Mike Bivins, Al Jazeera, June 5, 2017
More than 1,000 people descended on the northwestern US city of Portland on Sunday for an “alt-right” rally and a large counter-protest, just nine days after two men were stabbed to death on a train.
Organised by alt-right activist Joey Gibson, leader of the far-right Patriot Prayer political group, Sunday’s event was described as free speech rally for supporters of US President Donald Trump.
Among those in attendance were groups like Identity Evropa, regarded by the Anti-Defamation League watchdog group as a white supremacist organisation.
Gibson, who organised a similar protest on April 29, and attendees of Sunday’s rally were outnumbered by counter-protesters, among them labour groups, religious organisations, socialists, anarchists and other anti-fascists.
More than 70 groups showed up to voice their opposition to the alt-right rally.
The focal point of Sunday’s protests was in Terry Schrunk Plaza in Portland’s business district.
Local police and federal government security forces were deployed in large numbers and prevented major clashes between alt-right demonstrators and counter-protesters.
There were only minor scuffles between the two sides.
Clashes between police and demonstrators also took place throughout the day.
Anti-fascists and other demonstrators took to the streets to march after police drove them out of Chapman Square.
Officers fired stun grenades and rubber bullets and later said they had confiscated weapons from a group of protesters.
Around 100 people were detained, with police saying that at least 14 were placed under arrest. Journalists were among those detained.
Officers from the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Services assisted local law enforcement.
Scott McConnell, the department’s acting deputy press secretary, said in a statement: “The Federal Protective Service stands with its partners within the Portland community to ensure peaceful exercise of individual freedoms of demonstration and speech while preserving and protecting the safety of all individuals on federal property.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Jake Von Ott, a 19-year-old Portland resident and a local Identity Evropa coordinator, rejected accusations that his organisation is made up of white supremacists, arguing instead that they are “white identitarians”.
Among those protesting against Gibson’s alt-right rally was Maggie O’Neal, 68, who joined others outside the local city hall across from Terry Schrunk Plaza.
“I’m heavily concerned about events in the last few weeks and years in terms of how minorities have been treated,” she told Al Jazeera. “There’s an ebb and flow, and the hate is starting to become flagrant.”
With Portland fraught from tension and still reeling from the May 26 murders, Mayor Ted Wheeler publicly appealed to organisers to cancel Sunday’s rally and an upcoming anti-Muslim march on June 10.
Writing on Twitter, Wheeler said “the timing and subject of these events can only exacerbate an already difficult situation”.
The local event for the National March Against Sharia is also being organised by Gibson, but it has been relocated to Seattle, Washington, situated about 278km north of Portland.
Organisers gave conflicting reasons for the decision to move the June 10 march.
“We just felt that the mayor put everyone in danger by labelling us as something we are not. We cancelled for safety reasons,” said Carrie French, Act for America coordinator, whose group is coordinating numerous marches on June 10.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre describes Act for America as one of the country’s largest grassroots anti-Muslim group.
Gibson criticised Cox for linking the May 26 killings with his protests, arguing that the mayor has “lost all credibility”.
Randy Blazak, an instructor at the University of Oregon whose research focuses on white hate groups, says “there is a political space between most mainstream Republican Party [members] and the neo-Nazis who want to march around”.
“It’s a relatively broad space, including people dissatisfied with the [Republicans], including white nationalists – which is basically a PC way of saying white supremacist.”
With the alt-right appealing to a broader audience by framing their political struggles around issues of free speech and religion, Blazak worries that yet more people could be incited to racist violence.
While Gibson and other groups maintain that they do not subscribe to white supremacist political beliefs, Blazak argues that “the sad reality is that neo-Nazis and such have [latched] on to the more palatable elements of the alt-right movement”.