The city of Portland has refused to grant a permit to the Proud Boys, the far-right group planning a large rally at North Portland’s Delta Park Saturday.

Bureau officials cited coronavirus concerns.

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Local leaders have spoken out about the potential for violent clashes between the far-right demonstrators and leftist counter-protesters and tried to calm tensions ahead of Saturday. In a tweet, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said “agitators” set on spreading hate and provoking violence are not welcome in the city. The People of Color Caucus, composed of Oregon lawmakers of color, urged protesters to stay away from the hate groups Saturday and not “empower them with our presence.”

Proud Boy Alan Swinney fires paintballs at antifascist counterprotesters during pro-Trump and pro-police demonstrations earlier this summer. The right-wing group plans another protest in Portland on Sept. 26.

Proud Boy Alan Swinney fires paintballs at antifascist counterprotesters during pro-Trump and pro-police demonstrations earlier this summer. The right-wing group plans another protest in Portland on Sept. 26.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Portland has been home to consistent demonstrations against police violence since police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Mark Ross, a park bureau spokesperson, said the city had never been asked for a permit for any of these large scale demonstrations. Had they been asked, they would have said no due to COVID restrictions.

The city has gotten in trouble in the past for trying to revoke permits from far right groups. Back in 2017, Wheeler asked the federal government to block a “free-speech” rally held by right-wing groups on the basis that the event would inflame tensions with the city still reeling from the Jeremy Christian killing. The mayor took heat from free speech watchdog groups who saw it as a violation of the First Amendment.

But a pandemic gave the city a new reason to reject the event.

During COVID-19, the Portland Parks Bureau won’t grant a permit for any group larger than 50 people. The rally organizers requested a permit for 20,00 people — 10,000 participants and 10,000 observers.

“The described event is not compliant with Oregon Health Authority guidelines about the number of people allowed in gatherings and cannot be conducted in a manner consistent with physical distancing guidance from public health officials,” Commissioner Amanda Fritz, the parks commissioner, wrote in a statement. “...Events like this are not welcome and not allowed.”

In the application, rally organizers said they were making the massive crowd estimate based on three factors: “social media interest, history of hosting these events, anger about terrorism.”

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This summer, President Donald Trump has stoked fear around the racial justice protests that have taken place in Portland as he seeks re-election, branding the city as an “anarchist jurisdiction” where the leaders are inept and lawlessness is rampant. Event organizers had a similar take.

In a spot on the permit form where applicants are asked to explain the event, organizers wrote they were responding to escalating violence in the city:

“We the PEOPLE are tired of incompetent city leadership who neuters police and allows violent gangs or rioting felons to run the streets, burn buildings, throw molotov cocktails/rocks/fireworks/concrete and assault people with impunity,” the application read. “Portland leadership is unwilling to stop the violence.”

The application leaves the impression organizers weren’t really asking for permission for the event, but rather wanted to give the city a heads up. In the form section where it asks for the name of the sponsor, the organizer wrote “this permit is not required for 1A activity. This submission is to open communication with City Officials and help with coordination to ensure city safety."

The issue of how to actually keep a non-permitted event from happening falls in the lap of the Portland Police. The parks bureau referred questions about enforcement to the police commissioner. That’s Mayor Ted Wheeler.

In a statement yesterday, police officials said they’d been working closely with the mayor’s office and other local partners to plan for the event.

“Lawful engagement in First Amendment rights is acceptable,” the bureau said in a statement. “Attendance with the intent to harm or intimidate others is not appropriate or safe for anyone.”

Portland won’t be receiving help from the Oregon State Police and the Multnomah County Sheriffs' Office. Both agencies rejected a request to help to control the crowds, and both cited the mayor’s recent ban on the use of CS gas when they did so. Law enforcement officials, including Portland Chief Chuck Lovell, have said tear gas is their safest option to limit crowds and warned that a ban could lead to more physical altercations between police and demonstrators.

“After careful consideration of the potential life safety concerns at the event planned for September 26th, we are concerned that the prohibition on the use of CS gas leaves PPB with no sound tactical options to quickly disperse a large crowd engaged in dangerous acts of violence,” Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese wrote in an email to Portland Deputy Chief Chris Davis.

Reese wrote they would not be making the county’s Rapid Response Team available, though they could help process people arrested and help with patrol in East Portland.

The Oregon State Police said it would help PPB up to a point: assisting police before the main event and “maintaining a mobile response for anticipated flash point.” But state police declined to intervene with the crowds unless the restrictions on CS gas were lifted.

“If the decision amend the CS gas prohibition is revisited, we are willing to discuss resource allocation," wrote Supt. Travis Hampton. “OSP has used CS gas judiciously, although it is a tool we must have available for community safety, officer safety and best policing practices.”

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