Dueling demonstrators faced off in downtown Portland on Saturday for the second time in as many weeks, this time drawing larger crowds and intermittently breaking into violent scuffles for more than two hours.
Portland police issued warnings that went largely ignored by the two factions: One aligned with a so-called “Back the Blue” rally and the other a Black Lives Matter counter-demonstration, which together drew hundreds to the few blocks surrounding the Multnomah County Justice Center at noon.
As opposing protesters exchanged a volley of fire from paintball guns in front of the Justice Center, an officer inside a Portland police vehicle stationed in front of a nearby Starbucks offered a declaration.
“Officers have observed projectiles being thrown and people possession of firearms, shields and other weapons. Anyone who is involved in criminal behavior is subject to arrest and/or a citation,” the officer said.
Portland police never moved in on the crowd, despite those repeated warnings. The bureau in a news release said it only had 30 officers on hand for the afternoon’s demonstrations, a fraction of the number typically deployed during downtown protests.
Yet city leaders expected the clashes between opposing factions. Mayor Ted Wheeler and City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty both issued statements asking demonstrators to remain peaceful, as did the police bureau hours before the Back the Blue rally.
Wheeler is the city’s police commissioner.
After the event unfolded, the police bureau said its commanders were reluctant to order officers to engage with the rowdy crowd after more than 80 days of protests against police, particularly when people were “willingly engaging in physical confrontations for short durations.” The bureau noted many officers on the ground had worked the previous night’s demonstration, which was declared a riot shortly after 1 a.m.
The bureau said one person pulled a pistol on Black Lives Matter demonstrators at one point. He did not fire.
Various reporters on the ground identified the man as Alan Swinney, a member of the Proud Boys, an organization that’s been a yearslong fixture at Portland protests and recognized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Although Portland police did not move in on the crowd, federal officers positioned at Terry Schrunk Plaza dispersed protesters close to 3 p.m., and only after demonstrators gathered in the amphitheater when the Back the Blue group retreated.
The demonstrations marked the start of the 87th consecutive day of protests in Portland, hours ahead of a rally planned later in the evening across the Willamette River.
The confrontations downtown began at noon with the “Mother of all Black the Blue Rallies,” so named for its support of police and other law-enforcement agencies. The event, as well as similar protests planned for the same time, drew a few hundred supporters downtown.
The crowd was sprinkled with attendees wearing attire signifying their affiliation with the Proud Boys. Other attendees carried shields or signs with slogans employed by those who believe in conspiracy theories alleging President Trump is leading a fight against a cabal of child sex traffickers.
The right-wing demonstration was met with a Black Lives Matter counterprotest, a dynamic that evoked pre-pandemic summer afternoons when hundreds turn out every year in the six-block area of the city that’s home to most local law enforcement agencies.
An earlier rally in support of the U.S. Postal Service, which included at least nine other similar rallies across the city, according to that event’s leader, also fed into the Black Lives Matter counterprotest.
Tensions arose almost immediately after the “Back the Blue” rally began as demonstrators chanted back and forth at each other across Southwest Third Avenue.
“All cops are brave,” shouted protesters from the steps and sidewalk in front of the Justice Center.
“All cops are bastards,” counterdemonstrators shouted back, a common chant among the Black Lives Matter protests that began in late May. The Justice Center, which houses the police headquarters and a county jail, has long been at the center of the demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Demetria Hester, organizer for Moms United for Black Lives Matter, circled the crowd chanting “Black Lives Matter!” through a megaphone as she carried a periwinkle “Krusty Krab” backpack.
As crowds filled either side of Third Avenue, Portland police made announcements urging peace among the opposing groups.
“Portland police support free speech and assembly. Our primary focus is life and safety. Please demonstrate lawfully and help us keep events safe,” the speaker said.
The warnings went unheeded.
Scuffles repeatedly broke out among the crowd. Demonstrators exchanged volleys of rocks, half-full water bottles and smoke canisters. People on both sides sprayed the crowd with paint balls throughout the afternoon.
Right-wing demonstrators formed a shield line at times, pushing counterdemonstrators off the street and into Chapman Square. One man indiscriminately sprayed the crowd with orange pepper spray, sending protesters from both sides fleeing for relief.
Some in the Back the Blue group also adopted tactics law-enforcement agencies and conservative media have scrutinized Portland’s Black Lives Matter protesters for employing — left-wing demonstrators had green laser lights beamed into their eyes and fireworks erupted among the crowd in Chapman Square.
At one point, right-wing demonstrators targeted the graffiti-laden Snac Van, which offers food, water and other supplies at nightly protests across the city. Someone shattered the vehicle’s driver side window as others began pushing the van, swaying it from side to side.
Protesters from either side would peel off after each skirmish, some running back to their respective allies to ask for a dousing of water to relieve their eyes or skin from the burn brought on by a blast of pepper spray.
Portland police continued to issue their warnings as those scuffles broke out, never moving in on the crowd.
Police confiscated shields near the park before the Back the Blue rally, as well as condoms filled with indistinguishable liquids and water bottles officers believed by officers to be full of urine.
There were no arrests announced, even as known right-wing brawler Tusitala “Tiny” Toese walked among the crowd.
Court records show an active warrant out for his arrest, the result of a probation violation. Toese, a fixture of right-wing protests that tend to turn violent and a former member of Vancouver, Washington-based Patriot Prayer, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge in January that stemmed from a 2018 slugfest in Northeast Portland.
The right-wing group began to retreat from the Justice Center shortly after 2:30 p.m.
Black Lives Matter protesters followed as some of the Back the Blue demonstrators marched west on Columbia Street. Still others retrieved their vehicles from the parking garage on Third Avenue across the street from KOIN Tower.
As black-clad counterdemonstrators pulled ladders out of utility closets to form a makeshift barricade on the ramp leading up to the garage’s upper floors, one man sped his pickup through the gate that prevents people from leaving without paying.
Counterdemonstrators soon made their way back to Terry Schrunk Federal Plaza, where Department of Homeland Security officers had been stationed since the day’s events began. The federal park sits one block from the Justice Center.
Protesters filled the amphitheater inside the park, chanting “feds go home.”
After about 30 minutes, federal police called the gathering an unlawful assembly and pressed protesters out of the plaza — officers shouted orders to move back as they held shields and batons in front of them. It was unclear what prompted the declaration.
The push bifurcated the crowd as some people landed on Madison Street and in nearby Chapman Square, while others were pressed onto the sidewalk along Fourth Avenue in front of City Hall.
Demonstrators chanted for another 20 minutes or so as the police force slowly retreated toward the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Building, which houses the Portland offices for the IRS, Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.
Federal officers have repeatedly staged there since July.
The crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters that remained burst into cheers and chants of “We beat back the fasc (ists), we beat back the feds.”
K. Rambo and Brooke Herbert of The Oregonian/OregonLive staff contributed to this report.