Political rallies in Portland, Oregon, and a neighboring town gave way to violence Sunday afternoon when black-clad antifa activists attacked police officers and far-right demonstrators, while other protesters from rival groups scuffled in the streets.
Two officers were treated for minor injuries after protesters fired slingshots and threw rocks, bottles and other projectiles at them, according to the Portland Police Bureau. At least nine people were arrested throughout the day on charges that included interfering with a police officer and disorderly conduct.
An especially alarming moment came toward the end of the day when a man driving a black Chevrolet truck adorned with American flags and a Confederate flag decal accelerated at a group of protesters, causing people to scream and jump out of the way. No one was hurt, and the driver, who was not identified, was detained and released without charges shortly after, Willamette Week reported.
The incident drew comparisons to last month’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virgiinia, where a car plowed into a group of counterprotesters, killing one woman. James Alex Fields Jr., a Nazi sympathizer, was charged with second-degree murder, hit and run, and three counts of malicious wounding.
The conservative group Patriot Prayer had scheduled a “Peaceful Portland Freedom March” in downtown Portland starting Sunday afternoon, but at the last minute moved the demonstration to Vancouver, Washington, over concerns about a large counterprotest.
Hundreds of counterprotesters still showed up around 1 p.m. in Portland’s plaza and waterfront park, carrying signs that read “fascists not welcome” and “fight the right.” The Oregonian reported that they were mostly from Portland Stands United Against Hate, a coalition of some 80 activist groups, and Rose City Antifa, a local anti-fascist organization. They were met by a handful of Patriot Prayer supporters, according to local media.
“Fascists, far right racists and bigots are organizing across this country,” organizer Wael Elasaday told KATU. “We knew that we needed to come together and stand up against that racism and against fascists.”
Most people were protesting peacefully, but within minutes some antifa activists began lighting smoke bombs and hurling objects at police. One counterprotester sprayed officers with a fire extinguisher, according to Willamette Week, while others fought with some of the Patriot Prayer supporters who turned out.
By 1:30 p.m., officers in riot gear were firing pepper spray at demonstrators, making arrests and telling the crowd to clear the area. “Due to violence, peaceful protesters, including PSUAH marchers, should disperse immediately for their own safety,” the department tweeted. Officers arrested at least seven people and confiscated sticks, batons and other weapons. They later allowed peaceful demonstrators to reconvene.
In Vancouver, Patriot Prayer supporters gathered in a public amphitheater to listen to speakers. The Oregon-based group has organized several provocative rallies this year, including a “Trump Free Speech Rally” held in Portland in June shortly after a man shouting anti-Muslim slurs fatally stabbed two men on a city commuter train.
Patriot Prayer’s critics call it a hate group that courts white supremacists. Counterprotesters have showed up in droves to oppose the group at previous rallies, some of which have turned violent. The group’s founder, conservative activist Joey Gibson, has repeatedly disavowed racism and violence, saying his focus is on protecting free speech.
As counterprotesters arrived in Vancouver Sunday afternoon, Gibson told his followers not to be afraid, according to the Oregonian.
“That’s what antifa wants,” he said. “That’s what the elites want.”
The rally drew members of the anti-gay Hell Shaking Street Preachers and the Proud Boys, an overtly racist right-wing group that has sparred with left-wing activists in the street, according to local media. Gibson and other speakers condemned white supremacy and called for expanded free speech and protection from violence.
Police formed a barrier between counterprotesters and Patriot Prayer supporters to maintain order. As the demonstration started to wind down late in the afternoon, officers were letting people out of the area eight at a time to avoid confrontations between the groups, according to KGW.
There were several scuffles in the area, local media reported, and some Patriot Prayer supporters and at least one photographer were sprayed with silly string. A car full of Proud Boys was stopped by police for firing pepper spray at counterprotesters but released, according to Willamette Week. Two people were arrested for reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct.
Around 4 p.m., a group of several dozen counterprotesters were marching down the street when a black Chevrolet pickup truck rolled toward them, its horn blaring.
Video captured by multiple observers showed counterprotesters shouting at the driver, who abruptly put the vehicle in reverse and sped backward. “Get out of the road,” a woman could be heard shouting. The driver then rounded the block and sped toward counterprotesters again. In the video, someone could be seen diving out of the way as the truck races through an intersection.
Police stopped the driver moments later and handcuffed him. They told KGW he was later released without charges.
In the days leading up to the rallies, police were preparing for violence among the demonstrators. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler vowed to take a zero-tolerance approach after street fights during previous demonstrations left people injured and property destroyed.
“We will not tolerate acts of violence,” he said Friday. “We will not tolerate vandalism. We will not tolerate criminal behavior.”
The rallies came just two weeks after antifa activists attacked peaceful far-right protesters during protests in Berkeley, California.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Derek Hawkins