Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler calls for tougher penalties, more police tools, as protests mark new year in Oregon cities

By Anna Griffin (OPB) and Sergio Olmos (OPB)
Jan. 1, 2021 4:57 p.m. Updated: Jan. 2, 2021 1:34 a.m.

Wheeler wants the state Legislature to make it easier for law enforcement to investigate and track protest violence. Civil liberty groups will have questions.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler wants tougher penalties for people repeatedly caught engaging in violence and vandalism, wants police officers to have more tools to investigate protest-related violence and promises tougher policing against demonstrators who break the law.

That’s his response to a New Year’s Eve riot in downtown Portland that included broken windows, small fires and commercial-grade fireworks fired at public buildings.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in a file photo from an August 2020 press conference.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in a file photo from an August 2020 press conference.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Wheeler said the violence and vandalism had no clear political purposes. He blamed “violent antifa and anarchists” and described participants as largely white and young.

“It’s hard for most of us to even comprehend what goes on in the heads of people who think it’s OK or a good idea to go on a violent rampage through the city on New Year’s Eve and during a pandemic,” Wheeler said at a Friday afternoon press conference. “It’s the height of selfishness. … There are some people who just want to watch the world burn.”

Around 100 people gathered in the same general area as the summer’s many demonstrations against police violence Thursday night. Some in the crowd launched fireworks at the Federal Courthouse and the Multnomah County Justice Center and threw rocks, bricks and frozen water bottles at officers who responded. Windows were broken at several downtown businesses. Portland police said several items resembling Molotov cocktails were thrown, and multiple small fires were set.

Police declared the event a riot and used smoke and impact munitions to disperse the crowd.

Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell both described their officers as being “under attack” Thursday night. Lovell said three people have been arrested on charges stemming from Thursday night’s violence.

Wheeler said the Portland police are working with District Attorney Mike Schmidt to charge the people responsible. He plans to convene a meeting as soon as next week with federal, state and local law enforcement officials to discuss ways to “develop clear plans to address anarchist violence both here in Portland and throughout the state.”

He also called on the state legislature to increase the penalties for people repeatedly found to have committed criminal destruction and vandalism and to give police more leeway to videotape demonstrators and “otherwise gather intelligence on these small groups of organized criminals.” That suggestion is sure to raise concerns among civil liberty groups.


Wheeler also wants people convicted of vandalizing businesses to be required to meet with owners and employees and to perform community service aimed at repairing damage they’ve caused.

“These people need to hear and understand the social and human consequences of their irresponsible actions,” he said.

In Salem, protesters rally against COVID-19 restrictions

Meanwhile, several hundred people gathered in at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem Friday for a rally against the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions and the results of the presidential election. Some in the crowd urged other attendees to take off their masks.

Protesters in Salem on Jan. 1, 2021, stand together underneath a giant U.S. flag in front of the Oregon Capitol building.

Protesters in Salem on Jan. 1, 2021, spoke out against COVID-19 restrictions and in support of President Donald Trump.

Sergio Olmos

Joey Gibson, organizer of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, celebrated a group of mayors who planned to reopen their city economies in direct violation of state restrictions.

“This is the kind of leadership our country needs,” said Gibson, whose group has attracted white supremacists and engaged in violence at other demonstrations.

Incoming Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith compared state health leaders to “the Gestapo” while speaking in front of the Capitol and beneath a banner advertising “Oregon Women for Trump.”

The protesters marched to Mahonia Hall, the governor’s official residence in Salem. Some then returned to the Capitol, where their interactions with police turned increasingly tense. The shouts and chants from the crowd shifted from calls to arrest Gov. Kate Brown to promises to no longer “back the blue” after protesters used what Salem police described as “chemical munitions” against law enforcement, and officers used pepper balls to hold back the crowd. Salem police declared the gathering an unlawful assembly and made numerous arrests.

Last month, far-right demonstrators who protested COVID-19 restrictions, the presidential election results and Brown attempted to break into the Capitol during the Legislature’s one-day special session.

Five people were arrested on charges stemming from the special legislative session’s demonstrations.