Portland is bracing for potential clashes at a far-right rally this weekend, just a month after a similar gathering descended into what police in the Oregon city labelled a riot.
On Saturday, demonstrators plan to flood the northwestern US city for a “Freedom March” organised by Joey Gibson, a prominent far-right figure, supporter of President Donald Trump and Republican candidate for US Senate in neighbouring Washington state.
Gibson heads Patriot Prayer, a group that has been protesting in Oregon, Washington and California since early 2017. In the past, his followers have engaged in street brawls with anti-fascists and other counterdemonstrators.
In a video posted on his Facebook page on Thursday, Gibson advised his followers to wear motorcycle helmets to protect their faces during clashes. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’ll just … prepare for the worst,” he said.
While Gibson argues that his goal is to promote free speech, opponents say Patriot Prayer members and supporters take to the streets seeking confrontations.
The last rally, on June 30, descended into violent clashes, with Patriot Prayer and members of the far-right Proud Boys group battling anti-fascists, also known as Antifa, in downtown Portland.
The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a watchdog group that monitors hate groups, said that “the potential for violence may be greater” than past events.
The SPLC speculated that the upcoming rally could be “another Charlottesville”, referring to the August 12, 2017, far-right protest that ended with a participant killing a counterprotester when ramming his car into a crowd.
The Patriot Prayer rally is scheduled to begin around midday.
Saturday’s rally comes a month after Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys held a similar event that quickly turned violent, with fights gripping downtown Portland.
Protesters and counterdemonstrators attacked each other, some using sticks, clubs, flagpoles and other makeshift weapons.
As the June 30 rally turned violent, the police declared the event a riot and revoked its permit. Video footage of the clashes shows far-right participants punching and kicking several counterdemonstrators. In one such video, a member of the Proud Boys knocked out an individual with a powerful blow to the face.
Several people were arrested throughout the day, and some were hospitalised owing to injuries sustained during the violence.
On June 4, similar clashes broke out in Portland, with far-rightists and anti-fascists engaging in fist fights in various parts of the city.
Last year, Patriot Prayer demonstrations regularly prompted clashes. But the latest string of protests has seen a sharp escalation in violence, according to observers. Alexander Reid Ross, Portland-based author of Against the Fascist Creep, said the far-right demonstrators made “no effort to make things appear even mildly peaceful”.
“Instead, it was like they were there just to fight,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone.
Speaking to the local Oregon Public Broadcasting media outlet, Gibson said he will not personally carry a weapon because he is not licensed to do so in Oregon.
Nonetheless, he has encouraged his followers to show up armed. In a Facebook video posted on June 30, he said: “We’ve always had guns at the rally … Everyone should be carrying around guns at all times.”
Speaking to Alex Jones, the host of the conspiracy website InfoWars, Gibson reiterated his claim earlier this week: “We’ve always had guns at every single rally that we have; we just don’t pull them out.”
Jones went on to accuse anti-fascists of planning to bring firearms, as well.
The Proud Boys, a self-described “Western chauvinist” men’s fraternity, will join Patriot Prayer this weekend in Portland. Other far-rightists are expected to flock to the protest from across the country.
In 2017, the Proud Boys teamed up with anti-Muslim activists, including Pamela Geller and Milo Yiannopoulos, in demonstrations.
Dubbed a “hate group” by the SPLC, McInnes insists that his organisation is a patriotic “men’s club” that merely engages in self-defence.
After the June 30 rally, McInnes celebrated the violence in his online programme on CRTV. Referring to a taped incident of a Proud Boy socking a counterdemonstrator in the street. He said, “Check out the turning point in the war against Antifa.”
He went on to describe the punch as “beautiful”.
On its official Twitter account, the Proud Boys called on fellow “patriots” to join them in Portland on Saturday. “Get your a** to Portland this Saturday August 4,” the group wrote.
Gibson regularly denies any affiliation with hardline elements of the far right, instead choosing to describe his movement as patriotic. “At the end of the day, what Antifa doesn’t want is … us normal people coming together on different sides of the spectrum,” he said in a Facebook video posted on Thursday. He went on to dismiss accusations that his group has cosy ties to “white supremacists” and “right-wing extremists”.
Yet, in the past, white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis have participated in Patriot Prayer’s events.
In August 2017, Patriot Prayer rallies drew the participation of members of Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group that participated in the Charlottesville violence and a slew of clashes during protests in California last year.
Jeremy Christian, who will stand trial for murdering two men who tried to stop him from harassing a Muslim passenger in May 2017, was also present during one of Patriot Prayer’s rallies last year.
Bruce Cunningham Jr, a member of the white nationalist outfit Cascade Legion, attended a Patriot Prayer rally earlier this year in Seattle, along with fellow Cascade Legion member Christopher Buck Robertson, according to the SPLC.
Right-wing militia groups, such as the Three Percenters, have also flocked to Gibson’s rallies in the past.
Rose City Antifa, Eugene Antifa, Pacific Northwest Anti-Fascist Workers Collective and other anti-fascist groups are holding counterrallies on Saturday.
“History has shown that militant resistance is a necessary and important tool in the fight against fascism,” states the Facebook event page for one of the protests, which is called “Resist Patriot Prayer: Violent Alt-Right Bigots Off Our Streets”.
“We make no apologies for the use of force in keeping our communities safe from the scourge of right-wing violence.”
Popular Mobilization (or Pop Mob) is holding a counter-event called “Stop the Hate” and called on people to join them.
“Joey Gibson’s Patriot Prayer has been importing racists and xenophobes from around the country to harass, intimidate and brutalise the people of Portland,” the Facebook page says.
“Their events invite a toxic brew of violence and hatred to spill out into the streets, threatening vulnerable communities.”
The Portland Police Bureau issued a statement on Friday, saying, “There will be significant law enforcement presence in the area of the demonstration due to past threats and acts of violence.”
The statement also said that those coming to the demonstration should not bring any item that could be considered a weapon. The statement clarified, however, that those holding a valid Oregon concealed handgun license would be allowed to attend the event armed. It added that there will be “weapon screening locations” at the entrances of Tom McCall Waterfront Park, the area where the main rally is set to take place.
In the past, police have used tear gas and sound grenades to disperse protesters.