Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler blames President Trump for downtown violence

By Anna Griffin (OPB) and Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Aug. 30, 2020 7:09 p.m. Updated: Aug. 31, 2020 5:41 p.m.

Progressive activists called for Wheeler’s resignation Sunday, saying hands-off leadership led to Saturday night’s shooting.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler addresses a fatal shooting tied to protests during a press conference at City Hall in Portland, Ore., Aug. 30, 2020. One person was shot and killed as a pro-Trump car caravan rolled through town the previous evening.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler addresses a fatal shooting tied to protests during a press conference at City Hall in Portland, Ore., Aug. 30, 2020. One person was shot and killed as a pro-Trump car caravan rolled through town the previous evening.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

The morning after a man was fatally shot amid conflicts between pro-Trump demonstrators and Black Lives Matter supporters, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and other leaders wasted little time Sunday blaming President Donald Trump for inciting hatred and violence.


“Do you seriously wonder, Mr. President, why this is the first time in decades that America has seen this level of violence?” Wheeler said in an afternoon press conference. “It’s you who have created the hate and the division.”

Saying that it has long been his “greatest fear” that someone would die as a result of growing unrest in the city, Wheeler urged calm from both Portlanders who have been protesting racial injustice, and people on Twitter who he said have been threatening to “seek retribution” for the killing.

“The tragedy of last night cannot be repeated,” Wheeler said. “All of us must take a stance against violence. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your politics are.”

It was not clear Sunday afternoon whether the shooting was directly tied to conflicts between racial justice protesters and a caravan of Trump supporters and right-wing groups that made their way to downtown Portland. Neither Wheeler nor Police Chief Chuck Lovell, who appeared beside him at the news conference, offered new details about the man’s identity or what led to the shooting.

But there are some indications the victim might have been downtown because of the pro-Trump demonstration. Those grew stronger Sunday, when Joey Gibson, the leader of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, told the Associated Press the man was “a good friend and supporter.”

Official sources have not publicized the name of the victim. An online fundraiser was set up seeking money for funeral costs for a man referred to as Jay Bishop. The fundraising plea tied his death to groups that rode through Portland Saturday, mentioning “Patriots.” By 5 p.m. Sunday, donations had more than doubled the $10,000 goal. The link to the fundraising page has since been taken down.

With his remarks, Wheeler continued a war of words that local leaders and the president have engaged in for months regarding the unrest in the city. He was far from the only Oregon Democrat who cast Saturday’s shooting as a symptom of division the president has sown while in office. Both Gov. Kate Brown and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury issued statements similarly focused on Trump.

“Last night — stoked by a president who has gone out of his way to demonize this city and encourage vigilantism in service to white supremacy and his own fragile ego — armed participants of a pro-Trump caravan terrorized downtown Portland, driving their vehicles and shooting paintballs and pepper spray directly at community members and journalists,” Kafoury said in a statement. “They came to create confrontation and were able to do so.”

Since 2016, far-right organizations have held rallies in Portland that often culminate in brawls. Saturday night’s rally included pro-Trump supporters using mace and paintball guns against racial justice demonstrators. Leaders of a coalition of left-leaning civil rights groups said Sunday the behavior of the pro-Trump supporters was a result of years of failed, hands-off leadership by Wheeler, who they said should resign.

“The lack of leadership that has existed with the city and the mayor’s office has allowed this to fester and allowed these groups to be able to come in and feel like they can do whatever they want,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “The videos last night of trucks and cars driving through at full speed, trying to run people over, shooting people from the back of their cabs with paintball guns, suggest the city is not taking those groups seriously enough and that we can’t trust law enforcement to protect us or keep us safe.”

At Sunday’s afternoon press conference, Wheeler said voters would hold both him and the president accountable. But neither Wheeler nor Lovell offered a specific plan for preventing Saturday’s shooting from setting off more violence, though they both acknowledged that possibility.

“Today we need to decide who we are and where we want to go from here,” Wheeler said. “Don’t let this be the spark that sets off an acceleration of hostilities in our beautiful city. Those are not our values.”

As Lovell and Wheeler spoke to reporters, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty issued a statement again calling on Wheeler to give her day-to-day control over the Portland police. Under Portland’s unique commission form of government, individual City Council members serve as day-to-day managers over a portfolio of city departments. Wheeler, like most mayors, has kept the police bureau for himself.

Hardesty says Wheeler has lost control of the police.

“My office is working on a 30, 60 and 90 day plan to transition PPB leadership to my portfolio, and I stand ready for the Mayor to ask me to serve as Police Commissioner,” she wrote in a statement. " ... We need clear & unambiguous leadership to drive us to a more just future, with lived experience to direct needed urgent changes. I am ready to be that leader. We cannot continue to have a police force that shows up a minute late because their leadership is not showing up at all.”

Asked about the statement, Wheeler repeated what he has said in the past: That he will maintain oversight of the police bureau in the short term, but that “everything’s on the table” if he survives a re-election bid this November.

Activists who have been involved in the nightly racial justice protests say they’ve been concerned someone would get killed for a couple of weeks now. They’re also upset that they have to grapple with that possibility and the fact that it came to fruition.

“I think the bigger thing here is how did we get here?” asked Mac Smiff, a Portland-based activist and editor-in-chief of We Out Here magazine. “Why are we in a situation where there are armed people running around downtown causing altercations and why are we surprised that someone died in the process?”

Smiff said he’s still unpacking everything that happened Saturday night. He’s not just referring to someone getting shot but he also cites the indifference he saw from police officers who stood by and watched as pro-Trump demonstrators drove their trucks through a group of BLM counterprotesters.


“See? We told you to get out of the street,” Smiff said one officer quipped on the loud speaker.

“I think we’re at a precipice here,” Smiff said. “We have a killing now and it’s the opposite of the killing that happened in Kenosha.”

His hope is that Saturday’s killing leads people to think twice about engaging in violence but, he acknowledges, people have to be prepared for the possibility that things will continue to escalate.

Escalation has been the trend.

This weekend’s clash between Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter protesters follows another set of dueling demonstrations one week ago. City leaders opted not to send police into the fray when demonstrators clashed on Aug. 22. Wheeler and Lovell explained that Portland officers worried about wading into large, violent crowds to address individual law-breakers. They also said city police officers have been spread too thin by three months of nightly protests for racial justice and against police violence.

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell looks on as Mayor Ted Wheeler addresses a fatal shooting tied to protests during a press conference at City Hall in Portland, Ore., Aug. 30, 2020. One person was shot and killed as a pro-Trump car caravan rolled through town the previous evening.

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell looks on as Mayor Ted Wheeler addresses a fatal shooting tied to protests during a press conference at City Hall in Portland, Ore., Aug. 30, 2020. One person was shot and killed as a pro-Trump car caravan rolled through town the previous evening.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Lovell said again Sunday that the police bureau was strained and thus struggled to have enough officers to guard against protest chaos. He said bureau officials had tried to keep the Trump caravan out of downtown, and thus away from the racial justice protest.

“We tried to take precautionary measures to keep them out of the downtown area. The goal was to keep them on I-5,” he said. “But later, a group of those vehicles was able to come into the downtown core.”

Reporters for OPB witnessed police initially diverting vehicles in the caravan away from accessing downtown via the Morrison Bridge, but officers eventually stopped doing so.

Activists for greater civilian oversight of police have repeatedly accused the police bureau of protecting conservative groups such as Patriot Prayer.

In an unusual news conference Wednesday, Wheeler issued a sort of mea culpa, saying he had been trying to find a balance between protecting peaceful protesters and a small group committing vandalism and violence at the nightly racial justice rallies - and doing so essentially by himself.

Wheeler promised a new approach and held meetings on Thursday and Friday with police leaders and representatives of downtown business owners.

The activists who called for his resignation Sunday said they did not believe the mayor is capable of handling Portland’s current crises or making long-term strides toward racial equity.

“I’ll put it very bluntly: I do not think Mayor Wheeler is equipped from any standpoint to address or confront the complexity of this situation,” Singh said. “We need to remove the leadership that is preventing us from having these conversations. ...

“This was absolutely predictable, this type of violence.”

The coalition calling for Wheeler’s resignation also includes the Coalition of American-Islamic Relations, the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the political action group Next Up Oregon and PDX Resistance.

Meanwhile, Wheeler was also the subject of a storm of tweets from the president Sunday.

“The big backlash going on in Portland cannot be unexpected after 95 days of watching and incompetent Mayor admit that he has no idea what he is doing,” Trump wrote Sunday morning. “The people of Portland won’t put up with no safety any longer.The Mayor is a FOOL. Bring in the National Guard!”

Wheeler addressed the president by name several times during his Sunday afternoon news conference, and offered to work with him to reduce the chance of violence: “Wouldn’t that be a message?” he said. “Donald Trump and Ted Wheeler working together to help move this country forward. Why don’t we try that?”

Trump was apparently watching. In real time, the president responded on Twitter: “Ted Wheeler, the wacky Radical Left Do Nothing Mayor of Portland, who has watched great death and destruction of his City during his tenure, thinks this lawless situation should go on forever. Wrong! Portland will never recover with a fool for a Mayor.”

On Friday, Wheeler issued an open letter to Trump demanding that the president stay away from Portland: “We don’t need your politics of division and demagoguery. Portlanders are onto you,” he wrote. “... We know you’ve reached the conclusion that images of violence or vandalism are your only ticket to reelection.”

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown echoed Wheeler’s criticisms of the president Sunday:

“For the last several years, and escalating in recent months, President Trump has encouraged division and stoked violence. It happened in Charlottesville. It happened in Kenosha. And now, unfortunately, it is happening in Portland, Oregon,” the governor said in a written statement. “But despite the President’s jeers and tweets, this is a matter of life and death. Whether it’s his completely incompetent response to the pandemic, where nearly 200,000 have died, or his outright encouragement of violence in our streets: it should be clear to everyone by now that no one is truly safe with Donald Trump as President.”

In the past, Wheeler has asked Brown to send in National Guard for assistance with policing demonstrations but has been rebuffed. He suggested Sunday he would not do so again if tensions continue to mount in the city. The governor’s office did not respond to questions about whether Brown would be more willing to deploy National Guard troops in light of Saturday’s shooting.


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