Tensions Ease after Protests

Police keep dueling groups apart

8/20/2019, 2:59 p.m.
At its peak, the dueling protests Saturday drew in more than 1,200 people, with both far-right protestors and antifascist counter-demonstrators.
Portland police officers hold ground against a group of left wing protesters who gathered downtown Saturday to confront opposing groups of right-wing protesters who picked Portland as a city to demonstrate nationally. Although some arrests were made and some skirmishes erupted in the following hours, dueling protests remained largely peaceful. AP Photo/Noah Berger

The tension felt across the city by many expecting violence Saturday in Portland at the long-hyped national right wing rally and the counter demonstrations in response was met with relief when it was over due to it not being as violent as feared, even as one East Coast-based far-right organizer has vowed to return to Portland monthly.

At its peak, the dueling protests drew in more than 1,200 people, with both far-right protestors and antifascist counter-demonstrators, arriving at about 8:30 a.m. downtown, police said.

Almost immediately, officers started seizing weapons including bear spray, metal and wooden poles, knives, shields and a stun gun. But by using barriers and bridge closures — and allowing a large contingent of right-wingers to leave when they asked to — authorities were able to mostly keep the two sides apart. Six minor injuries were reported as well as several bursts of skirmishes throughout the day.

Police ended up arresting and releasing 13 people on “civil disturbance” charges.

“I’m grateful this was largely a peaceful event,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler. “We were preparing for and planning for a worst-case scenario.”

Police reported at least six instances where officers used force, including one deployment of pepper balls and additional “take-downs or control against resistance.”

Joe Biggs, the Florida organizer of the right-wing gathering, which include the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer and other far-right groups, said they accomplished their goal of drawing negative attention to Portland’s black-clad antifascist protesters — known as antifa —who showed up to confront them.

President Donald Trump tweeted early Saturday that major consideration was being given to naming antifa “an organization of terror” but made no reference to the violence and deaths attributed to groups associated with racism and right wing violence.

Biggs said he and his group would keep coming back to Portland so long as antifa was around. But Eric K. Ward, executive director of the Portland-based Western States Center, a racial, gender and economic justice group, said the right wing rally was a bust.

“Portland won today, and far-right leaders like Joey Gibson and Joe Biggs lost,” Ward said in a statement.

In an interview, Ward said Biggs’ groups cut short a planned five-hour rally after only one hour and left.

“The white nationalist, alt-right coalition that came to Portland was denied what they sought to create, which were large-scale civil disturbances,” Ward said.

While antifa protesters get a lot of attention, Ward said there were many others who came out to oppose the right-wing groups. He also praised police and city officials for their actions.

“What I saw yesterday was the first step in Portland really putting together a citywide response,” he said.

A man tussles with protesters against right-wing demonstrators following an "End Domestic Terrorism" rally in Portland Saturday.

A man tussles with protesters against right-wing demonstrators following an "End Domestic Terrorism" rally in Portland Saturday.

Mayor Wheeler said at a Saturday evening news conference that Biggs and anyone espousing hate or violence was not welcome.

“We do not want him here in my city. Period,” Wheeler said.

The mayor said Portland was targeted by “a rising white nationalist movement” and a growing sense of fear in the country, and that because Portland was a progressive community, it would always be at or near ground zero of the battle.

More than two dozen local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, were in the city on Saturday to help keep the peace.

As of early afternoon, most of the right-wing groups had left the area. But hundreds of people remained downtown and on nearby streets, and there were tense skirmishes—of which some drew blood--mostly between antifa protesters and right-wing rallyers, throughout the day.

Joey Gibson, the Vancouver-based right-wing Patriot Prayers founder was also present at the Saturday rally, one day after facing a felony riot charge for an incident on May 1 in Portland.

Gibson, who organized similar rallies in 2017 and 2018 that erupted in clashes, appeared in court on Monday and vowed to fight the charge.

Western States Center Deputy Director Amy Herzfeld-Copple called the charges against Gibson and his co-conspirators “welcome, if overdue.”

--Associated Press contributed to this story.