Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler had a message on Friday for the brawling right-wing groups predicted to pour into downtown on Sunday and clash violently with the anti-fascist counterprotesters they meet: “Choose love.”
The plea, delivered over a Zoom call, was ostensibly targeted at the far-right groups that are planning a rally downtown on Sunday. That rally, on the anniversary of a similar event last year that turned into hours of violence, is expected to once again turn the city’s downtown into a battleground.
Wheeler’s Zoom call was preceded by a song performed by local musical group The Brown Sisters, similarly encouraging people to choose love, which, they crooned, was “the best choice to choose.”
Sunday’s event falls on the one-year anniversary of a particularly violent political clash in which the opposing groups brawled on the street next to police headquarters for hours with no police intervention. The police later said they were stretched thin from a protest the prior night and had to “be judicious” with their police response. Police Chief Chuck Lovell said they have no plans to intervene Sunday, either.
In his remarks, Wheeler broadly condemned the political violence that has become routine in Portland. He did not specifically mention the protests slated for this weekend.
“Hate and hate groups have no place in our city,” he said. “Violence has no place in our city. Bigotry has no place in our city. We will not tolerate acts of violence, destruction, prejudice or intimidation.”
Wheeler was joined by local business, political, and civil rights leaders including Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, Western States Center’s Eric Ward, and City Commissioner Dan Ryan. Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Mingus Mapps were not in attendance. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is on vacation and did not attend.
Amid the strong condemnations of violence and hate, the commitments to Portland values, and the calls for the city to rise to the occasion, a plan to prevent or de-escalate violence that may occur on Sunday was notably absent.
Lovell said officers won’t be standing in the crowd to keep the groups apart.
“People can and should keep themselves apart and choose to avoid violent physical confrontations,” Lovell said.
Lovell said Sunday is an “all hands day,” meaning officers’ days off have been canceled and all available officers will be on duty. He said there will be a large police presence at the event and that while officers may not intervene in violence as it takes place, they will investigate crimes and possibly make arrests after.
Metro president Lynn Peterson sounded skeptical the far-right groups would be listening to local leaders in the love-themed press conference. Instead, she addressed the counterprotesters, asking them to avoid downtown and volunteer with the United Way.
“It might feel good to yell or taunt or chase a bunch of pathetic boys around downtown Portland. You might feel like you’re an element of justice when our society and our system have let you down,” Peterson said. “But this has been going on for more than two years, and violence doesn’t make anyone feel safer.”
Within an hour of Wheeler’s Zoom event, the mayor had strayed from the love-themed message.
In a follow-up press briefing on the city’s plan to police the protests, reporters were limited to one question per media outlet. Senior mayoral adviser Sam Adams discouraged additional questions and barked at reporters multiple times for making follow-up inquiries. Adams later said he was addressing someone else.
Community activists and civil rights leaders held their own press conference Friday morning condemning the city’s failure to prevent the political violence that routinely plays out on Portland streets.
“The violence that has been perpetrated against Portlanders for over a hundred years in this state is continued because of policies that are aligned along with [Wheeler’s] values,” said Teressa Raiford, the founder of the anti-gun violence organization Don’t Shoot PDX. “Those values do not serve us, they do not serve our future, and they do not serve a diverse community which is being brought to the forefront of these fights, because of the necessity for our humanity to stand clear.”
Dustin Brandon, a well-known anti-fascist activist in Portland, said members of the far-right had been putting up stickers around town of him being decapitated. “If the government won’t prevent hate groups from inciting violence, then community members will step up to fill the void.”
“The people that we need to rely on right now — our police, our government — are not here,” Brandon said. “They haven’t been, they weren’t, they’re not going to be.”
Asked if unchecked political violence is inevitable, Wheeler said there are discussions online suggesting people are coming to town specifically to get into fights.
“We’re telling them, ‘Hell no,’” Wheeler said. “If they come here, if they engage in that type of activity, we’re going to do the best we can, with the resources we have available, to hold people accountable.”
Oregon leaders have, in the past, taken decisive steps to quell these sorts of clashes. In September, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency in Portland ahead of far-right rallies that were expected to draw an unruly crowd. That protest fizzled quickly.
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