Alissa Azar, an independent journalist who spent the summer covering protests and political clashes in Portland, changed her focus after unprecedented wildfires broke out in western Oregon.
She wanted to cover stories about how people pitched in to help one another in a time of crisis.
Last week, she and two colleagues were near Molalla, a hamlet about 30 miles south of Portland. Fire authorities had just ordered the town evacuated, and Azar, along with journalists Justin Yau and Sergio Olmos, pulled over to take a picture of a fire danger meter, which was all the way in the red.
“I was crouched down in the grass,” Azar, 29, told me Monday evening. “I looked up from my phone and before I knew it, there were three guys with guns. One was pointing at my face, one was pointing toward me, and one had his gun down. Assault rifles. They were huge.”
The men began interrogating her, she said. Why are you here? Who are you? What are you doing?
“They asked me if I knew about the looters and rioters.” She was confused until she realized they were probably talking about rumors, all debunked, that left-wing radicals were setting fires around the state and then stealing people's possessions once they evacuated.
Azar noticed a few other vehicles pull up, “which I realized was backup for them.”
The encounter seemed to go on forever, Azar said, but probably only lasted a couple of minutes. “They were so hostile that none of us could get a proper video,” she said. “We worried if we pointed cameras at them, the wrong thing could happen.”
The men, who never identified themselves, ended the encounter brusquely: “Get the f— out of our town.”
Azar isn't the only reporter who has encountered hostile citizen brigades.
Journalists venturing out of Portland to cover the wildfires are targeted by suspicious locals who have bought into conspiracy theories about the fires being set for political reasons.
Self-appointed vigilantes have set up highway checkpoints to look for “radical militant insurgents,” as one Facebook user put it, who might be carrying gas cans or explosive material to keep Oregon ablaze.
“It’s really unfortunate,” said freelance photographer Nathan Howard, 29, who was accused on Thursday of looting by gun-toting men after he parked in the driveway of an evacuated home in rural Estacada to take some pictures. “There are large portions of the state that we feel we need to be covering, but we have to pull back because you don’t know if people are going to offer you a cup of coffee or shoot you.”
Authorities are working hard to rebut the rumors, with little success.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in southwest Oregon posted a plea on its Facebook page in big block letters: “Stop Spreading Rumors.”
“Remember when we said to follow official sources only?” the post said. “Our 9-1-1 dispatchers … are being overrun with requests for information and inquiries on an UNTRUE rumor that 6 Antifa members have been arrested for setting fires in DOUGLAS COUNTY.”
What followed, in hundreds of comments below the post, was a verbal civil war, pitting rumormongers and right-wing conspiracy theorists against more rational citizens.
Finally, a user named Debbie Cooley chimed in. “I’m so confused,” she wrote. “So are we with law enforcement or no? When we hear ‘defund the police,’ we are with them. When the sheriff tells us Antifa isn’t setting the fires, they are government and not to be believed.”
The craziness in Oregon is not without context.
There were, inevitably, clashes. And on Aug. 29, a member of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, Jay Danielson, was killed by a suspect, Michael Reinoehl, who described himself as “100% antifa” in social media. A few days later, Reinoehl was killed by federal agents when they tried to arrest him, something President Trump, ever willing to make a bad situation worse, described as “retribution.”
In a state with a Democratic governor and Democratic supermajority in the Legislature, moderate Republicans are a vanishing breed. The state GOP has drifted so far to the right that its candidate for the U.S. Senate, Jo Rae Perkins, is a proponent of QAnon, a convoluted conspiracy theory that links global elites and child sex trafficking, and casts President Trump as a savior. (The incumbent, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, is expected to win.)
The Republican Party in Multnomah County (home to Portland), formally decided to hire two right-wing militia groups — Three Percenters and Oath Keepers — to provide security at its events, which seems analogous to the time the Rolling Stones hired Hells Angels to provide security at their Altamont concert. What could possibly go wrong?
Earlier this summer, the state was riven with false rumors that antifa would attack small towns, like Klamath Falls and Coquille. “Consequently,” said University of Oregon political scientist Joseph Lowndes, “100 guys show up with ARs and pistols and everything else to protect the town from an antifa that never shows up, because it’s not an actual thing.”
In some of those towns, said Lowndes, who studies right-wing political trends, there were small Black Lives Matter protests, “and it became very dangerous for these activists and organizers because they would be met with wild fantasies about what BLM is and what antifa is.”
As for blaming the fires consuming the western part of the state on left-wing activists, said Lowndes, the real causes are complex and rooted in climate change. “The irrational conspiracy theory is easier and more appealing to believe.”