Eric Ward Feared Someone Would Be Killed in Portland’s Street Battles. He’s More Worried by What’s Next.

"Portland has become a proxy for a reelection campaign, and for alt-right and white nationalist paramilitaries and vigilantes who want to live out their fantasy of racial war."

Eric Ward's worst fears for his hometown have been realized. They took the form of a dying man splayed on Portland pavement this weekend, at the epicenter of three months of protests.

For years, Ward, the director of progressive nonprofit Western States Center, has implored Mayor Ted Wheeler and other civic leaders to craft a strategy to help police officers recognize the tactics of right-wing extremists and to use the court system to block men with guns from marching in the streets. If the city did not act, he warned, someone could get killed.

Last week, someone was.

On Aug. 29, a caravan of trucks drove through downtown in a display of support for President Donald Trump. Passengers fired paintball guns and taunted left-wing protesters. Minutes later, a Portland man guarding the convoy—39-year-old Aaron J. Danielson—was shot to death outside a parking garage.

Ward worries Danielson's death could spiral into further bloodshed.

"We are no longer talking about what's coming," Ward says. "It is now what is here. It is small, it is contained. But the potential for large-scale violence is very real right now."

Because Danielson was in downtown to support Trump—his baseball cap and T-shirt bore the stars-and-stripes insignia of the conservative protest group Patriot Prayer—his killing has intensified assertions by President Trump and nationalist groups that Portland is a lawless city that must be tamed.

The conflict was on display Aug. 30, when Wheeler stood in City Hall to address the city. The mayor scolded Trump—who responded by mocking him on social media in real time. Then Wheeler beseeched the president's acolytes to refrain from seeking retribution.

Yet the mayor has hardly demonstrated command of his own city. The Portland Police Bureau, which he directs, appears at war with Black Lives Matter protesters, tackling and punching regularly. The left-wing demonstrators have committed to a strategy of setting fires and defacing property. Now another familiar element has returned: Trump supporters, dressed for battle and carrying guns, challenging Portlanders to fight.

Ward, 55, has worked for 20 years in civil rights strategy and philanthropy. Over the past three years, he has begged the city to take the potential for partisan violence seriously.

He spoke to WW about why this moment is so perilous, how he would advise Wheeler, and what regular Portlanders can do.

Eric Ward in August 2019. (Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County)

WW: Can you explain why this is a dangerous moment for Portland?

Eric Ward: Portland has become a proxy for a reelection campaign, and for alt-right and white nationalist paramilitaries and vigilantes who want to live out their fantasy of racial war. Portland has become the United States' version of Lebanon. Of Beirut. It is being used by those who have different agendas that have nothing to do with equity or safety in our community. And if we don't respond seriously and in a unified fashion, we are going to watch Portland, Ore., get torn apart.

Does the language now being used to describe Portland by paramilitary groups feel like posturing or incipient violence?

The Oath Keepers have basically said that this is civil war. But the oxygen they're receiving is from elected leadership. That's the direct leadership of individuals like Donald Trump who have all but completely condoned vigilante violence against what has largely been nonviolent protests in our city. But it's also through the neglect of elected officials who continue to fail to take this seriously and to do what is needed.

Not in just directing resources to countering these armed vigilantes and paramilitaries, but reining in some of the underlying inequity that exists in Portland that left us vulnerable in the first place: overpolicing of communities of color. No one wants to roll up their sleeves and address the real crises that are happening in our communities.

I'm enraged that a person was killed on the streets of Portland. I don't care what their political ideology is. And elected officials carry the blame for that, particularly Donald Trump, but also those who have chosen not to take this problem seriously.

You've been in conversation with Ted Wheeler for more than three years on this issue. What advice have you offered him?

Western States Center's stance hasn't changed over the last three years. The Portland Police Bureau needs to better understand what the white nationalist movement is and what the paramilitary right is: how it functions and how it operates. We think that's critically important.

But police have repeatedly failed to arrest known brawlers in the streets—even when one arrives with a warrant out for his arrest. Has Wheeler lost control of his Police Bureau?

Right now, it appears we have a rogue police force. This is not about individual police officers. This is about an institution, and that institution appears to be rogue. You cannot tell me that the Portland Police Bureau is not sophisticated and responsible enough to track down those individuals who are creating and committing acts of physical violence on the streets of Portland. I simply don't believe it. And the fact that I don't believe it says just how much trust has been broken in a moment where we need that trust most.

A lot of Portlanders who may be sympathetic to Black Lives Matter are tired of the protests. There is a feeling of send the children home. What's your response?

These aren't just children and they're not just protesting what happened in Minneapolis. They are protesting how they have been treated for decades and sometimes generationally. It's a hundred days of protests that mainly have been on maybe one or two blocks at most. It's inconvenient. It can be frustrating. But we can't equate a hundred days of protest to the decades of discrimination that African Americans and Indigenous and other people of color have experienced in our cities, or the overreaction that civil protesters have faced at the hands of police for nearly two decades. It's just not a fair comparison.

So I say this to middle America: We don't have to like what's happening on the streets. We can want something different, but we need to focus on two things. We need to focus on using our own freedom of speech. And we need to focus on reining in the physical violence that is happening on the streets of Portland. That is the point of no return. If we ignore it, we'll continue to spiral out of control. We still have time.

There is also a fear Portland could hand Donald Trump the election, because everyone is so worn down that we'll take a boot heel over chaos. Is that a fair concern?

We need to understand people are exhausted. People don't want chaos, they want stability. And if we are out there on the streets, we do have to understand that if our answers don't include a clear path of stability, folks will start to turn away. When there is a small element amongst us breaking windows and setting fires, that doesn't get us where we need to go. It's time to end the "burn it down" rhetoric. White supremacy was built on 500 years of "burn it down" rhetoric. And here we are, 500 years later, and too many on the left and progressive sides of this argument are too reliant on that. We aren't white nationalists. Our answer should never be, "Burn it down." Our answer should be: We know how to lead.

Those who think of themselves as the middle or the center in Portland—business, religious leaders, and others—have been too silent and remain too invisible. They can stop serving individuals who they know have come into the community to create violence. We are not impotent in this moment. This is our community. And we need to speak up for the values that our community should hold in this moment.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.