One year after armed pro-Trump demonstrators brawled for hours with anti-fascist counterprotesters in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center, far right extremist groups are expected to attend an anniversary event downtown Sunday.
City, state, and federal leaders have issued statements condemning violence and supporting peaceful expressions of free speech, but they are once again wrestling with how to push back against extremist groups coming to Portland and inciting violence. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Metro President Lynn Peterson and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler issued a statement saying they stand united against hate and violence.
“The threat and use of violence against people and the destruction of property to further bigoted political or social objectives undermines our growing commitment to a truly inclusive community,” the statement said. “That is why we loudly reject violent anti-democratic incursions seeking to use Portland as a national stage to instill fear and promote bias violence in our city and beyond.”
The statement didn’t mention the Aug. 22 rally or any steps leaders are taking to stave off a repeat of last year’s violence. The city has gone to extraordinary lengths in the past to contain similar rallies. In September, the city and state mobilized a massive law enforcement response for a planned Proud Boys rally in Delta Park. That rally, which many anticipated would turn violent, fizzled amidst low turnout and a highly visible police presence.
No such plans have been announced for this weekend’s rally.
Wheeler did not return multiple requests for an interview. On Friday, he will host a virtual community gathering to unite and denounce hate and violence.
Sam Adams, senior advisor to the mayor, said city staff had devoted significant time to preparing for the event, but declined to offer specifics publicly, citing “a fluid situation.”
“The Police Bureau continues to work on plans for community safety this weekend,” Bureau spokesperson Lt. Greg Pashley said.
An Oregon State Police spokesperson said the agency has not received any requests for assistance.
‘Narrative of decivilization’
City leaders have long struggled with how to handle outside groups that come to Portland to instigate confrontations with city residents. Some police officers who spoke to OPB on the topic in 2020 said free speech became politicized when Wheeler asked the federal government to revoke a permit issued to Patriot Prayer for an event scheduled days after Jeremy Christian murdered two people in a racist attack. Activists, lawyers, and experts on extremism say political bias in law enforcement needs to be examined more closely, and that anti-paramilitary laws should be used against groups that incite violence in liberal cities.
“It is an intentional attempt to disrupt life in Portland and to provide this narrative of decivilization,” said Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center. “And in that type of chaos, these groups hope to position themselves as the alternative to inclusive communities that practice democracy.”
Ward said groups like the Proud Boys thrive when they can undermine government legitimacy and portray Portland as an out of control city where liberal leadership has given way to chaos and lawlessness.
“That’s dangerous because that narrative has been used to justify a number of sets of activity, from a federal incursion a year ago to justifying far-right violence on the streets,” he said.
Ward encourages the public to mobilize, and said that people turning to violent resistance is symptomatic of society’s failure to adequately address extremist groups. But he also said it’s not clear to him that violent confrontation against white nationalists has done anything to make communities stronger or safer. On the contrary, he said, movements that are part of a larger government response within the rule of law have been more effective at curbing fascism.
The rule of law, however, is often absent on Portland streets.
At last year’s event — which took place next to the police bureau’s headquarters and the federal courthouse — armed Proud Boys, QAnon supporters and a bevy of rifle-toting far right extremists were met by hundreds of anti-fascist counterprotesters. After a tense standoff that lasted less than an hour, violence broke out. The far-right side fired paintball guns, and wielded bats. Both groups sprayed mace at each other. At one point, Proud Boy Allen Swinney pointed a handgun at the crowd of counterprotesters.
The Portland Police Bureau said in a statement after the event, that officers did not get involved because the two sides were willing participants and the bureau was stretched thin after a summer of response to racial justice protests.
“PPB had to be judicious with our limited resources today especially since many of our members worked during the riot this morning and had very little sleep,” Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said at the time.
The following weekend, anti-fascist protester Michael Reinoehl shot and killed Aaron Jay Danielson when a pro-Trump car caravan Danielson was participating in came to Portland from Clackamas County, inciting dozens of fights with counterprotesters. Police also had a minimal presence at that fatal demonstration.
At protests that have turned violent this month, Portland police have again said they are short staffed and incapable of preventing political violence.
A brief lull in that violence on Portland streets ended Aug. 7, when people sporting the Proud Boys’ black and yellow colors acted as armed security at an event hosted by a homophobic, anti-COVID restriction preacher. That event ended in violent clashes with counterprotesters, and anti-fascists destroying sound equipment used by the preacher.
The following day, Proud Boys and an indicted Jan. 6 participant were again downtown for another anti-COVID restriction event. This time, sporadic violence lasted into the night and culminated when a man marched through downtown streets pointing what looked like a rifle at journalists and bystanders. The police, who took no steps to break up the clashes, later confirmed the rifle was an airsoft gun, and charged the man with menacing.
That same night, three men entered Chapman square yelling racial slurs at unhoused campers in the park. An unhoused person said he was beaten and hospitalized. Anticipating further violence, advocates have purchased seven hotel rooms to help get unhoused people away from downtown on Aug. 22.
Reading between the lines of the joint letter issued by local and state leaders last week, Ward said he saw a government overwhelmed by the political violence playing out in the city.
“It led me to ask, ‘Where is the federal government in this moment?’” he said. “This is not merely a Portland problem. This is a national discourse in which Portland has been made a target and it is time for the federal government to begin to lean in.”
A National Problem
Nationally, a lot has changed in the year since violent extremists openly battled with counterprotesters next to the police bureau’s headquarters. After the insurrection and tense transfer of power in January, the Department of Justice issued the nation’s first government-wide strategy for countering domestic terrorism.
“We cannot — and will not — ignore those dynamics such as racism and bigotry that perpetuate the domestic terrorism threat,” the report reads. “All told, today’s domestic terrorism threat poses a danger to Americans, our democratic society, and our national security that we must counter aggressively, comprehensively, and responsibly.”
The report cites the increased threat posed by religious and ethnically-motivated violent extremists, as well as anti-government extremists and militia. The report includes an intelligence community assessment stating that multiple factors could increase the likelihood of violence, including “growing perceptions of government overreach related to legal or policy changes and disruptions.”
In the days before Proud Boys engaged in violence at anti-COVID restriction events in Portland on Aug. 7 and 8, the Department of Homeland Security issued an awareness bulletin warning local police departments that false claims of election fraud in 2020 were fueling online calls for violence.
“Past circumstances have illustrated that calls for violence could expand rapidly in the public domain and may be occurring outside of publicly available channels,” NBC News reported the bulletin read. “As such, lone offenders and small groups of individuals could mobilize to violence with little-to-no warning.”
Three days later, Proud Boys were again at an anti-COVID restriction event outside Los Angeles city hall where they beat a journalist.
Asked how the federal government’s new strategy to counter domestic extremism was playing out in Oregon, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon Scott Asphaug declined an interview.
“We are aware of the events planned for this coming weekend and are coordinating with our law enforcement partners,” Asphaug said in an email. “We urge all participants to exercise their First Amendment rights peacefully. Portland has a long and proud history of hosting peaceful free speech events. With our partners, we will continue to do everything we can to ensure the safety of all residents and visitors.”
Critics of Portland’s response to political violence are in abundant supply. But leaders in neighboring jurisdictions have gotten a free pass when it’s their own residents who are coming to Portland to wreak havoc, Ward said.
“Surrounding counties who benefit from the economy of Portland, Oregon need to step up,” he said. “It is no longer morally or politically responsible to sit back and say, ‘well look what’s happening in Portland’ when many of the leaders who are coming into Portland … live in these surrounding counties and adjoining states.”
He points to convoys of far-right demonstrators, often with license plates removed, carrying weapons and being allowed to pass through surrounding jurisdictions, as evidence of the permissive atmosphere that neighboring leaders could address.
Portland isn’t the problem, Ward said, it’s just the battleground.
OPB’s Rebecca Ellis contributed to this story.