The governor of Oregon has declared a state of emergency ahead of far-right demonstrations in Portland, where groups including the Proud Boys are expected to hold a rally following months of protests against police brutality and federal intervention.
Governor Kate Brown warned that "significant crowds of people are expected to join – some people will be armed, with others ready to harass or intimidate Oregonians," she said during a press briefing on Friday.
The city estimated that as many as 10,000 people could attend, prompting the Portland Parks & Recreation Bureau to deny groups a permit for the protest under Covid-19 restrictions.
“These types of demonstrations in the past have often ended in fistfights, and sometimes escalated to bloodshed,” she said.
Donald Trump and his Department of Justice have targeted Portland as an “anarchist jurisdiction” as federal agents and heavily armed law enforcement have sought to crush several months of antiracist protests against police brutality.
The self-described “western chauvinists” Proud Boys group has planned a rally six miles from the city’s downtown to denounce “domestic terrorism” in the wake of ongoing protests, while a counter-demonstration space has been established two miles away.
Governor Brown’s state of emergency order warned the group’s presence has provoked “an imminent risk of civil disturbance … that threatens injury or possible loss of life.”
She unveiled a law enforcement effort that creates a joint incident command structure with the state police, Portland Police Bureau and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, giving the agencies authority to use “proportional force” – including tear gas – if tensions rise.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said that “the alt-right and white supremacist groups organising to come to Portland on Saturday present the greatest threat we’ve faced so far.”
“These groups embody and empower racism, intolerance and hate,” he said in a statement on Friday. “Those are not Portland values, and they are not welcome here. Hate has no home in Portland. They have actively threatened violence against elected officials and others in our community.”
The Proud Boys, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a hate group, was established by VICE Media co-founder Gavin McInnes in 2016.
Though the group has claimed it represents an “anti-white guilt agenda” against “political correctness" as well as the “alt-right” label, the group’s founder and members have embraced white nationalism and espoused fascist views, including anti-Muslim and misogynistic rhetoric, often turning to violence.
The Proud Boys are among a “fascistic, right-wing political bloc” galvanised by the president and encouraged by his supporters, the SPLC’s senior research analyst Cassie Miller said on Friday.
“They work symbiotically with right-wing media and a power structure – helmed by Trump – that is eager to clamp down on protesters and enact political revenge on progressive constituencies like Portland,” said Ms Miller, arguing that the group and similarly motivated far-right groups are among political cudgels for the administration’s street-level election campaign.
FBI director Christopher Wray warned in February that “racially motivated violent extremism” in the US, particularly from white nationalists, is as significant a threat as Isis and other foreign terror groups.
The agency had initially cast the Proud Boys as an “extremist” group but later clarified that its focus instead is “on individuals who commit violence and criminal activity that constitutes a federal crime or poses a threat to national security.”
“The FBI does not and will not police ideology,” the agency said in a 2018 statement.
Saturday’s rally prompted clothier Fred Perry, whose black shirts with a yellow laurel have been adopted as a Proud Boys uniform, to clarify that the group has “absolutely nothing to do with us, and we are working with our lawyers to pursue any unlawful use of our brand.”
Fred Perry stopped selling the design in the US in 2019, “and we will not sell it there or in Canada again until we’re satisfied that its association with the Proud Boys has ended,” the company said in a statement.
On Twitter, Proud Boys organiser Enrique Terrio said the group will be “peaceful unless provoked" during the event on Saturday.
“I encourage people to protest us,” he said. “What we won't condone or tolerate is violence towards attendees.”
Governor Brown stressed that demonstrators have “the right to peacefully assemble, and everyone in Oregon has a right to express themselves freely – even those who the vast majority of Oregonians would deeply disagree with.”
“However, the First Amendment does not give anyone license to hurt or kill someone because of opposing political views,” she said. “When free expression is fueled by hate, and coupled with an intention to incite violence, then I need to do everything I can as governor to ensure the public safety of Oregonians."