Violent protests in Oregon on eve of Trump's 200th day in office

Protesters burn an American flag at an anti-Trump protest in Portland, Ore. on Aug. 6, 2017. (KATU)

Waves of protesters marching against President Donald Trump and demonstrators rallying in support of him clashed on the streets of Portland Sunday in the latest case of a conflict over the results of the 2016 election devolving into violence.

A group called Patriot Prayer organized a “Freedom March” beginning near the city’s waterfront. A few blocks away, a “Rally for Freedom, Solidarity, and Justice” endorsed by dozens of local community organizations was held.

The events both began peacefully, but freedom marchers and masked anti-fascist protesters quickly converged. Organizers of the rally attempted to distance themselves from the violent “Antifa” demonstrators who battled the Patriot Prayer crowd.

"We are not a hate group, we are people who love, this one, and we are people who exercise their right to free speech, this is the way we do this here," Romeo Sosa, a member of VOZ Workers Rights Education Project told KATU.

One might expect a Freedom March and a Rally for Freedom, Solidarity, and Justice to have quite a bit of common ground, but these groups have very different ideas of what freedoms need to be protected.

“This isn't really about Trump anymore. You will rarely hear Patriot Prayer talk about Trump,” Patriot Prayer said in a statement Monday. “This is about freedom from cultural oppression. There is an attempt to silence people and to dehumanize people because they think differently from the local culture. Portland and Seattle is filled with so much hate and they are not tolerant. This is why we continue to go into these areas to expose the hatred and the evil.”

Organizers of the anti-Trump rally alleged that the Freedom March’s goal “is to instill fear and attack Portland’s Immigrant, Muslim, Jewish, Indigenous, Black and LGBTQ+ communities.”

“We are gathering in solidarity with communities who are under attack and calling on activists and concerned residents to join a peaceful mass mobilization on the Portland waterfront,” they said on the event’s Facebook page.

Three people were arrested during Sunday’s protests, as organizers and reporters say police took a decidedly hands-off approach to keeping the peace.

Similar chaos ensued between Patriot Prayer and antifa activists at two marches on June 4 and 30. One of those events came days after a man believed to have attended a Patriot Prayer rally allegedly killed two people who tried to stop his anti-Muslim tirade on a MAX train.

Jason Del Gandio, author of “Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists” and a professor at Temple University, is not surprised that tensions remain high and emotions remain raw 200 days after Trump took office.

“Nothing has really changed,” he said. “Trump's campaign rhetoric was incendiary and his presidency remains so. His base rallies around that rhetoric and it incites those on the Left. Most presidents change their tune once elected but that is not the case with Trump.”

According to Chris Hamilton, a professor of political science at Washburn University who studies extremist groups in the U.S., the possibility of Russian influence on the election and the president’s dismissal of that may also be fueling opposition.

“I think you have a great deal of anger about his policies…. It may be an even higher degree of rage about the corruption of the democratic process,” he said.

While Portland has become one of the major flashpoints for violent protest in the Trump era, other cities have faced similar troubles. Pro-Trump and anti-Trump groups have come to blows at dueling rallies in California and elsewhere.

Trump is not the only one to inspire this reaction from some factions on the left. Scheduled events featuring conservative and alt-right speakers at the University of California, Berkeley have led to combative protests and riots. Some events have been canceled rather than risk a violent response.

Speakers like Heather Mac Donald and Charles Murray have also sparked violent confrontations at Claremont McKenna College and Middlebury College in recent months before even taking the stage.

Conservatives present all of this as evidence of an increasingly intolerant and hostile left, but Del Gandio said there have not been quite enough cases to represent a national trend. Every social movement has elements that use violent tactics, but he sees no indication that larger numbers of anti-Trump protesters will turn to violence.

“They seem to be isolated and sporadic as opposed to a grand strategy,” he said.

If there has been an uptick in violence from the left, Hamilton pointed to statistics indicating that it still pales in comparison to the prevalence of hate crimes and political violence by right wing forces over the last decade.

“It’s always been a propaganda technique of the far right to accuse their enemies of what exactly they’re doing,” he said.

Most prominent liberal organizations take pains to disavow all violence and promote peaceful civil disobedience. Not all groups on the left do, though.

Rose City Antifa, a Portland group that “opposes fascist organizing through direct action, education, and by maintaining political and cultural Left spaces,” attempted to justify “physical militancy” as one tactic of resistance in a statement ahead of the June 4 Patriot Prayer rally.

“Anti-fascism is, by nature, a form of self-defense: the goal of fascism is to exterminate the vast majority of human beings,” the statement said. “However, we realize that not everyone is able to do that type of work for a wide variety of reasons. We cannot emphasize enough that a diverse range of other forms of resistance are also crucial.”

Redneck Revolt, an anti-capitalist, anti-white supremacist organization defended “militant resistance.”

“We are not pacifists,” the group said on its website. “We believe in using any and all means at our disposal that do not violate our basic humanity, to gain our freedom and true liberty. We believe in the right of every community to defend itself from those who would exploit or oppress them…. It is our duty and obligation to defend our families and communities by all means from those who would profit from our misery and destruction.”

Redneck Revolt has drawn the ire of some conservatives over a document in the “resources” section of its website titled “Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla,” a 1969 guidebook written by a Brazilian revolutionary that includes sections on executions and terrorism. The Daily Caller describes the group as “calling for armed revolts against civil society.”

It can be challenging for peaceful activists to avoid being saddled with responsibility for the actions of the extreme fringe.

“It’s like any kind of public relations campaign. You try to get out ahead of the event,” Del Gandio said. Peaceful groups can proactively put out statements before and after the protest framing their involvement in the best light, and they can push effective spokespeople out in the press to denounce the violence.

“One of the dangers in doing that is you can quickly divide your movement,” he added.

Experts warn the violence and disorder can be counterproductive for the progressive movement.

“While violent flanks have sometimes produced short-term tactical advantages, they often come with painful long-term costs for movements seeking change—and the communities they purport to represent,” wrote Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Denver who studies political violence, in the New Republic in February.

According to Del Gandio, the impact on messaging is not necessarily that clear-cut.

“It hinders one's call for peace and love, but it also demonstrates the ability to stand up and fight,” he said. “The public finds the latter shocking, but sometimes the public needs to be shocked in order to get woke.”

Even Rose City Antifa seems to recognize this tradeoff. Its statement on the June 4 march cautioned against destruction of property and other activity that could result in arrests.

“Putting ourselves at risk for mass arrests for very little tangible victory is not a sustainable model,” the statement said. “It places an enormous burden on support networks to provide finances and labor. And in a world where doxxing is a primary weapon of our opponents, arrests can be hugely taxing long term even if charges are beaten.”

One of the hallmarks of violent protest on display in Portland Sunday was anonymity. Antifa protesters often wear masks or bandanas over their faces and practice black bloc tactics that make it difficult to distinguish between them.

“It was a way to protect identity, because obviously you’re going to engage in illegal activity,” Del Gandio said.

Another group participating in anti-Trump activities, Anti-Racist Action, said members wear masks to protect themselves from retaliation by “bigots” if they are identified.

“Racists like to take pictures of anti-racists so that they’ll be able to identify them and attack them later on,” the group explained in its website. “To protect our safety, we sometimes choose to wear masks so that we don’t have to worry about racists attacking us, or people close to us, after or outside of an action.”

Members of the hacker collective Anonymous take similar steps, often wearing Guy Fawkes masks during protests. In addition to protecting identities, it serves to underscore the theme of leaderless resistance.

Some of the alt-right demonstrators who tussled with antifa groups have also been masked. In several other jurisdictions, like Alabama and West Virginia, wearing masks outside of holidays is prohibited by law, a remnant of efforts to crack down on the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1900s.

Although California has a statute outlawing the use of masks while committing a crime and Berkeley has a regulation barring people unaffiliated with the university from wearing them for intimidation, those rules are not always easy to enforce.

Conservative critics have accused leftist groups of attempting to silence opposition and restrict free speech to those who agree with them, but Anti-Racist Action rejects the proposition that its anti-fascism is itself somewhat fascist.

“The fact that people dislike what bigots have to say and want to make that known is not prohibited by the concept of free speech…. Anti-racists and antifascists have an obligation to deny a platform to bigots so that they can’t spread their message and recruit,” Anti-Racist Action said on its site.

Rose City Antifa takes a similar stance.

“Failing to stop fascists from speaking - that is, giving them the opportunity to organize to impose their agenda on the rest of us - makes you as bad as them. If you care about freedom, don’t stand idly by while people mobilize to take it away,” the group explained on its FAQ page.

With both sides blaming the other for instigating violence and no real effort to lower the temperature of debate over Trump’s presidency, experts say the conflict could build up until both sides face a backlash from the public.

“I fear that it will escalate,” Hamilton said.

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