Over the last three months in Portland, mass protests against police violence and racism gradually gave way to nightly often violent standoffs between a core of pro-Black Lives Matter (BLM) and anti-fascist protesters and law enforcement. The incidents are now part of a fact of life in the United States.
In the past week the city has fallen back into a pattern of more politically polarized street violence, which has marked the city throughout the Trump era, with broadly leftwing and anti-fascist activists sometimes facing off against far-right groups.
The rightist target reporters also
Last weekend a rightwing “Say no to Marxism in America” rally saw serious, widespread violence. Much of it came from rally attendees – who included members of far-right groups like the Proud Boys – and was directed not only at leftist counter-protesters, but also reporters.
One rightwing protester drew a firearm on opposing protesters. Earlier, he had fired a paintball gun into the crowd, and a local journalist was caught in the crossfire. Others appeared to be armed with firearms and knives. Some carried wooden shields with nails driven through them.
Near the peak of Saturday’s violence, a reporter’s hand was broken by a rightwing protester with a baton, and video of the incident went viral on social media. That reporter, Robert Evans, has been covering the protests since they began, for Bellingcat and other outlets.
That assailant was identified by Bellingcat on Tuesday as Travis Taylor, a Portland-based Proud Boy who has been previously observed attending violent street demonstrations in the city.
In a telephone conversation, Evans told the rightwing demonstrators “absolutely came prepared to fight”, were “very aggressive from the jump” and were equipped with “knives, guns, paintball guns with frozen pellets, batons”.
Neither the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) nor the Multnomah county district attorney (MCDA) responded to questions about whether Taylor would be charged or prosecuted over the incident.
It was the worst violence of its kind in the city since an infamous afternoon in 2018, also involving Proud Boys, who came from all over the country to attend a rally that culminated in another vicious street brawl.
As that precedent indicates, the polarized violence was not so much a new development linked to the massive anti-racism protests that have continued around the U.S., as a return to the dynamic that has afflicted Portland since the election of Donald Trump.
From 2017 to 2019, the city was a magnet for street protesters and street fighters from groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, who were regularly met by antifascist counter-protesters.
At rallies in 2018 and 2019, hundreds of right-wingers from all around the country descended on Portland, and rightwing media and e-celebrities worked hard to identify the city with “antifa”, a movement that conservatives from Trump down have sought to demonize.
Throughout this period, PPB was regularly accused by protesters and media outlets of heavy-handed, one-sided enforcement.
This year, however, as the Black Lives Matter protests sprang up in Portland, members of far-right groups had not been a significant factor during an unbroken 85-night streak of protests. Instead, the focus of many protesters was the presence of federal agents in the city – which became a national scandal as local elected officials sought to force the Trump administration to withdraw them.
Mainstream media attention was then diverted after the apparent resolution of the conflict over the unwanted presence of federal agents.
Now the renewed presence of rightwing groups in the city has some fearing the fresh violence will continue, especially because activists say the PBB has a record of not intervening to prevent rightwing violence.
Amy Herzfeld-Copple, the deputy director of Portland-based progressive non-profit, the Western States Center, wrote in an email that: “Portland police allowed alt-right and paramilitary groups to sow chaos and deploy violence against the community with apparent impunity.”
She added: “There’s a real risk that protests for racial justice and police reform will be subsumed by alt-right mayhem if city leadership doesn’t change its approach.”
The office of Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, did not directly respond on Monday to questions on last weekend’s violent events.
Not all locals blame PPB for the violence.
James Buchal, chair of the Multnomah county Republican party, wrote in an email, “as Republicans, we condemn the cowardly and totalitarian attacks on the pro-police demonstrators” by leftist demonstrators.
Not all locals consider the confrontation with far-right groups to be a distraction from the cause of protesting against police brutality against Black communities.
A spokesperson for Rose City Antifa, a long-established local anti-fascist network, which has supported the protests downtown, wrote in an email: “Police brutality and white nationalist organizing are two sides of the same coin, and they should be addressed as such.”
P PB is giving up on policing the far-right
The Portland Police Bureau appears to have all but given up on policing the far-right factions brawling in the Oregon city’s streets, despite a recent escalation in violence that has seen those extremists throw explosives, brandish guns and in one case fire them at other protesters.
It is common to see far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys exchanging blows with counterprotesters in Portland. They have been doing that for years, often as PPB officers watched until a riot was officially declared and then police cleared the streets using tear gas and other munitions.
Over the weekend, police took an entirely hands-off approach to the fighting, even as the demonstrations grew more violent than ever. As officers stood by on Saturday, the Proud Boys and their far-right friends attacked and intimidated anti-fascist protesters using paintball guns, mace, fireworks, aluminum bats and various firearms, according to The Washington Post.
One of them — notorious Proud Boys organizer Alan Swinney — was seen pointing a gun at protesters, his finger on the trigger. Another Proud Boy, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, was present, per the Post, in apparent violation of his parole over an attack at a similar demonstration in 2017 (he was not apprehended on Saturday, but a judge on Monday issued a warrant for his arrest).
Meanwhile, over a loudspeaker, police encouraged those present to “self-monitor for criminal activity.” In essence, the PPB had thrown up its hands.
In a statement to The Washington Post, the bureau said that officers were tired from responding to ongoing demonstrations against racism and police brutality, which have kept Portland in the national spotlight for weeks. Officers would not intervene in small skirmishes between “willing participants,” even if the clashes fit the city’s definition of a riot.
“Each skirmish appeared to involve willing participants and the events were not enduring in time, so officers were not deployed to intervene,” the bureau said of Saturday’s events. “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.”
Allowing local far-right groups to wreak havoc on the city is not a big departure for the PPB. As the Proud Boys cheered, officers launched tear gas and other munitions at anti-fascist counterprotesters during a rally in 2017, which left one antifa protester with a gas canister lodged in his head. Police gave the Proud Boys an escort out of the city following a rally in 2018 that saw the far-right demonstrators outnumbered by anti-fascists. A key officer had a friendly and ongoing relationship with the leader of Proud Boys affiliate group Patriot Prayer, judging from texts obtained by Willamette Week.
But relinquishing the act of policing to the brawlers themselves is both new and concerning, especially given the context: Local extremists have escalated their violent tactics in recent weeks, brazenly introducing guns and a lot more weaponry to the melee.
Local right-wing protester Skylor Jernigan, who attended a conservative “flag wave” demonstration in Portland earlier this month alongside Swinney, allegedly shot at Black Lives Matter protesters from inside a car. (Nobody was hit.) He was later arrested and charged with two felony counts of unlawful use of a weapon. During the same event, Swinney was seen spraying protesters with chemical irritants and shooting them with rounds from a paintball gun. He faced no immediate consequence for those displays or for pointing a pistol at protesters this past Saturday.
Long before this month’s events, the Proud Boys and other local Portland groups had been emboldened by governmental inaction during their rallies. Proud Boys leadership admitted at a rally last year that one of their stated goals was to continue such demonstrations in order to waste taxpayer dollars, overburden city resources and embarrass Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler. (For his part, Wheeler released a statement Monday saying he was “closely reviewing” the PPB’s “strategy to limit their intervention.”)
Now it appears that the Proud Boys enjoy not just a broader arsenal at their rallies, but a tacit promise from the city that they will face little to no police intervention.