Organizers said they expected as many as 10,000 people to turn out. Yet the actual crowd was far smaller, and the event in a grassy park near the Columbia River started breaking up after just 90 minutes — significantly less than the hours of rallying that were initially planned.
In that time, demonstrators preached their hatred for antifa and other left-wing organizations, along with their fealty to President Trump. Many were dressed in camouflage and some were armed with bear mace and guns.
“How do you become a Proud Boy? You gotta feel that calling,” one speaker told the crowd, which intermittently tuned in to the speeches radiating off the back of a flatbed truck. “We kick a lot of people to the curb. . . . Gotta love to drink, gotta love to fight.”
That is likely to come as a relief to Portland’s leaders, who have grown weary after months of political showdowns that have come to symbolize the nation’s descent into extreme partisanship and ever-widening ideological chasms. America’s divisions have become increasingly visible and raw as rival factions have taken to the streets to shout each other down — or worse.
The city was especially on edge because left-wing groups, including antifa, staged a counter-rally at a different city park, three miles away. That demonstration — which the Sheriff’s Office estimated at 1,000 people, about the same size as the Proud Boys rally — also proceeded peacefully.
Images of the two rallies and witness accounts appeared to show that the left’s gathering, set in a neighborhood park, was larger. That rally featured speakers condemning white supremacists and conservative politicians, while many in the crowd donned black clothing and body armor.
“I am just very anti-racist, and I lived in Oregon a long time and there is a lot of it here,” said Brian Calza, 42, who drove in for the rally from Eugene, Ore.
While the Proud Boys strongly identify with Trump, the political affiliations of the anti-fascist protesters were more diffuse across the liberal and left-leaning spectrum. Trump’s name was ubiquitous at the Proud Boys rally, but support for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was not part of the anti-fascist rally.
“There are lots of people here who believe that we need to abolish the police, and that’s not something that Biden is saying,” said a woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she works for the state government.
The lackluster attendance among Proud Boys was celebrated by critics, with one crowing that the group had failed at “establishing themselves as the feared foot soldiers of an ascendant far right.”
“I am proud of Portland today,” said Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, a community organizing group. “We got back on track as a city and demonstrated to the nation how to come together and reject hate and violence.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) had declared a state of emergency Friday and said the state police and county sheriff’s office would oversee the response to the protests Saturday. They would be dispatching additional law enforcement to the area, she said, to patrol highways, looking for people coming to town to “cause trouble.”
Portland has experienced four months of Black Lives Matter and anti-police protests, a chain broken only when massive wildfires made gathering outside hazardous in the waning weeks of summer.
Although the protests have been generally been limited to relatively small areas of the city’s downtown, Proud Boys and other right-wing groups have echoed Trump’s rhetoric in portraying them as sowing chaos across the city.
The group has made its own contributions to the unrest, with Proud Boys counterprotesters riding through the streets in pickup trucks flying Trump banners. Some have fired paintball guns or otherwise tried to provoke conflict, with left-wing activists replying in kind.
In late August, one such confrontation turned deadly when Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer, was shot and killed on a city street following a vehicle parade in support of Trump.
Five days later, members of a federal task force fatally shot a suspect in Danielson’s death — Michael Forest Reinoehl, 48, an ardent supporter of the far-left antifa who had regularly attended nightly protests and spoke of a “revolution.”
Speakers at the Proud Boys rally on Saturday venerated Danielson, along with Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who prosecutors allege killed two people during demonstrations in Kenosha, Wis., last month.
“We do this for Jay. We do this for Kyle,” said Janira Brannigan, the chair of the Polk County, Ore., Republican Party.
She condemned Oregon’s governor as a “dictator” and urged the crowd to run for office or to get government jobs so as to “infiltrate every agency under the dictator’s control.”
The Proud Boys are one of several predominantly White right-wing groups that have surfaced publicly since Trump’s election. Vice News creator Gavin McInnes started the group in 2016, though he has since distanced himself from the organization and its increasingly violent reputation.
Members describe themselves as a “Western chauvinist” fraternal group that believes in ending welfare, closing the borders and strict adherence to traditional gender roles. They are ardently pro-police and see themselves as a group prepared to do battle with leftists.
“Stand up to anyone who tries to f— with us” a man said through the microphone, before the crowd shouted out the Pledge of Allegiance.
Saturday’s attendees were explicit in their support for Trump and their ties to the Republican Party.
Tented tables in the parking lot hawked Trump merchandise, and rally attendees carried American flags and thin blue line flags. The vast majority were White men, with a few White women sprinkled in.
Richard LeRoy, 63, said he showed up at the rally to show his support for the president and because he believes the Proud Boys will be a decisive force in supporting Trump should the country “slide into anarchy” in January.
It was his first Proud Boys event. But LeRoy, a retired factory worker, said he decided he needed to seek out the group because he believes it will fight to keep Trump in power should the election become disputed. LeRoy, who was wearing a Trump T-shirt and carrying a Trump flag, said he is increasingly worried that Democrats will “steal the election with voter fraud or vote-by-mail.”
“They are standing up against antifa and Black Lives Matter groups, who I believe are Marxist,” LeRoy said.
Amid a succession of speakers earning tepid applause, there were periodic bursts of energy from the crowd when alleged antifa supporters were identified. In each case, a group of Proud Boys surrounded the supposed interlopers and forced them out, hurling invective along the way. Through it all, police in riot gear looked on from the park’s edge — but they did not directly engage.
At several points, speakers urged the crowd to show restraint — in line with the mantra of group leaders that they are not the ones inciting violence.
For many attendees, it was the violence of left-wing protesters that they said had motivated them to turn up.
Rod Davis and his wife, Diane, said they came to Saturday’s event from Milwaukee, a suburb of Portland, because they feel the Proud Boys are the only ones standing up to the people creating mayhem in Portland.
Marcia Davis said she was fed up with the authorities who weren’t doing enough about violent protests that had rocked downtown.
“Let’s be real about what is going on. My city is being destroyed,” Diane Davis said. “I feel like the mayor handed antifa the keys to the city.”
Rod Davis said he expects the trouble to continue at least until the election.
“I don’t think these people are going to go away,” he said, pointing to the Proud Boys. “Antifa is not going away.”
Saturday’s dueling demonstrations in the Pacific Northwest came as protesters in Louisville prepared for a fourth consecutive night on the streets.
The wave of demonstrations came after Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said police officers were justified in firing at 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, who was shot dead in her apartment while standing next to her boyfriend after police breached the door. Taylor’s boyfriend had fired at the officers during the March 13 incident, which occurred while police were carrying out a no-knock search warrant.
After Cameron’s Wednesday announcement, two police officers were shot amid chaotic scenes after dark, with authorities reporting vandalism and arson. On Friday night, police fired flash-bangs at protesters during a march led by Taylor’s family hours before curfew took effect.
Louisville police said at a news conference Saturday that officers were trying to get the attention of people who apparently did not hear their orders to disperse.
But community leaders said the maneuver demonstrated a lack of good faith on the part of police.
“We pray for the best and prepare for the worst,” said Lawrence Robertson, a local minister, who greeted activists as they arrived at Jefferson Square Park on Saturday night. “Because that’s what they give us: their worst.”
Witte reported from Washington. Derek Hawkins in Louisville and Hannah Knowles in Washington contributed to this report.