Late last month, the conservative media personality Andy Ngo sent me a video made by Popular Mobilization, a group of anti-fascists who organize protests in response to right-wing rallies in Portland, Oregon. Set to Kelis’s “Milkshake,” the video implored local leftists to turn out on June 29 to demonstrate against a march planned by the Proud Boys, the infamous right-wing fraternity. “Antifa promises violence,” Ngo wrote in a tweet about the video.
“Joe I’m concerned,” he wrote me. “How would you keep yourself safe?”
It was a reasonable concern. Over the past three years, the streets of downtown Portland have played host to a serialized civil war in miniature between armored combatants from the far right and far left. Under the evergreens, weekend gladiators in bike helmets and gas masks beat the sap out of each other, scoring pinfalls to document and then distribute to sympathetic online mobs. Random bystanders sometimes get hurt.
Andy Ngo was hardly a random bystander: The 33-year-old is suddenly one of the most prominent young figures in all of right-wing media. He made his name in part through his activism calling attention to a supposed epidemic of staged hate crimes, à la Jussie Smollett. But Ngo has also been a familiar, and reviled, presence at Portland’s left-wing protests, where he shoots alarming videos of anti-fascists that often end up on the likes of Fox News and Sky News. I was in talks to shadow him at the upcoming demonstration, which I thought might be a good way to illustrate how Ngo constructs an incendiary political narrative out of a narrow selection of facts.
Just days after his warning, Ngo sat a few feet away from me, cut up and dazed, after a beating at the hands of left-wing protesters. As I watched him stream a close-up of his bloody face to more than a million people, it seemed like a defining moment in a new kind of media career.
A little more than two years ago, Andy Ngo was more or less a nobody: a 30-year-old multimedia editor for the student paper of Portland State University, where he was working toward a master’s degree in political science. He had gone back to school after spending several years languishing in the millennial male purgatory of underemployment and aimlessness. He had about a thousand followers on Twitter, where he posted mostly about anti–free speech left-wing campus culture and the need to reform political Islam.
Twenty-seven months later, Ngo is very much a somebody. Though his career output is limited to a few dozen op-eds and news stories, an active Twitter feed, some cable news appearances, and a handful of dramatic protest videos, his name is now regularly uttered by members of Congress — including some who have proposed federal investigations on his behalf — by cable news megastars, and by Joe Biden, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. He now has almost a quarter of a million followers on Twitter.
He, of course, owes the most recent surge in his fame to the June 29 assault. The attack and its bloody aftermath, captured on video by witnesses and Ngo himself, launched a national media cycle predicated largely on the willingness of various liberal public figures to denounce the violence of the far left. In the past week, President Trump has publicly condemned the attack twice. Smaller, semantic debates have spun off, mostly on Twitter, about the nature of the word “journalist” as it applies to Ngo and the nature of the word “violence” as it applies to nonphysical harm.
The man’s literal brand is that anti-fascists are violent and loathe him.
The former debate turns on the extent to which Ngo deliberately provokes angry and violent responses from anti-fascists. I was with Ngo, watching him, from an hour before he entered the demonstration until an hour after he arrived at a Portland hospital to be treated for his injuries. Nothing he did that day suggested that he planned or even secretly wanted to be assaulted, which has been a common enough refrain in the days since from some on the left. The attack was not provoked.
But it would be a mistake to think this violence came out of some vacuum-sealed ideological intolerance toward conservatives. Ngo has been building to a dramatic confrontation with the Portland far left for months, his star rising along with the severity of the encounters. “Hated by antifa,” Ngo’s Twitter biography read before and after the attack. Scary-looking antifa marchers glare from his account’s banner image. Before I arrived in Portland, he suggested that it might be good for my story to go get a drink with him at Cider Riot, a far-left hangout. The man’s literal brand is that anti-fascists are violent and loathe him.
And it’s a healthy brand in a robust market for footage of left-wing violence. Shouting, running around in black, sometimes smashing store windows and punching people, anti-fascists make for good television. But even accounting for that, the amount of coverage Fox News devotes to them is preposterous. A search for “antifa” on Fox News’ website from November 2016 to the present returns 668 results, while “homelessness” returns 587, and “OxyContin,” 140. “Permafrost” returns 69. A decentralized, leaderless activist group with no record of lethal violence in this country, antifa has been skillfully transmogrified by the conservative media into one of the gravest threats facing Americans in 2019 — the rampant id of an already irrational left.
Though Ngo’s work is probably best described as media activism, the debate over what to call him has ignored the way the journalism business is trending. A part of a new generation of what the writer Max Read termed “busybody” journalists, Ngo at rallies practices a kind of participant reporting that alternates freely between mocking the far left, anthropologizing it, and cowering from it. He is willing to make himself the story and to stream himself doing it. He proceeds from a worldview and seeks to confirm it, without asking to what degree his coverage becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And he does so under the cover of a political and cultural context in which it is widely assumed that there is another side that also has a media apparatus operating in exactly the same way.
Because Ngo is a freelancer and effectively produces left-wing rage content on spec for the conservative media beast from nose to tail, he assumes all the risk for the content he makes, and the risk is real enough. It’s as neat an arrangement for Twitter as it is for Fox News, just as freelancers are a neat arrangement for any large media conglomerate on the left, right, or center. In that sense, Ngo may not be as far from the mainstream of journalism as many of us might wish to think.
Even as it shrinks, the national media is reorganizing around a social media–to–cable news pipeline of daily outrage. It is shedding the skin of its once-sacred “view from nowhere” objectivity and embracing the benefits of cruder ideologies. It wants eyeballs, but it doesn’t want to pay for material. Why do that when a generation of strivers will do it for free, or close to it? No, it’s not so hard not to see Andy Ngo as one vision of the journalist of the future, self-employed in an Uberized model that gobbles up inflammatory content and takes no responsibility for how it’s gathered. These media workers will be ambitious, ideological, incurious, self-promoting, social media native, willing to force the story, and very, very vulnerable.
Ngo grew up in Portland as the child of refugees who escaped Vietnam in the 1970s after being forced into labor and reeducation camps by that country’s communist government. Portland, famously liberal, is also the whitest big city in the United States, and Ngo told me that he had a strong Asian identity in his youth. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in graphic design in 2009 into the teeth of the recession, and he couldn’t find steady work. He spent some time unemployed, some time working as a photographer for used cars at a dealership in Portland, and a lot of time thinking about what to do next. Mostly, he felt his mind turning to sap.
“My brain was in a stupor,” Ngo said. “I couldn’t spend the rest of my life going from minimum wage job to minimum wage job.”
During his years in the wilderness, Ngo, who was raised Buddhist and converted to Christianity in high school, became an atheist. In 2012, he attended the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s annual convention in Portland, where he took photographs for the organization’s newsletter. (One was of a beaming Richard Dawkins accepting the “Emperor Has No Clothes Award.”) Also at the conference was Peter Boghossian, a PSU philosophy professor who was promoting his then-forthcoming book, A Manual for Creating Atheists. Boghossian would go on to national fame after publishing a series of hoax papers in academic journals in an effort to demonstrate lax standards in the liberal arts, particularly within gender and race studies. It’s not hard to draw a line from Boghossian and Dawkins, who once compared Islam to cancer, to the current center-right media, with its preoccupation with a “culturally Marxist” campus left. You know, the one with mushy beliefs about pluralism that looks the other way on Islamist violence while shutting down conservative speech.
In the following years, Ngo grew concerned with fundamentalist Islam as he watched news reports of ISIS expanding its caliphate throughout much of Iraq and Syria.
“I became fascinated with radicalism,” he told me. He wanted to learn more about politics in the Middle East, and forms of Islamic governance that weren’t violent. In 2015, he enrolled in a master’s program in political science at PSU with a focus on international relations and comparative politics. Around that time, a series of demonstrations about race relations on college campuses (most notably at Yale and the University of Missouri) convinced Ngo that there was a “social justice frenzy” exploding across the nation. He attended an event at PSU where, he said, white students weren’t allowed to speak, and another where he said a black student said she feared that she would be killed on campus by a white supremacist.
“I’m from this city,” Ngo remembered thinking. “And they believe Portland State is a place where there are white racists all over who can come out at any time and kill you? It didn’t seem to fit with reality.” (Ngo’s point, that Portland is a liberal echo chamber, belies a more troubling racial history in Oregon.) More than that, Ngo thought he saw parallels with the Marxist revolution his parents had lived through in Vietnam. “I was deeply curious on how those beliefs could take root in my family’s adopted hometown,” he told me.
Ngo was still proud of his cultural heritage, but his views on race had changed; now he cared more about values — skepticism, free expression, and gratitude. He joined the Freethinkers of Portland State University, a group dedicated to “freethought, free speech, and open inquiry.” He also joined the newspaper, the Portland State Vanguard, as a multimedia editor.
Ngo’s experience at the Vanguard became a national news story and launched his career. In April 2017, he attended an interfaith student panel called “Unpacking Misconceptions.” A Muslim student was asked to interpet Qur’anic law toward non-Muslims living in Muslim nations. The student responded that non-Muslims would be given the choice to leave the country, and seemed to imply that the other choice was death. (Another Muslim student at the panel subsequently rebutted the man’s claim.) Ngo tweeted a video clip of the student’s response, with the caption “At @Portland_State interfaith panel today, the Muslim student speaker said that apostates will be killed or banished in an Islamic state.” Breitbart quickly worked up a news story with the headline “Muslim student claims that non-believers will be killed in Islamic countries.” Four days later, Ngo was fired by the Vanguard’s editor.
The controversy played out Ngo’s career in miniature: an inflammatory recording, picked up by the right, followed by a reaction from a group to his left, followed by a victimized Ngo at the center of a national story. In a May 12 op-ed for the National Review, Ngo claimed he had been punished for politically inconvenient journalism that revealed the violence enabled by liberal multiculturalism. The Vanguard editor said he had been fired not just for a provocative paraphrase without context (the “careless oversimplification of the panelist’s comments and the potential danger in which he placed a student in his own community,” as it was described at the time), but for “the result of ongoing breaches in trust and actions that were counterintuitive to the mission and editorial expectations at the Vanguard.” A former editor at the Vanguard said the staff felt Ngo inappropriately used his position at the paper to arrange coverage of events he also helped organize in his capacity as a member of the PSU Freethinkers. The editor said that Ngo didn’t seem interested in objectivity or the norms of journalism, and was baffled by his single-minded focus on the dangers posed by Islam. (One percent of Oregon’s residents are Muslim.)
“I never covered any of the Freethinkers events personally for Vanguard, given the potential conflict of interest,” Ngo told me in an email. “With the editor in chief’s permission, I did have a contributor in my section cover (for multimedia) a couple of the larger events on campus by the Freethinkers.”
In the following year, Ngo began to capitalize on his new national platform. He started a podcast, Things You Should Ngo, interviewing the center-right YouTube stars Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin as well as the Gamergate personality and failed British political candidate Sargon of Akkad. He set up a Patreon. In the pages of the Wall Street Journal, he tried his hand at story in the “Muslim no-go zone in Europe” genre, which backfired when his claim that the London neighborhood of Whitechapel had banned alcohol consumption on the street per Islamic law was disproven. (The no-drinking zone he identified had been set up by a local municipality to curb drunken behavior on the street.) The tone of the story, passive and menaced by the disorder of multiculturalism, was classic Ngo.
“I froze, confused and intimidated by the faceless figures,” he wrote, describing a sighting as a teenager of Muslim women in traditional dress. “It was my first encounter with the niqab, which covers everything but a woman’s eyes.”
Ngo’s real success at breaking through to the national news cycle, though, came from his work on stories in the United States and in his backyard, respectively: hate crimes and violent protests in Portland. In the beginning of this year, actor Jussie Smollett’s story of a racially motivated assault by two Trump supporters on the streets of Chicago fell apart. Since then, Ngo has maintained a running list on Twitter of alleged hate crimes that have turned out to be fabrications, exaggerations, or committed by minority groups against other minority groups. The entries in the list, which now run to well more than a hundred, have been retweeted hundreds of thousands of times.
There is the Muslim American teenager who falsely claimed to have been attacked by Trump supporters on the New York subway. The black church fire in Mississippi that was started by a parishioner. And the dozens of anonymous threats against American Jewish organizations that turned out to have been made by an Israeli teenager.
Ngo hasn’t done much original reporting on hate crimes. Instead, he keeps a close eye on local news stories, which he surfaces to a national audience through the Twitter thread, and regularly aggregates into op-eds with titles like “Inventing Victimhood” and “Hate-Crime Hoaxes Reflect America’s Sickness.”
Writing about hate crimes is agonizing journalistic territory. There have always been fabricated and exaggerated alleged bias crimes, and now there are bias crimes incorrectly blamed on Trump supporters. And rising national hate crime statistics frequently cited by well-meaning nonprofits and media outlets are not above criticism. Such crimes are very likely undercounted, but it’s unclear if the national spike is due to more hate crimes, or a nation more sensitive to bias and more likely to report such incidents to the authorities.
Hate crimes present ideal conditions for the production of culture war media.
Still, municipalities and states have seen a dramatic rise in the number of these crimes during the Trump administration. And white nationalists and white supremacists have been able to sun themselves and their ideas over the past several years in a truly frightening way. Even reporters who express skepticism about the legitimacy of the cases behind this rise — notably Reason magazine’s Robby Soave — caution that balance and sensitivity are prerequisites.
“If there is a hate crime that gets debunked I report on it,” Soave told me. “But I also try to report on legitimately bad instances.”
“I have a lot of respect for people who write about sensitive and controversial issues in a fair and balanced way,” Ngo said of Soave.
Because the national statistics are so insufficient, hate crimes present ideal conditions for the production of culture war media. Each individual case can and often is presented, perversely, as a victory for a specific worldview. And if Ngo challenged everyone for whom these crimes are a political football to be more rigorous in applying unsettled facts to their conclusions about the country, he might be doing a service.
But he has taken the opposite tack, applying a unidirectional skepticism toward claims of violence against minority groups that looks particularly prejudicial when juxtaposed with the credulousness of his own journalism about some on the right. In 2017, Ngo wrote a largely sympathetic profile of Edie Dixon, a woman who claimed her experience coming out as transgender was easier than her experience of being pro-Trump in Portland. While the profile quotes a former friend of Dixon’s who accuses her of hate for supporting Trump’s travel ban, Dixon would later turn out to have extreme views on race. She has written on her Facebook page that “Jews hate Christian Western Societies” and that millions of European Christians “were slaughtered by the Jews”; she once applied for membership in Identity Evropa, a white nationalist organization. (She claims to have been rejected.) In another example, a video Ngo produced while at the Vanguard about minority groups facing discrimination because of their support for President Trump featured a gay man named Tylor Phelps. Phelps would later overlay his Facebook profile photo with a sonnenrad, the Nazi sunwheel symbol.
Ngo told me that he was unaware of Dixon and Phelps’s views at the time he featured them in his reporting.
Such dogmatism has been good for Ngo’s brand and good for the right-wing content machine. His work on hate crimes has led to appearances on The Ben Shapiro Show and Fox News’ Watters’ World and an op-ed in the New York Post in March of this year headlined “Inside the suspicious rise of gay hate crimes in Portland.” The op-ed named and called into question the story of a trans woman whose friends established a GoFundMe after what she alleged was a brutal assault. This infuriated many in the Portland LGBTQ community who felt that Ngo had taken a local figure and inserted her into an inflammatory national conversation, potentially putting her in harm’s way.
“There was outrage,” said Cameron Whitten, the executive director of the Q Center, Portland’s largest LGBTQ community center. “There are a lot of people who feel they have been put at risk through Andy Ngo’s journalism.”
But Ngo was already an antagonist of the Portland left, and had been for some time.
In 2017, Ngo began filming rallies held by Patriot Prayer, the Portland-area far-right group that demonstrates in predominantly liberal communities. The organization, whose stated purpose is “to fight for freedom at a local level using faith in God,” has tried to distance itself from the furthest reaches of the nationalist fringe. But white nationalists used Patriot Prayer’s early rallies as recruitment events. Portland’s anti-fascists, or antifa, also showed up. This group of militant leftists, many of them communists or anarchists, believe in direct action — including violence — against those they consider to be fascists. Brutal clashes ensued, drawing the national media to the city. Ngo was on the scene.
In the worst of these melees, the so-called Battle of Portland, members of Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys brawled in the streets with anti-fascists, using flagpoles and trash can lids as makeshift weapons. People have been hurt in these fights, some of them badly, and Patriot Prayer brought rifles to a downtown rooftop before a protest in the summer of 2018. The potential exists for lethal violence. But in their regularity and quasi-formal structure (a far-right rally met by a far-left counterprotest), these fights have a surreal, ritualized quality that has turned them into media spectacles, which in turn allows them to be consumed nationally as skirmishes in a playacted civil war.
Indeed, it’s an American pastime to gawk at Portland’s lefty excesses; in picking up a camera to document a group of homegrown far-left radicals, many of them masked, Andy Ngo joined a tradition of packaging that chaos for a broader audience. This nyuck-nyucking is all fun and snowflakes — until it’s not.
For years, a Portland man named Michael Strickland ran a semipopular YouTube page called “LaughingAtLiberals,” in which he attended various lefty public events and tried to capture, well, things for conservatives to mock. In 2016, at a Black Lives Matter rally, Strickland pulled out a Glock and pointed it at protesters, claiming that he feared for his life. (In 2017, he was found guilty of unlawful use of a weapon and menacing.)
Nevertheless, good content is good content. Ngo’s videos of angry leftists, along with his status as a local, got him back on Fox News. He first appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight on October 8, 2018, accompanied by his own footage, under the banner “Antifa Protestors Block Traffic In Portland.” Six weeks later he went on Laura Ingraham’s program, where he showed a video in which a black-clad woman told him to “get the fuck out of” an anti-fascist protest. His reputation among the Portland left as a far-right propagandist was cemented.
It’s an American pastime to gawk at Portland’s lefty excesses.
More confrontations followed — and more TV hits, in which Ngo makes an ideal guest, synthesizing many of the most effective tendencies of the right-wing heel in the Trump era. He is gay and Asian, which, qua Milo Yiannopoulos and Candace Owens, enables his supporters to deploy the rhetoric of liberal identity politics and victimization against the left. He’s whittled his themes down to a brutally efficient, social media- and Fox News–friendly trio: Hate crimes are hoaxes, anti-fascists are the real fascists, and liberals are naive about Islam, which is violent. And he now edits part time for Quillette, the so-called heterodox publication that has staked out a position as a home for centrist journalists and academics disgruntled about left-wing activism and woke culture. It gives him an easy way to defeat charges that he’s a right-wing activist.
At a May Day protest, an activist pepper-sprayed Ngo; he captured it on camera and went on Carlson’s show a day later. The same day, Ngo tweeted footage of a member of Patriot Prayer knocking an anti-fascist out; he also identified the unconscious woman by name as the same person who had attempted to interfere with a panel discussion at PSU featuring ex-Google engineer James Damore. Many anti-fascists guard their identities. When direct actions are also crimes, like punching Ngo, masks make it much harder for police to identify culprits. They also wear masks because they fear retribution from the far right and the cops, whom they believe are sympathetic if not outright supportive to fascists. (In February, Portland’s mayor called for an investigation of the city’s police after hundreds of friendly text messages between a police lieutenant and Patriot Prayer’s leader, Joey Gibson, were made public.) Portland antifa was apoplectic about Ngo’s actions; it considered Ngo’s naming of the woman an act of aggression — part of a pattern that started with the student at PSU and continued, as far as it was concerned, with his close filming of their faces at protests.
“He is a material supporter of far-right violence,” David, a member of Portland’s Rose City Antifa — thought to be the oldest anti-fascist group in the United States — told me after the attack on Ngo. “After you do that, there are consequences for your actions.”
On June 13, Rose City announced a rally to oppose two separate right-wing marches in downtown Portland. And Ngo, naturally, planned on being there. I flew out from New York City to meet him.
I joined Ngo on that warm Saturday morning at an agreeably ironic diner a 10-minute walk from the anti-fascist demonstration. For a man whose obsessions are violence and victimization, Ngo comes across in person as gentle, even vulnerable. He is short, pleasant, polite, and as soft-spoken as a shy child, bearing the trace of an English accent he developed from living in the UK for several years as a teen. He ate a steak.
Ngo told me that he was worried about the rally, more so than he had been about ones in the past. A source in the Portland Police Bureau had warned he might be specifically targeted following his tweet about May Day. Ngo had even considered wearing a helmet — like some of the people he covered — but he thought doing so might mark him as seeking physical confrontation. Instead, Ngo said, opening his backpack, he had settled on goggles.
Also in Ngo’s backpack were the tools of his trade: a GoPro attached to a double-hinged grip arm, through which he would stream most of the day’s events; his phone, through which he controlled the camera; and a belt-mounted body camera, the kind that police departments throughout the country use in an attempt to mitigate violence between cops and the public. As we walked southeast through Portland’s sleepy downtown, past panhandlers and shuttered food stalls, Ngo paused to equip himself.
I asked Ngo why video was so important to his work. Why not just bring a notepad and a pen? It had to do, he said, with the exigencies of freelancing. There was an appetite on social media — where his audience lived — for the kind of video he captured. Video, after all, had made him a national figure. Text was for staff writers at reputable publications, he said, the kinds of places he said he hoped to work one day.
“If you want to be able to make it,” he said, “you need a video component. You have to see it to believe it.”
As we approached Lownsdale Square, the leafy courthouse plaza where the anti-fascist rally was planned, I self-consciously held my own notepad and pen, feeling ridiculous and random, like a man explaining the ideal acoustic conditions for a gramophone to a DJ at a Las Vegas mega-club. I asked Ngo to try not to let my presence there change the way he acted. He nodded sweetly and walked ahead of me into the square, his GoPro rolling.
We were early. A handful of demonstrators were setting up around the imposing granite and bronze Soldier’s Monument at the center of the square. The plan was for the leftist protesters to gather there and then go marching in search of the right-wing rallies. Ngo milled about. He wasn’t asking questions. Rather, he trudged in silence around the park, pointing his camera at things his viewers might find outrageous.
A man in combat boots, knee pads, a black leather vest, and a black beret held up a pink and black sign that read “Free 100% Vegan Milkshakes” on one side and “Soi Boi” on the other. Ngo silently filmed him from a distance of a few feet. Police asked a masked man with a baseball bat in his backpack to get rid of the bat or leave the park. Ngo filmed him too. A young man in all black standing close to the police shouted legal advice from his phone. Ngo filmed him. An elderly man in a safari hat and a blue vest, a legal observer from the ACLU, stood even closer to the police. Ngo’s camera swept right past. When demonstrators asked Ngo what he was doing, he replied, “Documenting.”
Many people in the crowd viewed the rally as an opportunity to snatch up raw material and scuttle with it back to a sympathetic and controlled medium.
The square filled up with black-clad antifa and democratic socialists in red: a real Fox News nightmare. There were also children, tourists, and twerkers. TV crews arrived, and local journalists; so did lefty videographers and an aggravating local YouTube prankster and gamer with incoherent politics named, confusingly, Portland Andy. And, of course, everyone had their phones out.
Media saturated the rally, and yet the line between documenter and participant, between subject and object, felt fluid and maybe nonexistent. Everyone seemed to be operating according to their own various ideological, professional, and technological contexts, or simply by their own inscrutable standards. I got the feeling that many people in the crowd viewed the rally as an opportunity to snatch up raw material and scuttle with it back to a sympathetic and controlled medium.
Eventually, Ngo met up with a woman who introduced herself as a photo stringer for the Federalist, a conservative website. Her job was also to document what might happen to Ngo. She was alarmed; she spoke in a stage whisper. Portland wasn’t safe even for middle-of-the-road Republicans anymore, she said. To protect herself she had brought along a man, using a Mountain Dew bottle as a spittoon; he introduced himself as a welder and a Trump fan. He told me, after a great big handshake, that he wasn’t afraid of these guys.
These guys: Hostility toward Ngo started out with the odd, weirdly cheerful “Fuck you, Andy”; progressed to groups of two to three unmasked men half-menacingly following him around the park; and arrived at a very clear strategy, by which a group of five thin, masked antifa stood in a half arc around him wherever he walked, obstructing his view. They were pretty clearly teenagers. An older observer, also in black, reminded them repeatedly not to surround Ngo, to always leave him a path out of the park. It turned into an awkward shuffling circle around the monument that slightly resembled good team defense in basketball.
So far, so sporting. But then a man with a plastic foam cup sprinted past Ngo, who was suddenly covered in viscous white globs: a milkshake. Another man jumped in and snapped a selfie. Ngo gathered himself, wiped himself off, and made his way to the northern edge of the park, where he reported an assault to a group of Portland police officers.
“The cup made contact with my head,” he said. But no one had really gotten a good look at the guy, and the police, though dutiful, could not quite hide a tone of patronizing concern. Justice seemed distant.
Undaunted, Ngo walked alongside the periphery of the park to its southeast corner, where a group of a dozen antifa wearing black motorcycle helmets stood behind a sign reading “Enough Is Enough, No More Proud Boys.” Now he was narrating for his followers on Periscope: “Lots of antifa here, ready to fight,” he said. A tall videographer approached Ngo. “This is Andy; he calls himself a journalist, which is interesting,” he said, possibly to streamers of his own. A smiling person walked up to Ngo and threw a second milkshake in his face. People rushed up to take photos with the doused villain. This time Ngo didn’t break his narration.
“Wow,” he said, “OK, just got hit in the face. It went in my eye. They’re all laughing; they think it’s funny. They’re assaulting people with impunity here.”
“They’re all laughing; they think it’s funny. They’re assaulting people with impunity here.”
“The appropriate response is with bullets,” a commenter wrote.
A chant went up from the crowd: “We’re here, we’re queer — Andy, you’re not welcome here.”
Again Ngo reported the milkshaking to the police. The Federalist stringer implored them to take action. She had a photo of the assailant, she claimed. (Under a pseudonym, she would later publish it on the Federalist, along with her account of the day.) Ngo told me he was frustrated with the Portland police, with whom he said he had four pending cases. “They’ve told me they don’t move in because if they do they could incite a mob,” he said. He told me he was probably ready to call it a day.
But then the crowd, behind the same vanguard of protesters in black helmets, started to march. They streamed out of the park and headed south; they then turned east toward the waterfront, where rumor was the Proud Boys march had started in parallel. (Both right-wing marches would turn out to be tiny, though we had no idea at the time.) TV reporters, microphones in hand, ran alongside the procession, their private security trailing. A grizzled AP photographer told me to put on my helmet “because by the time you need it, it’ll be too late.”
Adjusting my straps, I nearly lost Ngo, who had run from the back of the crowd to the front, where he was now surrounded by anti-fascists. At the intersection of Salmon Street and 2nd Avenue, the march came to a halt: A phalanx of police stood in front of crisscrossed bicycles, keeping a full block’s distance between the two rallies. Ngo ran out into the small space between the police and the leading edge of the march. He started filming close-ups of the masked, angry anti-fascists. They were giving him great material.
“A-C-A-B — all cops are bastards,” the crowd bellowed.
“George Soros funded antifa criminals,” a commenter on Ngo’s Periscope replied.
A message came over a police loudspeaker that the march had to reverse course or the people in it would be arrested. Demonstrators started to retreat, but the mood in the air was changing. A man near the front of the march hit another man over the head with a baton at half speed. “Hey! You can’t do shit like that,” the struck man said. It wasn’t clear with whom he belonged. Ngo, panning his GoPro, continued to point out leftist T-shirts to his followers. “White fragility, established 1859, Portland, Oregon,” he said. “Why’s he allowed to be there?” someone in the crowd screamed, gesturing at Ngo, who was still scampering around the demilitarized zone between the police and the receding marchers.
The crowd moved west, then north, then east, then north again. It had a restless momentum. I was about 20 feet behind Ngo, who was accompanied by 303,000 people on Periscope.
I looked down at my notebook. I looked up. It was quick. Men were running in to throw punches at Ngo. A churning crowd formed around him. In the few seconds it took me to run to Ngo, several people in the scrum pushed his attackers away. I bumped up against a cordon of arms. Ngo staggered out of the crowd and toward the northeast corner of Lownsdale Square. People were pelting him with milkshakes and eggs, adding literal insult to injury. I could see blood trickling down behind his ear and onto his neck. I caught up to him. He had bloody marks above and below his eyes. I called 911.
“They took my GoPro,” Ngo moaned. “They took my GoPro.”
I helped Ngo up Salmon Street, past a police officer who said he had called a medic, and to the northeast corner of the Multnomah County Courthouse. He sat down, dazed. I asked if he was OK. He said he thought he was. They had stolen his GoPro, Ngo repeated. He hadn’t streamed in minutes. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and opened the app back up. A police medic arrived. Armored officers formed yet another semicircle around Ngo. On Periscope, 1.7 million viewers viewed.
“Where the hell were you?” Ngo asked. It was the first time the entire day I heard his voice rise above a lilt. He scolded the medic for not apprehending the milkshakers. He asked the medic to retrieve his evidence — his GoPro. The medic checked him to see the extent of his injuries, and told me to take him across the park to central booking so he could file a police report. So we walked.
At the police station two paramedics put Ngo on a stretcher. As they loaded him into the back of the ambulance, I noticed he was using Twitter. Ngo asked that the paramedics let me ride along — I realized now, with the GoPro gone and the Federalist stringer nowhere to be found, that I was the crucial media witness to his victimization. I climbed up front and we rode up into the hills of Southwest Portland to the Oregon Health & Science University Hospital.
In the emergency room, Ngo was glued to Twitter. He received a message from Dave Rubin. He tweeted images of his battered face. He set down his phone to talk to a nurse who was at first concerned at the white spatters on his pants and skin, and then less so when she smelled them.
“Coconut!” she said, brightly. (A rumor would later circulate, due to a tweet by Portland police, that the milkshakes contained quick-dry cement. But I saw plenty of people drinking them.)
After a few minutes, a perturbed-looking man with a hospital name tag walked up and told me that he was sorry, but my being there was a terrible privacy violation for all the other patients. Standing up to leave, I asked Ngo if he would change his approach to filming antifa protesters. He was noncommittal.
“Mace is one thing, but they could have killed me,” he said. His voice had settled back into its soft sleepiness.
“Was it worth it?” I asked. He paused.
“No,” he said. His eye sockets were swelling up with blood.
One of the most common charges against Ngo from the left is that he’s a “grifter” — someone without real beliefs who has leveraged the angry national mood into status and profit. If you’re inclined to see him that way, nothing about the aftermath of the assault would change your mind. Ngo’s profile in the weeks since the attack has reached a new high. He’s been on CNN, Fox News, and Joe Rogan’s show; he’s written for the Wall Street Journal opinion section and has been written about by the newspaper’s editorial board. National media figures and politicians have condemned the assault. President Trump made reference to it at his recent “Social Media Summit” and again at a rally in North Carolina, where he called Ngo “a single man standing there with a camera who never got hit and never hit back before in his life.” A high-profile conservative attorney has taken up his case, threatening to sue the Portland city government and antifa “into oblivion.” Michelle Malkin started a “Protect Andy Ngo Fund” GoFundMe campaign that has raised nearly $200,000, all of which will go to Ngo. Incidentally, “grifter” is the criticism that Ngo told me bothers him the most.
Skepticism about his motivations has led some on the left, in a perfect inversion of Ngo’s own hate crimes activism, to question whether he is exaggerating or fabricating the extent of his injuries. Recently, in the interest of addressing these doubts, I asked Ngo to show me proof of the brain hemorrhage he has said he suffered in the attack.
“I don’t feel obliged to share my personal medical records publicly to satisfy internet trolls,” he wrote. Nevertheless, Ngo sent me a copy of his discharge paperwork from the hospital. The document confirmed his claim that he had suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage — a brain bleed.
I think Andy Ngo’s work is designed to confirm some truly ugly American instincts: that something inherent in Islam makes Muslims unassimilable, that minority groups using their status cynically is as big a problem as discrimination against them, and that a tiny pocket of the American left poses as great a threat to the freedom of Americans as a federal government careening toward permanent minority rule. I think his methods are unsafe, inimical to good journalism, and border on propagandistic. But he’s not a grifter.
Calling him a grifter is a way of saying that no one clever and dedicated enough to do what he’s done might actually have the politics he does. That’s a comforting thought for some, I’m sure. I’m not even sure Ngo is a troll, except to the extent that literally the entire conservative media machine, from social media to nighttime news, is a troll on liberals. I think he’s ambitious and savvy, and he wanted to break into a right-wing media world that speaks to an enormous national audience that shares parts of his worldview.
And what’s the best way to do that? What is the national story that has given a whole generation of journalists, myself included, across every stratum of media, a platform? The never-ending American culture war, online and offline, that sometimes breaks out into violence. There’s not a lot of news in what Ngo does. It’s not dog bites man that antifa is violent or that some hate crimes are made up or that college students say dumb things. But there is a demand, a big one, to showcase leftists and minorities as villains. How many freelance videographers nursing well whiskeys in the dive bars of Brooklyn would trade a few punches from a Proud Boy for a job at Vice? The media is shrinking, and to squeeze oneself in needs a leg up: a connection, an uncommon aptitude, or the willingness to do things other people simply aren’t.
“Grifter” puts the blame for Andy Ngo completely on Andy Ngo. There is a corporate media system — Twitter, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal — that wants Andy Ngo, that needs Andy Ngo, and it prefers him with a black eye because it’s better content. The first thing to do if you want a career in media, I remember my professors in journalism school stressing, is to read and watch the outlets you want to work for.
Look out at Twitter, at YouTube, at cable news. Behold a whole precarious world of media hopefuls swarming every bitter inch of the culture war, filming angry Americans, filming each other, filming themselves, grimly determined to find or frame a few seconds of a reality to sell.
When Andy Ngo was attacked, I sprinted toward him, unsure what I was going to do when I arrived. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t only thinking about his safety. I was afraid of being the reporter who did not prevent Andy Ngo from being beaten. I was also, if I’m being really honest, afraid of being the reporter who prevented Andy Ngo from being beaten. I realized very clearly that anyone documenting the scene at that moment had the power to put me in any public context they wished to, had the power to change my life. I was aware how that would be good content, and how that might feel like violence. ●
Opening image credits: Joe Bernstein / BuzzFeed News (Ngo); Moriah Ratner / Getty Images; Ngo via Periscope.