A rally by right wing group Patriot Prayer in Portland, Oregon culminated in a police charge on counterprotesters on Saturday, as a demonstration once again brought disorder and violence to the city’s downtown area.
Two hours into the rally, police moved towards leftwing counterprotesters with batons drawn, and used dozens of “flash bang” stun grenades and rounds containing pepper spray.
As they moved on the counterprotest, Patriot Prayer marchers chanted “lock them up, lock them up”.
Portland police sent hundreds of officers in riot gear to the rally, and for most of the day they kept Patriot Prayer, led by Republican US Senate candidate Joey Gibson, and an affiliated group, Proud Boys, separated from their opposition.
Patriot Prayer’s stated beliefs are not neo-Nazi or white supremacist, but his critics say the group’s events have attracted white supremacist elements and have frequently brought serious violence to cities around the US West.
Gibson’s insistence on bringing his supporters repeatedly to the liberal city of Portland has crystallized debate about the limits of free speech in an era of stark political division.
One part of the 1,000 strong counterprotest, billed as “PopMob”, included labor groups, a local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, clergy, community groups. There was also a large contingent of anti-fascists clad in “black bloc” clothing.
As the Patriot Prayer group marched, protesters followed at a distance through neighbouring streets. The charge happened on Southwest Columbia Street, several blocks south of Patriot Prayer’s original rallying point. Police claimed that protesters were throwing missiles at their lines.
One journalist, Eder Campuzano, was struck in the head by a full plastic bottle, causing him to bleed from a head wound, which he said “likely came from a counterprotester”.
A Portland photographer, Doug Brown, said that “the first missile I saw and heard came from the Patriot Prayer side, across the street, towards the protesters”.
“I don’t know who set it off, but it went towards the black bloc. And then the police just swarmed them,” Brown said.
Brown’s tweeted video of the police charge shows them confronting protesters en masse, and attacking him and and other reporters filming from a sidewalk.
Olivia Katbi Smith, co-chair of the Portland Democratic Socialists of America, said the police were not provoked.
A Portland woman was later admitted to hospital after being hit with a flash bang round.
Eric Ward, executive director of civil rights organization Western States Center, said that while he believed some counterprotesters made some “bad decisions” by bringing weapons, the police charge “punished every counterprotester for the actions of a few”.
This collective punishment, he said “doesn’t align with the treatment of the Proud Boys and Joey Gibson”.
Gibson had earlier told the Patriot Prayer group that a deal with police meant that they would not be searched in exchange for confining themselves to a barricaded area. No weapons searches were carried out on the Patriot Prayer group.
Portland police did not respond to requests for comment on weapons searches, or their charge on counterprotesters.
The Patriot Prayer rally had attracted people from all over the country - many wearing the colors of the Proud Boys group, others wearing Trump-branded clothing and Infowars merchandise.
Patriot Prayer’s events attracted widespread attention in the last month after an event in Portland on 30 June that culminated in some of the worst street violence in the city’s recent history.
Saturday’s crowd of more than 400 was one of Patriot Prayer’s biggest to date in a series of over 30 events held in the Pacific Northwest and northern California during the life of the Trump administration.
At the conclusion of the march Patriot Prayer members claimed victory, with Gibson saying that it was an “excellent day, excellent”.
Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, who has been involved in two alleged street assaults outside protests, and who has been arrested at previous protests, told the rally that “today is a big win for America”, that “the cops did their jobs and we’re proud of them”, and that in future, “we’re still gonna come to Portland”.
Toese wore a T shirt bearing the slogan, “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong”.
Katbi Smith, the DSA co-chair, said “If it’s a victory for them, it’s a victory won by the cops. We outnumbered them.”
After the rally’s conclusion, many Patriot Prayer supporters left on the group’s private buses. But a small number Proud Boys, including Toese, stayed in downtown Portland and engaged in scuffles, and three way standoffs with police and anti-fascists.
Patriot Prayer had bused in supporters from Vancouver, a town over the Columbia river from Portland in Washington state where Gibson is based. A planned rendezvous in a shopping mall in the town was moved after security guards told early arrivals they were trespassing, and a tow truck stood by waiting to take away offending cars.
Saturday’s rally was, in part, billed as a campaign event for Gibson’s bid to become a senator for Washington.
Originally published in The Guardian