "Straight Pride" rallies gained national headlines when a washed–up Bay Area bigot named Don Grundmann called for a "Straight Pride" parade in Modesto and alt-right militants associated with a group called Resist Marxism in Boston under the banner of "Super Happy Fun America" announced a similar march in Boston. While the two rallies attempted to pull from both the far-right and Trump supporters, they were connected in name only. In Modesto, Grundmann worked with his long-time allies Mylinda and Ron Mason in the local Republican party to form the California Straight Pride Coalition, which grew to include a small cadre of supporters and boasted among its ranks a local pastor and even the former Modesto police chaplain. Also involved in the group was Ryan Schambers, a member of the Stanislaus County Republican Party Central Committee, whose name was quickly removed from its homepage when the media began reporting on Ryan's involvement in a group that promoted outright white nationalism.
Grundmann then found 15 minutes of fame after appearing before the Modesto City Council, demanding that it sign off on a permit for the "Straight Pride" rally, which was then denied in the face of mass opposition, protests, and packed council meetings. A clip of Grundmann losing his cool before the council quickly went viral in which he referred to the Straight Pride Coalition as a "totally peaceful racist group." The backlash was so bad that even the local Proud Boys put out a statement saying that they had nothing to do with the demonstration, and despite Grundmann's statements, would not be attending the rally.
Grundmann's first attempt at a "Straight Pride" rally was a total failure. First the group was kicked out of a local barn once it was discovered who they were, and when counter-protesters learned of their plans to rally in front of the Modesto Planned Parenthood, the group was quickly surrounded by hundreds of counter-protesters and shut down. Realizing he needed to expand his circle, the next year Grundmann and company began working more closely with the Modesto Proud Boys (several of whom attended the January 6th attempted coup) who organized a parallel, QAnon-themed "Save the Children" event. This "Straight Pride" rally also began attracting a local militia, the Echo company out of Oakdale, along with a tapestry of Boogaloo Boys, neo-Nazi American Guard members, and beyond.
Over the next two years, Grundmann and the Masons were able to mobilize around 100 supporters to rally in front of the vacant Planned Parenthood building. Despite the California Straight Pride Coalition website openly referring to the "superiority" of white people, Western Civilization, heterosexuality, and Christianity, Grundmann rushed to deflect calls of racism by harping on Planned Parenthood's racist and eugenicist past (so much for opposing CRT!) and bringing on board the Black anti-LGBTQ bigot Jesse Lee Peterson, best known for a recent scandal over sexual relationships with his male supporters. The Modesto police were also playing ball, helping to set up barricades and facilitate the far-right rallies in 2020 and 2021, even pushing the Modesto City Council to pass laws targeting antifascists for carrying items like umbrellas and wearing helmets at protests.
Against a backdrop of rising rhetoric and attacks against the LGBTQ community and reproductive autonomy from the GOP, Fox News, and the far-right it seemed as if Grundmann had found a winning strategy.
Wins and Losses
But while Grundmann was going viral, others were getting organized to oppose him. In 2019, the media spotlight brought out hundreds to protest his attempts at gaining a permit from the city for his rally, though apprehension by local officials had more to do with the response from "antifa" than the far-right threat. Several locals who set up a Facebook page for a potential protest also sent mixed messages to those who wanted to resist the fascists. At one meeting at a local coffee shop, the "protest" organizers were joined by local clergy and non-profit organizers who told people not to demonstrate, claiming they would instead set up "safe spaces" throughout the day which were all far away from the zone of potential conflict. Meanwhile, the police were pushing the city council to outlaw various "protest items," using photos of "Berkeley antifa" to sow panic at the threat of Charlottesville-style chaos, rampaging through town.
Despite this, hundreds of people mobilized the day of the first "Straight Pride" rally at a local park, and upon learning that Grundmann and his followers were headed towards the nearby Planned Parenthood, began to march towards the clinic which was located only a few blocks away. Protesters filled the clinic's parking lot, surrounding a group of about 20 "Straight Pride" supporters, covering their signs with massive banners and flags. Soon the far-right rallygoers called it a day and left the area. After capturing the attention of the nation, the first "Straight Pride" rally ended with a whimper and mass opposition.
The next year, Grundmann again called for protests. In response, autonomous groups that had pushed hard for people to self-organize and come out in opposition to the "Straight Pride" rally in 2019 took a step back as a local non-profit headed up organizing a counter protest. However, several weeks before the event, this group pulled out and called instead for a "caravan" protest to drive by in front of the rally. The day of, militia members and Proud Boys scowled while recording people's license plates as around 30 cars drove past around 100 "Straight Pride" protesters and a small counter-protest of around 30 people rallied across the street. The event almost led to a brawl when Proud Boys crossed the street, forcing the smaller counter-protest to leave the area. Towards the end of the rally, a "Straight Pride" supporter attempted to run over a counter-protester with their truck, although they were thankfully unsuccessful in hitting them. Feeling defeated, local antifascists lamented this failure, even amidst the wave of rebellion of the summer of 2020.
The next year, local organizers tried a different tack, instead organizing a counter-rally at a local park featuring music, speakers, zine tables, and a festive atmosphere that was part anarchist bookfair and part counter-rally. The event itself was a big success, bringing out over 125 people. Despite an attempt by two local Proud Boys leaders to show up at the park and hold a banner (which was later stolen and burned), the far-right made no attempt to disrupt the festivities. However, the event ended on a sour note when a group of antifascists from the counter-rally attempted to support a small group of LGBTQ youth who had left the park to protest across the street from the "Straight Pride" rally. As soon as the antifascists stepped foot on the sidewalk, they were attacked by Proud Boys, who chased several groups of people back to their cars. The ensuing brawl was captured on film and became far-right click-bait celebrating the Proud Boys’ violence.
Going forward, people were left with a difficult question: with local non-profits and progressive churches refusing to back a counter-protest, how would they get out numbers? The initial media blitz around Grundmann in 2019 had also now dried up; the press couldn't care less about Proud Boys unless they were beating up antifascists, and the local Modesto Bee certainly wasn't going to run anything critical of the police or report on the GOP–far-right crossover. If organizers wanted to replicate the success of 2019, they needed to bring mass numbers against the far-right, holding the streets before they could mobilize and in such numbers that they could keep people safe.
Knowing that a large coalition needed to be formed to mobilize people across the Central Valley and Northern California, organizers began to network months before the now-4th annual Straight Pride rally was even announced. Meetings were organized and groups began to hold meet and greets in towns and cities across the Valley and beyond. Slowly, a buzz began to build. A website was set up, zines were made, and people prepared to mobilize in late August. By the 27th, a strong coalition of anarchists, antifascists, and some progressives had been formed that stretched across multiple cities and towns.
The counter-protest on August 27th began at 9 AM, three hours before the Straight Pride rally was supposed to take place outside of a Planned Parenthood which wasn't even open on Saturday. For two hours, hundreds of counter-protesters rallied with colorful banners, sharing food, water, throwing insults at a street preacher across the street with a sign that looked like it was designed by Dr. Bronners, and taking photos of a police surveillance drone flying overhead. A little after 11 AM, about half a dozen Proud Boys, some like Tyler John Greenhalgh, who had taken part in violent disruptions of of local LGBTQ events across Northern California, dashed past riot police and attempted to attack the crowd. Rushing to the frontlines, people quickly repelled the far-right and in the process threw several fireworks and one smoke canister, which lit a plant next to the sidewalk on fire, billowing smoke into the air.
Police then pushed the small group of Proud Boys further up the street and then called an unlawful assembly, demanding that the 200+ counter-protesters leave the area or face arrest. Later it emerged that a larger group of Proud Boys had been waiting in a parking lot nearby, but after the first wave was pushed back so quickly, it seems the larger group decided not to engage the much larger crowd.
At this point, people were mainly occupying the sidewalk in front of the vacant Planned Parenthood and in the facility's empty parking lot. After five minutes passed and another demand to clear the area was given by law enforcement, police began shooting off pepper balls and pushing the crowd back with their batons. Several protesters were hit with projectiles and clubs as cops pushed the massive crowd south onto a major street, Orangeburg Avenue.
After being violently pushed out of the Planned Parenthood parking lot, the crowd took to the street, marching through a nearby neighborhood and finally rallying at a park. The scheduled "Straight Pride" rally in front of Planned Parenthood did not take place, although about 30 Proud Boys, boomers with the Straight Pride coalition, and elderly anti-abortion activists did rally later in the day in front of another reproductive health clinic across town (which was also closed for the weekend). During this rally a Proud Boy attempted to attack the car belonging to a left-wing journalist as it drove by, and several "Straight Pride" rallygoers were hit with eggs by unknown assailants. Despite having been pushed from their intended target, the "Straight Pride" crowd held a large anti-Planned Parenthood banner, a clear sign that they had failed to hold their ground. By the end of the day, police had arrested three people: two Proud Boys and one counter-protester.
The Modesto experience shows both the strength of organizing autonomously, but also how hard it can be sometimes. Autonomous organizers have everything stacked against them: non-profits and local faith leaders push people not to protest, while the police join the attack on communities already under assault by the state and the far-right. While the media can bring attention to the threat of reactionary forces, more often it is simply interested in publishing click-bait and sensationalizing "both sides" without ruffling the feathers of those in power. The ability to go beyond and outside of all of these pitfalls demands of us not only infrastructure, legal observers, medics, communications, media, and beyond, but also the relationships and base building needed to actually organize — especially at a time when social media is hitting a wall of diminishing returns.
In this terrain, winning means being able to build and organize our own networks and infrastructure outside of the institutions and organizations which are poised to throw a wet blanket on self-organization and direct action. But this doesn't mean also giving up on outreach, building up our coalitions and networks, and drawing in those outside of established radical milieus.
Moreover, it means realizing that despite calls by Biden and the Democratic Party establishment to oppose the "semi-fascism" of the GOP, the neoliberal center is still much more willing to turn its guns on the organized working class in the streets fighting to confront the far-right, than it is to go after the very same groups which took part in the attempted coup on January 6th and now have turned their rage towards attacking whole swaths of the population. The state is not coming to save us, but if we're willing to fight and build, we have the power to save ourselves.