A small group of Proud Boys and MAGA supporters faced off with antifascists in Salem, Oregon, on Sunday and things got violent pretty quick: Black-clad counterprotesters attacked MAGA supporters in their trucks with rocks. Then someone pulled a gun and was quickly arrested by police.
The scenes that unfolded in Salem have become an increasingly familiar sight, as far-right protesters have targeted Oregon’s state Capitol on several occasions in recent months, leading to showdowns with riot police and counterprotesters.
But even before the day was over, the far-right disinformation machine was hard at work amplifying false or exaggerated narratives surrounding “antifa.”
“Armed Antifa Insurrectionists attempted to overthrow the Oregon state capitol today,” far-right media personality Jack Posobiec declared on Twitter, in a since-deleted post. “Antifa 'armed' rioters descend on Oregon State Capitol in Salem,” Fox News wrote in their headline, going on to describe the crowd as about 200-strong and “heavily armed.” “Antifa strikes again,” wrote Right Side Broadcasting Network, a fringe right-wing site.
Asked by VICE News whether he would characterize the events in Salem as an attempted insurrection by “antifa,” Lt. Treven Upkes from Salem Police Department replied, “no.”
About 100 counterprotesters from a coalition of antifascist groups under the umbrella of “Fascist Free 503” gathered in response to a planned “Freedom, America First'' rally, which was expected to draw a caravan of MAGA protesters and Proud Boys to Salem.
Ahead of the event, antifascists had been circulating screenshots of far-right Telegram chats that showed Trump supporters discussing what sorts of weapons they were bringing, including bear spray, pellet guns, knives and smoke grenades. According to Salem police, many of the antifascist protesters had also arrived armed, with an assortment of “firearms, bats, skateboards, umbrellas, shields and gas masks” and attempted to drive Trump supporters away by throwing rocks and paint and their cars.
In one particularly heated interaction captured by journalist Marina Rae, antifascists maced a Trump supporter’s truck and broke the windows. The driver got out, unholstered his handgun, pointed it at protesters and chambered a round, before he was wrestled to the ground by police.
Another truck driver accelerated through the crowd of antifascists, nearly hitting them.
Once riot police dispersed the crowd away from the Capitol grounds, they began to “move around the various streets” in the vicinity, which resulted in more altercations between opposing sides, Salem police said.
Salem is poised to become another West Coast hotspot of political violence. While Portland has become notorious for violent clashes between leftists and Proud Boys, and riots against police brutality, the state capital has on several occasions been the backdrop for angry, violent protests from the far-right.
The most notable example was in late December, when armed MAGA protesters, angered over COVID-19 restrictions and the outcome of the presidential election, overwhelmed police and stormed Oregon’s capitol. Despite the fact that many in the crowd had brought Blue Lives Matter or Back the Blue flags, they quickly turned on police when they found them blocking the entry to the building, which in many ways foreshadowed the deadly events at the U.S. Capitol just a few weeks later.
Tense standoffs in Salem between police, far-right protesters, including Proud Boys, and counterprotesters also ensued on New Year's Day. And on January 6, as an insurrectionist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Trump supporters and the far-right converged at Oregon’s state Capitol. The event began peacefully, with moments of silence for people who’d been injured or arrested in D.C., but it later spiraled into chaos and violence as the group clashed with police and counterprotesters.
Salem Police’s Lt. Upkes told VICE News they’re worried about the uptick in clashes between opposing groups. “What we are concerned about is, the Capitol building draws a lot of protesters. But this protester-versus-counterprotester mentality is taking place,” said Upkes. “So whenever you’re a group, with opposing views or opinions, the other feels it’s necessary to oppose that. Then we get sparks of danger at these demonstrations, as we’ve seen throughout 2020.”
Upkes said it’s “difficult to label” one side as being more responsible for violence than the other. In the case of Sunday’s events, he simply noted that when the Freedom Rally protesters arrived, “their vehicles were attacked by counter demonstrators, who call themselves antifascist.”
Antifa–Proud Boy tensions also reportedly flared over the weekend at an Easter egg hunt in the town of Schaumberg, Illinois, 30 miles from Chicago.