Portlanders awoke Aug. 17 under a microscope.
For weeks, right-wing extremists had promoted a waterfront rally set for that day as a reckoning with Portland antifascists. Right-wingers—often from Vancouver, Wash.—have regularly visited Portland for more than two years to clash with antifa. The confrontations had repeatedly descended into street brawls.
This time, a group of Proud Boys rolled in from across the country, led by a Floridian named Joe Biggs. He echoed President Donald Trump's call that antifa be declared a domestic terrorist group, and he threatened to bloody the leftists. Biggs drew coverage from Fox News—which meant Trump paid attention, and the president started the weekend with a tweet.
"Portland is being watched very closely," Trump said at 7:04 am Saturday. "Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job!"
He was. Despite the build-up, the protests that unfolded in downtown over the next 11 hours resulted in less violence and fewer arrests than many previous clashes.
For most citizens, it was a relief. For Mayor Ted Wheeler, it was a reprieve.
"People were poised for a worst-case scenario," Wheeler tells WW. "And that didn't come to pass."
Observers of Aug. 17 say it showed Portland officials have learned from past mistakes. But they also warn that unless Wheeler and others adjust again, the exhausting and unnerving drama of last weekend won't end.
Here are the three big lessons of a fight that fizzled.
Wheeler and other leaders said, "No."
Since early July, Biggs and his allies had promoted a rally in Portland in support of Andy Ngo, a right-wing writer and videographer who was beaten by masked assailants at a June 29 march downtown. Wheeler, who is running for re-election next year, could ill afford the kind of all-out melee promised by Biggs, who formerly worked for right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Last week, Wheeler convened an unprecedented Pioneer Square gathering of business, nonprofit, community and political leaders who urged the right to stay away.
Meanwhile, over the past two weeks, Portland police arrested a half-dozen of the most recognizable figures in the local far-right movement, including Joey Gibson, the Vancouver, Wash., leader of a protest group called Patriot Prayer. The arrests were tied to a May 1 attack outside a cider bar where antifascists had gathered—but they also seemed to send a message to other visitors who wanted to fight antifa.
Gibson says he thinks the arrests were orchestrated to deflate the energy of the Aug. 17 event. "Of course they were," Gibson says.
Wheeler says he had no input in the law enforcement decisions that led to those arrests. Some critics say the arrests, or a similar signal to right-wing groups, should have come long before now.
"Would it have been helpful?" Wheeler asks. "Yes. But the police don't make arrests on my timeline or when it's politically expedient."
The chilling effect, however, was obvious. On Aug. 15, the Oath Keepers, a national right-wing paramilitary group, pulled out of the Portland rally. "Frankly, given the prior statements of Joe Biggs that will be used against all attendees of his rally, it would be best for the patriot/conservative cause if this Aug. 17 rally were simply canceled," Oath Keepers president Stewart Rhodes said in a statement.
Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, has been heavily critical of the city's response to previous right-wing rallies. He says Saturday was different. Ward points to an outpouring of peaceful opposition from groups ranging from the NAACP to Pop Mob—and Wheeler.
"The mayor showed phenomenal leadership in the lead-up to the event," Ward says. "That leadership really showed this weekend. When each part of the community shows what it can do, that shrinks the oxygen white nationalists can have."
The Portland Police Bureau changed tactics.
The city of Portland combined an overwhelming show of force by 15 law enforcement agencies with smart tactics and an uncharacteristic flexibility.
More than 700 officers from federal, state and local agencies swarmed the streets. They outnumbered the right-wingers (police estimated 300 attended) and were nearly as numerous as the left (about 900).
The police made two key decisions that kept the two political sides separated. First, they made the Morrison Bridge the dividing line. After a crowd of MAGA-hat wearing, flag-waving Proud Boys marched west across the Morrison Bridge late Saturday morning, police channeled them south, away from the concrete Jersey barriers and thick line of cops under the bridge. North of that line, antifa and its allies stood jeering, but they couldn't get to their enemies.
Having crossed the Willamette River, the right-wingers were effectively done. After a prayer and a couple of brief speeches, they asked police for permission to exit downtown—and distance themselves from antifa—by walking back to the eastside via the Hawthorne Bridge, which had been closed to all traffic and was again closed, as soon as the right got across.
That flexibility by the police—not always their strong suit—ensured physical separation between right and left, and made violence less likely.
Even City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a longtime police critic, tipped her cap.
"I understand to some this looked like collusion between police and white supremacists," Hardesty said about allowing the bridge to act as an escape route in an Aug. 19 statement. "However, I truly believe this was the strategic and smart move to ensure violence did not break out."
Perhaps the tensest moment on Saturday came shortly after noon, when a bespectacled young man in a dark blue shirt wandered among the 300 or so right-wingers gathered under the Marquam Bridge, just north of OMSI.
"Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you," he said, pointing to individuals—and even a dog. ("You're cool," he told the dog.) He was quickly surrounded by hostile right-wingers, but even before a squad of bicycle cops rushed to his aid, burly Proud Boys rescued him from harm.
Although many of the assembled marchers flashed white supremacist hand signs for photos and occasionally yelled back at passersby, there was a clear "do not engage" directive from leaders of the rally in effect.
Gibson, fresh from being booked and released on felony riot charges Aug. 16, was a subdued figure Saturday. On Aug. 19, he said the event was a success. "It went really well," Gibson says. "No Patriots were violent. It was peaceful on our part, and there were no big brawls in the street."
Gibson adds: "It is a win for the mayor."
The right will be back.
Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice's Liberty and National Security Program, says rallies like the one Aug. 17 reflect classic authoritarian tactics.
German, who, as an FBI agent, infiltrated white supremacist groups, says Biggs and his allies are in essence acting at Trump's behest and intentionally taking their brand of grievance politics to cities, such as Portland, where they know they are least welcome.
"One of the things authoritarians do is unleash their allies to commit violence against their opponents," German says. "This is not a new tactic. It's one the Nazis used in Germany."
After crossing the Hawthorne Bridge, Biggs declared "mission success" and said the right would be back in force every month until Portland cracks down on antifa.
German says the test for Wheeler is whether he can turn Saturday's success into policy that will discourage the right's attempts at intimidation. "The Portland Police Bureau's job is protect the residents of Portland," German says. "To the extent people are threatening that safety, the PPB should act to restore the trust and confidence of the people they serve."
Wheeler says he won't allow Biggs or others on the far right to dictate terms.
On a day when his political future may have hung in the balance, Wheeler spent Saturday hunkered down with Police Chief Danielle Outlaw. He's as effusive in his praise for her bureau as he is dismissive of Trump, who started the day by tweeting that the White House was watching Portland.
"Honestly, [Trump's tweet] had virtually no impact," Wheeler says. "I was focused on what was happening on the ground, not paying attention to him."