PORTLAND, Oregon — Hundreds of members of the far-right group Proud Boys rallied at a public park here Saturday, venting threats and flashing weapons but failing to mobilize the show of strength that organizers had planned – and that Portland’s leaders had feared.
The demonstration by the group – which has earned a reputation for politically motivated violence – was intended to bring adherents from across the nation to a city that has become a magnet for ideological brawls, some of them deadly.
Organizers said they expected as many as 10,000 people to turn out. Yet the actual crowd was far smaller, and the event in a grassy park near the Columbia River started breaking up after just 90 minutes – significantly less than the hours of rallying that were initially planned.
In that time, demonstrators preached their hatred for antifa and other left-wing organizations, along with their fealty to President Donald Trump. Many were dressed in camouflage and some were armed with bear mace, batons or semiautomatic rifles.
“How do you become a Proud Boy? You gotta feel that calling,” one speaker told the crowd, which intermittently tuned in to the speeches radiating off the back of a flatbed truck. “We kick a lot of people to the curb. . . . Gotta love to drink, gotta love to fight.”
Yet at least during the afternoon demonstration, there was no overt violence.
That is likely to come as a relief to Portland’s leaders, who have grown weary after months of political showdowns that have come to symbolize the nation’s descent into extreme partisanship and ever-widening ideological chasms.
The city was especially on edge because left-wing groups, including antifa, staged a counter-rally at a different city park, three miles away. That demonstration, which was substantially larger than the Proud Boys rally, also appeared to proceed peacefully.
Speakers condemned white supremacists and conservative politicians while many in the vast crowd donned black clothing and body armor.
“I am just very anti-racist, and I lived in Oregon a long time and there is a lot of it here,” said Brian Calza, 42, who drove in for the rally from Eugene, Ore.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, had declared a state of emergency Friday and said the state police and county sheriff’s office would oversee the response to the protests Saturday. They would be dispatching additional law enforcement to the area, she said, to patrol highways, looking for people coming to town to “cause trouble.”
Portland has seen four months of Black Lives Matter and anti-police protests, a chain broken only when massive wildfires made gathering outside hazardous in the waning weeks of summer. Although the protests have been generally been limited to relatively small areas of the city’s downtown, Proud Boys and other right-wing groups have echoed Trump’s rhetoric in portraying them as sowing chaos across the city.
The group has made its own contributions to the unrest, with Proud Boy counterprotesters riding through the streets in pickup trucks flying Trump banners. Some have fired paintball guns or otherwise tried to provoke conflict, with left-wing activists replying in kind.
In late August, one such confrontation turned deadly when 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.”
Speakers at the Proud Boys rally on Saturday venerated Danielson, along with Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who prosecutors allege killed two people during demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last month.
“We do this for Jay. We do this for Kyle,” said Janira Brannigan, the chair of the Polk County, Oregon, Republican Party,
She condemned Oregon’s governor as a “dictator” and urged the crowd to run for office or to get government jobs so as to “infiltrate every agency under the dictator’s control.”
The Proud Boys are one of several predominantly white right-wing groups that have surfaced publicly since Trump’s election. Vice News creator Gavin McInnes started the group in 2016, though he has since distanced himself from the organization and its increasingly violent reputation.
Members describe themselves as a “Western chauvinist” fraternal group that believes in ending welfare, closing the borders and strict adherence to traditional gender roles. They are ardently pro-police and see themselves as a group prepared to do battle with leftists.
“Stand up to anyone who tries to f— with us” a man said through the microphone, before the crowd shouted out the Pledge of Allegiance.
Saturday’s attendees were explicit in their support for Trump and their ties to the Republican Party.
Tented tables in the parking lot hawked Trump merchandise, and rally attendees carried American flags and thin blue line flags. The vast majority were White men, with a few White women sprinkled in.
Richard LeRoy, 63, said he showed up at the rally to show his support for the president and because he believes the Proud Boys will be a decisive force in supporting Trump should the country “slide into anarchy” in January.
It was his first Proud Boy event. But LeRoy, a retired factory worker, said he decided he needed to seek out the group because he believes it will fight to keep Trump in power should the election become disputed. LeRoy, who was wearing a Trump T-shirt and carrying a Trump flag, said he is increasingly worried that Democrats will “steal the election with voter fraud or vote-by-mail.”
“They are standing up against antifa and Black Lives Matter groups, who I believe are Marxist,” LeRoy said.
Amid a succession of speakers earning tepid applause, there were periodic bursts of energy from the crowd when alleged antifa supporters were identified. In each case, a group of Proud Boys surrounded the supposed interlopers and forced them out, hurling invective along the way. Through it all, police in riot gear looked on from the park’s edge – but they did not directly engage.
At several points, speakers urged the crowd to show restraint – in line with the mantra of group leaders that they are not the ones inciting violence.
For many attendees, it was the violence of left-wing protesters that they said had motivated them to turn up.
Rod Davis and his wife Diane, from Milwaukee, a suburb of Portland, said they came to Saturday’s event because they feel the Proud Boys are the only ones standing up to the people creating mayhem in Portland.
Marcia Davis said she was fed up with the authorities who weren’t doing enough about violent protests that had rocked downtown.
“Let’s be real about what is going on. My city is being destroyed,” Diane Davis said. “I feel like the mayor handed antifa the keys to the city.”
Rod Davis said he expects the trouble to continue at least until the election.
“I don’t think these people are going to go away,” he said, pointing to the Proud Boys. “Antifa is not going away.”
Witte reported from Washington, D.C.