In the midst of a brawl between alt-right protesters and antifascists on Sat Aug 22, 2020.
In the midst of a brawl between alt-right protesters and antifascists on Sat Aug 22, 2020. Suzette Smith

Approximately 300 protesters occupied the front of Portland's downtown Justice Center yesterday afternoon, from 12-2 pm. They bore flags, shouted chants, and held shields. But they were not the usual social instigators the city has seen over the past 86 days of civil unrest, in response to the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

The protesters in front of the Justice Center were from alt-right and white nationalist groups—members from Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys both showed up, pulled in from across the nation, by Americans Against Marxism's "No to Marxism in America" rally. It was supposed to take place in Terry Schrunk plaza, a federal park and the traditional protest spot of alt-right groups since the city cannot deny them a permit.

A Portland antifascist organization called Pop Mob planned a counter-protest "Banner Bloc Party" at the neighboring Justice Center, encouraging attendees to "keep watch" and "provide safety in numbers" while also offering prizes for the "best, biggest, and funniest banner."

It seemed like it would be a silly day. It was not a silly day.

A banner from Pop Mobs Banner Bloc Party counter-protest.
A banner from Pop Mob's Banner Bloc Party counter-protest. Suzette Smith

By noon—the time both events were set to begin—the "No to Marxism" attendees had overtaken the Justice Center front steps and approximately 400 counter-protesters had gathered in Chapman Square Park, across SW 3rd. Over the course of the next two hours, the conflicting sides came to blows, with the counter-protesters eventually pushing more aggressive alt-right participants out of the Justice Center area and up to SW Columbia and SW 5th by 2:30 pm.

In years past, alt-right protest events involving out-of-towners generally saw a line of Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officers standing between alt-right protesters and counter-protesters. But although the PPB used their LRAD loudspeaker system to make a handful of announcements to the groups—advising them that "everyone has the right to engage in the expression of first amendment rights" and that "officers [had] observed projectiles being thrown and people in possession of firearms"—they never intervened. In fact, there was no noticeable, physical police presence until around 2:15 pm when (as the groups pushed south on SW 3rd) federal officers filled the entryway of the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building. Those officers did not engage until the counter-protesters returned.

For most of the two and a half hour Hate, the No Marxism protesters chanted "U-S-A!," and the counter-protesters chanted "Stolen Land!" Participants on either side lobbed open juice containers, fireworks, rocks, and smoke bombs. I was hit by a full bottle of Fruit Punch Gatorade (what a waste), among many other things. At one point, I observed a stream of water spray into the crowd of alt-right protesters and turned to see a person with a neon green Super Soaker squirt gun—only to immediately see them beaned by a sizable rock. Moments after that, a cherry bomb landed near my foot and when a person tried to pick it up, the bomb exploded in their hand—luckily they was wearing heavy welder's gloves.

Both groups employed paint guns, and there were pellets whizzing past my ears from either side. Proud Boys member Alan Swinney stood behind a wall of alt-right protesters holding homemade shields and popped off paint rounds at the counter-protest crowd. A counter-protester grabbed my arm and tried to haul me from the area unsuccessfully. When I turned back to the alt-right line, I was about ten feet from Swinney casually pointing a handgun at me and the crowd around me.

When conservative blogger Michael Strickland pulled a Glock pistol on a Don't Shoot Portland protest in 2016, I remember the motion of the crowd falling away from it was like a landslide. By comparison, the counter-protesters in Chapman Square Saturday barely seemed to register Swinney's illegal brandish. Swinney holstered the gun after a moment, but it remains one of the more dangerous situations of yesterday's protest.

By 2:30 pm, the confrontation was over. The more aggressive alt-right attendees thinned after a major brawl where the alt-right side broke through their shield wall to rush counter-protesters in the park.

At around 2:15 pm, the counter-protesters formed a tight wall with their likewise homemade shields and pushed the right-wing rally south on SW 3rd, then north on SW Columbia, which felt like a Twilight Zone reversal of scenes we’ve seen in past months between local and federal officers and Black Lives Matter protesters.

There was plenty of mace:

And sign-kicking:

But overall, the big push by counter-protesters was simply people marching and overwhelming with peaceful numbers.

As the counter-protesters returned to Terry Shrunk Plaza, the PPB broadcast from a patrol car that the gathering had been declared an unlawful assembly. This was the first announcement from PPB to actually declare an unlawful assembly, which seemed hypocritical—if not surprising—given the level of violence seen that afternoon, in comparison with protests where officers declared riots over thrown water bottles.

After the No Marxism rally retreated, the simulation reset.
After the No Marxism rally retreated, the simulation reset. Suzette Smith

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) federal police escorted some remaining right-wing attendees out of the crowd before they formed a line and pushed the counter-protesters onto SW Madison and into Chapman Square. They then fired pepper bullets into the crowd to cover their retreat into the Wyatt Building.

In a press release about the demonstrations, PPB explained their lack of engagement in the violent brawls this way:

"Incident commanders have to weigh out the entire situation to determine if police action is likely to make things safer or notIn this case there were hundreds of individuals and many weapons within the groups and an extremely limited amount of police resources actually available to address such a crowd. Additionally, PPB members have been the focus of over 80 days of violent actions directed at the police, which is a major consideration for determining if police resources are necessary to interject between two groups with individuals who appear to be willingly engaging in physical confrontations for short durations."

Yet, these restrictions didn't seem to limit PPB's ability to aggressively engage in anti-racist protests later Saturday night, using physical force to arrest and beat marching demonstrators. The only difference: There were no far-right protesters in attendance.

The Mercury reached out to Mayor Ted Wheeler's office for comment on PPB's relative inaction Saturday, but Wheeler—who also serves as the city police commissioner has yet to respond. The Mercury has also not received answers to questions posed to Portland's three sitting city commissioners about Saturday's police tactics.