Portland, United States – More than 1,000 people descended on the northwestern US city of Portland on Sunday for an “alt-right” rally and a large counter-protest, just nine days after two men were stabbed to death on a train.
Organised by alt-right activist Joey Gibson, leader of the far-right Patriot Prayer political group, Sunday’s event was described as free speech rally for supporters of US President Donald Trump.
Among those in attendance were groups like Identity Evropa, regarded by the Anti-Defamation League watchdog group as a white supremacist organisation.
Gibson, who organised a similar protest on April 29, and attendees of Sunday’s rally were outnumbered by counter-protesters, among them labour groups, religious organisations, socialists, anarchists and other anti-fascists.
More than 70 groups showed up to voice their opposition to the alt-right rally.
The alt-right is a loosely knit populist coalition that includes far-rightists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis, among others.
Sunday’s protest came as tensions were on the rise in the city.
On May 26, Jeremy Christian allegedly killed two men and injured a third on a train when they tried to stop his racial harassment of two teenage girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab.
A third man who intervened was badly hurt and hospitalised.
Christian, 35, had been filmed at Gibson’s April 29 rally loudly using anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic slurs and performing Nazi-like salutes.
The focal point of Sunday’s protests was in Terry Schrunk Plaza in Portland’s business district.
Local police and federal government security forces were deployed in large numbers and prevented major clashes between alt-right demonstrators and counter-protesters.
There were only minor scuffles between the two sides.
Clashes between police and demonstrators also took place throughout the day.
Anti-fascists and other demonstrators took to the streets to march after police drove them out of Chapman Square.
Officers fired stun grenades and rubber bullets and later said they had confiscated weapons from a group of protesters.
Around 100 people were detained, with police saying that at least 14 were placed under arrest. Journalists were among those detained.
14 total arrests today. Additional information will be released shortly.
— Portland Police (@PortlandPolice) June 5, 2017
Officers from the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Services assisted local law enforcement.
Scott McConnell, the department’s acting deputy press secretary, said in a statement: “The Federal Protective Service stands with its partners within the Portland community to ensure peaceful exercise of individual freedoms of demonstration and speech while preserving and protecting the safety of all individuals on federal property.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Jake Von Ott, a 19-year-old Portland resident and a local Identity Evropa coordinator, rejected accusations that his organisation is made up of white supremacists, arguing instead that they are “white identitarians”.
In the run-up to Sunday’s rally, Antifa groups had published photos of Von Ott shaking hands with accused killer Christian at the April 29 protest.
The images were posted on social media outlets, while the walls of the business district were plastered were posters of Von Ott’s face accompanied by the suggestion that he could be the next Jeremy Christian.
Fraught with tension
Among those protesting against Gibson’s alt-right rally was Maggie O’Neal, 68, who joined others outside the local city hall across from Terry Schrunk Plaza.
“I’m heavily concerned about events in the last few weeks and years in terms of how minorities have been treated,” she told Al Jazeera. “There’s an ebb and flow, and the hate is starting to become flagrant.”
With Portland fraught from tension and still reeling from the May 26 murders, Mayor Ted Wheeler publicly appealed to organisers to cancel Sunday’s rally and an upcoming anti-Muslim march on June 10.
Writing on Twitter, Wheeler said “the timing and subject of these events can only exacerbate an already difficult situation”.
“Joey Gibson’s group did ask the eventual killer to leave his [April 29 march],” said Michael Cox, the mayor’s communications director.
“But what is it about rallies like that that attract people like Jeremy Christian?”
According to Cox, there is a need to “reckon with the fact that these racist attitudes lead to racist words, and these racist words lead to violence”.
The local event for the National March Against Sharia is also being organised by Gibson, but it has been relocated to Seattle, Washington, situated about 278km north of Portland.
Organisers gave conflicting reasons for the decision to move the June 10 march.
“We just felt that the mayor put everyone in danger by labelling us as something we are not. We cancelled for safety reasons,” said Carrie French, Act for America coordinator, whose group is coordinating numerous marches on June 10.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre describes Act for America as one of the country’s largest grassroots anti-Muslim group.
Gibson criticised Cox for linking the May 26 killings with his protests, arguing that the mayor has “lost all credibility”.
Against this backdrop of growing protests, questions remain unanswered about the murder of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23; Ricky Best, 53; and the stabbing of Micah Fletcher, 21, who intervened as Christian directed hateful remarks at a teenage girl in a headscarf.
“You look at this in the same lens as a terror attack. Looking backward it’s easy to see the red flags,” said Sergeant Pete Simpson, Portland Police Bureau spokesperson.
He said differentiating between protected speech and hate speech has become increasingly difficult online.
While many suspect that police were aware of Christian’s often violent comments on social media before the May 26 killings, journalist Corey Pein reported that officers had searched his bag at the now infamous April 29 rally.
“He’d posted some stuff on Facebook about open carry [of firearms] and shooting the police that was making the rounds before the rally,” Pein said, but police found only comic books upon searching his bag.
The killings have prompted a public discussion about the parameters of the alt-right and its potential capacity for inciting people to violence.
Randy Blazak, an instructor at the University of Oregon whose research focuses on white hate groups, says “there is a political space between most mainstream Republican Party [members] and the neo-Nazis who want to march around”.
“It’s a relatively broad space, including people dissatisfied with the [Republicans], including white nationalists – which is basically a PC way of saying white supremacist.”
With the alt-right appealing to a broader audience by framing their political struggles around issues of free speech and religion, Blazak worries that yet more people could be incited to racist violence.
While Gibson and other groups maintain that they do not subscribe to white supremacist political beliefs, Blazak argues that “the sad reality is that neo-Nazis and such have [latched] on to the more palatable elements of the alt-right movement”.
Follow Mike Bivins on Twitter: @itsmikebivins