"Guys, I found another needle!" shouted a woman wearing an "Oregon Women for Trump" T-shirt. She picked up the syringe with her grabber and held it in front of her cellphone for a photo.
She was one of 50 people searching for trash Jan. 25 in a football field-sized grassy lot adjacent to the Days Inn in Salem. The scent of fried chicken from a nearby Denny's hung in the air.
From afar, the group looked as if it might be performing court-mandated community service. In fact, it was political theater—part of a campaign to prove homeless camping had turned Oregon into a garbage dump.
The trash pickup was being broadcast on social media by its orchestrator, a traveling conservative activist named Scott Ryan Presler. "Oregon legalized needles & banned plastic straws," Presler wrote on Twitter, alongside video of a syringe. "Something is seriously wrong here. The system is broken. #Oregon."
Presler, 31, is a member of Gays for Trump. He addresses people as "sir" and "ma'am" and wears his wavy brown hair long. (During the Salem event, he wore cowboy boots imprinted with the American flag.) The activist from Northern Virginia once worked for ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as an extremist, anti-Muslim organization. He organized a "March Against Sharia" and landed a guest spot on the Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight last October.
Gearing up for the 2020 election, Presler has been visiting liberal-leaning cities across the country—Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore—and sending images of trash pickups to his 395,500 Twitter followers. His cleanups are often coupled with campaigns to register voters for the Republican Party.
For the past three years, right-wing protesters have visited Portland regularly, seeking to incite fights with the city's antifascist groups ("Portlantifa," WW, Aug. 7, 2019). Presler's approach is different: depicting blue-state cities as liberal cesspools, but doing it via seemingly innocuous volunteer efforts.
Randy Blazak, a Portland consultant who studies extremist movements, says right-wing groups have long used beautification projects as a form of publicity. "The rhetoric is, there are these evil forces that are making society ugly: minority crime or brown immigration," Blazak says. "The narrative is, it's not white people who made the world an ugly place. It's all intended to provoke."
Presler's visit touched a sore spot for Oregonians: The state ranks fourth nationally in the rate of people sleeping outdoors, a point of embarrassment and frustration for residents across the political spectrum. Presler's event shows how right-wing media tactics are evolving—and how they could seek to weaponize Oregon's homelessness crisis, much as they made Portland's antifascist protesters into a recurring feature on Fox News.
Presler said his visit was innocent and bipartisan.
"I think one thing we can agree with is, nobody should have to live in an area with trash," Presler told WW during the event. "If my coming to town in an act of love to pick up trash provokes people, I think that says something about their character, not mine."
But it was clear from the event's invitation—sent by Oregon Women for Trump—that organizers intended to annoy the left.
"Scott is known for going into the most infested parts of the country and cleaning up TONS of homeless camp garbage," the Eventbrite description read. "[Oregon Women for Trump] is proud to be able to help him accomplish this in the Portland area."
In fact, the trash pickup was supposed to happen in downtown Portland. Presler moved the location to Salem the morning of the event.
Explanations for the venue change varied. Some attendees told WW the city had "deep-cleaned" downtown Friday night in anticipation of Presler's appearance, leaving nothing for them to clean up. Presler said the location was moved after he learned antifa planned to counterprotest.
Portland's Old Town did look unusually spiffy last weekend, but city officials said it was unrelated to Presler's visit. It is unclear whether antifascists did, in fact, threaten to show up at the event. Antifascist group Rose City Antifa tweeted extensively prior to Presler's visit, but did not indicate any plans to protest the cleanup.
Melissa Petersen, a member of Oregon Women for Trump, walked the length of the grassy field in Salem as she searched for trash to pick up. There wasn't much. Something shiny and silver glinted in the light. Petersen went to grab it; it turned out to be a storm drain cover.
WW asked her what she saw as the connection between the cleanup and the Republican Party's agenda. She said homelessness was a direct result of lax immigration enforcement.
"We're all for legal immigration, but we're 100 percent against illegal immigration," Petersen said. "We've got our homeless people sitting on the streets because they're not getting the help because it is going to the illegals."
Another woman, who gave her first name as Amy but declined to give her last name, said she joined the cleanup in an effort to show that Republicans aren't racist and homophobic, as the media portrays them.
"We're accepting of all races, all creeds," said Amy. "But we also stand up against illegal aliens, especially the ones who commit crimes and don't get deported. We stand up for the wall."
Amy accompanied a group of about 10 walking under an Interstate 5 overpass to find more trash and ask people who appeared to be camping whether they wanted the group to remove any garbage for them. (She emphasized they would do so only with a person's consent.) Another woman with the group held her phone to her chest to record the entire walk. The underpass was clean, however, and only one person in sight appeared to be camping out.
On Twitter, group members posted pictures of the needles they found: 74, they said.
Oregon Women for Trump tweeted a photo of a box of needles and a pickup truck full of garbage bags: "@RealOWFT just picked up over a ton of trash including 74 needles, on less than an acre of property. @OregonGovBrown supplies druggies with these needles and then she bans straws!! #Backwards."
One woman living on the streets of Salem watched the group search for needles. Jessica Hitchcock, who was camping near the gathering, said she was surprised, but not particularly bothered, by the group.
"They're out here believing and doing what they feel is the right thing. Holler," Hitchcock said. "That being said, though, I thought Trump wanted to take away some of our food benefits in Oregon?"