“Stand down, Proud Boys,” Enrique Tarrio, the international chairman of the group, shouted into the microphone. “Don’t take the bait.”
Tarrio said he knew it was one of the moments that could shape how the world viewed the Proud Boys, a group that has been associated with White nationalist rhetoric and has a reputation for sparking fights with the far left that devolve into mayhem. A few hundred — far fewer than the thousands the group predicted — gathered Saturday in a city that has been on the front lines of the nation’s combustible political conflict. The group strongly identifies with President Trump, who has called Portland “out of control” and a “mess,” blaming liberal and anarchist groups for tear-gas tinged protests that have taken place since May.
The stakes were clear to Tarrio. Would the world on Saturday see an alt-right “fight club” looking to get physical with antifa and Black Lives Matters protesters? Or would there be less loathing for a far-right organization critiquing a city where protests have become an almost-nightly occurrence?
The reputation rehabilitation could be a tough order for a group known to travel in pickup trucks shooting paintball guns at demonstrators. The Proud Boys are one of many predominantly male right-wing groups that have come to the fore since Trump’s election. The group began to gain wider attention after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
The Proud Boys describe themselves as a “Western chauvinist” fraternal group that believes in ending welfare, closing the borders and adhering to traditional gender roles. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group maintains affiliation with extremists and is known for misogynistic and anti-Muslim rhetoric. The group — and co-founder Gavin McInnes — has pushed back against organizations that have deemed them a hate group, suing the SPLC over the classification. (McInnes, known for having co-founded Vice Media, has since distanced himself from the group.)
Proud Boy networks on the social networking site Parler depict fights and melees, often set to rock music. Tarrio encouraged Proud Boys to bring bear mace, containers of which can shoot the caustic spray up to 10 feet.
The group’s ability to publicly keep the peace could impact its role in the nation’s political discourse. One of the goals of the media-friendly event was to introduce Tarrio’s organization to the wider world. On the flag-draped stage, and in private meetings with Proud Boys leaders from across the country, Tarrio made it clear that news cameras would instantly pivot to violence.
“We knew that eyes were on us. And we knew that we needed to show that — although there have been 120 days of mayhem — that when we go there, we are the peaceful ones,” Tarrio said. “We are the ones that don’t start anything.”
Other instances where left and right factions have come together in Portland have ended with bloodshed.
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.”
On Saturday, law enforcement officers patrolled the highways for out-of-towners looking to cause trouble and, once the events started, positioned themselves between ideologically opposed factions. A counter-demonstration three miles away in Peninsula Park drew a crowd that dwarfed the Proud Boys event. Although the counterprotest was peaceful, many people came wearing all black, with gas masks, helmets and homemade shields at the ready.
Thirty people were arrested at a late-night counterprotest that police declared an unlawful assembly.
Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said the Proud Boys emerged from Charlottesville mostly intact because they have an elastic set of core beliefs that make them more palatable to a larger swath of the conservative mainstream.
Saturday’s peaceful, PR-friendly gathering was another means of making the Proud Boys appear acceptable. Levin likened it to how Proud Boys latch on to “socially acceptable” controversies that appeal to a broader swath of the right, such as cities removing Confederate monuments or not censoring political speech.
“It’s a new twist on something vile. And where they stake their claim, they’re smart enough to anchor themselves in hatred that can be kind of laughed away in sociopolitical discourse, like horrible misogyny as well as slightly shrouded bigotry,” he said. “They like throwing themselves out of helicopters. It’s a sad reflection that the violence and bigotry that is acceptable to the Proud Boys in a kind of amplified manner is really tolerated and in some ways lauded in some parts of the fringe mainstream.”
Tarrio said he wanted to provide a contrast between his demonstration and the images that have appeared intermittently in the news of the Portland demonstrations. He had help. The city and state also went through pains to quell any unrest. Gov. Kate Brown (D) declared a state of emergency in advance of the Proud Boys event, putting state police and Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputies in charge of the government response.
A spokesman for Rose City antifa, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution from Proud Boys or police, said the group’s primary goal was to protect peaceful counterprotesters at demonstrations across the city.
On Saturday, the optics battle didn’t end with the rally. Tarrio and other Proud Boys leaders organized a gathering with like-minded people in Vancouver, Wash., a short drive from Portland. As Proud Boys ate and drank, Tarrio passed the word that leaders should do everything they could to stop increasingly inebriated members from splintering off and heading into downtown Portland, where left-wing demonstrators wearing gas masks and carrying homemade shields had gathered. Around 10:30 p.m., police in riot gear cleared the street using tear gas.