The Proud Boys claimed that they would bring legions of dedicated patriots to the city of Portland, Oregon, in a powerful show of strength against their anti-fascist foes, but when the moment of truth came on Saturday, the right-wing gang failed to deliver.
Despite weeks of hype and deep concerns over the possibility of severe and deadly violence, the organization, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group, drew a modest crowd of angry men and women, whose brief gathering mostly consisted of swilling cheap beer and hard seltzers and assaulting journalists in a park on the edge of town. The absence of large-scale violence, which has so often defined the group’s forays into Portland over the past few years, came as a relief to a city that has been blanketed in wildfire smoke in recent weeks and targeted by the Trump administration as an “anarchist jurisdiction” for its nightly protests against police brutality.
In the run-up to the rally, Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency and established a law enforcement task force led by the Oregon State Police, which reportedly deployed approximately 500 officers to police the event. At most, several hundred people turned out for the demonstration, a far cry from the 20,000 participants and observers the Proud Boys had estimated in their request for a permit — the city denied the request, citing coronavirus restrictions that cap group gatherings at 50 people.
“The events over the weekend show that law enforcement knew how to keep the far-right groups from unleashing violence in Portland all along, they simply chose not to in previous instances,” Michael German, a former FBI agent, now at the Brennan Center, said in an email to The Intercept.
What the event lacked in numbers, it made up for in paranoia and talk of persecution. Billed as demonstration against “domestic terrorism,” the day’s speakers focused their rage against the left broadly and against the anti-fascist movement known as antifa in particular. Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who was charged with two counts of murder after killing two Black Lives Matter protesters and wounding a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin, came up often, as did Aaron Jay Danielson, a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, who was shot and killed by a self-described anti-fascist in Portland last month.
“This is a war, folks, and we have got to fight back,” Carol Leek, the founder of Oregon Women for Trump, told the crowd. Connecting the day’s events to President Donald Trump’s reelection efforts, Leek railed against the threat of encroaching Marxism and the dangers of “Black supremacy,” while self-styled Proud Boy security guards roamed through the crowd questioning journalists about their affiliations and attempting to intimidate those whose answers they found unsatisfactory.
Police in tactical gear were mustered near overpasses outside Delta Park on the northern edge of the city, but with the exception of occasional visits from a handful of liaison officers, the Proud Boys were largely permitted to police themselves. Attendees were well-armed: carrying rifles, sidearms, knives, bats, bear spray, and at least one electrified Taser shield. Nearly all of the demonstrators wore some type of tactical gear. The letters “RWDS,” an abbreviation for “right-wing death squads,” were commonly seen on patches, and there was an abundance of pro-police “Thin Blue Line” flags fixed to pickup trucks, body armor, and the merchandise table.
A handful of gunmen ran a checkpoint near an entrance to the park, and an RV in a Walmart parking lot appeared to serve as a weapons and body armor depot for some of the protesters. Neither attracted attention from the police. Demonstrators also received a load of branded shields from a man driving a box truck who said he was with a group called American Wolf. One of the shields was scooped up by a man who looked to be a middle-aged skinhead, dressed in heavy black boots with white laces. Another shield ended up in the back of a truck that was later pulled over by police. Law enforcement seized several guns from the vehicle and a third shield spray painted with the words “FUCK BLM.” Two of the men in the truck were given criminal citations for possession of loaded firearms in public.
Authorities also said they were investigating an incident in which a man was filmed kicking a livestreamer in the face — one of at least three instances in which demonstrators were recorded putting their hands on members of the media. The victim said he was also punched in the head and received a concussion. The assailant, who was also photographed chatting with state police, gave a casual TV interview after the attack.
German, who has closely tracked law enforcement response to far-right violence in Portland under the Trump administration said the means for protecting the public have been long clear. “It’s not as if it required aggressive police action, just proper planning, a presence, and a few token citations and weapons seizures made a huge difference,” he said. “Yet, law enforcement still left room for criticism. Allowing the militants to man armed checkpoints and harass and beat journalists and others without interference reinforces the idea that the police condone these armed out-of-state groups coming into Portland and intimidating, threatening, and assaulting residents.”
Days before the Proud Boys rally took place, The Guardian and Bellingcat, an investigative journalism organization, reported on a trove of leaked chats obtained by anti-fascists in Eugene, Oregon, which showed a network of Pacific Northwest-based pro-Trump and pro-law enforcement activists planning to engage in acts of targeted political violence, including the assassination of elected officials. “People will get shot, stabbed and beat,” one of the members of the so-called Patriot Coalition said in a leaked message. On Saturday, one of the participants in the chat group, a man named David Willis, who had identified legal advocates and the press as “targets,” threatened a reporter while holding a paintball gun. Shane Burley, the experienced Portland-based journalist and author whom Willis targeted, later described the demonstration as “the most paranoid far right-rally I have ever been to.”
Despite the low turnout, the Proud Boys sought to paint a picture of a mission accomplished. Standing on the stage with a sunburned face and wide grin, Proud Boy leader Joe Biggs said the rally gave him a “boner,” while National Chair Enrique Tarrio opted for a more measured tone, praising the governor’s decision to declare a state of emergency in interviews with reporters. Both men were involved in ordering the physical removal of an independent journalist. According to a detailed, firsthand account published by Courthouse News Service, the two men and their organization engaged in extensive collaboration with law enforcement throughout the day, including meeting with the FBI Saturday morning to discuss the violent chats that had leaked online. Biggs told the news service “They’re not with us,” referring to participants in the chat, and said the meeting with the bureau was part of an ongoing dialogue with the feds.
“We’ve talked to state and federal law enforcement for every event we do,” he said. “The feds say, ‘you’re the only group out there that’s willing to sit down and tell us stuff.’ They know every move we do before we do it because we tell them.”
The demonstration wrapped up ahead of schedule and many of the Proud Boys drove across state lines to celebrate their demonstration in Washington state. Two separate anti-facist and anti-racist demonstrations a short drive from the scene drew considerably larger crowds.
Last month, a caravan of amped-up Trump supporters drove into downtown Portland and opened fire on counterprotesters with bear spray, paintballs, and live rounds. As day turned to night, speculation swirled as to whether the Proud Boys would return to the city in similar fashion — they did not.
In the end, it was the local police who were responsible for violence in the streets, as dozens of riot cops chased protesters and the press from Multnomah County Justice Center downtown and pummeled them with fists and clubs following an order to disperse. Ahead of Saturday’s rally, roughly 50 police officers assigned to the Portland Police Bureau’s Rapid Response were deputized as federal marshals, allowing members the local police to bring federal charges against individuals accused of assaulting an officer. The move is seen as an end-run around District Attorney Mike Schmidt, who in August established a policy in which his office would decline to prosecute certain protest related offenses.
“The perception that the police favor the far-right agitators was further informed by the sharp contrast with how the police treated those protesting police violence and racism later that day,” German, the former FBI agent, said. “That they would modify the law enforcement command structure specifically to avoid restraints on police violence ordered by courts and local political leaders demonstrates complete disregard for the law, democratic restraints on police power, and the security of Portland residents from unaccountable law enforcement actions.”
Among the members of the media who received the worst of the authorities’ treatment on Saturday night was 73-year-old John Rudoff, a beloved local photojournalist, who was tossed onto the concrete on video. In a statement posted on Facebook Sunday, the veteran journalist said the helmet he was wearing may have saved his life.
“The cops need to understand that an action like this — shoving a guy down on the cement with no warning — can fracture a hip or an arm or a skull, and can be a life-ending or career-mobility ending move,” Rudoff wrote. “Actions have consequences; and they should gauge some of their less-warranted actions accordingly.”