One hundred days into sometimes chaotic protests over police brutality, with federal agents throwing protesters into unmarked vans and recent political clashes between demonstrators leading to two deaths, even some of Portland, Oregon’s more extreme actors think things are getting out of hand.
Now they could get even worse.
Portland, a longtime hotbed for political clashes, veered into its latest protest escalation last Saturday, when a pro-Trump coalition, organized by an Idaho man, caravanned into the city. Many came armed with paintball guns or mace, and deployed them against demonstrators on the left, who have been waging their own protests over racism and police brutality for months. One protester on the left, Michael Reinoehl, allegedly shot and killed Aaron “Jay” Danielson, an associate of the far-right group Patriot Prayer. Reinoehl later suggested that the shooting was in self-defense, though video suggests Danielson was pulling out a can of mace, not a gun.
Then, on Thursday, U.S. Marshals shot Reinoehl dead in Washington state, claiming he pulled a gun on them.
The pair of deaths have launched a round of soul-searching among local activists on both sides of the ideological spectrum. But some on the far right aren’t ready to step back from the brink of more heated face-offs.
While Danielson was a Portland local, many of the people he caravanned with last Saturday were not. The event’s organizer, who goes by Alex Kyzik on Facebook, lives in Idaho, but his real surname is Kuzmenko, The Guardian reported. In Facebook posts ahead of that event, which saw truckloads of Trump supporters drive into the city, Kuzmenko wrote that he encouraged attendees to carry concealed weapons.
After Danielson’s killing, however, Kuzmenko appears to have backed away from events in the immediate future.
Several upcoming pro-Trump rallies seem to have modeled themselves after Kuzmenko’s “Trump 2020 Cruise Rally.” But the organizers of one hotly promoted event, the “Labor Day Trump Cruise Rally,” have taken to Facebook to distance themselves from Kuzmenko, accusing him of smearing their protest as unsafe while plowing ahead with their own plans.
“Some of you may have seen a Facebook post by Alex Kyzik,” the new rally organizers wrote, adding that “Alex thinks our event is ‘NOT SAFE’ due to our quick planning of the event.”
“Although we've reached out to Alex Kyzik multiple times on Facebook, he has yet to acknowledge our messages and instead continues to make public Facebook posts trying to discourage patriots from participating in our event,” the post continued. “If Alex would like to reach out to us, we would be more than happy to fully explain our situation and provide all details to calm his fears about our event.”
One Labor Day Trump Cruise Rally organizer accused Kuzmenko of being motivated by rally jealousy.
“Maybe he is jelouse [sic] that we have come up with a way to make a safe cruise rally i don’t know i have reached out to his 4x now with no answer so good luck,” an organizer told The Daily Beast via Facebook message. Kuzmenko did not return a message left at his voicemail, in which he identified himself by name. He later texted The Daily Beast from the same number saying it was the wrong number.
In comments on the event—which says it will stick to the Portland suburbs—people noted its potential for violence, some with apparent approval and others, like a woman who worried that she didn’t own a paintball gun, with concern.
Sgt. Kevin Allen of the Portland Police Bureau told The Daily Beast the city has “dedicated officers assigned to respond to protest activity if needed for life safety concerns and protection of free speech. We do not discuss our specific staffing or tactics ahead of time.”
“We ask that anyone involved in demonstrations do so peacefully and, if there are lawful commands given by officers, that demonstrators follow those directions,” Allen said.
The event is just one of several right-wing events planned in the aftermath of Danielson’s and Reinoehl’s deaths, including another truck rally on Sept. 19 and a rally by the violent far-right group the Proud Boys later in the month, as The Guardian reported.
Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, a progressive nonprofit, said the far right has been making pilgrimages to fights in Portland since the 1980s. But he highlighted Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign as the start in a new cycle of violence that has seen far-right groups (including those from outside Portland) repeatedly come to clash with the city’s leftist activists.
“He used a lot of militaristic language signaling to white nationalist campaigns that he was sympathetic to both their tactics and worldview,” Ward told The Daily Beast.
In a Friday evening press conference, Trump used the U.S. Marshals’ shooting of Reinoehl to hammer Portland’s mayor and Oregon’s governor.
“U.S. Marshals, incredible people. So I want to thank them for their strength, their bravery. I really do wish the mayor of Portland and the governor of Oregon would get going, and stop the crime in that city,” Trump said. “It'd be so easy to do. While we're focused on creating good paying jobs, the radical left is focused on unleashing really violent mobs.”
One Portland group, Rose City Antifa, has become a go-to name for conservatives looking to go on the offensive against anti-fascists in Portland. A spokesperson of that group told The Daily Beast that they worried comments like Trump’s portraying activists as dangerous “mobs” were only raising the city’s temperature to a dangerous degree.
“I think we're all concerned about that. Somebody was sharing Barr's statement about [Reinoehl’s] killing, which is a wild ride and seems like it gives law enforcement—and any dude who decides he's law enforcement—free reign to clear out people they don't like and call it justice,” the spokesperson said, citing a statement from Attorney General William Barr earlier in the day.
“In the past few weeks there's been an increase in people feeling like they need to be prepared for gun violence,” the RCA spokesperson said, citing people looking to buy bulletproof vests.
That escalation is the extension of the years-long feud between the left and right in Portland, which Ward described as somewhat cyclical.
“Armed paramilitaries are jacked up by conspiracy theories, by this idea of burning it down, and coming with high-powered weapons,” he said. “You now have the expectation of an unavoidable cycle of violence.”
The killing of Danielson, an associate of a far-right group, allegedly at the hands of Reinoehl, a self-described “antifa,” might change the calculus of future protests—inviting even more extreme provocateurs, while spooking rank-and-file activists. A smaller than average crowd took to the streets on Thursday night, some of them watching their phones as information about Reinoehl’s death became available in real time.
Mac Smiff, a local activist and musician who has attended many of the protests, said news of Reinoehl’s death “changes from the theoretical to the real for a lot of us.”
“I think it makes it obvious that you know mortality is really an issue in all this for us and not just at the hands of the Proud Boys or whatnot, but also at the hands of the police and the federal agents,” Smiff said. “It seems it's hitting in a different way now."
—With reporting by Deborah Bloom in Portland