PORTLAND, Oregon—Hundreds of armed supporters of President Donald Trump, led by a fringe Republican congressional candidate, marched on Saturday, leaving blood from scattered street fights in their wake.
Ostensibly a campaign event for long-shot U.S. Senate hopeful Joey Gibson, members of his group Patriot Prayer urged the president to lock up his political opponents, including Hillary Clinton, and promised violent retribution for anyone who threatened their right to “free speech” or armed self-defense. Groups of Trump supporters swarmed through the streets, singling out people of color to fight, some of whom appeared to belong to small vigilante squads of local anti-fascists, as well as others who appeared to be mere passersby. Police announced four arrests, but gave no estimate of injuries.
Extremist group watchdogs such as the Southern Poverty Law Center warned ahead of the event that it could turn into “another Charlottesville.” It did not, but only in the sense that no one was killed. Such warnings, prompted by Gibson’s provocations, put all eyes on the rally.
“Only when they antagonize do we react. Stand your ground,” Gibson told supporters in a promotional Facebook video. “This is a brotherhood, a sisterhood. To bleed together, that's what's important. To bleed together.”
His supporters flocked from around the West Coast and the country, a contingent of Proud Boys, "Three Percenter" militia members, Trump-supporting bikers, fundamentalist Christians, and college Republicans. Gibson had insinuated that his supporters would bring guns into the city and many apparently did, although to comply with local ordinances, the weapons stayed stowed in backpacks.
Trump-supporting rallygoers will tell you the city suffers from a plague of communists, anarchists, and godless unbelievers, namely because of the large antifa presence.
“If someone is gonna attack, I’m going to defend my neighbor. I’m here to take a bullet for my neighbor,” Graeme Whitmeyer, who drove two hours to Portland for the Republican rally, told The Daily Beast.
Whitmeyer said he had heard on Alex Jones’ Infowars show that antifa was planning an armed assault on the right-wing Patriot Prayer group leading the rally.
“This is like a civil war of ideas,” he said. “This is the cold civil war, right here. This is the epitome of it, in America, right here. I had to jump in and be a part of it—be on the right side of history.”
Whitmeyer had come prepared with a handwritten speech about forgiveness. Asked what, if anything, he thought could reconcile his Trump-supporting compatriots with opponents across the street, he replied:
“Only the exposing of the crimes of the evil leftists that are brainwashing those crowds over there. The media has twisted them to think that we’re Nazis. So once the people that are controlling the media are taken down in the courts of law, and arrested or whatever has to be done to them, you know—all of these globalists—you won’t see them [show up].
“It’s not a reconciliation between sides. They need to wake up,” he went on. “What they are, are zombies that were created. Minions that were created. They’re not thinking for themselves.”
Nearby, a mostly white group of InfoWars fans surrounded a black Bernie Sanders supporter who had walked alone into the rally and found himself in an on-camera debate. A black Trump supporter told the man he was like the Samuel L. Jackson character in Django Unchained, an Uncle Tom-type plantation servant. Most of the right-wing rallygoers insisted they weren’t racist.
Amid frenzied chants of "USA! USA!" and "Trump! Trump! Trump!," more obscure and ominous slogans could be heard, such as the dubious "Black Lives MAGA" and the conspiracy-theory callout: "No commies, no pedophiles, no child sacrifice!"
Gibson, a former real estate salesman who lost his job after rising to prominence as a pro-Trump street brawler, has a new life as a YouTube and Facebook provocateur. His bodyguard wore a face mask and a t-shirt reading "Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong" on the front and on the back, "Make Communists Afraid of Rotary Aircraft Again," with a cartoon of antifa stickmen falling from a helicopter, referencing one notorious tactic of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime.
Gibson raised fears about the event and gained much attention when he changed the location of the August 4 rally to a city park where his supporters could legally carry concealed firearms, provided they carried a permit from the state of Oregon.
“We’re not here to beat people up, we’re not here to fight, but you have a God-given right to protect yourself,” Gibson said at the rally to cheers. “We’re gonna put so much pressure on this city, the mayor, the police, the culture—the hateful culture—we’re going to make history.”
One of Gibson's first major rallies in the spring of 2017, a "free speech" march in which his supporters carried Trump flags down a street full of immigrant shops and homes, was attended by accused killer Jeremy Christian, a white supremacist. Last year, Christian pulled a knife and stabbed to death two people and injured a third on a light-rail train in Portland. The three victims had stepped in to protect two young black women Christian had been threatening and harassing.
Gibson rejects any association with white supremacists, but they keep showing up to his events, sometimes at his invitation. Lately, he's formed an alliance with the Proud Boys, a "Western chauvinist" gang founded by Vice Magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes, who is lately best known for his racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic tirades.
Gibson also has some more mainstream supporters. Earlier this year, Gibson met with former Donald Trump adviser Roger Stone in Oregon. (Stone, like Gibson, is a frequent guest on Alex Jones' Infowars show.) And the chairman of the local GOP has cheered Gibson on during his rise to notoriety, inviting Gibson's associates in the Three Percenter militia to serve as security at party events. Stone this year asked Proud Boys to provide security during his visit to an Oregon conference of Republicans, where he also met with Gibson.
A few blocks from the event, on the barricaded banks of the Willamette River, two brawls between small groups of antifa and Trump supporters broke out on opposite corners of the single downtown intersection within a few minutes.
Greater violence was averted more by luck than careful police work or civic planning. Riot police were concentrated near the vanguard of the counter-protest, located across a major thoroughfare from the pro-Trump rally. As police launched flash-bang grenades and charged at demonstrators, journalists and legal observers on the antifascist side, Gibson’s supporters roamed where they wished with minimal attention from authorities.
At one point, a police bicycle patrol arrived somewhat late to a brewing confrontation between a dozen members of Gibson’s crew and a smaller antifa group outside a parking garage. As they did elsewhere at the event, police directed their attention toward Gibson’s antagonists.
"I'm not sure why you're looking at us," a masked antifascist woman scolded the police. She criticized their large-unit motorized tactics, as well. "You're moving 30 guys, we're moving five, and we've protected several groups. So we've actually been extremely effective today in protecting the people of Portland, where we live, and where they don't live,” she said.
"I just go where my sergeant says," an officer replied.
Another antifa member, an unmasked, middle-aged black man, took a different approach in appealing to the police rank and file.
"People understand the whole fucking future of our country is at stake right now. We're in a battle for America's soul. We're not playing dress-up," he said. “I spent 2,923 days in the U.S. Navy protecting our country from motherfuckers like that. If that requires me to shed my own blood, today, I will.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat, has repeatedly said that the city's priority is to protect free speech rights for all, but his police bureau's tactics on Saturday afforded an undisturbed free speech zone for supporters of the president while directing force toward critics of the current administration.
Away from the park, a group of four or five Trump supporters that included a young white man with a bushy red beard wearing a distinctive green costume and toting a shield bearing the logo of Kekistan, the fictional country of 4Chan racists, attacked another group of pedestrians that included two young black men. After an exchange of blows and wrestling match on the concrete and asphalt, blocking traffic, antifa and passersby drove them off.
Moments later a separate contingent of Trump supporters, these wearing green camouflage and militia patches, turned a corner across the street and joined another scuffle with a separate antifa squad.
"Go! Go! Get out of here! Get the fuck out!" a young man with an antifa tattoo shouted at the men in camo as they slowly retreated. An older white man who had been filming the fracas stood around reviewing the footage on his tablet.
"Which side are you on?" a masked young white woman leading the ad-hoc antifa squad asked the old man.
"I'm not on any side," he replied.
"Oooh, that's the wrong answer," she snapped.
The older man quickly reconsidered. "I'm against that Nazi bullshit," he said, gesturing dismissively toward the retreating camo crew. The masked woman seemed satisfied. A middle-aged woman, an antifa medic, next arrived in a hurry.
"We got a report several men were beating a single person. Where is the injured person?" the medic asked.
"They took off. We called them Nazis, then they swung on us," the masked woman said. "We fuckin' encouraged the Nazis to move away."
The tattooed antifa man came running back to the group from down the street, where he had been scouting. "This is fash! This is fash! Forty fascists headed this way!" he shouted.
A middle-aged, mixed-race couple had fallen in with the younger members of the antifa group. The lady of the couple had seen enough for one day. "Get over here—this way!" she scolded her partner. But she quickly relented and tagged along to take pictures.
As quickly as they had appeared, they were gone, and a fresh set of faces passed through intersection near the Downtown Waterfront Marriott hotel. A noisy Jeep full of white teenagers passed by, southbound. "I love Trump!" a white teen shouted to anyone and everyone. "Fuck you, racists! Go home, racists!" shouted a thirty-something white man wearing a sparkling helmet, as he rolled northbound on a one-wheel motorized skateboard.
Alt-right organizers declared victory as they left the city on decommissioned school buses. And they appeared to be right for two reasons. First, they apparently succeeded in their stated intention of carrying concealed firearms into a city against which Patriot Prayer has repeatedly declared "war." Second, they acted with violent impunity in city streets while the police were otherwise occupied playing cat-and-mouse with counter-protesters.
As the street emptied out following another hit-and-run brawl, a used bandage, sopping wet, leaked water and blood onto the sidewalk.
Corey Pein is a Portland-based journalist and author of Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey Into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley.