The Portland Police Bureau appears to have all but given up on policing the far-right factions brawling in the Oregon city’s streets, despite a recent escalation in violence that has seen those extremists throw explosives, brandish guns and in one case fire them at other protesters.
It’s common to see far-right extremist groups like the Proud Boys exchanging blows with counterprotesters in Portland. They’ve been doing that for years, often as PPB officers watched until a riot was officially declared and then police cleared the streets using tear gas and other munitions.
But over the weekend, police took an entirely hands-off approach to the fighting, even as the demonstrations grew more violent than ever. As officers stood by on Saturday, the Proud Boys and their far-right friends attacked and intimidated anti-fascist protesters using paintball guns, mace, fireworks, aluminum bats and various firearms, according to The Washington Post.
One of them — notorious Proud Boys organizer Alan Swinney — was seen pointing a gun at protesters, his finger on the trigger. Another Proud Boy, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, was present, per the Post, in apparent violation of his parole over an attack at a similar demonstration in 2017 (he wasn’t apprehended on Saturday, but a judge on Monday issued a warrant for his arrest).
Meanwhile, over a loudspeaker, police encouraged those present to “self-monitor for criminal activity.” In essence, the PPB had thrown up its hands.
In a statement to The Washington Post, the bureau said that officers were tired from responding to ongoing demonstrations against racism and police brutality, which have kept Portland in the national spotlight for weeks. Officers wouldn’t intervene in small skirmishes between “willing participants,” even if the clashes fit the city’s definition of a riot.
“Each skirmish appeared to involve willing participants and the events were not enduring in time, so officers were not deployed to intervene,” the bureau said of Saturday’s events. “PPB members have been the focus of over 80 days of violent actions directed at the police, which is a major consideration for determining if police resources are necessary to interject between two groups with individuals who appear to be willingly engaging in physical confrontations for short durations.”
Allowing local far-right groups to wreak havoc on the city isn’t a big departure for the PPB. As the Proud Boys cheered, officers launched tear gas and other munitions at anti-fascist counterprotesters during a rally in 2017, which left one antifa protester with a gas canister lodged in his head. Police gave the Proud Boys an escort out of the city following a rally in 2018 that saw the far-right demonstrators outnumbered by anti-fascists. A key officer had a friendly and ongoing relationship with the leader of Proud Boys affiliate group Patriot Prayer, judging from texts obtained by Willamette Week.
But relinquishing the act of policing to the brawlers themselves is both new and concerning, especially given the context: Local extremists have escalated their violent tactics in recent weeks, brazenly introducing guns and a lot more weaponry to the melee.
Local right-wing protester Skylor Jernigan, who attended a conservative “flag wave” demonstration in Portland earlier this month alongside Swinney, allegedly shot at Black Lives Matter protesters from inside a car. (Nobody was hit.) He was later arrested and charged with two felony counts of unlawful use of a weapon. During the same event, Swinney was seen spraying protesters with chemical irritants and shooting them with rounds from a paintball gun. He faced no immediate consequence for those displays or for pointing a pistol at protesters this past Saturday.
Long before this month’s events, the Proud Boys and other local Portland groups had been emboldened by governmental inaction during their rallies. Proud Boys leadership admitted at a rally last year that one of their stated goals was to continue such demonstrations in order to waste taxpayer dollars, overburden city resources and embarrass Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler. (For his part, Wheeler released a statement Monday saying he was “closely reviewing” the PPB’s “strategy to limit their intervention.”)
Now it appears that the Proud Boys enjoy not just a broader arsenal at their rallies, but a tacit promise from the city that they’ll face little to no police intervention.