PORTLAND, Oregon — About 300 far-right protesters gathered in Portland for a Saturday rally to “End Domestic Terrorism” in an attempt to call out antifa as the real threat. Hundreds of counter-protesters, many of whom were with antifa, showed up as well. Riot police guarded rows of metal barricades separating the groups by about 150 yards.
Far-right protesters, led by fascist street-fighting gang the Proud Boys, arrived at their designated meeting place by the city’s waterfront at 11 a.m. Many were clad in Fred Perry shirts, the Proud Boys uniform, and MAGA hats. Some wore flags as capes. They sang the national anthem, chanted "USA," and planted an American flag in the ground, then marched.
About 200 black-clad activists, led by Portland-based Rose City Antifa and other leftist protesters, amassed behind rows of riot police and concrete barricades, mingling among hundreds of counter-protesters. The activists laid out bubbles, tinsel, noisemakers, and rainbow stickers reading “everyday antifascists.” Some were dressed as clowns.
As the rally kicked off, one protester was threatening to fight Proud Boys, lunging at one of them. The two groups verbally sparred, with one protestor angrily shouting "I'm sick of you all coming here" at the far-right activists.
"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.
President Trump tweeted about Portland seemingly in support of the far-right protesters' message on Saturday hours before the rally kicked off. “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an “ORGANIZATION OF TERROR,” Trump wrote. “Portland is being watched very closely. Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job!”
Joe Biggs, Proud Boys and rally organizer, led the group across Hawthorne Bridge, then declared the far-right rally over after just an hour and 20 minutes. He told news organization The Oregonian/OregonLive they had successfully gotten their message across.
“Go look at President Trump’s Twitter,” Biggs said. “He talked about Portland, said he’s watching antifa. That’s all we wanted. We wanted national attention, and we got it. Mission success.”
The FBI has said that domestic terrorism poses a growing and very real threat to national security. However, that threat isn’t coming from antifa, whose members sometimes damage property and brawl with fascists or police but haven’t been linked to any killings in the U.S.
There is a threat, though, from far-right extremists, whose members accounted for 73% of extremist murders in the U.S. between 2009 and 2018, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
"We are here to stand against communism and socialism," said Alyssa Bang, 24, a member of far-right group Patriot Prayer at the rally. "Antifa has a long history of attacking people."
Some far-right demonstrators left and others stayed in the streets after Biggs called the rally off. The counter-protest splintered, with some large groups of antifa running from riot cops as they tried to corral them with barricades. Skirmishes appear to have been limited, but journalist Arun Gupta posted a video of antifa members smashing the windows of a Proud Boys bus. A legal observer said at least three members of antifa have been arrested during the dueling protests.
Portland has been the backdrop for some of the worst moments of political violence of the Trump era, and clashes between black-clad antifa, riot cops, and far-right groups like Patriot Prayer or the Proud Boys have earned Portland a reputation beyond its quirky coffee shops and bird motifs.
Counter-protester Neal Schwedler, 59, said he had been to a rally the week before as well, where he said he "chased white supremacists." He held a sign that read "No Trump, No KKK, no neo-fascist USA," which the protesters also chanted.
Tensions ramped up in late June after anti-fascist protesters assaulted Andy Ngo, a right-wing blogger known for trafficking in racist conspiracy theories and trolling antifa. He live-streamed his transportation to the hospital, where he was treated for a brain hemorrhage.
Within days, the run-in between Ngo and antifa had captured the imagination of conservative media and lawmakers, who pounced on the incident as evidence that antifa constituted a domestic terror menace akin to white nationalism. Ngo appeared on cable news channels and penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. The president alluded to the incident on multiple occasions, including at one of his campaign rallies. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz weighed in, accusing Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler of enabling antifa violence.
Meanwhile, Proud Boy organizer Joe Biggs was looking ahead to his planned rally in Portland on August 17. The event was originally billed as a run-of-the-mill patriotic and free speech rally. But after Ngo’s attack, and with antifa under intense national scrutiny, Biggs repurposed the rally, calling it “End Domestic Terrorism.”
In the weeks following, the rhetoric surrounding the event continued to escalate. “Get a gun. Bu[y] ammo. Get your gun license. Get training. Practice as much as you can and be ready because the left isn’t playing anymore and neither should we,” wrote Biggs in one post online, according to the Daily Beast. Another supporter posted a picture of a member of antifa having their throat cut.
But concerns that Saturday could bring violence hit a fever pitch this week as the rally started receiving attention in the national media. On Wednesday, Wheeler, joined by a coalition of local civil rights groups and community leaders, warned that Portland police would be out in full force, and urged people to stay home.
Portland Police released a bulletin Friday saying that they would be receiving back-up from the FBI, Oregon State Police, and from other local police departments in Oregon.
On Thursday, Portland police rounded up at least six members of far-right groups and charged them with crimes related to a May Day assault at Cider Riot, a local bar popular with leftists. During that confrontation, a female protester was beaten unconscious and taken to hospital, where she was treated for a fractured vertebra. Joey Gibson, leader of the far-right Patriot Prayer, was among those arrested. Gibson, who has been front and center at previous far-right events in Portland, live-streamed himself surrendering to police on felony rioting charges. He was let out on bail, and is at the Saturday rally.
With arrests piling up, the Oath Keepers, a right-wing militia, decided to bail. In a statement Thursday evening, the leader of the Oath Keepers said that they weren’t confident that organizers were doing enough to keep white supremacists away from the rally. On Friday, the Facebook page for the event “End Domestic Terrorism” vanished.
But the Proud Boys were defiant that the rally would go on as planned, and accused the Portland police of making politically motivated arrests. “This coordinated Gestapo-style roundup of free speech advocates is not a mistake of randomly timed,” they said in a statement. “Unfortunately it looks like an Antifa sympathizer or a politically motivated public relations staffer with the Portland Police Bureau is intent on creating a cloud of confusion surrounding Saturday’s gathering.” They added that they “will not tolerate violence or racism” and said anyone hoping to engage in those acts should “stay home.”
Cover: Hundreds of far-right activists and counter-protesters gathered in Portland on Saturday. Photo by Tess Owen.