After a short reprieve in political violence on Portland streets following the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection, the city is once again bracing for street fights. Far right groups have circulated flyers promoting violence planned downtown this weekend. And antifascist counterprotesters say they plan to show up too. The opposing rallies will happen just a year after some of the bloodiest — and deadliest — political fighting that happened in Portland leading up to last year’s election. OPB’s Jonathan Levinson fills us in.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. After a short reprieve in political violence on Portland streets following the January 6th insurrection, the city is once again bracing for street fights. Far-right groups have circulated flyers promoting violence planned downtown this weekend. And anti-fascist counter protesters say they plan to show up as well. The opposing rallies will happen just about a year after some of the bloodiest and deadliest political fighting that happened in Portland last summer. Jonathan Levinson has been covering these issues for years now and he joins us with more. Jonathan, welcome back.
Jonathan Levinson: Hi Dave.
Miller: Hey there. So as I mentioned, this weekend’s event is marking the anniversary of a protest that happened on August 22, last year. Can you remind us what happened a year ago?
Levinson: Last August a pro-police, pro-Trump rally was planned in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center. It was billed as a ‘No Marxism in America’ rally. There was a “Back the Blue” rally and a Trump 2020 rally all mixed in there. This was the end of August. By then there have been almost 90 days of racial justice protests in Portland, many of them at that very same location right in front of the Justice Center. The far-right groups had generally stayed out of the fray as protesters clashed with law enforcement downtown. Then this rally happens. Up until then, protests have been going on at night. This crowd started gathering midday. The far right crowd was full of people in black and yellow, Proud Boy gear, QAnon signs, thin blue line flags and weapons. People had rifles and bats, shields with screws sticking out the front. This crowd was met by a large group of anti-fascist counter protesters who also had shields and mace. I saw a couple people with paintball guns in that crowd.
After less than an hour of a tense standoff and words being exchanged, it descended into just absolute violent chaos for the better part of a couple of hours. Two sides brawled in the street. It was extraordinarily violent. The crowd was covered in bear mace. At one point, a well known Proud Boy named Alan Sweeney pulled a handgun and pointed it at the counter protesters. Eventually the far right group retreated, left the area, but even that was volatile.
I approached one of the demonstrators as she was going into a parking garage and she pulled a gun on me. Then soon after a small group of counter protesters entered that parking garage and one of them had a gun. Two other reporters had guns pulled on them by far right people as they were getting into their car. So it was just a very violent day. Looking back, it’s surprising it wasn’t more violent and police never showed up. Later, they said that they were too short staffed to respond.
Miller: What are local or state leaders doing to prevent a repeat of last year’s fighting?
Levinson: Not a lot. Mayor Wheeler issued a statement with Governor Brown, County Chair Deborah Kaforey and Metro President Lynn Peterson. They condemned hate and violence. They rejected anti-democratic incursions into the city, spoke out against [what is] now a common practic of using Portland as a staging ground to promote hate and instill fear, they said. Wheeler is also hosting a ‘Choose Love’ event on Friday morning. That’s going to be a virtual community gathering to unite and denounce hate and violence. The acting U.S. Attorney for the district of Oregon told me by email that they’re aware of the event and have urged people to exercise their First Amendment rights peacefully. I think part of this is by design. These groups that come into Portland understand freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble.
I spoke to Eric Ward. We’s the executive director of the Western State Center. He said these groups target liberal cities and that they thrive when they can undermine legitimate government and make them look chaotic and powerless.
Here’s Ward: “It is an intentional attempt to disrupt life in Portland and to provide this narrative of decivilization, and in that type of chaos, these groups hope to position themselves as the alternative to inclusive communities that practice democracy.”
Levinson: He also said that this isn’t a local problem. This is a national problem. And Portland is just one of the battle grounds. So pinning all the responsibility for fixing it on local leaders isn’t realistic.
Miller: In a sense, we got what might be a small taste of what’s to come in a couple days. A week and a half ago when there were violent street clashes between Proud Boys and anti-fascists attempting to chase them out of town. The Proud Boys had been providing security at Waterfront Park for a religious event hosted by a fringe Christian songwriter and anti-COVID restriction activist. What happened and how did police respond?
Levinson: There were two events on August 7th and August 8th hosted by people who had espoused bigotry and hate in the past, very anti-COVID restrictions. After the event on the 7th, there were small skirmishes downtown between some of the far right security people, some of them were wearing the now notorious black and yellow associated with the Proud Boys. At one point, police were seen sitting in their car watching the two sides exchange mace and paintball rounds. Then the next day, similar events unfolded, just more of it really. A larger group of Proud Boys and far right security were present downtown, including people who have gone to jail over fights like this in the past. Someone who is charged in the January 6th insurrection was there. Police again were absent from that all night as people exchanged mace and paintball rounds across blocks of downtown. Vehicles sped through the crowd and the police again said that they were busy with other calls and couldn’t respond.
Late in the night, a man decked out in body armor with magazine pouches walked through downtown carrying what looked like a rifle. He was pointing it at bystanders and journalists. A large group was following him. He actually called the police himself for help and they instructed him to walk to Central Precinct where they briefly took him into custody [and] released him. He was actually ultimately charged a few days later for menacing and disorderly conduct. The police said that the rifle he was carrying wasn’t real.
Miller: You mentioned January 6th. It seems like that’s one of the biggest differences between August of 2020 and now is that that attempted insurrection happened. How did the events of January 6th change the way the federal government views domestic extremism?
Levinson: Quite a bit has changed at the national level, on paper at least. The January 6th insurrection, I think, sent shockwaves through federal law enforcement. In June, the Department of Justice issued its first ever national strategy to combat domestic extremism. In that it says ignoring racism [and] bigotry only helps perpetuate this threat. That strategy specifically singles out the threat posed by religious and ethnically motivated extremist groups and militia organizations.
We’ve seen this focus on domestic extremism manifest in organizations like the Department of Homeland Security. They recently issued a bulletin through the National Terrorism Advisory System. That’s the system that replaced the Green, Yellow and Red alerts put in place after 911. This most recent bulletin warns of increased threats around anti-COVID 19 restrictions and election conspiracies, and said that these false narratives can gain traction and spur small groups to turn to violence. It’s unusual for the federal government to so openly acknowledge and warn against the threat posed by these domestic groups, but to the extent that this is translated into concrete action in local field offices, it’s still hard to assess, Again, Eric Ward said he thinks that local government is overwhelmed and said the federal government needs to step up. Here he is:
“It led me to ask the question, where is the federal government in this moment? 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.”
Miller: I was just curious, what are federal leaders saying about their plans?
Levinson: Again, not much. One of the things Homeland Security says it is doing nationally is coordinating with local law enforcement. Officials briefed local agencies recently on the threats that they were seeing. The acting U.S. Attorney here in Oregon also said that they’re coordinating with local agencies in the run up to this weekend, but no one’s offered specifics, including the Portland police, as to what that coordination actually looks like.
Miller: We’ve talked about this weekend being the one year anniversary of a bloody brawl on Portland streets. But meanwhile, the weekend after, the 29th is the one year anniversary of the killing of Aaron Danielson, a supporter of the far right Patriot Prayer group. His suspected killer, Michael Reinoehl, was killed by law enforcement five days later. How much have people been talking about concerns for what’s on the slightly further horizon?
Levinson: Danielson has become something of a rallying cry for some of these local groups. You’ll see them wearing hats or shirts commemorating him and whenever far right violence in the city comes up. It’s not unusual to hear that killing mentioned as a sort of counterpoint. I haven’t heard anything planned for the 29th this year, but I think we can say that the unchecked violence last year on the 22nd contributed to the events a week later when Danielson was killed.
Miller: Is there anything that you’ve heard that law enforcement or elected leaders could do to prevent these kinds of political street fights?
Levinson: They have certainly been able to prevent them in the past when they’ve chosen to, but it’s required a pretty big lift. Last year, barely a month after the violence at the Justice Center, the state marshalled an enormous response for a Proud Boys rally in Delta Park. For that, the governor established a unified law enforcement command under the State Police. The law enforcement presence in the city was pervasive and it worked. That demonstration, which was widely feared to be just enormously violent, fizzled. There was very low turnout. The group was pretty much isolated in Delta Park. But intervention is expensive. It takes a lot of resources. But not intervening is also quite expensive. It makes the community not trust the police and lose faith in government. As we’ve seen, tolerating political violence in the streets doesn’t make it go away. It just makes it worse and has severe consequences.
Miller: Jonathan, thanks very much.
Levinson: Thank you, Dave.
Miller: Jonathan Levinson is a reporter for OPB.
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