“Our city is in mourning, our community’s anger is real, and the timing and subject of these events can only exacerbate an already difficult situation,” Wheeler wrote in a Facebook post Monday.
He added that he had asked the organizers of the rallies, which he referred to as “alt-right demonstrations,” to cancel their events.
“I urge them to ask their supporters to stay away from Portland,” Wheeler wrote. “There is never a place for bigotry or hatred in our community, and especially not now.”
The federal government controls permitting for the plaza where both rallies are set to take place. The city of Portland will not issue any of its own permits allowing organizers to hold the events elsewhere, Wheeler said.
Portland has spent several days reeling from the deaths of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, 23, and Ricky John Best, 53, who were stabbed and killed as they tried to protect two young women from a man who boarded a light-rail train and began yelling hateful comments about Muslims at them. A third man who intervened was injured.
The suspect, 35-year-old Jeremy Joseph Christian, has a history of making bigoted comments online and was photographed giving a Nazi salute at a recent protest organized by the group behind the “Trump Free Speech Rally.” Local publications as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center have described him as a “known white supremacist.” He is charged with aggravated murder, attempted murder and other charges.
The attack came at a time of escalating tensions in Portland, a city with a long track record of activism and protests. Since President Trump’s election in November, the city has been beset by violence at political rallies from groups on the left and the right. Clashes between black-clad “antifa,” or anti-fascist, activists and right-wing protesters associated with white nationalist movements have become increasingly common at otherwise peaceful demonstrations.
The organizer of the “Trump Free Speech Rally,” Joey Gibson, sought to distance himself and his group, Patriot Prayer, from Christian, especially as reports surfaced that he appeared at the group’s other events. In a video posted to Facebook on Sunday, Gibson condemned Christian and said antifa protesters were trying to incite chaos at the upcoming rally by exploiting the attacks on the train.
“There’s going to be more intensity, there’s going to be more threats,” Gibson said. “They’re using the deaths of these two people and Jeremy Christian — they’re using it to get Portland all rowdy about our June 4 rally and it’s absolutely disgusting.”
Gibson urged his supporters to remain calm. “You throw one punch, you’re going to jail,” he said.
A Facebook page for the event says the rally will feature live music and “speakers exercising their free speech.”
The “March Against Sharia,” which Gibson is also involved in, says Islamic law “is incompatible with our Constitution and American values.” The event page calls on supporters who “stand for human rights.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon criticized the mayor’s attempts to shut down both rallies, saying the government can’t revoke or deny a permit based on the demonstrators’ views.
“It may be tempting to shut down speech we disagree with,” the ACLU tweeted, “but once we allow the government to decide what we can say, see, or hear, or who we can gather with, history shows us that the most marginalized will be disproportionately censored and punished for unpopular speech.”
“If we allow the government to shut down speech for some, we all will pay the price down the line,” the organization added.
But Tom Hastings, a longtime activist and professor in the Portland State University conflict resolution program, said the mayor was on solid footing. The looming threat of violence at the rallies justified a shutdown while the city worked out a long-term solution, he said.
“I know these lines are perceived as pretty fuzzy when we’re dealing with constitutional First Amendment rights,” Hastings told The Washington Post. “But there’s no long fuse anymore. Everybody’s fuse seems to be quite short.”
Portland has struggled to stop violence from flaring up at public gatherings in recent months. In November, shortly after the presidential election, peaceful anti-Trump demonstrations were disrupted when anarchists smashed windows, ripped out electrical power boxes and spray-painted buildings downtown.
In April, Portland’s typically family-friendly rose parade was canceled after antifa activists threatened to shut down roads if a Republican group wasn’t barred from the event. And earlier this month, dozens of “black bloc” anarchists destroyed property at May Day protests.
Hastings warned that the mayor’s decision could backfire if he doesn’t reach out to the leaders of the groups whose rallies he’s trying to block. The city, Hastings said, should arrange one-on-one conversations with organizers on all sides, otherwise the trend of violence could only get worse.
“I think it’s a real fine line,” he said. “The cancellation of this can’t be regarded as the end of anything. If you kick the can down the road and don’t do anything it will exacerbated. People are quashed for a minute, but they almost nurse this notion of vengeance and they come out much worse than before.”