The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Violent protest clashes turned Portland into a ‘right-wing boogeyman.’ Here’s how it happened.

Mothers join a demonstration to protest racial inequality, in Portland, Ore., on Saturday. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

On Monday, President Trump painted another dire picture of the ongoing protests in Portland, Ore., telling reporters the demonstrators there are “anarchists” who “hate our country.” So awful is the violence, Trump alleged, that he’s been forced to flood the city with federal officers.

But Democrats and local leaders reiterated on Monday that protests have been largely peaceful, and harshly criticized the federal forces, which have shot and seriously injured one peaceful protester and shoved others into unmarked vans.

‘It was like being preyed upon’: Portland protesters say federal officers in unmarked vans are detaining them

How exactly did this riverside city of about 654,000 became such a tense national battleground?

Experts and local activists say Trump’s claims are the latest in a sustained efforts by conservative commentators and politicians to marry the myth of antifa terrorists to a city where discontent has grown for years over increasingly harsh police responses at protests.

The previous two or three years of protest policing in Portland have created a fracture with the community,” Michael German, a former FBI special agent and senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, told The Washington Post. “The more aggression the police gave, the more aggression was returned.”

Protests are nothing new in a city long known for its radical protest culture. Angry counterprotesters hounded a convention for communists in the 1980s; self-described anarchists sporadically clashed with President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, when he dubbed the city “Little Beirut”; and a large protest camp rooted in a city park for weeks during the 2011 Occupy protests. The local police have often used less-lethal munitions, chemical weapons and mass arrests to quash demonstrations.

The most recent national focus on Portland as a hub of clashes between police, left-wing protesters and right-wing agitators began in November 2016, when the city erupted into large, and at times unruly, protests after Trump’s unexpected victory. Police deployed tear gas and arrested hundreds, as a small group of anarchists shattered windows and sprayed graffiti on buildings.

About six months later, the city was mourning the killing of two men on a light-rail train in a hate crime when a far-right group known to attract neo-Nazis and white supremacists held an “anti-antifa” rally days after the slaying. When more than 2,000 Portlanders marched against the right-wing extremists, police detained almost 400 people and took photos of their IDs.

That incident set off nearly two years of costly protests that frustrated police and the public. Far-right groups not from Portland repeatedly held rallies and marches throughout the city during the summer of 2017, congregating in June, August and September. Local counterdemonstrators showed up in droves.

As Portland entered its 50th night of protests on July 16, here's a look back at how tensions between protesters and police have risen. (Video: The Washington Post)

A familiar pattern developed: Hours of peaceful protests would eventually deteriorate. Sometimes, physical fights broke out between anti-fascist activists and far-right extremists who came to town openly advocating violence. More often, the left-leaning crowds clashed with the police.

Those sporadic battles continued into 2018. At an Aug. 4, 2018, protest, police shot flash-bang grenades into a crowd of peaceful protesters, giving a man a traumatic brain injury after an explosive lodged in his bike helmet and severely burning a woman who was struck as a canister ignited. Meanwhile, police allowed the right-wing crowd, which included men who had been caught with long guns on top of a parking garage that day, to march through downtown.

“You have far-right groups coming in from out of town and staging these riots and the police were, objectively, acting more aggressively toward the community members coming out in protest of these far-right groups than the far-right groups themselves,” German said.

As the clashes escalated, the national image of Portland changed. Outsiders who previously associated the Rose City with craft beer and the TV series “Portlandia” instead watched nightly news clips of a few black-clad anarchists busting out windows, blocking traffic and fighting with cops.

Left-leaning activists say those clips elided the fact that thousands of protesters were massing against out-of-town, right-wing agitators, and most of the counterdemonstrators were peaceful.

“For years, we’ve had these fascists coming to Portland. They’re always met with a large crowd of antifascists, and the police always brutalize the antifascists and protect the fascists,” Olivia Katbi Smith, co-chair of the Portland Democratic Socialists of America, told The Post. “It’s made Portland a really great scapegoat for the Trump administration.”

The Portland Police Bureau did not return requests for comment, but the agency has consistently denied being influenced by political bias while policing demonstrations. The bureau often points to actions taken by individuals within a crowd of protesters, including throwing projectiles at officers, to justify the use of force.

The latest wave of protests in Portland started after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. As left-leaning protesters have marched to oppose racism and police brutality for 54 consecutive nights, claims from police and right-wing politicians that the demonstrations pose a threat have intensified.

Protesters have repeatedly spray-painted anti-police messages on the federal courthouse and the Multnomah County Justice Center, where the county jail and police headquarters are located. They broke some windows and set a small fire inside the justice center in the early days of the uprising. A few have thrown fireworks at heavily armored riot police.

Police, meanwhile, have used tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang explosives to drive back crowds, sometimes deploying those munitions against peaceful demonstrators.

But after weeks of nightly standoffs, Portland’s protests calmed in late June, with fewer major confrontations with police. A judge ordered local police on June 9 to largely halt the use of tear gas, and that order was expanded to include other munitions on June 26. A new state law further limited tear gas to be used only during riots. The crowds shrank. Music and barbecues in a park across the street from the federal courthouse became a nightly event.

Then, federal officers showed up in the city in early July and the demonstrations grew more heated than ever.

Trump “is accusing the local government of not being able to do what he could do easily,” Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle from 1994 to 2000, told The Post. “I believe it’s safe to say it has backfired.”

Portland police had been under intense scrutiny for overreacting to protests and firing tear gas at peaceful demonstrators in the weeks before the federal forces arrived, said Stamper, who has been advising the Oregon state legislature as it seeks to pass a number of police accountability bills this year.

“Then the president sent forces in, doubled down, and made matters much, much worse,” he said.

The Trump administration has pointed to property damage near the courthouse to justify the federal presence.

Last week, acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf tweeted now-deleted photos of anti-police graffiti on the federal courthouse in downtown Portland. On Thursday, he released a “snapshot of the lawless destruction and violence” in the city, which referred to 19 incidents of graffiti, a few broken windows and multiple clashes between federal officers and protesters. He classed the protesters as “violent anarchists.”

“Our men and women in uniform are patriots,” Wolf tweeted. We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch.”

As right-wing media and politicians seized on the most sensational images of property damage, Wolf and others began promoting the narrative that violent antifascists are terrorizing Portland.

German, though, calls that characterization “hyperbolic.”

They are “equating terrorism to vandalism,” he told The Post. “You can wash spray paint off a wall. You paint over it. It’s not that serious of a crime. And why that would ever justify the government’s use of violence is hard to understand.”

Trump, meanwhile, has done little to veil the political motivations for targeting deeply blue Portland.

“This is worse than anything anyone’s ever seen,” Trump said at a news conference Monday, referring to the protests in Portland and violence in other big cities. He added: “And you know what? If [Joe] Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell.”

Some in Portland agree with Trump that the protests have gone on too long, and have caused too much property damage.

“This is no longer about George Floyd, racial equity, social justice reform or the evolution of policing,” police union president Daryl Turner said at a news conference Sunday. “This is about violence, rioting and destruction. Our city is under siege by rioters.”

But many local and state politicians have waged a war of words with Trump and Wolf, demanding the feds leave. And the violence and property damage in the city has largely been contained in a 12-block section of downtown near the city center, where the courthouses, police headquarters and city hall lie.

That has not stopped claims by Wolf, Trump and others that Portland is a city under siege.

“The police bureau has done everything they can to cast the protesters in the most negative light, to get the public against them,” said Juan Chavez, an attorney for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, who has represented plaintiffs who have sued the city over its treatment of protesters. “But what it’s really done is cast us in the role of a right-wing boogeyman.”