A pro-Trump "free speech" rally in Portland, Oregon, that many feared would result in violent confrontations between the alt-right and anti-fascist groups ended with little serious violence, but not without controversy.
The protest became national news before it began, when organizer Joey Gibson refused to call it off after a man who had attended Gibson's previous Portland events stabbed two men to death. The men had confronted him for harassing two young women of color, one of whom was wearing a hijab, on a Portland train. (Gibson has condemned the man and said that he had bothered people at Gibson's gatherings.) Portland mayor Ted Wheeler had asked the group to call the rally off, but to no avail.
Gibson's event featured alt-right "celebrities" like Based Stickman, Based Trojan, and Baked Alaska, whose travel fees were paid for by online donations, but the crowd ended up numbering fewer than 300. The right-wingers were bordered on three sides by angry counter-protesters who outnumbered them ten to one.
Though the rally's headliners were far-right figures—Baked Alaska, who has expressed anti-Semitic sentiments on Twitter, and was disinvited from a pro-Trump inauguration event because of his extreme views—there was some ideological diversity in the crowd.
"As a young conservative, Portland is a place where you don't get to see many other people with your same beliefs," said a man named Thomas Crane. "That was a main reason I came to the march."
"Trump doesn't automatically mean racist," added Colin Anglin, another attendee. "I might not agree with everyone out here, but this was a success, yes. We accept anyone into the movement who is 100 percent committed to the cause."
The scene inside Terry Schrunk Plaza was an intense and at times surreal one. Several meager attempts at chants by the collected alt-right fizzled out as quickly as they emerged, and shouts meant to provoke the protesters never reached the ears they were meant for. The protesters quickly picked up on this fact and began chanting, "We can't hear you!"
I asked a man screaming that the protesters were racist how he figured the clearly multiracial group were racists, and he responded by calling me a "fake news fag" and walking away. Middle-aged men in what looked like homemade WWE costumes milled about smoking cigarettes. The lyrics to the "Star Spangled Banner" were botched by a singer who earlier was playing Toby Keith covers.
Many of the speeches featured confounding moments as well. Gibson's address began with talk of being "sick of all the hate… you cannot justify hate" and the inclusivity and diversity of his movement, but quickly gave way to red-faced shouting about Jesus Christ being the only true path to salvation. Baked Alaska introduced himself as "one of the people who got Donald Trump elected." A street preacher who identified himself only as "Joel" compared Donald Trump to Jesus, saying, "I'm so grateful Donald Trump came down from his tower to save us. He didn't have to run, but he loved America too much."
Portland police said on Twitter that officers had seized numerous weapons, including crude homemade clubs, but did not specify whether they had been taken from the rally's participants or the Antifa counter-protesters. (In total, 14 people were arrested during the course of the day.)
Still, the scene remained relatively quiet until the police suddenly charged into the crowd of black bloc'd Antifa protesters, claiming on Twitter that counter-protesters had thrown "balloons with unknown, foul-smelling liquid" along with bricks and bottles at the alt-right crowd and cops. Police responded with stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
From there, a scenario that's becoming all too familiar in Portland began to play out: woefully outgunned and outflanked Antifa protesters facing off with law enforcement. As the cops began to slowly advance, the crowd began to splinter, with one group moving away from the rally in an improvised march of sorts. That was abruptly cut off when law enforcement SUVs closed in quickly from the east and west, trapping everyone in what seemed to be a "kettling" tactic.
This led to a series of confrontations between the police and those they had detained. A college-age kid who was livestreaming the event was pushed up against a tree as the police held his bike. An older man decked out in red, white, and blue who appeared to be supporting Trump shouted for help saying he was a vet, and was pulled from the grips of the cops by some journalists.
As I watched this, an officer in riot gear grabbed me. I wrenched my arm free and indicated I was a journalist. Some media members, including one of the photographers with me and Jay Caspian Kang of VICE News, were briefly detained and had their IDs photographed by cops.
As the rally drew to a close, I saw an anti-Trump protester become animated when he saw a man getting ready to burn an American flag and shouted at him to stop. I asked the protester, who told me his name was Chief, why he felt the need to intervene, and he summed up how many in the city felt:
"Man, I'm out here repping the anti-Trump movement, but I'm pro-America! My brother went and fought for this country! This is my state. This is my city. This is my country." He gestured at the Trump supporters. "These fucks and Donald Trump aren't America man, we are. Those goddamn cops aren't either. No reason for that… But I hate that flag-burning shit. We're here to protect our people. Not down with that. I'm just glad this is over. We're better than that as a city. We're Portland, you know?"
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