As Portland prepares to take on the familiar role as a battlefield for far-right groups brawling with antifascist counter-protesters this Sunday, city leaders are relying on the possibility that attendees will "choose love."
During a virtual rally Friday, organized by an online retail group called "I Choose Love USA," Mayor Ted Wheeler denounced the idea of hate groups organizing in Portland—although he fell short of directly addressing the event.
"Hate and hate groups have no place in our city. Violence has no place in our city. Bigotry has no place in our city," said Wheeler. "I can say confidently that I speak for all Portlanders when I say we will not tolerate acts of violence, destruction, prejudice, or intimidation."
Members of local right-wing groups—including the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer—are planning to meet in Portland Sunday afternoon, August 22, for an event dubbed "United We Win." While originally planned for Portland's Tom McCall Waterfront Park, event organizers now say the rally's new location will be revealed Sunday morning. The event marks a year since right-wing groups met in downtown Portland and shot paintballs and cherry bombs at antifascist counter-protesters with little police intervention. As they did last year, local antifascists have planned to respond to this Sunday's right-wing event with a counter-protest. It's not clear how many people are expected to be in attendance. In the past, these types of clashing events have drawn out several hundred protesters.
Wheeler was joined at the Friday rally by several local elected leaders, including Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Metro President Lynn Peterson, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, and City Commissioner Dan Ryan. The event also served as an opportunity to praise local businesses for withstanding the past year of economic devastation and frequent racial justice protests. The virtual gathering mimicked an in-person rally Wheeler held in 2019, days before a planned demonstration by the Proud Boys. The 2019 event did not deter the Proud Boys from visiting Portland.
Kafoury reminded the public that, because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases, the local emergency rooms have little capacity for those injured in street fights. Peterson urged viewers to spend the weekend volunteering in the community instead of joining the expected clash.
"It might feel good to yell or taunt or chase a bunch of pathetic boys around downtown Portland," said Peterson. "You might feel like you’re an element of justice when our society and our system has let you down. But this has been going on for more than two years, and violence doesn’t make anyone feel safer.”
The rally was also attended by Eric Ward, director of Western States Center, a nonprofit that tracks hate groups across the Northwest.
"One year ago, when white nationalists and anti-government ideologues invaded Portland's streets, some people may still have been surprised," said Ward. "Now, 12 months later, after the attack on the Oregon capitol, the violent insurrection in our nation's capitol on January 6... there's absolutely no longer any excuse for being caught unaware."
Ward applauded the unified response from local leaders at the morning event, but said he was disappointed by the lack of support by state and federal representatives.
"Let’s be clear: Under the best conditions, no city in the United States could successfully meet the challenges posed by white nationalism by itself," Ward said. "It's time to acknowledge this. And, more importantly, it's time for the federal government, state government, and surrounding municipal governments to acknowledge it, too."
The rally stood in contrast with a press conference held earlier Friday morning, organized by local activist and civil rights groups. Speakers with Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC), Don't Shoot Portland, Mental Health Alliance of Portland, the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance, and others used the event to condemn Wheeler's response to the planned right-wing visit.
"The community is going to show up to defend itself Sunday, because the city government won't," said Juan Chavez, an attorney with the OJRC. "We know that whenever the Proud Boys show up in our town, police stand up and stand by while fascists assault the community. This time will be no different."
Chavez demanded that Wheeler and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell resign due to their inability to defend Portlanders from the right-wing interlopers. He also called on the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to stop using chemical weapons on peaceful protesters and to suspend all officers who worked during 2020's racial justice protests "until an independent investigation can occur." Chavez and other OJRC lawyers are currently representing Don't Shoot Portland and other individuals in a lawsuit against the city and PPB for using chemical weapons and other force indiscriminately against protesters last summer.
Teressa Raiford, director of Don't Shoot Portland, pointed to the similarities between Wheeler's "choose love" statements and those made by white leaders trying to extinguish past civil rights movements.
"His leveling of leadership against the people who say 'Black Lives Matter' is indicative of white supremacists and the ideology behind it," said Raiford. "People have not been inactive against violence and racism, we have worked against it with no leverage or political will from our leaders. We need them to speak up."
Other speakers called for Wheeler's resignation and accountability around how PPB treats right-wing protesters. During past protests, PPB officers have appeared to focus their attention on antifascist counter-protesters over right-wing agitators. And records obtained by the Portland Mercury in 2019 illustrated a protective relationship between a PPB officer and right-wing protester Joey Gibson, the head of Vancouver, WA's Patriot Prayer.
This perceived indifference to violent right-wing groups was again on display last August, when PPB officers declined to intervene when Proud Boys threw punches and sprayed mace at antifascist demonstrators in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center. At the time, PPB pointed to their department's limited resources and exhaustion after weeks of policing racial justice protests. And, PPB said it didn't feel necessary to interject when the two groups fighting "appear[ed] to be willingly engaging in physical confrontations for short durations."
The police bureau has hinted at using the same approach this time around. In an afternoon press conference with Lovell, Wheeler said that the public shouldn't expect to see PPB officers standing in the middle of crowds of protesters. "People need to keep themselves apart and avoid physical confrontation," said Wheeler, who serves as the city's police commissioner.
That's a decision made to protect officers' safety, Lovell explained, but it won't keep officers from arresting members of the public if necessary.
"I share the community's concerns about violent confrontations," Lovell said. "The Portland Police Bureau will monitor the event and make arrests for crimes as resources allow."
Lovell said that in some cases, people might be arrested for crimes committed during the protest after the fact, echoing an explanation given last week, when PPB waited four days before arresting a man who pointed a realistic-looking fake rifle at people in downtown Portland.
According to Lovell, the Oregon State Police and the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office may assist PPB's response to the Sunday event. He called Sunday an "all hands on deck" day, since all PPB officers are required to work, regardless of their pre-planned time off.
Neither Lovell nor Wheeler would name the groups that are planning to visit Portland this weekend, or label them as domestic terrorists.
As he has said in the past, Wheeler urged people who were planning to show up Sunday and engage in violence to stay home.
"This is the time to support one another," he said. "There is just no more room for hate in Portland."