Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler intended to look decisive Monday afternoon by announcing an emergency ordinance that would give police broad authority to control warring protest groups.
But as he justified his action, the mayor opened a can of worms. He described an alarming discovery—a nest of guns on a downtown roof—that raised more questions than it answered.
In the early morning of Aug. 4, hours before a massive waterfront protest, Portland police officers discovered a group of Patriot Prayer supporters on the roof of a parking garage in downtown. According to a description provided in the mayor's proposed ordinance, the men had a "cache of firearms," which a mayoral staffer would later describe as "long guns."
"Prior to the start of the scheduled demonstrations, police discovered individuals who had positioned themselves on a rooftop parking structure in downtown Portland with a cache of firearms," the ordinance says.
Police say they seized the guns—but could not detain or cite the protesters because they had concealed handgun licenses that allow them to carry the weapons legally. Officials say they later returned the firearms.
A spokeswoman in the mayor's office says Wheeler only learned about the incident on Monday, as he and police compiled a list of events detailed in the proposed ordinance that the city says demonstrates a "pattern of escalation, injury and property damage."
That raises questions about why the mayor didn't know about the right-wing rooftop gun cache until this week—and who did know.
Wheeler says he didn't learn about the incident in the parking garage until Oct. 15. But his office adds that he was told more generally on Aug. 4 that there were guns at the protest.
"The Mayor was briefed both prior to the event and after the event about the presence of firearms, and the Police Bureau's efforts to manage the presence of firearms during the demonstration," says Sophia June, a spokeswoman for the mayor's office. "That information galvanized the need for this ordinance. When we know in advance that people are coming to Portland, armed with guns and with the intent to fight, we want to take reasonable precautions in advance to preserve the peace."
It is unclear when Police Chief Danielle Outlaw learned about the Patriot Prayer supporters waiting on the roof with long guns.
However, Outlaw said the police bureau would consider informing the public of similar events in the future.
"Hindsight is always perfect," she said at Monday's press conference.
Wheeler directed the City Attorney's Office to begin working on the ordinance after Aug. 4, a spokeswoman says. The attorneys worked with mayoral staffers and the police bureau to craft the new rules.
The policy proposal inspired a number of still-unanswered questions. But the one most people were asking was: How much danger did the public and the mayor not know about on Aug. 4?
That day, hundreds of protesters—right-wing Patriot Prayer supporters and Proud Boys and left-wing antifascist and anti-racist organizers—gathered along SW Naito Parkway. They marched along the waterfront of a city set on edge by past violence and online threats.
Patriot Prayer organizer Joey Gibson held his protest in Tom McCall Waterfront Park so that his supporters with concealed handgun licenses could bring guns and open carry, which they often do at protests in Washington. (At past rallies, Patriot Prayer staged in Terry Schrunk Plaza, which is federal property and does not allow firearms. The change in venue inspired speculation from national media outlets that the Aug. 4 event might turn violent and some even predicted it would be "the next Charlottesville.")
As the day unfolded, police reportedly observed firearms "in both groups," but there were no shots fired and few skirmishes between the right-wing and leftist groups. Instead, the day ended with a chaotic, violent clash between police and left-wing counterprotesters.
A week later, Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw spoke on a conservative radio show and claimed it was those counterprotesters who had weapons.
"I made it very clear that I focus on behaviors," she said, when asked if Antifa is a terrorist organization. "And at that particular time, that group is the group that was lobbing projectiles and setting off smoke bombs and, you know, showing up in flak jackets and bringing guns and wearing helmets. And, so, yes, that's where my attention went. Now, whether or not they're a terrorist group, I don't think that's for me to say. But I will say that their intention that day was to cause physical harm and confrontation."
The Police Bureau did not immediately respond to WW's questions about the cache of guns.