Portland suffers serious street violence as far right return 'prepared to fight'

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Over the last three months in Portland, mass protests against police violence and racism gradually gave way to nightly often violent standoffs between a core of pro-Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist protesters and law enforcement.

But in the past week the city has fallen back into a pattern of more politically polarized street violence which has marked the city throughout the Trump era, with broadly leftwing and anti-fascist activists sometimes facing off against far-right groups.

Last weekend a rightwing “Say no to Marxism in America” rally saw serious, widespread violence. Much of it came from rally attendees – who included members of far-right groups like the Proud Boys – and was directed not only at leftist counter-protesters, but also reporters.

Video: Portland FBI chief shift agency’s focus to acts of violence, federal crimes

One rightwing protester drew a firearm on opposing protesters. Earlier, he had fired a paintball gun into the crowd, and a local journalist was caught in the crossfire. Others appeared to be armed with firearms and knives. Some carried wooden shields with nails driven through them.

One pro-Trump protester took to a snack van with a baseball bat. Others joined in and destroyed the vehicle.

Near the peak of Saturday’s violence, a reporter’s hand was broken by a rightwing protester with a baton, and video of the incident went viral on social media. That reporter, Robert Evans, has been covering the protests since they began, for Bellingcat and other outlets.

That assailant was identified by Bellingcat on Tuesday as Travis Taylor, a Portland-based Proud Boy who has been previously observed attending violent street demonstrations in the city.

In a telephone conversation, Evans told the Guardian that the rightwing demonstrators “absolutely came prepared to fight”, were “very aggressive from the jump” and were equipped with “knives, guns, paintball guns with frozen pellets, batons”.

Neither the Portland police bureau (PPB) nor the Multnomah county district attorney (MCDA) responded to questions about whether Taylor would be charged or prosecuted over the incident.

It was the worst violence of its kind in the city since an infamous afternoon in 2018, also involving Proud Boys, who came from all over the country to attend a rally that culminated in another vicious street brawl.

But as that precedent indicates, the polarized violence was not so much a new development linked to the massive anti-racism protests that have continued around the US, as a return to the dynamic that has afflicted Portland since the election of Donald Trump.

From 2017 to 2019, the city was a magnet for street protesters and street fighters from groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, who were regularly met by antifascist counter-protesters.

A sign reading ‘Abolish PPB’ is seen on shields held by demonstrators during a protest against police violence and racial injustice in Portland, Oregon, at the weekend.
A sign reading ‘Abolish PPB’ is seen on shields held by demonstrators during a protest in Portland, Oregon, at the weekend. Photograph: Terray Sylvester/Reuters

At rallies in 2018 and 2019 hundreds of rightwingers from all around the country descended on Portland, and rightwing media and e-celebrities worked hard to identify the city with “antifa”, a movement that conservatives from Trump down have sought to demonize.

Throughout this period, PPB were regularly accused by protesters and media outlets of heavy-handed, one-sided enforcement.

This year, however, as the Black Lives Matter protests sprang up in Portland, members of far-right groups had not been a significant factor during an unbroken 85-night streak of protests. Instead the focus of many protesters was the presence of federal agents in the city – which became a national scandal as local elected officials sought to force the Trump administration to withdraw them.

Mainstream media attention was then diverted after the apparent resolution of the conflict over the unwanted presence of federal agents. But now the renewed presence of rightwing groups in the city has some fearing the fresh violence will continue, especially because activists say the PBB has a record of not intervening to prevent rightwing violence.

Amy Herzfeld-Copple, the deputy director of Portland-based progressive non-profit, the Western States Center, wrote in an email that: “Portland police allowed alt-right and paramilitary groups to sow chaos and deploy violence against the community with apparent impunity.”

She added: “There’s a real risk that protests for racial justice and police reform will be subsumed by alt-right mayhem if city leadership doesn’t change its approach.”

The office of Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, did not directly respond on Monday to questions on last weekend’s violent events.

Not all locals blame PPB for the violence.

James Buchal, chair of the Multnomah county Republican party, wrote in an email that “as Republicans, we condemn the cowardly and totalitarian attacks on the pro-police demonstrators” by leftist demonstrators.

And not all locals consider the confrontation with far-right groups to be a distraction from the cause of protesting against police brutality against Black communities.

A spokesperson for Rose City Antifa, a long-established local anti-fascist network which has supported the protests downtown, wrote in an email: “Police brutality and white nationalist organizing are two sides of the same coin, and they should be addressed as such.”