With an August 17 rally organized by a designated hate group on the horizon, the message from city leadership is clear: Stay away.
“In these politically-charged times, the stakes couldn’t be higher,” wrote Mayor Ted Wheeler in an August 7 statement about the coming rally organized by the Proud Boys, whose self-identified “Western chauvinist” viewpoints will be met by a group of local leftist counter-protesters.
Members of the Proud Boys—and other extremist militia groups with shared viewpoints—are coming from across the country to participate in the event, which is slated to begin at 11 am August 17 at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Several of these alt-right visitors have made threats of violence towards counter-protesters online.
In his statement, Wheeler specifically discouraged any protesters who plan on committing violence from attending the protests. The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) has been less discerning.
In a Tuesday press release, PPB urged Portlanders to avoid the downtown protest, regardless of their intent.
“The demonstrations will be impacting a very small area of Portland,” writes PPB Chief Danielle Outlaw in the release, which includes a list of alternate events PPB suggests Portlanders should attend on the 17th. “I encourage everyone to enjoy what will likely be a beautiful day by engaging in fun activities at a number of community events."
In an August 5 interview with the Oregonian, Outlaw directly dissuaded Portlanders from attending the protests.
“If you’re coming to be a lookie-loo to watch, you’re enabling an event,'' said Outlaw. "These events would not occur if there was no audience.'' She noted that no PPB officer will have the day off Saturday.
In statements leading up to Saturday’s event, Outlaw and Wheeler have all but guaranteed violence—both by protesters and the police. Their messaging signals to the public that, to stay safe, they should stay clear of downtown.
This advice comes as an affront to Portlanders who’ve worked hard to form a solidified coalition to oppose the upcoming protest and its organizers’ overtly racist, homophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric.
“What’s even more unsafe is letting these movements go unopposed,” says Effie Baum, spokesperson for Popular Mobilization, or PopMob, a group that organizes left-wing rallies. “If we don’t go, they’re going to continue to grow and continue to come back. Honestly, the growing far-right movement is far more dangerous than the decision to show up and oppose it.”
Baum believes the city’s pushback violates Portlanders’ constitutional right to protest.
“Their fear mongering will prevent people from showing up... it’s silencing folks,” Baum says.
Kimberly McCullough, policy director with the ACLU of Oregon, says Wheeler's talking points aren't at odds with Portlanders' free speech rights.
"He's issuing his opinion that, for people's safety, they shouldn't come to this particular area," says McCullough. "It doesn’t cross a line where there’s a clear First Amendment violation."
The bigger issue, McCullough says, is whether or not the PPB will continue to respect protesters' rights throughout the Saturday protest.
"Regardless what the mayor says, it is still the police’s job to help facilitate peaceful protest," she says. "Are they going to use militarized tactics? Are they going to penalize a large group of people for the actions of a few? Those are the questions we're going to be asking throughout the day."
Baum has spent the past year working with other local progressive groups to coordinate a united response to the frequent far-right rallies held in Portland. In the past, these rallies (usually organized by Vancouver, Washington’s alt-right group Patriot Prayer) would attract a variety of different counter-protests representing different groups: From interfaith organizations to political groups to self-proclaimed anti-fascists (or, antifa) dressed in all-black. These scattered groups would rarely coordinate with one another, despite their shared disdain for the alt-right visitors.
“We realized it’s safer and more impactful to all be together, joined under the umbrella of PopMob,” says Baum. “We want to show that anti-fascists are not violent scary boogeyman, we’re just people that care about our community. And we're united."
PopMob’s planned counter-protest to Saturday’s Proud Boys rally will feature a variety of different leftist organizations—from labor unions to vegans—and eight different events throughout the day, starting with a 9:30 am Buddhist meditation and ending with a convergence of people dressed as poop emojis.
PopMob’s encouraging counter-protesters to wear silly costumes, play instruments, and make a general mockery of the far-right demonstrators.
“We really want to provide an atmosphere of joyous resistance,” Baum says. “I want to do everything possible to make [the Proud Boys’] riot porn include someone dressed as a banana playing a tuba.”
Baum acknowledges that Portland’s various anti-fascist groups often use different tactics during protests. Some of them can turn violent.
“The bottom line is that we are all on the same team and we all have the same end goals,” Baum says, “which is we don’t want fascists feeling welcome in our community.”
One of the groups who'll rally under the PopMob umbrella Saturday is Portland’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). They're planning on dressing up as "very scary communists."
“That’s what these fascist groups think Portland’s made up of,” says Evan Burchfield, a spokesperson for the Portland DSA. "We're calling it the 'Red Scare'."
Burchfield said the DSA is in staunch disagreement with the strategy Wheeler and Outlaw are using to prevent people from opposing groups that espouse what the DSA considers fascist ideals.
“The city is under the false impression that if you don’t show up to oppose fascists they’ll go away,” says Burchfield. To underscore this belief, he paraphrases a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force… but it is the presence of [justice].”
Burchfield’s particularly critical of an event Wheeler is hosting at Pioneer Courthouse Square at 10 am this morning, where Wheeler will again condemn violence from protesters, “regardless of their political beliefs.” Wheeler’s released a lengthy coalition of city bureaus, elected officials, law enforcement, business groups, unions, and civil rights organizations that support this message.
DSA and other groups who plan on opposing the Proud Boys believe Wheeler’s event is simply an attempt to undercut the August 17 counter-protest.
“Mayor Wheeler has decided that the far-left is just as much as bad as the far-right,” Burchfield says. “And he’s engaging in the erroneous idea that if you just talk sensibly to these people, they will see how wrong they are.”
If the city wanted to truly show their opposition to the Proud Boys using Portland as a battlefield, Burchield says, Wheeler would hold his event on August 17.
Activist Sarah Iannarone, who plans on running for Wheeler's office in 2020, agrees.
"Where is the mayor's coalition going to be on Saturday morning? Where are our leaders then?" Iannarone asks.
Iannarone, who previously ran against Wheeler in 2016, plans on attending Saturday's counter-protest. She'll be away from the front lines, holding a feminine hygiene drive for her neighborhood's new homeless shelter, the Laurelwood Center.
Like Baum, Iannarone is frustrated with Wheeler's "fear mongering" response to the upcoming protests. She believes Wheeler's only responding to the national spotlight directed on Portland protests (thanks to direct attacks by Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump), not to the actual needs of the community.
"Are we supporting the people in our community who are most vulnerable to alt-right violence?" Iannarone asks. "Or are we making them feel less safe with a militarized police force?"
Iannarone understands if some Portlanders feel unsafe participating in Saturday's counter-protest, and encourages everyone to stay in their "comfort zone."
"If people feel compromised by alt-right in the street, they should stay away," she says. "But for those of us that have privilege, whether it's white privilege, economic privilege, straight privilege... I do believe that it is our responsibility to come together in community in a sense of peacefulness and joyfulness and stand together against hate."
Albert Lee, another progressive running to represent Portland in 2020, shares Iannarone's belief. Lee, a Democrat running to represent Oregon’s 3rd congressional district, says he supports Wheeler’s call for unity—but encourages participation. Lee is familiar with PPB’s protest tactics from his work on the Citizen Review Commission (CRC), a city committee that reviews police misconduct cases.
“I would hope that folks engaged in counter-protest remain safe, vigilant, and together,” wrote Lee in a statement emailed to the Mercury. “Furthermore, those with privilege should be on the front lines of any counter-protests for they have the relative safety of their privilege that the marginalized and oppressed do not share.”