Demonstrations such as the one planned Saturday have helped drag Oregon’s largest city to the front lines of a national political divide that has grown uglier during the Trump presidency.
PORTLAND — Forget about this city as a quirky, creative place dotted with gourmet food carts where a clear day offers spectacular views of the snow-clad Mount Hood volcano.
To Joey Gibson, the Southwest Washington-based founder of Patriot Prayer, Portland represents the dark heart of left-wing America, where the conservative faithful will exercise their First Amendment rights and confront antifascists at a rally he has organized for Saturday.
“We need to go straight into hell with our brothers, with our sisters, having each others’ backs and putting out the fires,” declared Gibson, in a Facebook video promoting the march near Portland’s Willamette River. “Bringing light into these cities.”
Some will carry weapons, as they have in the past, and he has touted plans for some supporters to wear masks and infiltrate opposition ranks.
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Demonstrations such as the one planned Saturday have helped drag Oregon’s largest city to the front lines of a national political divide that has grown uglier during the Trump presidency. Gibson, running as a Republican in Washington’s U.S. Senate primary on Tuesday, has staged numerous rallies and recruited to these events far-right allies, including the Proud Boys, a fraternal group often involved in street confrontations.
The most violent Patriot Prayer event unfolded June 30 as antifa protesters tossed what The Oregonian described as eggs, half-empty water bottles and firecrackers at marchers, who then charged their antagonists in a brawl that led police to declare a riot.
City officials are preparing for the possibility of more trouble Saturday.
Mayor Ted Wheeler said Friday he is concerned about the potential for violence.
“It is particularly troubling to me that individuals are posting publicly their intent to act out violently,” he said in a statement. “We don’t want this here.”
Sgt. Christopher Burley, a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau said, “We will protect life, safety and property to the best of our ability,” adding that crowd management is complicated.
“Even if people don’t go in disguise,” he said,” it’s difficult to keep them separated.”
The protest comes deep into an uneasy summer in Portland, where, for some, there is fatigue over marches, rallies and protests.
This summer’s actions included a 38-day encampment of tents and huts around the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Portland to protest separation of children from parents at the U.S. border with Mexico. After police ordered the site vacated, city workers were left to clean up piles of garbage and debris that reeked of human waste.
Some who joined that protest were accused of using racist language against ICE officers of color and making verbal threats to local residents and a food-cart operator — as reported by KGW-TV — who ended up closing his business that had been raising money for the homeless.
“In principle, I agree with what they initially went out to do,” said Ron Sopp, 68, a retiree who lives near the Portland ICE office and said he was ordered — by several protesters wearing bandannas to cover their faces — to vacate a public bench. “You lose the moral high ground when you use the tactics that they use, and people like me who probably would support you otherwise … We were abandoned out here.”
This year’s demonstrations unfold in a city still bearing psychic scars from the fatal stabbings of two light-rail passengers on May 26, 2017, that sickened and shocked many residents.
The two men, along with a third, were assaulted while confronting another passenger spewing anti-Muslim and other hateful remarks at two teenage girls.
In April 2017, the alleged killer, Jeremy Christian, was drawn to a free-speech event organized by Patriot Prayer. He was kicked out for a Nazi salute and other conduct and disturbing comments, according to Gibson, who has denounced the knife attacks.
In video posts in recent days, Gibson repeatedly has urged those who attend not to strike the first blows, and downplayed the threat posed by armed supporters.
But those who plan to attend include Gabe Silva, a Proud Boy leader from Sacramento who has talked about violence as the way forward. “We’re gonna have to get some swollen fists. We’re gonna have to fight, all right?” he declared, in a video that has since been removed from his website but was posted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups.
Billy Sessions, leader of the pro-Confederacy Hiwaymen group from Arkansas, also says he will attend. Sessions was in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August during two days of confrontations between white nationalists and counterprotesters that left 30 injured and one woman dead.
“No matter what happens in Portland, Oregon, the right is going to be demonized, exactly the same as they (the media) did in Charlottesville,” Sessions said in a recent Facebook video. “Is that enough to scare me off? No, I don’t scare off.”
Antifa call to action
In the run-up to the rally, left-wing activists also have been using social media. Rose City Antifa, in a Facebook posting, issued a call to action to their supporters for the Aug. 4 event.
“We make no apologies for the use of force in keeping our communities safe from the scourge of right-wing violence … this is the time to act: Be prepared, be smart, but do not be a bystander.”
Gibson says the group’s desire to confront marchers provides more opportunity for fights — and fresh videos — that can spur interest in the next event.
A spokesman for Rose City Antifa, who requested anonymity due to security concerns, said there have been a variety of responses to Patriot Prayer rallies. But even when there are relatively few counterprotesters, Gibson supporters have still found way to get into fights.
“He is talking about bringing guns, and some people are getting excited about shooting people. The idea that we could all just go home, and they are going to get bored with that notion is ridiculous.”