As Portland prepared for what was likely to be one of the biggest political demonstrations of the summer, which authorities expected would lead to violence, Donald Trump threw into the mix a characteristically explosive tweet.
“Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an ‘ORGANIZATION OF TERROR’,” the president wrote from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey on Saturday morning. “Portland is being watched very closely. Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job!”
“Antifa” is a collective term for a loose affiliation of anti-fascist groups. Such counter-protesters have clashed with far right activists in the Oregon city throughout the Trump era, some wearing “black bloc” attire and face masks.
Texas Republican Ted Cruz has proposed a Senate resolution which would designate antifa a domestic terrorist group. The resolution says Rose City Antifa, a prominent Portland group, “explicitly rejects the authority of law enforcement officers in the United States”.
Speaking to CNN, Portland mayor Ted Wheeler said of Trump’s tweet: “Frankly, it’s not helpful. This is a potentially dangerous and volatile situation, and adding to that noise doesn’t do anything to support or help the efforts that are going on here in Portland.”
On Friday, longtime rightwing leader and rally organizer Joey Gibson turned himself in to city authorities. Outside the Multnomah County Justice Center, he told reporters, and his supporters via Facebook, his arrest warrant was “without a doubt an assault on the first amendment”.
“I have never been violent,” he said.
The 35-year-old is one of six men associated with rightwing rallies in the city to be arrested or charged since 7 August, relating to a violent incident on 1 May at Cider Riot, a bar favored by the left.
Video shows men who have attended Gibson’s Patriot Prayer rallies, and who arrived at the bar in his company, exchanging pepper spray with bar patrons, striking people with batons and fighting.
Gibson claimed the charges were “completely political. This is Ted Wheeler doing everything he can because he’s been caught.” He accused Wheeler, a Democrat, of “coordinating with” and “protecting” anti-fascist demonstrators, a refrain in his speeches since 2017.
Gibson’s attorney, Multnomah county Republican chair James Buchal, said the charges were “part and parcel of the dishonest campaign by Portland leaders to blame out-of-town demonstrators for violence that began and persists because antifa wants to shut down any rightwing demonstrations in Portland”.
Asked via email if he thought the charges were timed in relation to the planned Saturday rally, Buchal answered: “Yes.”
Gibson was bailed out of Multnomah county jail overnight. On Saturday, as around 500 people gathered for the “End Domestic Terrorism” rally in a riverside park, he was in attendance, waving an oversized American flag.
From 9.30am, a growing counter-protest featured Buddhist and Jewish prayers, speeches and music.
Ed Mondaine, of the Portland chapter of the National Association fore the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), addressed the crowd, saying: “It’s time to stand up and annihilate bigotry.”
He called upon white allies to help with “fighting white nationalism” in “one of the whitest cities in America”, and concluded by leading a civil rights song, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.
At around 10am a small group of protesters from the rightwing group Portland’s Liberation made their way through the area of the counter-protest, without incident.
Gibson has organized protests in Portland under the banner of the organization he founded, Patriot Prayer. Several have become violent.
Critics have pointed to the presence at times of members of white nationalist groups like Identity Evropa and the PDX Stormers. But above all the events have been characterized by the presence of the Proud Boys, a “western chauvinist” group.
Saturday was no exception. The main promoter of the rally, Joe Biggs, is a Proud Boy, a combat veteran and a sometime presenter on the Infowars conspiracy channel.
Biggs has issued a series of threats to “antifa” in recent weeks, leading up to an event framed by the right as a response to the conservative writer Andy Ngo being milkshaked – having a drink poured over him – and punched at a rally on 29 June.
On Friday, city authorities fortified the waterfront area where attendees and counter-protesters were expected to face off. The Portland Bureau of Transportation brought in concrete barriers.
Portland Police Bureau (PPB) spokeswoman Lt Tina Jones said the event was likely to be “beyond the resources” of her department, even though all leave had been cancelled. PPB issued a list of partner agencies, including police departments statewide, state police, the FBI and various municipal authorities.
At 11am, a large group of rightwing protesters, mostly in Proud Boys colors, marched west across Morrison Bridge and into the waterfront area, led by Biggs and group chair Enrique Tarrio.
Police closed the main street parallel to the Willamette river and enforced a gap about the size of a city block between the marchers and the counter-protest. When they arrived in the park, the Proud Boys knelt in prayer and sang the US anthem.
They spent just over half an hour on the city’s west side. The atmosphere was occasionally tense. Six counter-protesters who managed to enter the enclosure were engaged by some Proud Boys in heated discussion. Some rightwing live-streamers arriving late were briefly mistaken for counter-protesters.
Just after 11.30am, the marchers started back over Hawthorne Bridge, traveling east. It had been closed to traffic. “They opened the bridge just for us,” Tarrio said through a bullhorn.
Visible insignia included that of a “patriot movement” group, the Three Percenters, and American Guard, who the Anti-Defamation League calls “hardcore white supremacists”.
After crossing the river, the crowd milled around in the car park of a fire and rescue installation, under the I5 freeway.