Kenton Waltz

Patriot Prayer has become predictable.

Every few months, the alt-right provocateurs take a bus from Vancouver, WA, to Portland, where they pelt the city with hate speech and Trump-isms, throw punches at those who disagree, and then leave us to cope with the emotional (and physical) toll.

Just as predictable, though—and perhaps more concerning—is the city’s response to these visits.

Leading up to Patriot Prayer’s violent August 4 rally in Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler politely explained that, thanks to the First Amendment, he couldn’t do anything to stop the out-of-towners from inciting riots in his city. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly echoed Wheeler in a Facebook post. “To be clear,” she wrote, “the law does not allow me or my colleagues... to prevent this gathering.” No other city commissioner commented on the rally that the Southern Poverty Law Center predicted could be “the next Charlottesville.”

Perhaps city council is still spooked by the last time Wheeler tried to stop Patriot Prayer from storming the city in June 2017—mere days after a white nationalist (and regular participant in Patriot Prayer rallies) hurled racist slurs at a pair of teens on the MAX and then killed two men who tried to intervene. At the time, Wheeler asked the feds to revoke permits allowing Patriot Prayer to hold rallies in a federal plaza. But, as the ACLU reminded him, Wheeler’s request qualified as censoring free speech. Wheeler backed off and threw up his hands.

Fast-forward a year, and little has changed. In the process of protecting the free speech of a group aligned with white supremacy, it seems city leaders have forgotten how to use that same constitutional right to fight back.

Where are the statements from city, county, and state lawmakers loudly denouncing the group’s sexist, racist, and anti-immigrant ideals? It appears the First Amendment has become an excuse for inaction against hate groups—rather than an opportunity to decry a bigoted movement that’s decided to use Portland as a battlefield.

And that’s exactly why Patriot Prayer keeps coming back.

“I think it’s clear they’re intentionally focusing their attention on Portland because they believe city leadership is weak in maintaining order,” says Lindsay Schubiner, program director for the Western States Center, a nonprofit focused on racial and social justice in the West. “The city’s response hasn’t changed, while Patriot Prayer’s violence increases.”

Some cities have taken a different approach. Last August, news of a Patriot Prayer rally coming to San Francisco sparked instant, united opposition from elected officials at every level of government.

“You are not welcome here,” said then-Supervisor London Breed, who is now the city’s mayor. “We are going to do everything we can to stop you.” She was backed by then-Mayor Ed Lee, the city’s police chief, and state lawmakers—even US Representative Nancy Pelosi chimed in. Patriot Prayer promptly canceled the event, blaming the politicians for creating a “hostile environment.”

San Francisco’s leaders didn’t just discourage an alt-right protest. They acknowledged that Patriot Prayer was a serious threat to their city.

That’s not the case in Portland. Following Saturday’s protest, Wheeler released a brief statement simplistically condemning “numerous individuals” who came to the protest seeking to inflict harm. Later, Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw admitted that officers may have disproportionately focused their attention—and their pepper spray—on Portlanders who protested against the rally rather than the armed interlopers from Washington.

Patriot Prayer leaders, meanwhile, called the event “beautiful,” and applauded the police for defending their First Amendment rights.