Skirmishes broke out Sunday in downtown Portland as hundreds of President Trump’s supporters who were rallying for free speech faced off against a series of counter-demonstrations far bigger in size.
Police in riot gear made 14 arrests and used pepper spray and flash-bang grenades to break up the crowds. But the violence was far less than city officials had anticipated after a white supremacist was accused of stabbing to death two men who tried to defend a pair of teenagers from his anti-Muslim insults and racist taunts on a city train. A third man was injured during the confrontation May 26.
Trump supporters held signs aloft saying, “Don’t tread on me,” “God, guns and Trump” and “Make America great again,” as they engaged in heated arguments with black-clad protesters holding signs saying, “Black lives matter,” “You have blood on your hands” and “Portland stands against hate.”
The pro-Trump March for Free Speech drew the ire of many Portlanders after images went viral showing the 35-year-old suspect in the killings attending a similar protest in April led by local video blogger Joey Gibson, who also organized Sunday’s demonstration. As Jeremy Joseph Christian was arraigned Tuesday on charges of murder and attempted murder, he shouted a stream of threats: “Free speech or die, Portland. You got no safe place. This is America. Get out if you don’t like free speech.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler tried and failed to get a federal permit for Gibson’s rally revoked, saying its participants “peddle a message of hatred and bigotry.” In a message to residents last week, Wheeler urged “everyone participating to reject violence.”
“Our city has seen enough,” he said.
Gibson, who has denounced the killings, asked for a moment of silence Sunday for the “two patriots who gave it all” and said he would kick any white supremacists out of the rally. But he acknowledged in an interview with The Times that he couldn’t “control everyone.”
Participants cheered as Gibson addressed a boisterous crowd that was largely white. There were right-wing figures who had traveled from as far as California and Montana for the event.
“I am here for freedom, and I am here for God,” said Gibson, who lives across the state line in Washington. He said his goal was to show conservatives that there was “hope to take back these states.”
“To accept the West Coast is blue is to accept defeat,” he said.
Some of those who assembled in and around a federal plaza for the rally wore clothing or carried posters with racist and militia-related insignia. They included a pair of men holding signs saying, “Diversity is a code word for white genocide.” Rally organizers tried to persuade them to leave.
Among those who attended were figures from the “alt-right,” a loose-knit movement founded by white nationalists. Members of the Oath Keepers, a militia group that civil rights groups describe as “anti-government extremists,” patrolled the perimeter of the plaza, saying they came to protect “the freedoms of both sides.”
Also spotted among the crowd was Kyle Chapman, a San Francisco Bay Area resident who has developed an online following using the moniker “Based Stickman.” Images of Chapman, who carries a stick and shield during protests and wears a motorcycle helmet, went viral after he clashed with protesters in Berkeley this year.
Members of a left-wing group called Rose City Antifa assembled Sunday in a park across the street from the pro-Trump protesters, saying they were there to stand against “neo-Nazis, hateful preachers” and “violent bigots.” They were joined by members of other groups, some of whom wore bandannas to conceal their faces.
Both sides said they were ready to use violence in self-defense.
The left-wing protesters expressed frustration at police for declaring their demonstration an “unlawful assembly” by early afternoon while the pro-Trump rally, which was permitted until 5 p.m., carried on.
Police officers said they did so after protesters threw bricks at them, some of which may have been taken from a building in the park where they had gathered.
Most of the counter-protesters had dispersed by early afternoon, although a couple hundred were later blocked by police from marching on a downtown street.
Keith Campbell, a member of the Oath Keepers, said he drove to Portland from El Cerrito, in the Bay Area, to attend the pro-Trump rally and livestream it because he was tired of being labeled a violent extremist.
“Not everyone who is on the Trump side is in the extreme right or neo-Nazis,” said Campbell, 53. “There are probably a few people like that, [but] there are a lot of people who are normal, good conservative people.”
He added: “We don’t get to be heard. Or if we get to be heard, people are told that we are spewing hate speech, and basically hate speech is anything one side doesn’t agree with.”
A third rally, organized under the banner Portland Stands United Against Hate, took place outside City Hall, within sight of the other demonstrations.
That rally was endorsed by more than 70 groups, including religious congregations and civil rights organizations. Labor unions also staged a demonstration nearby against the Trump supporters.
Margaret Jacobsen, who organized Portland’s Women’s March in January, came to protest what they saw as a rising tide of racism and hate crimes in the country.
“Lives can end if you cross the wrong person,” said Jacobsen, who set up a table with food, water and medical supplies for demonstrators. “I don’t think this is just because of who is in office, but it is what it means to be black or brown in America.”
Seemab Hussaini, a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he was there to “make sure there’s a peaceful event, a peaceful message.”
Police, city officials and participants across the rallies said the violence between the groups was less than they had expected.
“The mayor would like to thank those who peacefully protested today in Portland,” said Michael Cox, a spokesman for Wheeler. “He is grateful that there were no reports of major injuries, and that arrests were minimal.”
9:40 p.m.: The story was updated with skirmishes breaking out and police halting the protests.
The story was originally published at 4:20 p.m.