Several hundred gathered for Sunday’s rally, while police surrounded the space to keep hundreds of protesters away. Police arrested 14 people.
PORTLAND — During a tense Sunday afternoon that drew thousands to the city center, law-enforcement officers clashed with some who showed up to protest a “Free Speech” rally organized by supporters of President Donald Trump.
The pro-Trump event took place just nine days after the May 26 stabbing deaths of two men who sought to help a pair of teenage girls — one wearing a hijab — who had been the targets of hate speech on a transit train. The suspect in that case had previously attended a similar “Free Speech” event in the area in April.
Several hundred gathered for Sunday’s rally at a downtown plaza, while police surrounded the space to keep hundreds of protesters away.
Police arrested 14 people, and officers confiscated dozens of makeshift weapons, according to the Portland police.
The campaign and election of Donald Trump have energized and emboldened a small but vocal corner of American right-wing politics that was mostly absent from the public consciousness: the “alt-right.” Here’s what that term actually means.
Editor’s note: As a matter of policy, The Seattle Times avoids using the term “alt-right” except in quotes or in stories about the term or movement, and we explain / define it whenever we do use it. This approach is consistent with The Associated Press’ guidance on writing about the “alt-right.”
By the middle of the afternoon, police reported being hit with bottles, balloons and bricks from crowds that had gathered to protest the event. Police said they used “less-lethal chemical munitions” to control the crowd and shut down a park where they had gathered.
Police did not immediately report any officer injuries.
Inside the event, the rally grew tense. Joey Gibson, the organizer of the event, took the microphone and urged everyone to stay calm and let the police do their job.
Gibson had started the gathering by saying the two men who died in the transit-train stabbing were heroes who “gave it all.” He called on those at the rally to keep things peaceful.
“I’m sick and tired of the hatred … that has taken over the country,” Gibson said.
Some in that crowd displayed Trump campaign signs. One man held a banner of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character that has been adopted by the “alt-right” as a symbol of white supremacy. “Alt-right” is a small far-right movement mixing racism, white nationalism and populism.
The rally was preceded by days of bluster and smack talk on social media between some planning to attend and support the rally, and extremist, left-wing activists who vowed to defend the streets and “shut down fascism.”
And it came on a weekend when grieving relatives of the transit-train victims have been attending memorial services.
Through winter and spring, extremist Trump supporters from the “alt-right” and black-clad anti-fascists known as “Antifa” have clashed in West Coast and other U.S. cities.
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On Jan. 20 in Seattle, a shooting outside University of Washington’s Kane Hall where “alt-right” firebrand Milo Yiannopoulus was scheduled to speak, left Josh Duke, an anti-fascist demonstrator, in critical condition after he was shot. A couple — both Trump supporters there to attend the speech — have been charged with assault.
Gibson, the Vancouver, Washington-based founder of Patriot Pride, scheduled the Sunday rally before the stabbings occurred. He also organized a small May Day rally of Trump supporters in Seattle who marched down the streets chanting “USA, USA.” There was no violence, and the two groups ended up sharing a”peace joint” in Westlake Plaza.
This past week has been a rough one. “I have never got so many death threats in my life,” Gibson said.
An earlier free-speech event organized in Portland by Gibson on April 29 attracted Jeremy Christian, the 35-year-old man accused of the May 26 stabbings.
In online postings, Christian expressed a wide range of ugly sentiments, including support for white supremacy. His actions were so extreme at the April rally — giving Nazi salutes and spouting racist statements — that he was asked to leave.
“He came and was causing problems for everyone, and we eventually kicked him out,” Gibson said.
Less than a month later, Christian was on a MAX transit train where video evidence cited in court documents indicate he launched a hate-filled verbal barrage at the two teenage girls.
These passengers stepped forward to help the girls, and Christian is alleged to have attacked them with a knife.
Two of the men, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, 23, and Rick Best, 53, were fatally injured, while a third man, Micah Fletcher, 21, suffered a severe neck wound.
Christian is in custody and facing charges of murder and assault. He yelled out more invectives, including “Death to Antifa, ” in a court appearance this past week.
The stabbings prompted Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to call for the cancellation of the free-speech rally out of concerns for public safety, but to no avail.
Wheeler met last week with Gibson, but the two remain at odds and Gibson has accused the mayor of undermining his First Amendment rights.
Through the week, as the Portland stabbing deaths claimed national attention, Gibson has been active on social media, and in radio and television interviews, denouncing Wheeler and promoting the rally.
To boost the Portland event, Gibson reached out to other high-profile figures in the “alt-right” movement, including Kyle Chapman, who gained a lot of notice when online videos were posted that showed him wielding a stick against left-wing protesters in Berkeley, California.
Anti-fascist organizers called their counter-event the “No Nazis on our Streets Rally,” set for a square near the site of the free-speech rally.
Social-justice, religious and other community groups organized a third rally “in solidarity with immigrant and Muslim communities who are under attack and in honor of the heroic victims” and against hate speech.
Meanwhile, a group called “Portland Labor against Fascists” organized a fourth rally.
That protest formed just east of the free-speech rally as hundreds of people lined a narrow strip of pavement.
They included Victor Cummings, a Portland schoolteacher who held a sign that said “Love to the Max.”
Cummings said that he teaches students with disabilities, and that after the stabbings, many were afraid to get on the MAX transit system that shuttles people around the town.
So he decided to make up the sign, boarded the MAX and came to the protest.
Cummings appeared to find some common ground with those rallying in the federal square.
“They are free to say their beliefs, and I am free to give my views,” Cummings said. “Last time I checked, that’s what America is all about.”