For an event forecasted by media as the “next Charlottesville,” indicating a possible tragedy resulting from clashes between Patriot Prayer and anti-fascist protesters, the scene on Aug. 4 was remarkably familiar. Over the past couple of years, as protest movements in response to Trump and the alt-right have ramped up in intensity in Portland, Oregon, so has the aggressive use of dispersal tactics on leftist demonstrators by police.
There was yet another event from the far-right organization, Patriot Prayer, and its leader, Washington State Senate candidate Joey Gibson on Aug. 4. (Gibson lost the primary election on Aug. 7, receiving only 24,029 votes, or 2.3 percent of the votes counted.) Over the past two years, Patriot Prayer has led frequent demonstrations with the apparent support of white nationalist organizations and the Proud Boys, a radical-right fraternity. Often mixing in far-right talking points and alt-right agitation, the organization has become a thorn in Portland’s side, prompting mass-organized counter-protests that the Patriot Prayer attendees use as an invitation to attack demonstrators.
At another event on June 30, the Patriot Prayer crowd, led largely by the Proud Boys, initiated a series of attacks in clashes with anti-fascist protesters leading to a level of brutality unprecedented in Portland’s recent history. The violence had been escalating as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer continued to stoke resentment against the relatively progressive city, and what they felt was unfair treatment at their rallies by both police and community members.
As the dust settled from the June 30 attack, which left several people arrested and in the hospital, Gibson announced the follow up for Aug. 4 while denouncing the police’s response. This surprised many counter-protesters, who insist that the Portland Police Bureau focused their crowd-dispersal methods – including chemical weapons and exploding “flash grenades” – almost exclusively on the left while actively protecting Patriot Prayer from advancing crowds.
In response to Gibson’s Aug. 4 announcement, a mass coalition organized by Pop Mob, short for popular mobilization, and anti-fascist groups like Rose City Antifa and the Pacific Northwest Antifascist Workers Collective, planned a rally and march to meet Patriot Prayer at the popular Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
Pop Mob, the coalition that brought almost 40 organizations together in a mass anti-fascist protest, started the day at City Hall at 10:30 a.m. with speakers discussing the issues that intersected with the growth of the far-right.
“Today, we offer our complete and unwavering solidarity with workers, immigrants, migrant justice organizers, and human rights activists to say loudly and clearly no to fascist organizing taking place in Portland, Oregon,” said Angelica Lim, an organizer with Gabriela Portland, in a speech at the rally.
Well over a thousand counter-demonstrated then marched through the city to meet Patriot Prayer’s group, which numbered between 300 and 400 people. When protesters made their way through downtown Portland and to the waterfront, police separated them across a large parkway from Patriot Prayer’s fenced-off position. The police, noting the threat level, had declared that the waterfront was to be weapons free, but since Patriot Prayer had agreed to stay in the confined area the police did not actually employ any methods for checking attendees for weapons. As eye witness accounts and photos revealed, there were people in the Patriot Prayer side that ignored this order, yet there were no police orders of dispersal. While both Patriot Prayer and counter-demonstrators were supposed to have access to the park, no pathway was provided for the anti-fascist march, and they were instead ordered to leave.
About two hours into the demonstration, during which protesters did not visibly antagonize the police line or try to get into the park – where Patriot Prayer yelled slurs and taunts – police used gas, flash grenades, plastic bullets and “pepper balls,” white pellets that serve as both an irritant and less-lethal ammunition. One protester was struck in the head with a large munition, which punctured their helmet, melting the area around the hole. Their head showed significant damage and they were rushed to the hospital with serious injuries.
Within minutes, police used dozens of flash grenades as they rushed protesters, spraying them with military-grade pepper spray and other weapons. While there were previous dispersal orders, there seemed to be no instigation when police made the charge. The Patriot Prayer crowd cheered while protesters desperately ran for safety.
A second protester, documentary filmmaker Michelle Fawcett, was hit with a flash grenade, which sent her to the emergency room with third-degree chemical burns on her arm and chest. A total of three people had to go the hospital from injuries from police activity.
James Peach was a protester who was present when police began escalating their crowd dispersal techniques. “I assumed something must have happened at the front of the protest line,” said Peach, who was sitting on the curb towards of the back of the crowd when the flash grenades were heard.
When the police came closer they fired two projectiles at him, and the second one tore open his arm. A street medic, who was a medical doctor, had to provide emergency stitches with a triage kit in the backseat of a car.
“Clearly the police used unnecessary force,” Peach said about his injury. “[The police] have been warned about these munitions and what they can do to people. You turn the streets into the war zone and people are going to die.”
Organizers across the crowd have had an almost uniform story of police aggression, saying that a common protest was treated as though it was a violent street mob.
“The police’s response was completely unprovoked,” said Effie Baum, organizer and spokesperson for Pop Mob. “This is a tactic I’ve seen them employ in other actions in the recent past. They will start announcing things over the loudspeaker that no one has witnessed, such as [the presence of] weapons, and then use those claims to justify an attack.”
Later, Patriot Prayer was allowed to leave their assigned protest area, despite the limitations that were previously set, and chaperoned through city blocks of downtown Portland by police. After returning to their original location, Patriot Prayer attendees allegedly assaulted protesters without police intervention.
This scene, where far-right protesters appear to receive delicate treatment while counter-demonstrators are placed in a critically dangerous situation, is common. During the “May Day” demonstration in 2017, flash bangs and tear gas were deployed with almost no warning on the largely family-friendly crowd after some protesters threw sodas in the air.
Just weeks later, at the June 4, 2017 counter-demonstration to Patriot Prayer that brought out over 4,000 protesters, police again turned their sights on the anti-fascist crowd with almost no visible provocation and “kettled” the crowd in a tactical move that was roundly denounced. They later said that there had been bricks thrown, yet this could not be verified. Since then this has been a pattern, and the police’s statements about the seeming “mainstream” nature of Patriot Prayer versus their left-wing counter-protesters seems to verify this imbalance in treatment.
“The police were completely duplicitous in their dealings with the counter-protest,” said David Rose, a spokesperson with Rose City Antifa. “The Portland Police has a long history of lying about their reasons for attacking protests, justifying their brutality and violence with poorly constructed and unproven statements. Both on June 4, 2017, and on Aug. 4, 2018, their pitiful excuses for blindly firing into a crowd with chemical and explosive weapons can’t disguise their true motivations – to allow fascist and white supremacist groups free rein of Portland streets.”
Multiple videos seem to corroborate protesters’ accounts, showing the police conferring before firing tear gas and advancing on protesters without provocation. In a video released by Daniel V. Media, the police appear to discuss things quietly and then, without warning, a flash grenade is fired directly into the crowd and police begin an aggressive charge on the protest line, including using military-grade pepper spray on the journalist filming.
“I saw no projectiles thrown from the protesters and had actually observed them doing their best to avoid confrontations with the police,” said the producer from Daniel V. Media who shot the video. “I saw the police shoot explosives aimed above and, several times, directly at protesters, along with blast balls and tear gas thrown by hand towards protesters, and pepper ball rounds fired from paintball guns.”
Shortly after the protest, the Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which contributed a sizable presence at the Saturday event, issued a joint statement denouncing police behavior and calling on “government officials to investigate and enact reforms in the wake of the Portland Police Bureau’s violent actions that targeted Portland’s residents peacefully counter-protesting against racist far-right groups.”
They were followed by multiple groups, including the ACLU of Oregon, which declared the use of these crowd control weapons an infringement of individual rights. “The Portland Police Bureau’s response to protest is completely unacceptable in a free society. The repeated use of excessive force, and the targeting of demonstrators based on political beliefs are a danger to the First Amendment rights of all people,” the ACLU of Oregon said in a statement posted on social media.
Police ended up making four arrests from the counter-demonstration, pressing charges like disorderly conduct and harassment. While there were a range of weapons confiscated from the Patriot Prayer side, including baseball bats, they were never forcefully dispersed and police allowed some of them to stay into the evening.
The question that many in Portland are left with is how the police’s priorities are being determined – especially given the nature of hate groups, like the Proud Boys, which have a history of extremely violent street conflict. In a public statement put out shortly after the incidents, Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw said that the reports of the injured protester hit by a flash grenade are serious and will be investigated.
“This morning I learned of allegations of injury as a result of law enforcement action,” Outlaw wrote. “I take all force applications by members seriously and have directed the Professional Standards Division to begin the intake process regarding these allegations to determine if force was used and if so, [whether it] was within our policy and training guidelines.” Outlaw later announced the suspension of the use of flash grenades pending an investigation into their use.
While Pop Mob organizers were angered by the Portland Police’s treatment, they highlighted the sheer number of participants as a victory. “The action itself was incredibly successful,” Baum said. “The amount of people we were able to bring out, the diversity of the people we were able to bring out, and our ability to function, throughout the day, as one united left, was really inspiring.”
On Aug. 8 protesters showed up at the City Council meeting to raise the issue of police violence. Several of the people who were there were injured by the police, including both Michelle Fawcett and James Peach. They wanted to have city officials hear about their experience with police tactics. This protest became heated after many protesters, including those exhibiting injuries, were not allowed into the proceedings. A conflict with guards and police ensued, resulting in several arrests and at least one security guard receiving a minor head injury.
As anger around the continuing far-right street action and police overreach grows, it is likely that this groundswell in Portland – and across the country, in what has been given the hashtag #AllOutAugust – will only escalate.