MAGA Mayhem Fractures a Man’s Skull, as Right-Wing Marchers Test the Limits of Free Speech in Portland

Political rivals are holding protests in Portland streets that look more like gang warfare.

Department of Homeland Security officers guard a Patriot Prayer protest in Terry Schrunk Plaza on June 30, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

Political brawls in downtown streets last weekend left one participant in a Portland hospital with a skull fracture and a minor brain hemorrhage.

The antifascist protester didn't require surgery, but he's still recovering from a beating at the June 30 riot, according to texts shared with WW by the injured man's friend.

He was one of several people assaulted in the most violent mayhem the city has seen in more than a year of dueling protests between supporters of the Vancouver, Wash.-based right-wing group Patriot Prayer and their antifascist adversaries.

Five people, including a police officer, were hospitalized after the far-right march devolved into a riot in downtown Portland. The event amounted to a scheduled fight—a turf battle in which Patriot Prayer used fists and flag poles, and antifa fighters deployed firecrackers and pepper spray.

Both federal and city officials sanctioned the march through the streets near City Hall by issuing permits to Patriot Prayer, but the demonstration got out of control because police didn't keep the warring factions apart.

Some observers want the cops to keep the right-wing visitors on a tighter leash.

"The threat of violence posed by far-right racist groups is very serious already," says Lindsay Schubiner, program director at Western States Center, a Portland-based social justice nonprofit. "We really need democratic institutions to step up and protect local communities from threats of violence."

Patriot Prayer protesters gather in downtown Portland on June 30, 2017. (Sam Gehrke)

The fighting revives a question city officials faced last summer: When does the preservation of public safety outweigh the protection of free speech?

Patriot Prayer's events typically result in bloodshed. But civil liberties watchdogs say the group's rallies remain within the bounds of protected speech.

On this point, Patriot Prayer has a surprising ally: one of the state's most progressive groups, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.

"It isn't lost on us that there are people who are pushing the limits of the First Amendment regularly in Portland," says David Rogers, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. "It may seem easy to choose which speech should be shut down, but if we allow the government to decide, we will not be pleased with the results. We must not succumb to the temptation to cut away at a certain group's First Amendment rights, because it would reduce everyone's rights."

What Portland is confronting is the latest chapter in America's struggle with the delicate balance between security and freedom.

The best-known case was the 1977 attempt by the National Socialist Party of America—self-identified homegrown Nazis—to march through Skokie, Ill., a town with a large Jewish community and many Holocaust survivors. The ACLU backed the Nazis' right to march, and won the case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. (The Nazis ultimately marched, but in Chicago.)

That decision has some relevance to Portland's dilemma: Far more than Patriot Prayer, the National Socialist Party aimed to intimidate minority communities—and the First Amendment still protected its right to march.

A right-wing protester cruises through Portland in September 2017. (Sam Gehrke)

In the Trump era, progressive Portland is now a target.

In nearly a dozen Portland protests, Patriot Prayer and its leader, U.S. Senate candidate Joey Gibson, have cultivated a violent rivalry with local antifascists, who try to run the right-wingers out of town. Patriot Prayer appears to relish and seek out these clashes as a test of strength.

"The question is, how much is the city going to tolerate this?" says Randall Blazak, who studies white supremacy. "I have to think the city's attorney is measuring out what are the odds of a lawsuit on First Amendment grounds—and then you have Skokie all over again. We're probably just stuck with it until they burn each other out."

Antifascist protesters in downtown Portland on June 30, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

The ostensible purpose of the June 30 march was to host a campaign event for Gibson, who is running for the Senate as a Republican in Washington state.

Related: Portland police declared a riot after right-wing marchers began beating antifascists with flag poles.

But threats on social media last month and Patriot Prayer supporters sporting "Good Night Antifa" shirts suggest the group's actual aim was to bait antifascists into violence and discredit other progressive protests, like the blockade of a federal immigration office.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says Patriot Prayer's rallies "have all been held in places that are established centers of liberal/left politics, all with the clear intent of attempting to provoke a violent response from far-left antifascists."

Antifascist protesters decorate a statue in downtown Portland on June 30, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

But Portland police and attorneys say the city may not consider Patriot Prayer's past behavior when evaluating a new application for a march permit.

"There can't be blanket restrictions on First Amendment demonstrations," a city attorney wrote in emailed answers to WW's questions.

The attorney cited a 1996 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court in Collins v. Jordan: "The law is clear that First Amendment activity may not be banned simply because similar activity led to or involved instances of violence."

While Portland police may not ban Patriot Prayer events, the ACLU's Rogers says the police have a responsibility to limit violence.

"Should [Patriot Prayer] still be able to get a permit to hold a rally? Yes," he says. "Should police enforce laws to keep the public safe at these events? Yes."

On June 30, police deployed "flash-bang" grenades and pepper spray to subdue antifascists as they threw eggs and firecrackers. But both groups suggested police set them up to be attacked.

"It's not Portland any more, it's Portlantifa," Patriot Prayer attendee Katherine Townsend told a crowd at Saturday's rally, according to a report in The Guardian. She accused federal and Portland police of "disarming us and herding us towards antifa," some of whom had pepper spray and firecrackers.

Rose City Antifa didn't think its political opponents had been disarmed. They accused police of intentionally letting Patriot Prayer marchers keep flags attached to PVC pipes and wooden poles, which some used to beat antifascists.

Right-wing protester in Portland on June 30, 2017. (William Gagan)

"That is absolutely not true," says police spokesman Christopher Burley. "The Police Bureau respects the rights of all community members to safely and peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights of peaceful assembly. The Police Bureau made every attempt to ensure that community members could exercise those rights safely."

Meanwhile, the violence at Patriot Prayer rallies is seeping into the city's daily life.

On June 8, Tusitala "Tiny" Toese, one of Gibson's most loyal and belligerent followers, drove through Northeast Portland with fellow protester Donovan Flippo, yelling "Support Trump, build the wall!"

Portlander Tim Ledwith shouted obscenities at the pair as they drove past. Toese and Flippo stopped the truck and got out, and Toese allegedly punched Ledwith in the face.

Officers arrested Toese and Flippo at the June 30 march. Police say the arrests were connected to investigations that began June 8—the day Ledwith was attacked. Both men were booked into the Multnomah County Jail and released the same evening, with Toese required to report to a supervising officer.

But the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office dropped the charges against both men July 2, saying prosecutors needed "additional investigative follow-up." Toese is no longer being supervised by any official, says a county spokeswoman.

A right-wing protester cruises through Portland in September 2017. (Sam Gehrke)

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