Three days before a posse of far-right muscle is expected to descend on Portland, an unprecedented gathering of civic leaders told them to stay out of town.
A coalition of more than 100 elected officials, business owners and social-justice advocates gathered in Pioneer Courthouse Square this morning to affirm Mayor Ted Wheeler's message that political violence wouldn't be tolerated at a rally planned for Aug. 17 by a right-wing men's group called the Proud Boys.
"To any white supremacists who are planning on coming to our community on Aug. 17: You are not welcome here," Wheeler said.
The press conference was the culmination of a full-court press by City Hall in advance of the Proud Boys' visit. In the past week, police arrested three right-wing protesters for the May 1 assault of a woman, and this morning Wheeler appeared on Fox News to repeat his no-tolerance policy for brawls.
But it was an uneasy coalition gathered on the brick steps. Several speakers gently chastised the mayor for what they described as language that equated antifascist activists with the right-wing forces they oppose. At the same time, Police Chief Danielle Outlaw pledged that police would be "neutral" toward demonstrators, not favoring one group over another.
The result was a show of unity with visible cracks: a reflection of larger debates between centrists and leftists about how to respond to white supremacists emboldened by the White House.
Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, spoke this morning even though his nonprofit has been repeatedly critical of Wheeler and police response to right-wing violence.
"I know the danger presented by by far-right paramilitary groups," Ward said. "We won't keep Portland safe with false equivalencies about violence on all sides. We will only truly be safe when good speech drowns out hate."
Noticeably absent from the event was the movement that right-wing protesters describe as their reason for invading Portland: antifascists, or antifa. (A right-wing talk radio host organized the Aug. 17 event as a rally to demand antifascists be classified as domestic terrorists, and he has openly fantasized about physically harming the masked protesters.) Antifascist organizers denounced this morning's press conference before it occurred, saying that calls to stay home on Saturday were misguided and Portlanders should instead join leftist demonstrators in the streets to oppose the Proud Boys.
Mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone, who is challenging Wheeler from the left, tells WW she'll be peacefully protesting with antifascists on Aug. 17.
"Mayor Wheeler telling people to say 'stay home' on Saturday belies his lack of understanding of and support for the fight for civil and human rights underway in our streets," she said. "I'll be counter-protesting in solidarity with #EverydayAntifascists on Saturday because that's what my community needs and wants from me."
The mayor's office disputed that characterization of its message.
"We've never said for peaceful demonstrators to stay home," says Wheeler's spokeswoman Eileen Park. "Sarah is mischaracterizing the community's message. We've been very clear. To those who plan on committing violence, stay home."
A handful of the people expected to be at Saturday's protests appeared this morning to heckle the officials calling for calm. A leftist protester interrupted Wheeler and Outlaw through their remarks, earning a rebuke from the chief: "This isn't your show today." And right-wing protest organizer Haley Adams, who also yelled objections to the speeches, began walking swiftly toward City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty before being slowed by three men.
Hardesty continued undeterred. "We have right-wing radicals trying to create fear and distrust among others because they don't look like you," she said. "This has been the existence of people of color since we landed in this country."
For a brief moment, the interruptions threatened to overshadow the message of non-violence. But everyone, even the hecklers, hushed for former state Sen. Avel Gordly (D-Portland), the first black woman elected to the Oregon Senate.
"We are not in denial of the white supremacist origins of the state of Oregon," Gordly said. But she rebuked leftists for saying police protect fascists. "We absolutely reject the false narrative that the Portland police have chosen the side of white supremacists," she said. "That is a lie."
Gordly, 72, compared the actions of contemporary protesters unfavorably with the civil-rights marches she led in prior decades. "Owning a part in public safety, that's what we did," she said.
She concluded by asking people in the streets this weekend to recognize each other's humanity.
"I come to you today with a plea," she said. "Let us be more kind with our day-to-day dealings with each other. All we have on this planet—while we still have this planet—is each other."