It’s that time of year when the sunny days have cautiously begun to outnumber the gloomy ones and the lines for Salt & Straw begin to make a little more sense. In Portland, that can only mean one thing: Protest season is coming.
Recent Portland summers have been marked by protests that appear to serve only as an excuse for two opposing organizations to publicly throw insults and punches.
Here’s how they usually play out: Members of the Vancouver, Washington, alt-right group Patriot Prayer schedule a demonstration in Portland, showing up with rifles, MAGA hats, and sanctimonious smirks. They’re met with disdain from black-clad members of Portland’s anti-fascist (Antifa) groups. Eventually, armored Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officers escalate the confrontation with smoke bombs and bean-bag bullets. After hours of cat-and-mouse chases around downtown, serenaded by police loudspeakers’ threats of arrest, the crowds disperse—only to return the following weekend and repeat the charade.
Last summer, numerous rallies—all instigated by Patriot Prayer—ended in mass arrests, serious injuries, and outrage from Portlanders fed up with their city being used as an alt-right playing field.
Mayor Ted Wheeler attempted to solve the problem by introducing a policy that restricted where and when people could hold demonstrations—but the policy’s unconstitutional techniques kept it from passing a City Council vote.
At the same time, the public raised concerns that PPB officers appeared to favor members of Patriot Prayer over local counter-protesters. Officer comments about ignoring alt-righters who showed up to an August rally with a weapons cache—not to mention friendly text messages between Portland Lt. Jeff Niiya and Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson—only solidified those worries.
In February, City Council voted to denounce white supremacy and alt-right movements, a purely symbolic statement against Patriot Prayer. At the council meeting, Wheeler added: “Today’s resolution is the beginning, not the end, of a process.”
So where does that leave us?
Wheeler’s communication director, Eileen Park, says the mayor’s office doesn’t have any new tactics to address Patriot Prayer protests. The city has requested two investigations into how the PPB handled protests in 2017 and 2018, but it’s unlikely we’ll learn anything from them soon.
City Attorney Tracy Reeve says an outside investigation started in mid-May will take an estimated six months to complete. The results of an internal inquiry by the city’s Independent Police Review (IPR) won’t be made public for several months.
On May 1, Patriot Prayer gave Portland leaders an opportunity to show an improved response. That afternoon, the group swarmed Cider Riot, an Eastside pub hosting a May Day event attended by Portlanders affiliated with Antifa. Armed members of the alt-right group shouted at and pepper sprayed patrons, and sent one woman to the hospital with a vertebrae fracture.
PPB officers showed up an hour after they received the 911 call, long after the ensuing street brawl had dispersed.
“We were hung out to dry by the police,” said Cider Riot owner Abe Goldman-Armstrong, who is suing Patriot Prayer for damages. “There was no appropriate response.”