A Skeptical Citizen’s Guide to the Latest Protester Clash Alarming Portlanders

Take everyone's words with a grain of salt.

Stop us if you've heard this one: Far-right extremists, led by a contingent of the Proud Boys, plan to rally along the Portland waterfront on Aug. 17.

Antifascists will come out to oppose the rally in force. Portland police plan to send every available officer to keep the two groups apart. And national observers are making dire predictions about the intensity of the political violence that could unfold on Portland's streets.

This reporter has covered similar events for more than two years. Some have fizzled out. Others have been the stage for unhinged violence between brawlers, or heavy-handed crackdowns by riot cops.

There's no way to predict what will happen this time. But you can prepare yourself in advance for the spin that each party is already attempting.

Proud Boys

What they want: The far-right extremists coming to Portland want antifascists, or antifa, to be categorized as a domestic terrorist organization.

What they say: "After the last rally in Portland, where Andy Ngo and others were attacked, we all got heated," says rally organizer and Florida radio host Joe Biggs. "We simply want to shine a light on the atrocities carried out by members of antifa."

Take that with a grain of salt: Biggs himself posted on social media, encouraging violence against antifascists at the Aug. 17 rally. He walked back that rhetoric and asked his followers to do the same, after he said the FBI visited him in Florida following an El Paso shooting that appeared to be motivated by the shooter's racist beliefs.

Biggs and his supporters often talk about antifa's "atrocities," but antifascists have been responsible for very few instances of violence. Aside from a few fistfights with far-right organizers, antifascist demonstrations have been largely peaceful. White supremacists and white nationalists, on the other hand, have been responsible for dozens of politically motivated murders in recent years.


What they want: Antifascists want to make it unbearably unpleasant for bigots to rally in Portland, so that far-right extremist groups stop planning events and shrink in size.

What they say: "We're tired of being afraid for our lives," says Popular Mobilization, an antifascist organization planning a counterprotest for Aug. 17. "We're tired of the attacks on our community. We're tired of their hatred."

Take that with a grain of salt: Antifascists say their sometimes militant protests succeed in weakening far-right groups. They point to dwindling numbers at Patriot Prayer and Proud Boy events in Portland. And they have a case: The handful of rallies that came after a large Aug. 4, 2018, antifascist counterprotest turned out pathetic numbers from those far-right groups.

But since masked protesters punched and kicked conservative videographer Andy Ngo on June 29, antifascists themselves have become a rallying point for the right wing. Antifascists say they defend vulnerable communities in Portland, but this rally is an attack on the idea of antifa itself. In a shift, many left-leaning Portlanders will show up to defend antifascists.

Portland Police

What they want: Police Chief Danielle Outlaw has made it clear; she wishes protesters would just go home.

What they say: "If you're coming to be a lookie-loo, to watch, you're enabling an event,'' Outlaw said. "These events would not occur if there was no audience.'' For those who would commit violence, she had a warning: "Don't come. We don't want you here. I don't care what side you're on."

Take that with a grain of salt: By making two high-profile arrests related to a May 1 assault that left an antifascist woman unconscious, Portland police last week sent a strong warning to would-be violent extremists. Yet police have rarely made arrests during violent fights, in part because command staff don't want to endanger officers. Police have also been criticized for using force and riot control agents against leftist protesters far more often than against right-wing demonstrators. On Aug. 4, 2018, police shot flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets into a crowd of largely peaceful protesters, injuring several people.
When police don't intervene, bloody brawls have resulted. But if cops again crack down disproportionately on leftist protesters, the far-right visitors will have achieved their intentions by other means.