Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., closed early each day this week after protestors plastered signs on the store's windows. The protesters are opposing the store's offer of pre-orders of conservative journalist Andy Ngo's book Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy on its website. The book will be published in February by Center Street, the politically conservative imprint of Hachette Book Group.
On Monday, Powell's Tweeted, "This book will not be placed on our shelves. We will not promote it. That said, it will remain in our online catalog. We carry a lot of books we find abhorrent, as well as those that we treasure."
Ngo is well-known in Portland. In 2019, he published a series in the New York Post alleging numerous hate crimes reported to the police in the city had been faked, then later that summer, claimed he was attacked by Antifa counter-protestors while he was covering a Proud Boys march in the city. He claims to have been brain damaged by the attack.
After protests continued throughout the week, Emily Powell, owner of Powell's Books, offered context for the store's decision to continue selling the book online in a press release. "Since Sunday, Powell’s has received hundreds of emails, calls, and social media comments calling for us to remove Unmasked from Powells.com," wrote Powell. "Demonstrations outside our Burnside store have forced us to close to ensure the safety of employees, protestors, and neighbors. If we need to remain closed, we will not hesitate to do so.'
She continued, noting that the store had faced similar objections to certain books in the past. "Since the first published texts there have been calls to disown different printed work, and at Powell’s we have a long history of experiencing these calls, and the threats they bring with them, firsthand," she wrote. "Until recently the threats were from those who objected that we carried books written by authors we respected or subjects we supported. The threats were real but we could feel virtuous — we were bringing the written word to the light of day. We could feel proud of our choices, even when the choices created conflict.
Powell, than said that the fight to defend Ngo's book, "does not feel virtuous...it feels ugly and sickening to give any air to writing that could cause such deep pain to members of our community." But, she explained, they would continue to offer the book for sale online: "In our history we have sold many copies of books we find objectionable. We do that in spite of all the reasons not to, because we believe that making the published word available is an important and crucial step in shedding light on the dark corners of the public discourse. It is actually a leap of faith into the vortex of the power of the written word and our fellow citizens to make sense of it." Powell then directed readers to the store's statement in support of freedom of speech.
Several comments on the Powell's Books Twitter feed noted that the protests were not trying to encourage the store to ban the book, but to choose not to support someone who has damaged the local community. The Twitter stream of one protest organizer, who goes by the name @2lesslegs, was calling for an outright "ban," and said the protests would not stop until Powell had relented. As of Wednesday night, the account had been temporarily suspended by Twitter.
Ngo himself tweeted that he disagreed with the decision not to sell the book in-store, but sympathized with the store as he perceived the store to be a victim of Antifa bullying.
Several supporters of Ngo stated they had in turn gone to the Powell's site or that of other independent bookstores to buy the book. Unmasked has been lifted to the top of the bestseller list of several categories on Amazon, including Censorship & Politics and Political Commentary & Opinion.