Mayor Wheeler, at a July protest.
Mayor Wheeler, at a July protest. Mathieu Lewis-Rolland

On Saturday afternoon, a far-right protest in downtown Portland devolved into a violent brawl involving bear mace, baseball bats, and brandished firearms.

Onlooking police officers declined to intervene.

In a press release Saturday afternoon, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) said its officers' inaction was due to being understaffed at the time, and being wary to intervene in a crowd that included people who had anti-police sentiments. PPB also alleged that "each skirmish appeared to involve willing participants," suggesting onlookers, non-violent protesters, journalists and others had planned to be maced and hit with paintballs or punches Saturday afternoon.

For 48 hours, the PPB press release remained the public statement the city had released about the alarming clash between far-right organizers and antifascist counter-protesters.

Late Monday afternoon, Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the city's police commissioner, shared this statement with the media:

“I vehemently oppose what the Proud Boys and those associated with them stand for, and I will not tolerate hate speech and the damage it does in our city. White nationalists, particularly those coming to our city armed, threaten the safety of Portlanders, and are not welcome here. Regarding Saturday afternoon’s protest, I am closely reviewing and discussing with Chief Lovell Portland Police Bureau’s strategy to limit their intervention in the right-wing protests and counter-demonstrations. We will share more information with the public. We are at a critical place where police officers are needed to intervene in protests where police officers themselves are the flashpoint.”

While Wheeler acknowledged that the PPB used a special "strategy" by not engaging in the Saturday protest, it's still unclear where he stands on the call.

But Wheeler's been less withholding about his perspective with other Portlanders.

On Saturday night, a member of the public (who asked the Mercury to remain anonymous) sent an email to Wheeler, sharing their concerns about PPB's response to the daytime protest. The person wrote that officers' inaction was particularly upsetting to see when contrasted with PPB's routinely aggressive response to nightly demonstrations against police brutality.

An hour later, Wheeler responded.

"For days you’ve been telling me that PPB's response has been overbearing. So last night and tonight they tried something different, and you’re demanding more of a police presence? Do you see how there is a no-win situation here? What, specifically, would you expect them to do? Have 30 officers charge into a crowd of 300 people, many of them armed? Would you do that? Would you ask other people to do that? I’m not shading you, these are serious questions. What specifically would you do? I am honestly interested."

Staff have confirmed this email was sent by Wheeler. While the message was not meant to be a formal public statement, Wheeler's quick reaction offers a different story—one of frustration and genuine exhaustion surrounding the public's demands.

This isn't a new challenge for Wheeler. In 2018, Wheeler attempted to limit protests organized by groups in opposition to each other by regulating the time and location of each demonstration—but the proposal failed a Portland City Council vote after being found unconstitutional by civil rights lawyers.

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It's also no surprise, after three months of nightly, fluid protests, Wheeler is struggling to oversee PPB's protest response. In a recent interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting, Wheeler acknowledged that he wasn't sure how to best address the tense demonstrations.

"We’re all considering all options," he said. "The core objective here is to create a free and safe space to those people who want to express their First Amendment rights and to compartmentalize and deescalate the violence as much as possible and where it’s safe to do so arrest people and hold them accountable."

Wheeler's staff says he will share more about PPB's protest response later this week.