Updated Oct. 16, 4:37 EST: In response to a public outcry after the Monday press conference, Portland Police Department released a statement that seemed to contradict Mayor Wheeler's characterization of what far-right protesters were doing on a roof of a parking garage just before an August rally. Rather than police encountering a "cache" of weapons, as Wheeler had said, police said there were only three firearms, all in cases, none loaded, and one disassembled; that the individuals had the proper permits; and that the police did not confiscate the guns.
ORIGINAL STORY: After a series of violent street clashes between rival political factions, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, is proposing an emergency ordinance that would limit when and where people can demonstrate.
For years, political tensions have been simmering in Portland, long viewed as a bastion of First Amendment activity and left-wing activism. But in the wake of yet another violent flare-up between far-right protesters, including Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys, and anti-fascists over the weekend, and after learning that right-wing groups positioned themselves on a rooftop with a “cache of firearms” at an August rally, Mayor Ted Wheeler now seeks to rein things in before they get any worse.
At a Monday press conference, Wheeler announced the ordinance, designed to curb First Amendment activity and put restrictions on demonstrating, and said it’s currently in draft form being reviewed by attorneys. Wheeler is bringing it to the city council for approval on Wednesday.
“There’s some basic ideals that we should be able to agree on as Americans: We don’t tolerate violence on our streets. Violence is not and has never been a legitimate means to a political end,” said Wheeler, a Democrat. “There’s now a clear history of two or more groups in particular seeking each other out in the streets of our community. This violence has escalated. Public safety is at an increased risk.”
Officials also said that during the Aug. 4 free speech rally, police encountered members of Patriot Prayer, a right-wing protest group headed by former Senate candidate Joey Gibson, positioned on the rooftop of the garage with a cache of guns, including “long guns.” Police briefly confiscated the guns but didn’t make arrests, and they returned the guns later on.
Reporters at the press conference asked why the public was only being made aware of this discovery more than two months after the fact, given that it may have informed people’s decision whether to attend future protest events. “Hindsight is always perfect,” Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw said. “We’ve pushed out a lot of information regarding our concerns for potential violence, as we receive the information. We push out information as it becomes available to us, and we do the best we can with that.”
Wheeler also referenced another Patriot Prayer rally early in the summer that was declared a riot after it devolved into street fights and led to the hospitalization of four people, and a brawl last year involving 50 to 60 people.
“I will not allow continued planned street violence between rival factions to take place on the streets of Portland,” Wheeler said.
The ACLU of Oregon has already spoken out against the proposed ordinance, which is expected to be finalized Wednesday. “We have serious concerns,” Mat dos Santos, legal director of ACLU-Oregon said in a statement posted to Twitter. “Perhaps worse than the legal issues it raises, is that this ordinance is being sprung on the public with little notice as an emergency measure that will take effect immediately.”
Dos Santos said he expects Wheeler’s proposal to do the opposite of the desired effect.
“We suspect that this rushed proposal will be met with public outcry and demonstrations,” dos Santos said. “And, inevitably, this ordinance will get challenged in court. To be clear, we already have laws against street fighting and violence.”
“There’s a strong First Amendment free speech commitment in this town. There’s a long history of protests, and police not knowing about them in advance. But that’s been more from the Left. The involvement of the Right is new,” said Robert Liebman, a sociology professor at Portland State University who specializes in political and social movements. “This thing is not going to go away. Both sides are dug in; therefore, pressure is being put on the council to do something.”
There’s a deep suspicion among antifascists that Portland police is in bed with groups like Patriot Prayer, and the fact that Police Chief Outlaw withheld information regarding the cache of weapons discovered during the Aug. 4 rally has only inflamed those suspicions. Antifa groups have resurfaced an interview with Outlaw on a conservative talk radio station weeks after the rally, in which she discusses armed leftist protesters who were throwing smoke bombs with no reference to the cache of firearms. “What, really, could be the purpose of a rooftop weapons post except to murder anti-racist protestors if PP judged it necessary?” Rose City Antifa tweeted.
But groups like Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys position themselves as allies of law enforcement, and have been critical of Wheeler, a Democrat, who they say has enabled antifa activity. “Patriot Prayer planned a peaceful demonstration in portland to show their disgust for Ted Wheeler allowing domestic terror group #Antifa to block traffic and cause mayhem,” they tweeted on Saturday. “Like usual, they showed up to silence free speech and start fights. They lost, as usual.”
Wheeler says that his ordinance will be “reasonable and content neutral,” and won’t target one side or the other. “This is not a partisan issue. This is not about ideology,” Wheeler said. “This is about delivering a strong, principled and unified message that we will not tolerate violence in our community.”