On August 4, two far right groups largely consisting of out-of-towners converged in Tom McCall Park along the Willamette River in downtown Portland for a rally that many feared could become the next Charlottesville. There were the self-proclaimed “western chauvinists” in the Proud Boys—their usual middle school boy uniform of khakis and black polo shirts and a lack of fatherly approval accentuated by helmets, body armor, knives, clubs and guns—and Patriot Prayer, a ramshackle group of violent carnies lead by Joey Gibson, and equally armed to the teeth.
Gibson, who says Jesus talks to him and who is making a run for the Senate in his home state of Washington (Gibson has a better chance of seeing Jesus than winning office), has organized several of these events in Portland since Donald Trump was elected president, and they’ve all spawned some form of violence. His last “rally” on June 30th left a protester with a fractured skull. Both groups flew and bussed in “warriors” for the event from out of state (with financial assistance from Alex Jones and Info Wars), and only one out of 22 people I spoke with at the “rally” hailed from Oregon.
This time riotous violence was avoided, but only after Portland police suddenly and indiscriminately charged the protesters who showed up to opposed these far right groups. Without warning, the police charged and fired flash bang grenades and riot control weapons indiscriminately while using chemical agents on the crowd. A terrible scene like the one in Charlottesville was ultimately avoided, but only by the grace of a few millimeters of plastic in the bike helmet of a fleeing protester who had the back of his head split open by a non-lethal riot control round fired by police. There was never any rioting, there was never a riot declared, and by all accounts except the police department’s, their attack was unprovoked.
The people in Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys love to display and hide behind thin blue line flags and patches (much as they do their token minority members) and purport to celebrate the police, but they indisputably put the Portland Police Bureau in a near-impossible situation where the only outcome was violence of some kind, and it must be stated that avoiding violence between the opposing groups was an obvious victory. But after hours of a tense standoff between the two groups (the protesters outnumbered the alright groups at least 4-to-1) in the middle of Portland's downtown area, the police violently charged the protesters without warning and seemingly without much thought.
The officers fired liberally—I've been at several of these protests and have never seen such haphazard use of flash bang grenades or non-lethal crowd control rounds—and charged hard and fast. In the ensuing madness several were hurt, including a woman who was sent to the hospital with a fractured arm, a photojournalist for a local TV station who was hit with a round and myself, my photographer Doug Brown and a couple of other journalists who were pushed several times by charging cops.
Their response when we were pinned against a wall was to hit and push us repeatedly with their batons, and as Peter Parker wasn't in the press pool that day, we were trapped. We all either had press passes clearly displayed or were holding several obviously professional cameras when we were attacked, and there was a TV crew trailing the line of police, so we figured we'd be allowed to slide out of the way and do our jobs. We were wrong. The below video shows just one of the charges at us.
And here's a woman being assaulted by a police officer for the apparent crime of holding a sign:
In the days since the rally, Portland police chief Danielle Outlaw has been insistent that protesters were fired upon because they weren’t dispersing. Odd then, that the injured photojournalist, the aforementioned near-fatal round to the man’s head, the girl with the fractured arm and the welts on my arm are all wounds that came at our backs while we were attempting to flee.
First, on the radio in an interview (one where she also tried to explain away Doug’s video), Chief Outlaw said she herself saw counter-protesters throwing projectiles. Hours later at her press conference she said she was “in and out” of the protest when questioned directly about being there. I was on the front lines for nine hours without cease and saw nothing thrown until the police charged—nor did a single one of the eight journalists I who I spoke with for this story. No evidence definitively showing protesters throwing projectiles before the charge has appeared on social media as of this writing. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, it just seems odd that police were the only ones to witness this when the scene was crawling with reporters whose job it is to notice such things.
Outlaw also said that, “people should have enough time to leave and they should have a way out. They did.” Yes, they should, and no, they didn’t. Outlaw claimed the police gave the order to disperse before firing into the crowd. As videos have clearly shown, there was no announcement to disperse when the first munitions were fired into the crowd. The ensuing chaos of “non-lethal” munitions, flashbangs, pepper pellets, gas and charging police forced the protesters haphazardly towards the buzzing downtown traffic behind them. That no one ran blindly into oncoming traffic fleeing the PPB’s carnage is a small miracle.
It bears repeating that the counter-protest crowd consisted overwhelmingly of people not involved in the antifa black bloc and that the “pop mob”, or popular mobilization, organized for the event was created with the explicit intent of non-violence. These people spent the day joyously protesting exactly as they said they would. Some of them were dressed as clowns for god’s sake—these were not combatants in any form of the word.
The far-right LARPers (who again, are not citizens of Portland or even Oregon by a wide margin) were outnumbered at least 4-to-1 and in a fenced off area of a large park with plenty of space—why not move them out instead of sending over a thousand of your own citizens running from ammunition towards traffic? It very clearly would have been much easier and safer for all involved. Things were incredibly tense on the far right groups’ side, and the cops watching them had to notice the violence bubbling up—even among each other. I saw a woman pepper spray a fellow far right member, and the man then turned around and decked her, causing a huge scene in which the two loudly accused each other of being antifa plants. It was both stupid and dangerous, which seemed to be the day’s main theme.
Trying to explain her force’s actions during her radio interview in the aftermath of the rally, Chief Outlaw said that, “You have folks that came, I mean thousands of people, with the very clear intent of causing harm… most folks when they say they’re here to exercise their first amendment rights—that’s a little different than coming in with flak jackets and guns with vest and helmets.” Amazingly, she said this about the protesters and not the bozos in the park. This is patently false. Chief Outlaw was called out by both a reporter at her press conference and during her radio interview for making (and repeating) such a wildly inaccurate statement. It’s baffling, and almost as though she’s confusing the two sides.
Another disconcerting moment from Chief Outlaw and Asst. Chief Ryan Lee’s press conference was the revelation that the Portland police suspended use of “flash-bang” grenades pending an investigation to see if the devices work as the manufacturer describes after hearing of the protester’s head injury. This was a logical move. What wasn’t logical was shooting a device at your citizens without knowing if the device works right in first place. A move of unbelievable irresponsibility.
Yes, the black bloc section of the antifa was ready to defend their city by any means and was dressed to do so, but they were an obvious minority and the best behaved black bloc I’ve seen in years of protests. Screaming and threatening the interlopers were their main activities up until the police charged. Then they, of course, engaged the police, as antifa is going to do, and after the charge there definitely were some things thrown at the police, and one of them belted a reporter in the head, requiring stitches. No excuse for that.
But again, that happened after the police suddenly charged, and the vast majority of the protest crowd was better equipped for a music festival than a street brawl. Even a cursory glance at the group would have made this abundantly clear—so how could the PPB so preposterously misread the crowd before, during and after the event? Where their misinformed minds made up about who to rough up before the day began?
Time and again the chief has mentioned the PPB’s diligent gathering of information ahead of the rally. How then, could they have missed the innumerable posts on social media about the keeping protest peaceful and the far right groups’ willingness and plans for violence? Joey Gibson moved the event’s location so his followers could bring guns. He openly admitted this. At least 80 percent of the far right rally was dressed in helmets and armor and packing weapons. Gibson’s mountain of a manservant, favorite minority token and main brawler, John “Tiny” Toese showed up not only wearing some sort of Bane mask and a helmet, but also a shirt that declared that “PINOCHET DID NOTHING WRONG”, which is an odd thing to think about a man remembered by history as a despotic dictator who murdered untold thousands of his own people—especially at an event billed as a “free speech rally.” Tiny is a perfect example of the these far right splinter groups being both incredibly stupid and very dangerous.
The fact that Chief Outlaw thinks everyone who showed up to oppose these far-right groups was there to cause harm displays a shocking ignorance and is indicative of the problems with how law enforcement in Portland and the country at large are handling these “rallies.” How can the police effectively serve and protect a citizenry they are so clearly out of touch with? Does the PPB believe, as Donald Trump does, that there are “bad people on both sides”? How can people trained to think about these things end up being so thoroughly used by proto-fascist LARPers playing a pathetic but dangerous game of dress-up?
Responding to insinuations that the PPB sided with the group in the park, Chief Outlaw has taken to pointing out that she, an African American woman, is never going to side with people like those gathered in Tom McCall park who have white nationalists (and worse) among their ranks (Outlaw added the word “allegedly”). I very much believe her, but she and her officers sure did get used by them, and since she’s not in the streets deciding whether or not to fire weapons at citizens, it’s pretty irrelevant. Aside from a few small skirmishes, the far right groups had their work—which was coming to Portland and causing violence, make no mistake—done for them by the PPB last Saturday.
If Portland’s police force, who sees several of these events each year, is this totally out of touch with what’s happening in the streets, how are less prepared cities going to handle these events as they escalate? Chief Outlaw and her misinformed and highly reactive crew have given the rest of the country a fine lesson in how not to deal with these “rallies,” and played directly into the hands of groups she herself seems clearly disgusted by. The police everywhere have an incredibly difficult job that’s made nearly impossible by the alt-right’s tactics—but that’s all the more reason to clamp down on these groups. Instead, the PPB fired on Portland’s citizens while sad, emotionally stunted shit-starters from out of town cheered from across the street. It’s an embarrassment I hope they feel deeply and learn from. (As of this writing, no PPB official has condemned Patriot Prayer or the Proud Boys.)
Portland’s police force did a good job of keeping the groups separated and keeping things from escalating to another Charlottesville—but they also put hundreds of the citizens they are meant to serve and protect in harm’s way and in many cases outright harmed them. When your only goal is not have a repeat of Charlottesville’s horrors, you’ve set the bar too low. I’ll give the chief and Portland PD this: she was right on target when she said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Portland nearly did have its Charlottesville, but this time the alt-right had help. The police have to do better.