Demonstrators began gathering Sunday in downtown Portland for a pro-President Trump free-speech rally and a pair of counter-demonstrations that city officials feared could turn violent after a white supremacist killed two men in stabbings on a city train.
Trump supporters held signs aloft saying, “Don’t tread on me,” “God, guns and Trump” and “Make America Great Again,” as they faced off in heated arguments with black-clad counter-protesters holding signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and “Portland stands against hate.”
Similar rallies in Portland and around the country have become entangled in brawls in recent months, including ones in Berkeley in April.
Officials from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security said they were monitoring Sunday’s events, which will take place in part at a federal plaza. As of early Sunday afternoon, there had been four arrests, the Portland Police Bureau said.
There has been growing tension over the protests since 35-year-old Jeremy Joseph Christian was accused of killing the two men by slashing their throats on a city train when they tried to defend two teenagers from his anti-Muslim insults and racists taunts on May 26. A third man was injured in the confrontation.
The pro-Trump March for Free Speech drew the ire of many Portlanders after images went viral showing Christian attending a similar protest in April led by local video blogger Joey Gibson, who also organized Sunday’s demonstration.
As Christian was arraigned Tuesday on charges of murder and attempted murder, he shouted a stream of threats. “Free speech or die, Portland,” he said. “You got no safe place. This is America. Get out if you don’t like free speech.”
Portland braces for violence at pro-Trump rally this weekend after white supremacist is charged with murder
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.” He backed down after facing heavy criticism, including from the American Civil Liberties Union, for attempting to quash a demonstration.
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, said he would kick any white supremacists out of his rally, which he said was aimed at promoting “free speech, small government and Christianity.” But he acknowledged in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that he “can’t control everyone.”
Some of those who assembled Sunday at the federal plaza were wearing clothing or holding signs with racist and militia-related insignia.
Among those expected to attend — some from as far away as Southern California and Montana — were figures from the “alt-right,” a loose-knit movement founded by white nationalists, as well as the Oath Keepers, a militia group that civil rights groups describe as “anti-government extremists.”
Members of the Proud Boys, a far-right men’s fraternity whose members call themselves “Western chauvinists,” also attended, along with Republicans and Libertarians.
Spotted among them 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 at Berkeley this year.
On Thursday, he turned to Facebook and Twitter to urge his followers to “smash on sight” in an “open season on antifa,” shorthand for “anti-fascists.”
Even before the train killings, Portland was embroiled in conflicts over hate and racism
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.”
Both sides said they were ready to use violence in self-defense. Some skirmishes broke out Sunday afternoon.
“We are unapologetic about the reality that fighting fascism at points requires physical militancy,” Rose City Antifa said in a recent statement. “We cannot emphasize enough that a diverse range of other forms of resistance are also crucial,” the statement added.
Some of those who attend anti-fascist rallies are known to show up dressed all in black and wear bandannas, gas masks or helmets to avoid being identified and to protect themselves. Others dress as clowns and other costumes to mock their political opponents.
Each side accuses the other of using intimidation and provocation to lure them into fights.
Keith Campbell, who drove to Portland from El Cerrito, in the Bay Area, to attend the pro-Trump rally and livestream it, said 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, who is a member of the Oath Keepers. “There are probably a few people like that, [but] there are a lot of people who are normal, good conservative people.”
While members of his group are known to bring weapons to such events, he said he was not armed and just wanted to “be able to go somewhere and talk and tell our views without being shut down by either violence or threats of violence.”
“We don't get to be heard,” he said. “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.”
Organizers of a third rally, Portland Stands United Against Hate and Violence, gathered outside City Hall, within sight of the other protests. That rally, which came together in response to the growing tension in the city over hate crimes and Sunday’s dueling demonstrations, was endorsed by more than 70 groups, including religious congregations, civil rights organization and labor unions.
“The plan is to make sure there’s a peaceful event, a peaceful message,” said Seemab Hussaini, a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We don’t want ourselves to be swayed by anyone.”
Margaret Jacobsen, who helped organize Portland’s Women’s March in January, said she was protesting against what she sees 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 Sunday’s 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.”
Jaweed Kaleem is The Times' national race and justice correspondent.