Why Don’t Portland Police Stop the Proud Boys From Brawling?

City officials point to a court decision that says governments can’t prohibit gathering based on past behavior—no matter how violent.

A right-wing protester gives the "OK" sign to onlookers. (Liz Allan)

Whose streets? Who knows.

For nearly two years, violent encounters between right-wing demonstrators and their antifascist adversaries have raised questions about the tactics of the Portland police in handling protests. In particular, Portlanders have wondered: Why don't police stop the out-of-town right-wing marchers from picking fights with local leftists?

In fact, a similar subject was the pretext of last night's downtown rally by Vancouver, Wash.-based protest group Patriot Prayer and their allies, a far-right men's fraternity called the Proud Boys. They held a hastily-scheduled "flash march for law and order" to denounce Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and the Police Bureau's supposedly gentle handling of left-wing protesters.

After Patriot Prayer interrupted a vigil for Patrick Kimmons, a black man killed by police, antifascists deployed bear spray and set off a rolling downtown brawl.

Cops jumped in—using pepper balls to break up fights. But they made no arrests.

Related: Portland streets descend into bedlam, again, as Proud Boys and antifascists maul each other.

In the aftermath, a familiar chorus rises: Why don't police do something?

A man dances in the streets after downtown Portland brawls on Oct. 13, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

"The Portland Police Bureau's objectives for today's events were to provide a safe environment for everyone, including participants, non-participants and bystanders," Chief Danielle Outlaw said in a statement issued shortly after the brawls ended last night.

"We are aware that there was a large, violent encounter between opposing groups on Southwest Washington Street," Outlaw continued. "Officers responded to the scene and used less lethal munitions to break up the fight and prevent further violence. We will continue to investigate this incident and ask that anyone who was the victim of a crime to come forward and file a report."

This answer is unlikely to satisfy anyone—either the participants in what amount to gang battles, or the observers who have come to view downtown Portland as a war zone.

A police spokesman said he would respond to WW's follow-up questions on Monday.

Related: Right-wing marchers have declared Portland enemy territory to conquer.

This is a subject WW has visited before. In June, the worst street fights Portland has seen left one participant in the hospital with a skull fracture and a minor brain hemorrhage.

Reporter Katie Shepherd examined the laws that Portland City Hall is using to determine how to police protests. City officials pointed to a court decision that says governments can't prohibit gathering based on past behavior—no matter how violent.

Related: Political rivals are waging fights in Portland's streets that look more like gang warfare. Why won't police stop them?

Meanwhile, both parties in last night's melee released statements doubling down on their commitment to taking the law into their own hands.

Rose City Antifa urged Portlanders to make Patriot Prayer and its allies feel unwelcome in any civic space. "You think these people are scary, and shouldn't feel like they can walk the streets harassing as they see fit?" the group tweeted. "You can help make sure that they can't even go out and get takeout or drinks with friends without being reminded of every unconscionable choice they've made."

And Patriot Prayer released a "highlight reel" of the brawl, complete with inspirational music.

"There are times where citizens have to step up and do the job that politicians will refuse to do," Patriot Prayer organizer Joey Gibson says in the video. "There are times when citizens have to step up and clean up the streets."

He then shifts the subject to antifascists. "If they want to get in our way, then they're going to have to deal with the punishment," Gibson says. "We're not here to punish them. They have a right to be here, as long as they're not being violent. But if they want to attack us, then they're going to feel the pain. Can I get an amen?"

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.