Portland’s Mayor Promises to Seek Solutions to Violent Protests. But Observers Say Police Just Need to Make More Arrests.

After two years of brawls, national attention has increased pressure on Ted Wheeler and the police.

Right-wing protesters in Portland on June 29, 2019. (Justin Katigbak)

Portland is back in the national news, for all the same old bad reasons.

On June 29, a handful of masked antifascists punched, kicked and threw milkshakes at Andy Ngo, a conservative videographer. After the assault, Ngo asked police: "Where the hell were all of you?"

Ngo's assault became a political football. Right-wing media exaggerated the violence to build a narrative about the danger of Antifa, while progressives argued that Ngo sought conflict by frequently antagonizing and maligning leftist protesters.

But Ngo asked a question on many Portlanders' minds.

For more than two years, far-right provocateurs have targeted Portland with rallies to bait antifascists. The Portland police have repeatedly failed to keep the opposing sides apart.

Mayor Ted Wheeler has promised a thorough investigation of the June 29 violence, but did not voice new ideas for how to prevent future street brawls.

Chief Danielle Outlaw suggested Portland police have been hamstrung by a lack of laws allowing officers to film protesters or ban masks at rallies.

"The laws are different [in Portland]," she says. "There might be more legislative tools available to other jurisdictions that we don't have here."

The chief did not respond to WW's follow-up questions. But WW spoke with several outside observers—legal experts, civil rights advocates, former law enforcement officials, and politicians—to ask what the city could do to prevent violence at the next rally, scheduled for July 20 and already abuzz with online threats of extreme violence from the far right.

(Justin Katigbak)

Are Portland police handling the recent violence any differently from past rallies?

Wheeler and the Portland Police Bureau have promised to investigate the June 29 violence and make arrests when they have credible evidence of a crime. Police made three arrests during the protest, one for an assault that took place during the most violent moment of the June 29 rally when people exchanged blows with batons and pepper spray. The promise of more arrests may mark a change from past rallies, where extreme violence has largely gone unpunished.

An Oct. 13 video showed Tusitala "Tiny" Toese and another right-wing supporter repeatedly kicking a man who lay on the ground, aiming for his head. Police and prosecutors cited "mutual combat" as the rationale for not making an arrest in that incident. Video taken May 1 shows a man, identified in a civil lawsuit as Ian Kramer, striking a woman in the back of the head with a baton so forcefully she collapsed, unconscious. More than two months later, PPB says it has not made an arrest in that investigation.

Some observers see an ongoing problem in the way the Police Bureau approaches far-right rallies: a failure to understand the dynamics that lead to violence.

"It became clear to me the police were not understanding how these far-right groups worked to provoke violence," says Michael German, a former FBI agent who now teaches at New York University. German has not witnessed Portland's protest firsthand, but he studies law enforcement response to extremism.

"Something that was well understood in the late '90s, when I was working on these cases, was that far-right groups would intentionally go into areas where they knew they were unwelcome to draw out opposition so that they could then attack," he says. "Police have lost that intelligence."

Do police need more tools to intervene?

In the wake of the June 29 violence, Chief Outlaw proposed a new policy solution she believes would decrease violence at protests: a law making it illegal to wear a mask while committing a crime.

"If you knew that you could be easily identified," she said, "do you think you would be as inclined to commit that act of violence, or commit that crime?"

She's probably right about that. But critics point out that police aren't using the laws they have to arrest unmasked people.

"It's all about just enforcing the laws we already have," says Multnomah County Republican Party chairman James Buchal. "Maybe some extra ones about masks would be great, but law enforcement already has the tools they need to solve the problem. They just don't have the will."

Amy Herzfeld-Copple, a deputy director at the Western States Center, says the anti-mask law favors far-right extremists, who have vocally encouraged vigilantes to rip masks off antifascist protesters. "When you see a policy solution obviously targeting antifascists," she says, "it gives Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys a win."

NYU's German says police can focus on enforcing existing laws. "It's against the law to assault people," he says. "It's against the law to threaten people."

What can police do to stop these protests from getting violent in the future?

They can arrest more people.

In New York City last fall, the investigation of a Proud Boy attack on antifascists caught on camera quickly led to arrests and prosecutions.

"In New York City, when Proud Boys engaged in violence, state and city actors came down on them," says Zakir Khan, co-chair of the Muslim advocacy group CAIR-Oregon. "If that crackdown came [in Portland], this problem would not be as big of a problem anymore."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which defends the right to free speech, says it has no problem with police officers intervening in fights.

"We have consistently called on PPB to do a handful of techniques we believe are constitutional," says Mat dos Santos, legal director for the ACLU of Oregon. "The final point is to begin to act when they see the violence."

The lack of arrests troubles German.

"I don't understand what has let that happen, but obviously, inactivity is repeated over and over again at these rallies," he says. "I think that's where the violent elements within these groups get the indication they can do that. And so, of course, if there's no disincentives, that behavior will continue."

Is the violence going to get worse?

The national attention, especially on Fox News and other right-wing media, has increased pressure on Wheeler and the police. It could force city officials to take a hard look at how Portland has approached violent political rallies.

"When things reach a national level of attention, it creates an opportunity to tell the whole story around why Portland is being targeted and what are more effective ways to respond," Herzfeld-Copple says. "We think Portland is being targeted because it is perceived as a progressive city, and these groups have a very specific intention of creating chaos and undermining democratic institutions of government."

That's already reflected on social media, where radical right-wing extremists have fantasized about coming to Portland and gunning down antifascist demonstrators in front of the mayor's house.

"Once people learned they could go to a rally and commit violence, promote themselves as somebody who commits violence at a rally, be allowed to go home after the rally, and come back to the next one, I think that gave an incentive for more violent people to start showing up to these rallies," German says. "Trying to put this all back together is going to be very, very difficult."

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