This post has been updated.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Hundreds of protesters from the right and left faced off on downtown streets here Saturday, with police declaring an increasingly tense situation several hours in to be a “civil disturbance” and trying to disperse the crowd through the use of flash grenades and pepper spray.
On a sun-drenched afternoon, the confrontation was just the latest upheaval in a city that has seen repeated and sometimes violent demonstrations since the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. The counterdemonstrators had come to oppose the presence of two groups, Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys, which were teaming up on a permitted rally in a popular riverfront park.
As police told protesters to leave, people at times scrambled through traffic to avoid the clouds of pepper spray. Live-stream shots from the scene showed at least a few individuals bleeding after being hit by projectiles or attacked. Police later announced that four people were arrested on a variety of charges, including harassment, attempted assault on a public safety officer and unlawful use of a weapon.
Fears over serious problems had been building for days, heightened by pronouncements from Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys that members and supporters would be carrying guns and would not shy away from fighting.
But not until Friday did Portland police and Mayor Ted Wheeler release statements emphasizing that city ordinance prohibits carrying a loaded firearm in public unless an individual has a valid state concealed handgun license. They also stressed that Oregon has no concealed handgun license reciprocity with other states.
Another police statement Saturday morning said the goal was “to help facilitate peaceful events and prevent criminal behavior from occurring.” It signaled a heavy police presence and noted that people attending the rally in the park would face security-screening checkpoints and bomb-sniffing dogs.
A coalition of labor unions, immigrant rights groups and others tried to take a high road with their gathering midmorning near City Hall. As they spoke about a world free of homophobia and racism, members of Patriot Prayer arrived via buses and started massing a few blocks away with the Proud Boys, most of them helmeted white males in their 20s and 30s. They carried Don’t Tread on Me Flags. They wore Make America Great Again hats.
Across the four-lane roadway that separates the spacious green waterfront from downtown, hundreds of antifascist counterprotesters — including a black-clad contingent commonly known as antifa — were in position shortly before noon. In the middle were police, clad in riot gear, as announcements blared. “Stay out of the street and stay on the sidewalk,” they ordered over and over. By and large, both sides complied.
A protracted standoff followed, with chanting lobbed back and forth across Naito Parkway as officers stood alert in long lines. The Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys groups marched along the waterfront, ignoring that designated rally area where police had planned their security checkpoints. The department later posted photos to its Twitter account of potential weapons that had been confiscated, including cans of mace and Confederate flag-emblazoned shields.
Patriot Prayer was founded by Joey Gibson, a Vancouver, Wash., real estate investor running for Senate in his home state. Until 16 months ago, he was one conservative voice in an area of the country known for its vocal urban progressiveness. But in April 2017, he found a tribe of like-minded people when he organized a rally in response to a family parade that was canceled after a threatening letter suggested that the float of the local GOP would be attacked by protesters.
Gibson has since organized several rallies across the Columbia River in Oregon. Among the participants, ostensibly to provide security: the Proud Boys, a “Western chauvinist” organization that advertises chapters across North America. Their critics call them extremist, a label the group denies.
During a Facebook live stream Friday, Gibson told his followers they had a right to be armed. “You have a right to follow the law. You have a right to carry things with you following the law. And you do not have the right to be searched,” he said. Unity, he said, was “to stand shoulder to shoulder, to bleed together.”
On Saturday, he struck a different tone, telling a local reporter on the scene, “We’re here to promote freedom and God and that’s it. . . . Our country’s getting soft, we need leaders to step up, it’s that simple.”
He reiterated that point just before his followers renewed their march about 1:30 p.m., saying they were not in Portland to teach a “small” group of antifa a lesson. “We’re here to teach a lesson to the entire country,” Gibson said. He then urged his group to “go slow, keep tight,” and prayed to God to “silence the enemy.”
Portland streets — and the city’s reputation as an open, liberal place — have been marred repeatedly by protests in the past 20 months.
In the immediate wake of Trump’s election victory, the city endured five nights of tense and sometimes destructive rallies, with protesters upset about his win overshadowed by a group that law enforcement described as anarchists. The latter lit fires and smashed store windows and car windshields. Police scattered crowds with flash grenades, pepper spray rounds and rubber bullets. Dozens of people were arrested.
But in spring 2017, other groups also took to the streets here. Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys were often front and center, intent on protesting the liberal protesters. Antifascists met them — in streets, parks, city squares — and clashes escalated. Over the 2017 Memorial Day weekend, a man who had flung racial slurs and Nazi-style salutes at a Gibson rally allegedly harassed two teen girls — one wearing a hijab — aboard a train. Three men came to their defense, and two of them were fatally slashed.
And just two months ago, a “Freedom and Courage” march led here by Patriot Prayer was again confronted by antifascists. The groups hurled obscenities at each other, and when one punch was thrown, hundreds followed. The scene was declared a riot, several people were hospitalized, and multiple arrests were made.
In an interview with the Oregonian in July, the mayor expressed a feeling of powerlessness over controlling the events. “We have two objectives,” Wheeler said. “Number one, protect the public safety. Two, give space for people to exercise their First Amendment rights. I’m no fan of the people from Vancouver who come down here and spout their venom . . . It’s a no-win.”
On Friday, Wheeler issued a statement decrying the rally. “I continue to strongly reject the idea that violence or hate speech are legitimate means to a political end,” he said. “It is particularly troubling to me that individuals are posting publicly their intent to act out violently. We don’t want this here.”
Despite the history of such rallies ending in violence, an aide to the mayor said there was no way for Gibson’s permit to be revoked. “There is a law that jurisdictions can’t preemptively deny events based on occurrences at prior demonstrations,” she said.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s protests, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report warning that Portland could become “another Charlottesville” and that online taunting by Gibson and his supporters could make things even more volatile.
Yet Sgt. Christopher Burley, public information officer for the Portland Police, told The Washington Post that the SPLC could be causing bigger problems. “I think it is disheartening that an organization outside the City of Portland is making a statement that could potentially inflame an already intense situation,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the river that flows between Portland and Vancouver; it is the Columbia River, not the Willamette River. In addition, an incorrect reference to a passage of Scripture has been deleted.