The proposal would give the mayor, who also serves as police commissioner, the ability to dictate the location and length of protests if they are found to pose a threat to public safety or a disruption to public services.
Though Wheeler didn’t mention any groups by name, the ordinance comes after frequent clashes between two feuding political groups: the far-right Patriot Prayer of Southwest Washington and left-wing antifa demonstrators in Portland. The conflicts have generated a steady stream of negative press for Wheeler, particularly in partisan media.
“I will not allow continued planned street violence between rival factions to take place on the streets of Portland,” Wheeler said.
Describing his rationale for the new rules, the mayor described a series of escalating incidents involving the two groups — including one alarming account that hadn’t previously been made public.
Wheeler said on Aug. 4 “prior to the start of a scheduled demonstration, the Portland Police Bureau discovered individuals who had positioned themselves on a rooftop parking structure in downtown Portland with a cache of firearms.”
Assistant Police Chief Ryan Lee provided more detail regarding the incident. He said police officers, concerned that the men were in an elevated position over a large protest venue, seized their weapons for safekeeping and “those individuals were redirected.”
Lee said police looked to see whether the men had committed an offense that could be prosecuted, but concluded they had not because they had concealed carry permits. He identified the men as being affiliated with Patriot Prayer.
Joey Gibson, Patriot Prayer’s leader, initially told OPB he wasn’t aware of the incident. But he said after speaking with a contact at the police bureau, he believed Lee and Wheeler mischaracterized the incident during the press conference. According to Gibson, the men were parking their cars in the garage and were intercepted by police, who informed them that no weapons would be allowed at the Aug. 4 event. Police allowed the men to store their firearms in their vehicles, according to Gibson.
Wheeler said his ordinance — still in draft form — will give him, in his role as police commissioner, the ability to regulate the time, place and matter of demonstrations held in the city.
As the mayor described it, the rules in the ordinance could apply to a wide range of protests in Portland, well beyond the clashes between Patriot Prayer and Antifa.
Wheeler said it could be triggered in cases where two or more groups plan to demonstrate on the same day and have a history of violence, but also, more broadly, if a protest was deemed “a threat to safety of participants or bystanders, interference with the ability to access public property, or the disruption of public services,” or if there was “a substantial likelihood of violence” based on information gathered in advance.
Wheeler said violating his written orders limiting the time and location of a protest would constitute a misdemeanor that protesters could face after arrest.
“I’ve also asked my staff to look at ways to hold accountable those who sap our public resources by using the city as a venue for planned street violence,” he said.
Wheeler’s four colleagues on the City Council only learned about the draft bill a few hours before Wheeler publicly announced his plan. In a statement emailed to the press, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly signaled that the mayor may have a difficult time earning her vote.
“I share the Mayor’s concern and the public’s frustration with these violent and disruptive demonstrations. However, as a strong advocate for freedom of speech, expression, and assembly I am very reluctant to support a policy that could infringe in any way on these essential constitutional rights,” Eudaly wrote.
And the ordinance could face legal hurdles. The ACLU of Oregon immediately questioned the constitutionality of the measure, and the mayor’s rush to introduce it.
“Perhaps worse than the legal issues it raises, is that this ordinance is being sprung on the public with little notice as an emergency measure that will take effect immediately,” said Mat dos Santos, the group’s legal director. “This action by the mayor demonstrates a lack of trust in the public and is an end-run around our usual democratic processes.”
Portland has a long history of raucous and occasionally violent street protests. It was famously dubbed “Little Beirut” by staffers of the President George H.W. Bush.