Around one thousand supporters of the rightwing Proud Boys group, some armed, rallied in Portland, Oregon on Saturday in a largely peaceful event that drew far fewer followers than organizers forecast and state authorities had feared.
The rally in a north Portland park ended after a few hours of speeches and chants, many against anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter groups which held a nearby counter-protest.
The Proud Boys had forecast a crowd of at least 10,000 and Portland’s police chief on Friday said he saw chances of a “very, very large” gathering.
The state governor, Kate Brown, had declared a weekend state of emergency for Oregon’s biggest city, saying “white supremacist groups” were traveling from out of state to attend the rally called by the Proud Boys to “end domestic terrorism” in Portland.
The Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a hate group, said they were hosting a free speech event to support Trump and the police, restore law and order and condemn anti-fascists, “domestic terrorism” and “violent gangs of rioting felons”.
“This is a critical moment,” said Brown, a Democrat. “We have seen what happens when armed vigilantes take matters into their own hands. We’ve seen it in Charlottesville, we’ve seen it in Kenosha and, unfortunately, we have seen it in Portland.”
She was referring to deaths in Virginia, Wisconsin and Oregon during clashes between right and left.
“The Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer groups have come time and time again looking for a fight, and the results are always tragic,” Brown said. “Let me be perfectly clear: we will not tolerate any type of violence this weekend. Left, right or center, violence is never a path towards meaningful change.”
On Friday, the Oregon Justice Resource Center launched a $1.25m civil suit against three named men, and 50 more yet to be identified, over a rally on 22 August at which rightwingers fired paintballs into a leftwing crowd. The same day, a journalist’s hand was broken by a Proud Boy wielding a baton. One man, Alan Swinney, said on social media he had been indicted.
Also on Friday, the Portland mayor, Ted Wheeler, published a “letter to the community” in which he invoked for the first time state anti-paramilitary laws, a move the Guardian recently reported experts were urging.
“Oregon law prohibits paramilitary activity,” Wheeler said. “Organizers of and likely participants in the 26 September event have openly discussed tactical operations and military-style formations that lead us to believe that they are operating as an unauthorized private militia.”
Over four years in the city, provocations by rightwing activists have culminated in violence while Trump and rightwing media have scapegoated local officials and anti-fascists.
On 29 August this year, a pro-Trump truck convoy made its way downtown, firing paintballs and mace and attacking protesters with vehicles. A Patriot Prayer associate, Aaron Jay Danielson, was shot dead. A self-proclaimed anti-fascist, Michael Forest Reinoehl, admitted the shooting in a media interview, then was shot dead by US Marshals on 3 September in Lacey, Washington.
Saturday’s rally came after months of anti-police protests in Portland and a wildfire emergency in which rural residents engaged in vigilante actions.
“The lawlessness has culminated with the assassination of our friend and Trump supporter Jay Danielson in Portland,” the Proud Boys said in their permit application, which was denied. “Portland leadership is unwilling to stop the violence. They have been blinded by their hatred of our president and will not allow outside help stopping the violence.”
The application mentioned Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged in the shooting deaths of two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse’s attorneys say he acted in self-defense.
On Saturday in Portland, the approaches to Delta Park – part of a complex of open green space on the northern edge of the city, where the Proud Boys rallied – were dotted with clusters of officers, their cars bearing the insignia of Portland police, the Multnomah county sheriff’s office and the Oregon state police.
A traffic sign a few blocks from the park entrance flashed: “Hate is not welcome here. Black lives matter.”
At the parklands’ southern entrance, a barricade was manned by six Portland officers. At the fringe of the rally, a rightwinger stood guard in camouflage body armor and a combat helmet, armed with an assault rifle.
Many more men openly carried guns, milling around near cars and trucks, most festooned with flags expressing allegiance to the US, the “thin blue line” of the police, and Trump. Among them was David Willis, who, the Guardian revealed last week, planned armed violence at the 22 August rally.
During the afternoon Willis, who leaked chats have revealed as having described “press, ACLU, and [National] Lawyers Guild” as “targets” at a previous rally, shouted threateningly at freelance journalist, Shane Burley, while holding his paintball gun according to Burley. An OPB journalist interviewed Willis while he was holding the paintball gun he was filmed firing into a crowd of protesters on 22 August.
Burley said in a text message that it was “the most paranoid far right-rally I have ever been to” and that in the moment of confrontation “I felt like anything could happen”.
Elsewhere, Proud Boys organizer Joe Biggs was filmed ordering men to remove a local photographer from the rally.
Oregon State Police announced on social media that they had issued several citations and confiscated paintball guns and firearms from attendees at the right-wing demonstration.
Police said they were investigating an assault of one person documenting the Proud Boys rally and a total of four people were arrested.
Two miles away from the Proud Boys rally, in Peninsula Park, a counter-protest of around 1,500 people – perhaps three times as large as the Proud Boys gathering – went ahead, and a series of speakers denounced the far right group’s incursion into the city.
That counter-protest, one of three held in the city during the afternoon, was not positioned, as previous protests have been, in direct physical proximity to the far right group.
Of that decision, a spokesperson for long standing local antifascist group Rose City Antifa said: “We wanted to bring organizations together and establish an anti-fascist space on Saturday where community members could access needed resources, connect with each other, and learn from each other without the constant threat of hundreds of unmasked, armed reactionaries literally watching them across a field.”
Anti-racism protesters in Portland want the city to take millions from police and reallocate it to the Black community. Some are angry with Mayor Wheeler, also the police commissioner, for allowing police to use tear gas and aggressive tactics. Wheeler has refused to cede control of the police to a Black councilwoman with a decades-long resumé of activism for police reform.
This week, protesters hurled firebombs at officers in the wake of the Kentucky decision not to charge officers with killing Taylor, a Black woman shot in her home.
Trump has repeatedly attacked Wheeler. Over a two-week period in July, thousands of protesters squared off with federal agents sent by the president from the US Department of Homeland Security, to protect a federal courthouse.