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Portland police stand by as Proud Boys and far-right militias flash guns and brawl with antifa counterprotesters

Far right activists exchanged blows with antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters during a rally in Portland on Aug. 22, as police looked on. (Video: Katie Shepherd/The Washington Post)

PORTLAND, Ore. — On Saturday afternoon, a large crowd of more than 100 far-right activists, including Proud Boys and armed militia members, descended on Portland, Ore., staging a “Back the Blue” rally in front of the Justice Center that houses the downtown police precinct. Hundreds of antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters gathered to oppose the far-right crowd.

People in the far-right crowd came armed with paintball guns, metal rods, aluminum bats, fireworks, pepper spray, rifles and handguns. Some people in the opposing left-leaning crowd brought rocks, fireworks and bottles filled with chemical solutions. Both crowds sported shields and helmets.

The two groups sparred for more than two hours, as people exchanged blows, fired paintballs at each other and blasted chemicals indiscriminately into the crowd. People lobbed fireworks back and forth. At least one person was hit in the abdomen with a device that flashed and exploded, causing bleeding.

The rally followed a much smaller right-wing event last week that ended with gunfire. On Wednesday, Portland police arrested and seized a gun from 27-year-old Skylor Noel Jernigan, a far-right activist who has frequently rallied against antifascists in the city in recent years. Many of the same people came out again Saturday, including Alan Swinney, who brandished a gun and pointed it at the opposing crowd.

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As the brawls unfolded, Portland police officers remained at a distance. They made several announcements over loudspeakers, encouraging the crowds to “self-monitor for criminal activity,” even as people beat others with sticks, and at least two right-wing activists brandished handguns.

“Each skirmish appeared to involve willing participants and the events were not enduring in time, so officers were not deployed to intervene,” the Portland Police Bureau said in a statement.

Police said they did not stop the violence, although the event met the criteria to be declared a riot, because too few officers were available to respond and they deemed it too dangerous to intervene. Officers were tired from responding to a much smaller and less volatile protest that was declared a riot the night before, the bureau said in a statement, and incident commanders also had concerns that officers would be targeted by the crowd.

“PPB members have been the focus of over 80 days of violent actions directed at the police, which is a major consideration for determining if police resources are necessary to interject between two groups with individuals who appear to be willingly engaging in physical confrontations for short durations,” the bureau said in a statement. “While the activity in the group met the definition of a riot, PPB did not declare one because there were not adequate police resources available to address such a declaration.”

The Portland Police Bureau has struggled to quell confrontations between far-right groups and antifascists in the city since at least 2017, when a string of violent riots broke out over the summer and fall.

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The decision not to intervene was a striking contrast to police tactics at several left-leaning Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks. Officers have consistently declared unlawful assemblies and riots at nighttime protests that have devolved into property damage and projectiles thrown at police. Although those events have involved significant property damage at times, they have not involved firearms or rampant brawling among demonstrators.

Several people were injured in the chaos at the warring protests. Dakota Means, 25, was hit in the eye with a paintball fired by a man in the far-right crowd wearing a tactical vest with a “Texas” patch across his chest.

“I counted six shots — three of them whizzed past me, two of them landed in front of me, but the last one hit me right in the corner my eye, right where the bridge of my nose is,” Means said. “I stumbled back and dropped to my knees and passed out for about a minute, and then when I woke up, there was medics all around me trying to figure out what was happening.”

Means, who described himself as mixed race and a Marine Corps veteran, said he was at the rally to support Black Lives Matter and to oppose a right-wing crowd that was threatening to shoot civilians.

“They’re not welcome in the city,” he said. “I’m gonna make sure they’re ran out.”

The right-wing crowd chanted “USA! USA!” and expletive-filled chants against antifa. The opposing leftists responded with shouts of: “Go home, Nazis.”

After more than two hours of violent clashes, the far-right crowd retreated to their cars. Antifa demonstrators followed them as they moved through downtown to a parking garage a few blocks away. The two groups lobbed rocks at each other and exchanged more pepper spray.

Amid the right-wing crowd was a widely known Proud Boy, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, who has frequently brawled in Portland since early 2017.

Last year, he pleaded guilty in a 2018 assault in exchange for a two-year probation that requires him to stay away from protests until his probationary period ends in 2021. Even before he showed up at Saturday’s rally, there was an active warrant for Toese’s arrest for violating other terms of his probation.

As the far-right crowd left downtown Portland, Toese walked past several Portland police officers who did not attempt to apprehend him.

After the far-right groups had cleared out of downtown, members of the left-leaning crowd reconvened in Terry Schrunk Plaza, which is federal property. Federal police declared the gathering an unlawful assembly and drove the protesters out of the plaza, though the crowd had become largely peaceful as the afternoon waned.