The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thousands of Proud Boys plan to rally in Portland, setting up another clash in a combustible city

A member of the Proud Boys demonstrates in Washington, D.C. The far-right group plans a major rally in Portland, Ore., on Saturday. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Thousands of members of the far-right Proud Boys plan to mass at a park here on Saturday afternoon, setting up another clash of liberal and conservative extremes in a city that has become the public front line for combustible — and deadly — political conflict.

The so-called Western chauvinist group espouses pro-Trump, police-friendly rhetoric, but its members have a reputation for sparking fights with the far left that devolve into mayhem. After four months of steady protests in this city, its choice to bring an armed, extremist crowd from all corners of the country to the Pacific Northwest again turns Portland into an ideological battlefield, a place where speech has crossed a dangerous line into violence.

President Trump has fanned the flames, saying that Portland and other Democratic cities condone lawlessness; he has ordered federal agents to take a stand against protesters and to make arrests, creating us-versus-them standoffs that appear bent on pitting the right against the left and characterizing it as good against evil.

Some worry another collision is unavoidable on Saturday. The rally comes at an already delicate time for the City of Roses, where on Wednesday a Breonna Taylor protest at police headquarters morphed into a rock-throwing riot that police broke up with impact weapons and pepper spray. Antifa and other far-left groups are also vowing massive counter-protests Saturday.

Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio said in an interview with The Washington Post that his group is making a stand for free speech in a place he believes encourages leftist riots and has sparked political violence against conservatives and law enforcement in other American cities.

“It’s the epicenter for all this. It goes beyond free speech right now. Portland has franchised these riots across the country,” Tarrio said, saying he hopes his event spurs authorities to take more action against demonstrators. Other cities “see these things happening, and they’re like: ‘We can do this here, too.’ Portland leads by example.”

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: The Washington Post)

But Portland’s protesters said groups like the Proud Boys have been at the center of the summer’s worst recent conflicts, which some worry could be dwarfed by whatever happens Saturday.

“It just puts a very bad feeling in my stomach,” said Dustin Brandon, who attended Wednesday’s demonstration and has been at Black Lives Matter protests here since George Floyd was killed in May. “Everybody knows what’s happening September 26th in Portland, Oregon, and it’s not a good feeling. I’ve been here for every other time they’ve shown up, and it’s just gotten worse and worse and worse. … I just hope there’s no more bloodshed.”

Portland’s nightly, often emotional demonstrations and the presence of an organized antifa group have made easy foils for the Proud Boys and other right-wing activists, who often ride into the city with homemade shields, paintball guns and bear mace.

After an Aug. 29 confrontation, Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, was shot and killed on a city street following a vehicle parade in support of Trump. Five days later, members of a federal task force fatally shot a suspect in Danielson’s death — Michael Forest Reinoehl, 48, an ardent supporter of the far-left antifa who had regularly attended nightly protests and spoke of a “revolution.”

The Proud Boys then began planning a show of force in Portland, after attending other heated events outside the city limits. Organizers expect as many as 10,000 right-leaning activists to attend Saturday, though Tarrio said he is not sure how many members of the Proud Boys, or other similar groups, will show up. Prior Proud Boys rallies have drawn hundreds of people.

Portland police, who broke up a protest that devolved into a riot on Wednesday, said their main plan is to keep the ideologically opposed groups as far away from each other as possible on Saturday. Left-leaning groups have planned a counterprotest a few miles from Delta Park, where the Proud Boys plan to rally. Police also have encouraged event attendees to leave their guns at home.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D), who declared a state of emergency Friday, said the state police and county sheriff’s office would oversee the response to the protests Saturday and would be dispatching additional law enforcement to the area to patrol highways, looking for people coming to town to “cause trouble.”

“People have come to Portland, time and time again, from out of town looking for a fight, and the results are always tragic,” Brown said. “Let me perfectly clear; we will not tolerate any kind of violence this weekend. Left, right or center, violence is never a path toward meaningful change. … Those stoking the flames of violence, those coming to Portland looking for a fight, will be held accountable.”

Travis Hampton, the superintendent of the Oregon State Police, said Portland residents would see a “massive influx of Oregon state troopers” beginning Saturday morning. Hampton said authorities will “do their best” to keep “hostile parties apart from one another.” He said police would consider using tear gas and other irritants on crowds if lives are in danger.

City officials this week denied the Proud Boys’ permit request for the park gathering, citing coronavirus safety concerns at the public park. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler blasted the Proud Boys in a tweet on Wednesday: “These groups empower racism, intolerance and hate. Those are not Portland values, and they are not welcome.”

Tarrio balked at the mayor’s words and said the rally will go on as planned.

“We did the right thing and asked for a permit,” he wrote on the social media site. “Portland parks denied our permits citing 50 person max due to COVID. Lol … terrorists have been rioting across the city for 4 months … I’m sure they followed these guidelines.”

At the bottom of the post he included an image of the U.S. Constitution. “Here is the only permission I need.”

‘I refuse to apologize’

The Proud Boys are one of several predominantly White right-wing groups that have surfaced publicly since Trump’s election. Vice Media creator Gavin McInnes started the group in 2016, though he has since distanced himself from the organization and its increasingly violent reputation.

The Proud Boys describe themselves as a “Western chauvinist” fraternal group that believes in ending welfare, closing the borders and strict adherence to traditional gender roles. They believe that White culture — and White men, in particular — are under attack from a world consumed by political correctness. The first step of becoming a member is reciting a loyalty oath that includes the phrase “I refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”

The group latches onto controversial causes that larger segments of the right embrace — such as unwavering support for police, Islamophobia and fighting the removal of Confederate statues. But the Proud Boys also use coded language and irreverent humor to mask beliefs that are more sinister. Proud Boys networks spent the past week spreading memes and videos mocking the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

That nuanced stance has allowed the Proud Boys to grow even as other groups were vilified following the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, said Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino.

“When you mix a combination of the shrouded and overt bigotry along with their propensity for violence and showing up at the most incendiary events, it really is a significant and growing risk,” Levin said. “It’s especially volatile when you overlay this political sevicason where the election is considered a battleground in a civil war.”

Members of the Proud Boys rise through the ranks by engaging in street violence, said Jerry Savage, a Seattle resident who started a Facebook group aimed at exposing members who commit crimes.

“These are the kind of guys who watch cage fights, and MMA, and are grappling with their buddies in their backyard and looking for a time to use that,” he said, referring to mixed martial arts competitions.

Portland’s steady protests have provided ample opportunities for the Proud Boys to spark clashes.

“In their minds, long before (Danielson) got shot, we represented some kind of domestic terrorist threat to America,” said Jason Britton, a demonstrator and documentarian who was hit in the eye by a paintball during a scuffle between protesters and Proud Boys. “They see it as they’re fulfilling their oath to the constitution or whatever. They see BLM and antifa as that domestic enemy.”

Tarrio described the organization he chairs as a group of unapologetic Trump supporters who wield humor to poke at a society hobbled by political correctness. During his interview with The Post, he said he was at an Ikea in his home state of Florida, shopping for a shelf while wearing a shirt that said “Kyle Rittenhouse did nothing wrong,” a nod to the White teen accused of killing two people in Kenosha, Wis., during demonstrations after police shot a Black man. But Tarrio said even the most triggering speech does not justify violence.

“When they go out on the streets and they’re like ‘bash the fash’ and ‘punch a Nazi,’ I believe they truly believe they’re doing good — ridding the world of this evil,” Tarrio said. “Then you get a situation like the shooting of Jay. One of my guys got ran over two weeks ago. They’ve thrown explosives at me.

“There’s genuine concern about police brutality, and it’s something people should protest, but (the Black Lives Matter) movements are getting co-opted and then it starts going in another direction: ‘Oh well, we’ve got to take down the statues, we’ve got to take this person’s name down, we’ve got to go protest in front of this person’s house,’" he said, referring to what some consider liberal efforts to erase America’s past.

Tarrio said the Proud Boys does not promote violence, but it does actively protect itself. He said the rally in the park is intended to be nonviolent, but he encouraged his members to bring fire extinguishers because “antifa thugs” have thrown fireworks and even molotov cocktails during conflicts. He also encouraged them to bring bear mace — the harsh irritant that witnesses said was deployed right before Reinoehl shot Danielson in Portland.

Michael Forest Reinoehl said he believed he and a friend were in danger when 39-year-old Aaron J. Danielson was shot and killed on Aug. 29. (Video: Courtesy of VICE News)

A White utopia

People who have attended months of protests here say they hope to shed light on what they see as a great contradiction in Portland, a place that prides itself as a liberal bastion but has had systemic racism in its fabric since it was founded.

When Oregon became a state in 1859, its constitution rejected slavery, but it also forbade Black people from living within its borders. Violators could be violently punished. Oregon’s early settlers called the state a White utopia.

“Those that voted to make Oregon a free state weren’t necessarily antislavery — they just didn’t want to deal with Blacks at all,” said Kerry Tymchuk, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society. “People ask why does Portland have so few Black people compared to most large cities. You look back at the message that sent for so long … it was almost self-perpetuating.”

Fewer than 6 percent of Portland residents are Black. That is nearly double the overall state percentage.

Even when a Black labor force was recruited to work in Oregon’s shipyards, Portland codes redlined them into certain neighborhoods. As the nation has contended with the killing of Black people by police, Portland has had its own controversies, including a deadly attack by a white supremacist on passengers who were riding a city light rail train.

In May 2017, self-described neo-Nazi Jeremy Christian stabbed three people on the train, killing two of them, a racist incident that rocked the city. The day before, Christian had harassed a Black woman named Demetria Hester on the train. But Hester told police she did not believe police took her claims seriously because of her race.

She said the attacks were a wake-up call, a sign that “white supremacy is just below the surface.”

On Saturday she plans to face off with men she described as racist who believe many of the same things as her attacker. She sees it as a moral obligation.

“This ain’t the first time they’ve come to our town. Or the second, or the third. The whole summer they’ve been here,” Hester said. “We literally run them out — and we have to keep running them away. They’re just out there for destruction, to see what they can cause.

“We have a goal to let them know that we’re not going anywhere and they’re not going to intimidate us.”

This story originally gave an incorrect name for the organization Gavin McInnes founded. It has been corrected and updated.

Tim Craig contributed to this report.