PORTLAND, Oregon — Hundreds of far-right protesters gathered in downtown Portland on Saturday to flex their patriotism, their loathing of antifa, and their respect for the cops.
Many in the city feared that the event, billed as a protest against antifa, would inevitably devolve into violence as similar rallies affiliated with fascist street-fighting gang the Proud Boys have in the past. But this time, with Portland under intense national scrutiny, organizers of the event appeared anxious to absolve themselves of responsibility for any violence that could unfold — and call it a day as early as possible.
Portland residents said that the far-right turnout — numbering around 500 — was the largest they’d seen in the Rose City during the Trump era. Attendees included Proud Boys — many clad in their trademark black-and-gold Fred Perry shirts with MAGA hats — members of the Pacific Northwest Patriot Prayer, and the American Guard, a white supremacist group.
Ahead of Saturday’s rally, Portland police — along with officers from police departments across Oregon — installed concrete barricades along Portland Waterfront’s Tom McCall Park. The goal was to keep the far-right separate from a counterprotest that outnumbered the far-right demonstration and included about 300 black-clad anti-fascists. Portland's police chief reportedly said that there were about 1,200 people at the rally in total; the two sides were separated by about 150 yards.
Anti-fascists. Photo by Tess Owen.
In the end, the rally didn’t result in the kind of violence that residents had feared. Instead, the day wound up resembling a giant, chaotic, cat-and-mouse game, with clusters of antifascist protesters dodging riot cops in an effort to confront fascists.
“This was a dynamic event with demonstrators frequently moving from one part of the city to others, and that made the job even more difficult,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler, praising Portland police, at a press conference after the event. “Given the continuing movement and the number of people involved, I’m grateful that this was largely a peaceful event.”
There were 13 arrests in total, three injured, and police later declared a “civil disturbance” to flush out the counterprotesters. Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw said that officers confiscated items including bear spray, flag poles, knives, shields, and a stun gun from demonstrators.
The far-right rally was dubbed “End Domestic Terrorism” and aimed at portraying antifa as a terror threat. (The far-right was responsible for 73% of extremist murders between 2009 and 2018, according to the Anti-Defamation League; antifa has not been linked to any killings). The rally was slated to begin at 11 a.m., but clusters of attendees started trickling in about two hours early, verbally sparring with counterprotesters. "We're tired of how things are being run around here, and us regular, normal people won't let it stand," said Reggie Axtell, a 39-year-old member of the Proud Boys from Portland who was one of the first to arrive at the rally.
At 11.00 a.m. sharp a convoy of school buses rolled up, and Proud Boy organizer Joe Biggs and a couple hundred other Proud Boys disembarked. The group spent about half an hour in the park, where they chanted “USA, USA,” and planted an American flag in the ground. They then marched across Hawthorne Bridge and assembled in a vacant lot on the other side of the Willamette River. At 12.20 p.m., Biggs, speaking into a megaphone, declared the rally over — and began organizing buses to shuttle attendees over state lines into Vancouver, Washington, for a cookout.
Not everyone was pleased about throwing in the towel so soon. One woman, speaking into her own megaphone, stoked paranoia by shouting “antifa is closing in” (they weren’t). Another far-right protester complained that he was bored.
On the counterprotest side, a carnivalesque atmosphere prevailed among most of the demonstrators: a brass band played to “banana bloc” protesters dressed in banana costumes. Activists laid out bubbles, tinsel, noisemakers, and rainbow stickers reading “everyday antifascists.” Some were dressed as clowns. Meanwhile, black-clad antifa tried and failed to follow the far-right across the river after police closed access to a number of nearby pedestrian bridges.
But the counterprotest was also where the majority of arrests and clashes with police took place. At one point, a bus containing far-right protesters rolled up to the counterprotest, and antifa pounced: they smashed the bus’ windows, deployed pepper spray, and someone on the bus threw a hammer in retaliation.
Proud Boys put out a statement later on Saturday that sent a clear message to the famously liberal city: we’ll be back.
“Antifa maintains a stranglehold on the Pacific Northwest locale,” they said. “The gathering was never about bringing carnage or violence to the City of Portland, it was about financially crippling the progressive hotbed until they take action against Antifa and showcasing the power of peaceful political action.”
The protest. Photo by Tess Owen.
“Mayor Wheeler should use the past few weeks of preparation and attention to detail as a template going forward,” added Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio. “Either he takes charge and removes the scourge of violent domestic terrorists from his city, or we come back month-after-month.”
Hours before the rally had started, President Donald Trump was seemingly already picking sides.
“Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an “ORGANIZATION OF TERROR”” Trump tweeted. “Portland is being watched very closely. Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job.”
To Biggs, the president’s tweet was essentially a high-five. “Go look at President Trump’s Twitter,” Biggs told the Oregonian. “He talked about Portland, said he’s watching antifa. That’s all we wanted. We wanted national attention, and we got it. Mission success.”
Cover: Proud Boy Joe Biggs, who organized the event, tells far-right attendees that the rally is over. Photo by Tess Owens.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.