Several hundred far-right activists, many of them in militarized helmets and body armor — and some openly carrying guns — turned out Saturday afternoon for what they termed a “free speech” event to support President Trump’s reelection, ratcheting up fears of an explosive clash with left-wing protesters who have taken to the city’s streets most nights since early summer.
Thousands had been expected at the afternoon rally led by the Proud Boys, who call themselves “Western chauvinists” and are notorious for brawls with protest groups whose calls for racial justice and police reform were further stirred this week by a Louisville, Ky., grand jury decision to not indict officers for the shooting death of a 26-year-old Black woman, Breonna Taylor, in her own apartment.
But the crowd was far smaller, and a massive law enforcement presence may have dissuaded various groups from clashing. As evening fell and rally attendees dispersed, the streets appeared largely peaceful. But later, downtown, activists and police clashed, as they have on previous nights.
The Proud Boys, labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, maintain that they are seeking “law and order,” echoing Trump’s rhetoric that far-left activists are “domestic terrorists” who must be squelched.
With less than six weeks until the presidential election, Trump’s condemnation of what he terms “left-wing radicals” has stoked a national sense of polarization that has simmered since the early days of his term. And Portland, a largely liberal city set against the backdrop of a state with a history of right-wing activism, embodies that divisive energy at street level.
Through months of tumult, the city has served as the nation’s protesting capital since the late May death of George Floyd in police custody. The Proud Boys segment of President Trump’s support base — along with Saturday’s counterprotest events — represented the latest showing of the country’s superheated political temperature in the weeks before voters cast their November ballots.
Close to 1,000 people had arrived in Delta Park by early afternoon, some carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. The far-right activists gathered under tents, with card tables dotted with platters of doughnuts and packs of cigarettes. Dozens lounged in the beds of pickup trucks flanked by “Trump 2020" flags, blasting rock music and drawing a collection of cash for more Coors Light.
Proud Boys Chairman Enrique Tarrio strolled the area wearing a body armor vest and posing for photographs, about a dozen supporters in tow. “This is the day when we destroy Ted Wheeler’s chance of reelection,” he said, referring to the city’s Democratic mayor.
Members of the group appeared to be operating an armed checkpoint to enter the park. One man sold bottle openers in the shape of Trump’s head. Another distributed plastic shields from the back of a large truck.
“I must be doing something right, speaking out about socialism, because the left is finally paying attention,” said one attendee, who, fearing retribution, would provide only his first name, Matthew.
A ceremony included a series of speeches, the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. At least one suspected counterprotester who found his way into the gathering was surrounded by hundreds of people and chased out. Expletive-ridden chants rippled through the crowd.
Several journalists were also asked to leave Delta Park. One man who appeared to be livestreaming the event was thrown to the ground and kicked.
State troopers and other police were stationed in small clusters around the perimeter of the park but remained largely uninvolved. “Thank you for your service! We love you!” Proud Boys shouted, fist-bumping officers through their RV windows and offering them sandwiches.
On Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which runs alongside the park, a traffic sign flashed: “Hate has no place here.”
Opposing activists gathered in downtown Portland’s Peninsula Park, with a banner that read: “Come for the anarchy, stay for the soup.”
Another group gathered near the Proud Boys in Vanport, beside the Columbia River. There, speakers discussed Portland’s Black history.
As night fell, protesters held a rally at the Justice Center in downtown Portland, which remained peaceful until police ordered them to move out of the street. Many more poured into the road, causing clashes. Police jumped out of white vans and tackled at least one protester, wrestling him to the ground. Arrests followed.
On Friday night, city and state officials had prepared a surge in law enforcement, seeking to prevent violent clashes among various groups of counterprotesters.
Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency as Saturday approached. The Proud Boys and related groups “have come time and time again looking for a fight, and the results are always tragic,” Brown said Friday, adding that state troopers would join the efforts to establish a unified command structure in the city. “This is a critical moment. We have seen what happens when armed vigilantes take matters into their own hands.”
Portland’s protests over racial injustice and other issues, which have continued most evenings since early summer, have often escalated into violence.
Left-wing demonstrators have clashed with police forces, who have dispersed crowds with less-lethal projectiles and chemical agents.
The Proud Boys posted on social media to flaunt tactical gear in preparation for Saturday’s events. But by late afternoon, the group had largely dispersed. Officials reported a handful of arrests.
Teressa Raiford, founder of the Black-led human rights nonprofit Don’t Shoot Portland, said she would remain home Saturday, worried that she would be targeted in possible violence by right-wingers.
“There’s so much open rein for people to harm us based on what they feel are patriot circumstances — it’s hard to know what to expect,” she said. “As a Black American who knows my history, the policing agency is intertwined with white supremacy. That relationship is happening. In 2020, we see the same policing-white supremacy alignment as the 1950s. For us to have people having hate rallies is pretty hard to see happening right now.”
In their permit application for the rally, the Proud Boys referenced the death of Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a member of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer who was killed in a confrontation with a self-proclaimed anti-fascist. Both men were carrying weapons at the time of the incident, following a right-wing parade of vehicles into downtown Portland.
The suspect in Danielson’s killing was shot and killed by law enforcement officers several days later when they fired multiple rounds as they went to serve an arrest warrant.
The Proud Boys had said they planned their gathering Saturday in Delta Park “in order to accommodate … a ‘battalion of patriots’ who are ready to exercise their constitutionally protected right to assemble.”
Chester Doles, a former Ku Klux Klan member from Georgia who has participated in far-right rallies in the past, debated traveling to Portland but decided against it, citing the likelihood of violence.
“If something kicks off, and you’re from out of state, it’s not going to end well,” he said.
Still, he said he was hosting a moment of silence Saturday near Atlanta in memory of Danielson and the personal sacrifices he believes the Proud Boys will make.
“My heart bleeds with them,” said Doles.
Times staff writer Melissa Etehad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.