A week after a white nationalist murdered two men while harassing a Muslim woman, alt-righters ignored community pleas not to hold a 'free speech' rally in the civic center, protected both by militias and local police.
PORTLAND, Ore. – The mood of the 300 or so Trump supporters and alt-right “free speech” defenders at Terry Schrunk Plaza in the heart of downtown Portland on Sunday was mostly defiant. After all, they were holding the event only a little over week after a horrific hate crime committed by a white nationalist acting out alt-right talking points had shaken the city to its core.
The city’s mayor had even taken the unusual step of requesting the federal government to revoke the permit for the rally, though that was refused. Yet the organizers and their “Patriot” movement supporters came anyway – some of them prominent alt-right and militia leaders from around the country.
As it turned out, so did thousands of counter-protesters, angry over the week’s events, who vastly outnumbered the small crowd inside the park, chanting and shouting at them from all sides.
“It is so awesome that you guys came out here today, because you are challenging the corrupt belief system, I hope you understand that,” said Joey Gibson, whose Patriot Prayer organization was the event’s main organizer. “Think about the belief system in Portland. You’re not supposed to be here. And by challenging the current belief system, that is how revolutions begin!”
Yet for all their bravado, the assembled “Patriots” could not escape the reality that they were heavily outnumbered, outprotested, and surrounded by the various factions of Portlanders who came out to protest their gathering and their message. To the west, a coalition of socialist and liberal organizations occupied the plaza in front of City Hall with a large banner reading, “Portland Stands Against Hate,” backed by a crowd of about 500. To the east, and within direct earshot, a collection of over a hundred labor union activists stretched along Third Avenue, their banner reading “Portland Labor Against the Fascists”.
However, it was the collection of black-clad anarchists and “antifascist” activists who took up occupancy of Chapman Park, the large open space directly to the north of the alt-righters’ designated spot, that drew most of the attention and concern of the gathered Trump supporters, especially as the day wore on and they grew larger, louder and more raucous, numbering in the hundreds, many of them with their faces obscured by kerchief masks.
Eventually, while the alt-right crowd listened to speeches and waved their Gadsden flags and Kek and Pepe banners, the antifascist crowd grew increasingly agitated. Police began arresting protesters, and then used flash-bang devices to clear them out of the park altogether. A large group of antifascist activists then marched en masse downtown along Fourth Avenue, their progress halted at the intersection with Morrison, where police in riot gear ordered them to disperse, and then began rounding up and arresting protesters who were caught within their cordon. By the day’s end, 14 arrests had been made.
The dark shadow looming over the day was the shocking knife murders of two men on May 26, after they had attempted to intervene in the verbal harassment of two young nonwhite women, one wearing a hijab, aboard a commuter MAX train in northeast Portland. Both of the men had their throats cut in a sudden knife attack, and a third man suffered similar injuries but survived.
The killer, 35-year-old Jeremy Christian, was arrested by police shortly after the attacks. His background revealed a political gadabout (he had earlier supported the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders) who, in the previous year, had become enamored of white-nationalist ideology and seized upon it obsessively on social media. He voiced admiration for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a far-right icon, and adopted the longtime white-supremacist agenda of converting the Pacific Northwest into a whites-only homeland.
He also was obsessed with the claim that left-wing oppression was stifling free speech, the raison d’etre of recent right-wing “pro-Trump” events in Seattle and Berkeley that were met with violent shows of force from left-wing antifascists. It soon emerged that Christian had attended a previous Patriots Prayer-sponsored “Free Speech” rally, blurting racial epithets and carrying a baseball bat that was confiscated by police. After giving Nazi salutes and shouting “Hail Vinland!”, he eventually was ejected from the event by organizers.
More broadly, the threats that Christian was making at the time of the attacks – using anti-Muslim rhetoric directed at the young woman’s hijab – reflected a popular alt-right talking point first engendered by neo-Nazi organizer Andrew Anglin.
Christian made his motives clear at his first hearing. "Free speech or die, Portland,” he shouted. “You got no safe place. This is America – get out if you don't like free speech."
Then, as he was escorted out, he added: "Death to the enemies of America. Leave this country if you hate our freedoms. ... You call it terrorism. I call it patriotism."
The crime sent shock waves through the city, long regarded as a bastion of progressive politics. Many local citizens, the mayor most notably, feared that given the simmering anger over the killings, another right-wing provocation in the form of an alt-right “free speech” rally might unleash more civic violence.
Certainly, the crowd that gathered to protest their presence had no hesitation in laying the killings at the alt-right’s feet. “You Have Blood On Your Hands,” read one banner. The labor activists chanted: “Fascist murderers!”
The interactions between the two sides were angry and inflamed. Early in the gathering, a lone black woman stormed through the park where the pro-Trump crowd gathered, threw down a ballcap she had taken from one of the alt-righters bearing the word “Coon,” shouted that she was a proud black woman, “not a coon,” and then proceeded to lecture the crowd about the rights of black people; most of the crowd responded meekly. Police eventually escorted her from the park.
At first, some activists from the pro-Trump crowd wandered over to where the black-clad antifascists gathered and attempted to engage them, but found themselves being chased around the park and shoved back across the street. Alt-right activist Brian Fife found himself confronted by a sea of angry antifascists who blocked his attempts to enter their park.
The rally’s organizers not only were acutely sensitive about the association with the train murders, but angrily rejected it, claiming that Christian’s ejection from their event proved he wasn’t one of them. The hate, they asserted, was all coming from the angry Left.
“It’s not about politics anymore,” Gibson told the crowd. “It’s about a lack of respect, a lack of courage. And I see it all over the place. These protesters come to my rallies and they say they want to fight hate, but then they say, ‘Eff you, Joey!’ and they spread hate all over the place. We gotta knock it off!”
Gibson led a moment of silence for the two men who died: Ricky John Best, 53, of Happy Valley, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, of Portland, and described them as “heroes.” One speaker similarly described them as heroic, and eagerly mentioned that Best was a Republican. Another speaker claimed that the mayor and the media missed the real story behind the killings, namely, Christian’s alleged mental-illness issues.
At other times, however, the “love” was not altogether apparent. Gibson at one point explained to the crowd that opposing Muslims “is not racism,” because “Muslim isn’t a race, it’s an ideology.” He compared it to the Ku Klux Klan.
Brian Fife told Guardian reporter Jason Wilson that Jeremy Christian “did everything right up until the point he started killing people”.
“I do not support killing people,” he said, “I don’t think anyone does. But calling out the changing elements of our culture, I think that’s something I wish more of us would do.”
Some of the alt-right movement’s celebrities came from around the country and posed for photos and signed autographs for admirers, then spoke to the gathering. Tim “Treadstone” Gionet, better known as alt-right troll “Baked Alaska,” told the crowd to be proud of its mostly white heritage.
“I never thought I would live in a country, where I say I’m proud to be a white Christian male, and they say I’m racist, OK?” he told the crowd to applause. “Can we say this? You should be proud of who you are. I don’t care what you look like, what you believe, you should be proud of who you are. And the Marxists, the Left, the liberals, they don’t want you to be proud of who you are. And frankly, I’m sick of it. I think we’ve had enough. I’m not going to feel guilty because I’m a white male. I’m sorry, I’m not.”
Kyle Chapman, a Bay-area-based commercial diver who gained fame in alt-right ranks as “Based Stick Man” after bringing homemade weapons and shields to the Berkeley rally – and then forming a band of alt-right “warriors” called “Proud Boys,” some of whom were present Sunday – attracted perhaps the most attention.
“If you want this country to stay free, you have to be willing to sacrifice,” he told the crowd. “Our Founding Fathers, our ancestors, my ancestors that were on the boats in the Boston Tea Party, they knew they faced the threat of violence, death, incarceration for their actions – actions that brought us our constitutionally free republic. If that republic that they gave us is to stay free, you have to be willing to bleed.”
Among the other right-wing luminaries drawn to the event was Stewart Rhodes, founder and president of the Oath Keepers, who wandered the crowd and chatted with militiamen and alt-right characters alike. As promised, Rhodes’ camo-clad and heavily armed “security detail” arrived early at the scene to provide extra muscle to stave off the threat of attacks from antifascists or other protesters.
Shortly after their arrival at mid-morning, the Oath Keepers – readily identifiable by the bright yellow stripes they attached to their clothing – were seen conferring with several police officials. Rhodes had said beforehand that his organization was “conferring” with local police, though Portland police denied it.
Reports from other observers at the scene suggested that some of these militiamen actively engaged in helping make arrests of antifascist protesters, and one journalist published a photo of what appears to be such an arrest.
After the police battalions cleared out Chapman Park and then followed the antifascists down Fourth Avenue before finally making their culminative arrests, the mood of the crowd began to simmer down. The alt-right speakers finished up and the rallygoers began to drift away.
Across the street, labor-union activists doggedly kept up their chants, well past 5 p.m. When the last of the Trump supporters left the park, they finally pulled up their stakes and left. The opposition had made its point, too.