In the weeks leading up to the August 17th Proud Boys rally in Portland, Oregon, many were unsure what to expect. Local law enforcement officials and many counter-protesters were concerned about the prospect of increased violence at the rally, particularly in light of a high-profile incident last June featuring right-wing journalist and provocateur Andy Ngo. Increasingly violent rhetoric from members of the organization, particularly from organizer Joe Biggs, also fueled fears that the rally would result in violence.
On Saturday, however, more than 1,000 anti-fascist activists showed up at the rally in downtown Portland to protest — largely, peacefully. Despite about a dozen arrests and a handful of minor injuries, all in all the event was less violent than many had feared, according to Mayor Ted Wheeler.
“I’m grateful this was largely a peaceful event,” Wheeler said in a press conference after the rally. “We were preparing for and planning for a worst-case scenario.”
The number of counter-protesters at the rally also dwarfed that of the 300 Proud Boys and other far-right allies in attendance, thanks in large part to local organizing efforts on the left, as well as whispers of internal tensions among members of the far-right organization. Many on the far right who planned to attend the rally dropped out following threats from Portland officials that they would be arrested if they engaged in violence, according to a report from the Daily Beast.
As Rolling Stone has previously reported, the Proud Boys are a far-right group founded by Gavin McInnes, a former media mogul turned far-right icon. The organization has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), due to its espousal of racist, misogynistic and Islamophobic ideology. (The Proud Boys has disputed this characterization, filing a defamation suit against the SPLC earlier this year.)
The Proud Boys has drawn criticism in particular for inciting violence, most notably after MacInnes’s speaking engagement at the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York City last year, which resulted in the arrests of a number of members. (McInnes left the organization shortly after this incident.) Despite its violent reputation, however, the organization has maintained ties to mainstream GOP political figures, and its current leader Enrique Tarrio is listed as a Florida state director for the organization Latinos for Trump.
Concerns about mounting tensions in Portland started brewing in June, when right-wing journalist and provocateur Andy Ngo tweeted that he had been assaulted by “antifa,” the term used to describe a loosely organized collective of anti-fascist protesters, at a Proud Boys rally. The incident prompted an outpouring of hand-wringing on both sides of the ideological spectrum, with political figures decrying the alleged violent threat posed by anti-fascist protesters, and Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and Bill Cassidy proposing legislation declaring antifa a domestic terrorist group. The mass shootings earlier this month in El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH, also helped to fuel the demonization of antifa, with many members of the far-right initially claiming that both of the shooters were antifa. (The El Paso shooter was a Trump supporter who posted an explicitly white nationalist manifesto minutes before the attack; the Dayton shooter expressed left-wing views on social media, but there is no evidence he was engaged in local anti-fascist protest or organizing, nor that the attack was politically motivated.)
Social media posts from Joe Biggs, a former InfoWars reporter and the organizer of the August 17th Proud Boys rally, also stoked concerns that the rally would devolve into violence. In one social media post prior to the rally, Biggs urged attendees to “Get a gun. Bu[y] ammo. Get your gun license. Get training. Practice as much as you can and be ready because the left isn’t playing anymore and neither should we.” Another video showed Biggs wielding a baseball bat with a pro-Trump slogan on it while wearing a T-shirt with the message, “Training to Throw Communists Out of Helicopters,” a reference to the Chilean dictator Pinochet’s practice of murdering political dissidents. In a Facebook post last week, however, Biggs, apparently chastened by an FBI visit to his home, encouraged those who planned to attend the Portland rally to “tone down rhetoric.”
Attempts to stir tensions in Portland and demonize antifa came to a head on Saturday, when President Trump himself tweeted about the Portland rally. “Portland is being watched very closely. Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job!” Trump, who has been criticized for failing to adequately condemn the rising white supremacist domestic terrorism threat, also doubled down on his previous anti-antifa stance, referring to them as an “ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.”
Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an “ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.” Portland is being watched very closely. Hopefully the Mayor will be able to properly do his job!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2019
While the August 17th Portland rally was less brutal than many had feared, it was not without incident. According to CNN, 13 people at the rally were arrested, and an estimated six people were injured, with one person taken to the hospital for their injuries. The report noted that it was unclear how many of those arrested were affiliated with the counterprotesters or with the Proud Boys and other far-right groups.
Additionally, many anti-fascist protesters criticized the Portland police for escorting the Proud Boys across the Hawthorne Bridge, about 30 minutes into the protest. The Portland police department has previously been accused of maintaining cozy relations with the Proud Boys, most notably following the Willamette Week‘s publication of text messages exchanged between Joey Gibson, the leader of the far-right group Patriot Prayer; and Portland police Lt. Jeff Niiya. In response to criticism that the police department extended preferential treatment to the Proud Boys, a spokesperson for the Portland PD told Rolling Stone, “We learned through our liaison officers that one side wanted to leave so we facilitated that movement which prevented the violence that was predicted before the event. It was a purposeful and successful de-escalation strategy employed by the Portland Police Bureau.”
During his press conference following the rally, Wheeler explicitly condemned the Proud Boys, responding specifically to Biggs’s claim that the group would march in Portland every month until the “threat” of antifa was eliminated. In the larger context of the political climate, Wheeler said that the Proud Boys rally created a “sense of uncertainty and a sense of fear” in the city. “I want to be very clear: We do not want him here in my city, period,” he said. He also condemned Trump’s statement vilifying antifa on Twitter, saying, “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.”
Despite Wheeler’s statement, however, as well as the number of anti-fascist protesters dwarfing those of the Proud Boys and far-right affiliates, Biggs roundly declared the rally a success, largely due to Trump’s tweet. “We wanted national attention, and we got it.,” he told the Oregonian. “Mission success.”