If you want to get an idea of just how high tensions are running in Portland, Ore., where rival protest groups have clashed repeatedly in recent months, you could start by looking at the caches of weapons seized by police at a demonstration over the weekend in the city’s downtown.
There are axes and crowbars, dozens of sticks and makeshift clubs, canisters of mace, knives, hammers, batons and even a set of brass knuckles. Together, they offer an unsettling glimpse of the violence that has seeped into Portland’s protests as the city has drawn extremists on the left and right in increasing numbers, becoming something of a proxy for the country’s ideological battles.
On Sunday, thousands of protesters and counterprotesters converged in the heart of Portland’s business and government district for a pro-Trump free-speech rally. Once again, throngs of black-clad antifascist or “antifa” activists faced off with right-wing demonstrators in Americana garb.
Trump supporters cheer during a rally at Terry Schrunk Plaza in Portland, Oregon, June 4, 2017.
Police formed barriers between the groups – and indeed many people in the crowd demonstrated peacefully – but the day was disrupted by flareups. After some antifa counterprotesters began throwing objects at police, officers in riot gear responded with a volley of flash grenades and pepper balls, according to local media.
Fourteen people were arrested over the course of several hours, two of them on charges of carrying a concealed weapon.
Throughout the afternoon, police posted Twitter pictures of items they confiscated from the demonstrators. It’s not clear who they came from, but police and local media said some weapons were taken as officers cleared Chapman Square, a park where antifa activists had gathered.
There were lots of bricks, which police said protesters were lobbing at officers from a plaza near the main rally.
Police also seized dozens of sticks, poles and batons. Objects like these were banned from recent demonstrations in Berkeley, Calif., after groups used them to beat each other during political standoffs there earlier this year.
As the demonstrations dwindled and people started to leave the area, police displayed a number of more menacing weapons, including numerous hunting knives, folding knives, crowbars and clubs. One picture also shows a hatchet, multiple hammers, a chain and what appear to be several cans of mace.
Another picture shows brass knuckles, a foot-long knife, a helmet and a sack of small smoke bombs. Someone even brought a homemade slingshot, according to police.
While some protesters were ostensibly prepared to fight, others came ready to defend themselves. Numerous demonstrators on both sides carried shields and wore helmets and gas masks. Some, including self-appointed security for the free-speech rally, even donned bulletproof vests.
Emotions are raw in Portland, where late last month 35-year-old Jeremy Christian allegedly stabbed two men to death and seriously injured a third amid what witnesses called an anti-Muslim tirade on a commuter train. Christian had given Nazi salutes and screamed racial slurs at a right-wing rally in the city in April, as The Washington Post has reported.
Since President Donald Trump’s election in November, Portland has struggled to quell mounting violence at political rallies from fringe groups, some of which have been so disruptive that the city has had to cancel public gatherings in recent weeks.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called on the federal government to revoke the permit for Sunday’s rally, saying that the city needed more time to mourn and accusing organizers of promoting hate speech. “The timing and subject of these events can only exacerbate an already difficult situation,” Wheeler wrote in a Facebook post last week.
The rally was allowed to move forward, and organizers called on followers to remain peaceful.
“Find it in yourself to make this day positive, with no hate and no violence,” Joey Gibson of the conservative group Patriot Prayer told the crowd on Sunday. “We have to understand Portland is legitimately shaken up right now.”
“Prove them wrong,” he said. “Hatred is a disease. We need to start spreading love to get rid of this hate.”
Antifascist demonstrators confront police during a protest on June 4, 2017 in Portland, Oregon. A protest dubbed "Trump Free Speech" by organizers was met by a large contingent of counter-demonstrators who viewed the protest as a promotion racism.
But some, it seems, came with their own agenda.
“I am definitely willing to use violence to make sure my family is safe and my patriot family is safe,” Pat “Based Spartan” Washington, a well known far-right activist and Internet personality, told the Guardian Sunday. “But do I want it? Not necessarily. Until antifa learns not to use violence . . . God, I hate them. I look over there and I just want to smash.”
Ahead of Sunday’s demonstrations, Portland police said they had seen threatening messages on social media. They were mobilizing accordingly, a spokesman told the New York Times.
“It’s almost like a street fight,” Sgt. Pete Simpson said, “like a rumble, the way it’s being advertised.”