Why liberal Portland has become a focal point for the far right

(PORTLAND, Ore.) — The Aug. 22 clash between far-right groups and counter-protesters in Portland was the latest in a series of violent confrontations that have rocked the city over the last year.

While last month’s incident was not as destructive as the riots that took place last summer, it highlights how the city, with its reputation as a liberal bastion amid the state’s early history of white supremacy, has become a proxy in the culture wars, researchers said.

City officials said in an October 2020 statement that in recent months, alt-right groups amassed in Portland in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and measures intended to combat COVID-19.

“Portland’s leadership in racial justice reform and community demands for change have made the city a target for right-wing politicians and white supremacist groups, who use Portland as a rhetorical tool for division,” the statement said.

Portland Police instead say that instead of a rise in right-wing extremism, there has been an increase in violent disputes that take place in public.

Randy Blazak, the chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes, a non-profit that works with community groups and local, state, and federal governmental agencies to combat hate groups and their activities, told ABC News that the recent conflicts have been decades in the making as groups like the Proud Boys, which were at the Aug. 22 incident, are using their feuds with the far left to fuel their cause around the country.

“Portland being the largest metropolis in the Northwest, is where these ideologies collide,” he told ABC News.

Blazak and other experts who have researched far-right activity noted this problem has been decades in the making due to the growing presence of the far-right groups and changing demographics along the West Coast.

The experts noted that it will be difficult to combat that buildup, especially as people from outside the city join in on the rallies, but there have been proven solutions that can mitigate the damage to the city and residents.

Far right ties to city stretch back for decades

Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, who has been monitoring the far-right activity in Portland, told ABC News that Oregon has been attractive to white nationalists due to its origin as a state that excluded Blacks and minorities.

Although the state’s founders prohibited slavery in 1843, it enacted laws that prohibited Black settlers a year later. The 14th Amendment nullified the exclusion laws in 1868, however, they remained part of the state constitution until 1926.

Miller noted that the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in Oregon during the early 20th century using the state’s history as a rallying message.

“The region itself has long played a prominent role in the imagination of white power activists, who see it as the ideal place to create a white ethnostate,” she said.

In the ’80s, Oregon, and Portland, in particular, saw a jump in neo-Nazi and skinhead groups, Miller said. In 1988, three skinheads murdered Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian immigrant in Portland, which resulted in both an increase in far-right groups and more action by leaders and law enforcement to curb the violence, according to Miller.

Blazak said anti-skinhead groups also began forming during the ‘90s and physically engaging with their opponents. The city would be dubbed “skinhead city” because of these clashes, according to Blazak, who’s been living in Portland since 1995.

As law enforcement cracked down on both groups and the number of public fights decreased, Portland saw a jump in new residents, many of whom were minorities and younger groups, as well as a more progressive environment, according to Blazak.

“It’s this strange intersection of the history of Portland,” he said, “There is this bubble where newer residents think it’s been this liberal oasis and there is the long history of white supremacy that’s bumping up against it.”

Recent increase in activity and violent counter protests

A mix of new factors, including an active social media scene that helped to get either side’s message to a bigger audience has reignited the public feud in Portland, according to Blazak.

“We’re seeing a modern version of skinhead city with Proud Boys verses ANTIFA,” he said.

Miller said far-right groups, especially the Proud Boys, have been mobilizing since the beginning of the Trump administration, spurred on by the former president’s rhetoric as well as other far-right growth throughout the world.

West Coast cities like Berkeley, Seattle and Portland saw the biggest far-right rallies outside of Charlottesville and they only grew in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May 2020, according to Miller.

Miller said that the far right is now using social media to their advantage to bolster their presence with a calculated scheme.

The cycle begins with them holding a rally or crashing a public event hosted by the far left, instigating the other side’s members into a public fight and sharing it online with a message about how the far-left is hurting the city, according to Miller.

“Their main goal was to create a conflict with anti-fascists, get it on film and then put it on social media as propaganda,” she said.

“I think within the left there has been a snowballing effect,” Miller added. “These groups like the Proud Boys create violence and that goes for a need for retaliation.”

Blazak said Portland’s situation was exacerbated by the number of far-right groups that had been operating in the Portland suburbs. Since those rallies have begun, Blazak said there have been reports of Proud Boys members from outside the state joining in.

“There is this false narrative that Portland is burning down by ANTIFA and the city is being run by communists. That brings the far-right wingers to Portland and that’s for photo ops,” he said.

Since the protests and clashes begin last year, Proud Boys members and figureheads have claimed the anti-fascist groups in Portland needed to be protested and fought.

Blazak said that despite what some reports might say, the majority of people who took part during last year’s George Floyd protests were not part of any violent far-left group.

Indeed, representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland said last August that there was no evidence that the protesters that were arrested during the demonstrations had links to ANTIFA or other violent anti-fascist groups.

City’s latest response questioned

Portland Mayor Tim Wheeler and the Portland Police have come under fire for their responses to the far-right’s growth and rallies, particularly the Aug. 22 incident.

The rally turned into a riot with people throwing items at each other, damaging vehicles and buildings and shooting paintball pellets, according to police. More officers were called in and had to use mace and smoke to disperse the crowds. No one was seriously hurt, according to the police.

Police said on Wednesday they have identified six people involved with the violence and are on the lookout for more suspects who were involved in the incident.

Two days before the incident Wheeler held a Zoom news conference where he was joined by the civil rights groups and other community organizers and urged those who attended the event to, “Choose love.”

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell, who was also part of the news conference, said that officers would be in attendance but not keep the warring crowds separated.

“People can and should keep themselves apart and choose to avoid violent physical confrontations,” Lovell said during the news conference.

Representatives for Wheeler’s office didn’t immediately respond to messages left by ABC News asking for comment.

The mayor has repeatedly condemned both the far-right and the far-left groups and the public fights that have been going on for over a year.

“Hate and hate groups have no place in our city. Violence has no place in our city. Bigotry has no place in our city. We will not tolerate acts of violence, destruction, prejudice or intimidation,” he said during the Aug. 20 news conference.

Miller said that the Portland Police have traditionally taken a laissez-faire approach to the far-right rallies, but this old tactic is feeding right into the group’s goals.

“Not only does that place communities in danger, but it also acts as a signal to the far right that their actions are essentially sanctioned by law enforcement,” she argued.

In a statement to ABC News, Portland Police Sgt. Kevin Allen defended the department’s actions that day, saying officers have to “respond in an impartial manner, irrespective of political perspective, while respecting constitutional rights for all participants.”

“Unfortunately, over the past three years or so we’ve seen these events where two or more opposing sides arrive specifically to confront each other, and some engage in violence with one another,” he said in a statement. “That adds additional complexity, as we often get criticized for responding too much or too little, or responding in a way that is seen as favoring one side or another.”

Blazak said the police could have done a better job at separating the groups but acknowledged that the Portland Police Department’s resources are limited. In June, the department’s crowd control unit resigned after one of its officers was indicted for assaulting a protester, who had no ties to any radical group, last year.

Solutions

Even with the limited city resources, Blazak and other experts say there are strategies that law enforcement and organizers can implement to curb the violence between the far-right and the far-left.

The Department of Justice and other police forces in the country have implemented a system where far-right protesters and their opponents are separated by “a football field length” during the planned event, Blazak said.

“It’s to keep the groups separate, so there isn’t direct contact. Therefore, those media images aren’t created. Everyone gets free speech, but they don’t have the right to street violence,” he said.

Miller also said that keeping the groups as far apart as possible is the best solution and added that city officials and law enforcement need to be on the lookout for violent members who are known to attend rallies.

Miller also said that there needs to be a stronger effort to stop counter-protesters and anti-fascist groups from playing into the far-right group’s hands.

She noted that in several cities groups have protested the Proud Boys and other far-right groups with planned peaceful demonstrations, often with singing, where they ignore any instigation.

‘They usually have a bigger crowd,” Miller said. “Not only does it drown out the far right, but it also strengthens community ties.”

Ultimately, the experts said the community, police and other stakeholders will have to address the long-standing problem of Oregon’s far-right and white supremacist organizations and their recruitments to their cause.

“A lot of this work has to be done at a community level. Prevention work has to be done at the community level with people who are at most risk of being radicalized,” Miller said.

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