PORTLAND, Ore. — A right-wing group and self-described anti-fascist counter-protesters rallied in Portland, Oregon, Saturday as police tried to prevent the gatherings from turning violent as they have before.
Demonstrators aligned with Patriot Prayer and an affiliated group, the Proud Boys, gathered around mid-day in a riverfront park. The hundreds of opposing demonstrators faced them from across the street, holding banners and signs. Many of them yelled out chants such as “Nazis go home.”
Police officers in riot gear stood in the middle of the four-lane boulevard, ensuring the two groups stay separated.
The counter-protesters were made up of a coalition of labor unions, immigrant rights advocates, democratic socialists and other groups. They included people dressed as clowns and a brass band blaring music.
The rally organized by Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson was the third to roil Portland this summer. Two previous events ended in bloody fistfights and riots, and one counter-protester was sent to the hospital with a skull fracture.
This time, Gibson changed the venue from a federal plaza outside U.S. District Court to a waterfront park so some of his Oregon supporters could carry concealed weapons as they demonstrate.
Protesters saw a significant police presence that included bomb-sniffing dogs and weapons screening checkpoints. In a statement, police said weapons may be seized if there is a violation of law and added that it is illegal in Portland to carry a loaded firearm in public unless a person has a valid Oregon concealed handgun license. Many protesters are expected to be from out of state.
Gibson’s insistence on bringing his supporters repeatedly to this blue city has crystallized a debate about the limits of free speech in an era of stark political division. Patriot Prayer also has held rallies in many other cities around the U.S. West, including Berkeley, California, that have drawn violent reactions.
But the Portland events have taken on outsized significance after a Patriot Prayer sympathizer was charged with fatally stabbing two men who came to the defense of two young black women — one in a hijab — whom the attacker was accused of harassing on a light-rail train in May 2017.
A coalition of community organizations and a group representing more than 50 tribes warned of the potential for even greater violence than previous rallies if participants carry guns. It called on officials to denounce what it called “the racist and sexist violence of Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys” and protect the city.
Gibson, who is running a long-shot campaign to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, said in a live video on Facebook earlier this week that he won’t stop bringing his followers to Portland until they can express their right-wing views without interference.
“I refuse to do what Portland wants me to do because what Portland wants me to do is to shut up and never show up again. So yeah, I refuse to do that, but I will not stop going in, and I will not stop pushing, and I will not stop marching until the people of Portland realize that and realize that their methods do not work,” he said.
Self-described anti-fascists — or “antifa” — have been organizing anonymously online to confront Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys in the streets.
A broader counter-protest organized by a coalition of labor unions, immigrant rights groups and artists planned to gather at City Hall before the Patriot Prayer rally. Organizers say that while Patriot Prayer denies being a white supremacist group, it affiliates itself with known white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazi gangs.
“Patriot Prayer is continuing to commit violence in our city, and their events are becoming more and more violent,” said Effie Baum of Pop Mob, a coalition of community groups organizing the counter-demonstration. “Leaving them a small group to attack in the streets is only going to allow them to perpetuate their violence.”
Dueling protests a month ago ended with Portland police declaring a riot and arresting four people. A similar Patriot Prayer event on June 4 devolved into fistfights and assaults by both sides as police struggled to keep the groups apart.
The man charged in last year’s light-rail stabbing deaths, Jeremy Christian, was filmed making the Nazi salute at a Patriot Prayer rally a month before the killings.
Christian, who has pleaded not guilty, later told investigators he was not motivated by racism but was drunk and wanted to “do his free speech thing” when he shouted racist and anti-immigrant slurs on the light-trail train before the stabbings.
In the aftermath, Gibson organized a pro-President Donald Trump free speech rally that attracted thousands from both sides to downtown Portland. The ensuing chaos shut down much of the city’s core and police arrested more than a dozen.