Despite A Few Small Skirmishes, Saturday’s Rallies Show Portland Police Can Keep Warring Protesters Apart

Portland police managed to keep violence at bay and showed restraint until the very end of Saturday's protests.

Antifascist protesters gather in downtown Portland on Nov. 17, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

A small far-right rally and counter-demonstration unfolded Saturday afternoon with little incident until the very end, in part because Portland police effectively kept the groups almost a block away from one another for most of the day.

The mostly successful effort to keep fiercely opposed protesters apart suggested Portland police will keep seeking ways to avert violence at political demonstrations, just as Mayor Ted Wheeler promised after his plan to control brawlers died in City Council last week.

Between 30 and 50 right-wing activists, including several members of Vancouver, Wash.-based Patriot Prayer, gathered in Terry Schrunk Plaza to give speeches about the so-called "Him Too Movement" and to belittle the Me Too Movement.

Across the street and a half-block away, hundreds of antifascist counter-protesters chanted "We believe survivors," and mocked the Proud Boys. (Many Patriot Prayer supporters are also members of the Proud Boys, an often-violent men's fraternity that refers to itself as "western chauvinists.")

Antifascist protesters gather in downtown Portland on Nov. 17, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

For more than three hours, Portland police and other law enforcement officers successfully kept the two groups apart. Police shut down half of Chapman Square and the sidewalks surrounding Terry Schrunk Plaza, where the right-wing group staged.

But when the Patriot Prayer contingent moved to end their rally and ostensibly return to their vehicles, the police's handle on the events slipped.

Instead of returning to their cars, the right-wing crew marched through downtown, intentionally trying to clash with masked antifascists dressed in black. The two groups lobbed water bottles, smoke bombs and firecrackers back and forth.

Police and antifascist protesters gather in downtown Portland on Nov. 17, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

Police used a flash-bang grenade to break up the conflict. There were a handful of small skirmishes as the right-wing group slowly loaded up into cars and left Portland. A few punches were thrown.

But Portland largely avoided the unhinged violence that has unfolded at the last three Patriot Prayer events on June 30, Aug. 4, and Oct. 13.  Portland police took a restrained approach to using force on protesters on both sides, unlike on Aug. 4 when officers sent at least two left-wing protesters to the hospital with serious injuries.

Still, officers gave confusing orders to disperse after the initial clash today.

At one street corner on Southwest 3rd Avenue, Portland police told the crowd to move north. At the north end of the block, another line of police in riot gear turned the crowd back to the south. The group bounced north and south as the two lines of law enforcement gave conflicting orders for several minutes. All the while, police kept announcing the dispersal order over loud speakers and said that anyone who did not leave the area would be subject to arrest or use of force.

But—unlike at past events—officers did not arrest the protesters, journalists and observers trapped in the confusion, nor did they use riot control agents on that crowd.

A protester strolls through downtown Portland on Nov. 17, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

Portland police made six arrests throughout the day.

The protest came on the tail end of a week when Portland officials reckoned with how to handle far-right demonstrations that often end in shocking violence.

City Council voted against an ordinance championed by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Police Chief Danielle Outlaw. Commissioners Chloe Eudaly, Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish asked the Police Bureau to reevaluate how it could use existing laws to better prevent violence.

Saturday's protests show promise for the argument that the police already have the tools needed to police demonstrations. Although police did not keep the two protest groups separated at the end of the day, they managed to keep the events under control for far longer—and with far less use of force—than in the past.

Police and antifascist protesters gather in downtown Portland on Nov. 17, 2018. (Sam Gehrke)

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