Portland mayor calls for calm after right-wing activist’s death amid clashes with protesters
For months, right-wing extremists had largely stayed away from the Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Portland, Ore.
That started to change Aug. 15 with a “Stand Up to Domestic Terrorism” rally, where activists waved American flags and a 27-year-old man, who was later arrested, allegedly fired gunshots from his vehicle.
The next weekend in front of the federal courthouse, men in tactical military gear, some carrying assault rifles, clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters carrying shields.
Now the conflict has turned deadly.
The Saturday night shooting death of a man who belonged to a local far-right group has raised the stakes in an escalating political battle that pits city officials against a president who seems intent on fanning the flames of unrest for his political advantage.
The killing in Portland closely follows deadly violence in Kenosha, Wis., last week. Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old from Antioch, Ill., who said he had come to defend businesses from protesters, was charged with fatally shooting two men and wounding another.
The protesters defend the nightly taunting of police, along with vandalism and destruction of property, as a strategy to draw officers into clashes and expose them as fascists.
There, as in Portland, the deadly violence occurred after armed right-wing activists descended on Black Lives Matter protests in the name of President Trump, who in a combative law-and-order campaign strategy, advocates crackdowns on cities run by Democrats.
On Sunday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler pleaded for calm, urging people not to return to downtown to seek retribution, as some were threatening on social media.
Speaking at a news conference in city council chambers, he declined to release details about the shooting, saying a homicide investigation was underway.
The police chief, Chuck Lovell, said detectives hadn’t established whether it was politically motivated or perhaps “a skirmish between two small groups” or a “problem that erupted between individuals.”
Seventy-four people are now facing federal charges related to protests that have rocked Portland, Ore., for three months since George Floyd was killed.
He said that on Thursday a 16-year-old African American had also been shot to death, and three others injured, in circumstances that were still being investigated.
Wheeler directly addressed the president.
“President Trump, for four years we’ve had to live with you and your racist attacks on Black people,” he said. “Do you seriously wonder, Mr. President, why this is the first time in decades that America has seen this level of violence?
“It’s you who have created the hate and division.”
Get breaking news, investigations, analysis and more signature journalism from the Los Angeles Times in your inbox.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
Evidently watching the briefing, Trump tweeted a real-time rebuke.
“Ted Wheeler, the wacky Radical Left Do Nothing Democrat Mayor of Portland, who has watched great death and destruction of his city during his tenure, thinks this lawless situation should go on forever. Wrong! Portland will never recover with a fool for a Mayor,” he wrote.
Late Sunday, as protesters kept up their nightly demonstrations, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown released details of a plan to address the violence in Portland while protecting free speech. She said the district attorney’s office in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, will prosecute serious criminal offenses, and the sheriff’s office will work with other agencies to hold people arrested on suspicion of violent behavior and ensure adequate jail space.
Also, Brown said, Oregon State Police will return to Portland to help local police, and nearby law enforcement agencies will be asked to assist.
“We all must come together — elected officials, community leaders, all of us — to stop the cycle of violence,” Brown, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Trump hopes violence at protests will generate a backlash against Democrats; opponents accuse him of inciting more violence with his rhetoric.
Joey Gibson, the founder of a group called Patriot Prayer, wrote on social media that the man who was killed Saturday night was Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a supporter who went by the name Jay Bishop.
Founded in 2016, Patriot Prayer is based across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash., and describes itself as advocating free speech and opposing big government.
Its supporters periodically cross into Oregon for rallies that the Southern Poverty Law Center says include paramilitary extremist groups. Gibson has instructed supporters to be armed at rallies, according to the center.
On Aug. 17 last year, members of Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys, an allied group that the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate organization, clashed in Portland with members of the antifascist movement antifa.
Police in riot gear largely managed to keep the groups apart, arresting a dozen people and seizing wooden poles, bear repellent and knives.
Patriot Prayer issued calls on social media for Trump supporters to rally Saturday.
Jim Gullo, an Uber driver, saw as many as 100 trucks gathering that evening in Happy Valley, 10 miles southeast of downtown Portland.
“It was far larger and more organized than anything I’d seen before,” he said. “It gave me a sinking feeling of despair over the polarization that’s happening right in front of us.”
Relatives of Jacob Blake, who was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last week, led a rally of more than 1,000 people Saturday as protests continued over shootings that left Blake paralyzed and two dead. The White House said President Trump would visit Kenosha on Tuesday.
In all, a caravan of about 600 vehicles, many of them flying Trump banners, descended on the Black Lives Matter rally. The opposing groups skirmished in the streets, as the right-wing activists shot paintball guns from the backs of pickups and protesters launched fireworks at their opponents and burned American flags.
For decades, Oregon, a predominantly white state, has earned a progressive reputation, led by Portland, its biggest city.
In the 1970s, leaders of the hate group Aryan Nations began trying to get people to move to the Northwest to create a white ethno-state.
In 1988 in Portland, three skinheads fatally beat a 28-year-old Ethiopian student, Mulugata Seraw, spurring an activist movement that outed neo-Nazis and white supremacists and sometimes engaged in brawls.
After years of relative calm, clashes picked up after Trump’s election.
In June, Jeremy Christian, a white supremacist, was sentenced to life in prison for the 2017 fatal stabbing of two men who were defending two young Black women from anti-Muslim taunts on a Portland commuter train.
A week after the stabbing, Gibson, the Patriot Prayer founder, organized a pro-Trump rally that attracted opposition organized by immigrant rights, religious and labor groups.
It was just a year ago that Wheeler gathered a broad coalition of business, political, civil and spiritual leaders in a news conference to promote the city’s progressive image and liberal tradition of free speech, and to tell anyone planning violence to stay away.
But at his news conference Sunday, he acknowledged that gathering such a coalition would be more difficult now, because he has lost support from many who participated, and some are calling for his resignation.
“That’s the kind of coalition we’re missing right now,” Wheeler said. “We don’t have elected officials or community organizations coming together to denounce violence.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.