As far-right groups and antifascist protesters faced off in downtown Portland, a group of more than 150 Patriot Prayer supporters stood by in Vancouver on Saturday, awaiting bus transportation that would take them into the action.
U.S. Senate candidate Joey Gibson, leader of the right-wing group Patriot Prayer, organized what was branded as a “freedom rally” for his campaign against incumbent Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell at Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
Gibson, who lives in Vancouver, announced this week that shuttles with armed guards on them would be available to pick supporters up from the Grand Central Retail Center just east of downtown to take them into Portland.
But security and tow trucks milled around the Fred Meyer parking lot at 2500 Columbia House Blvd., ready to pick up anyone who left their car at the private shopping center. Portland-based commercial real estate firm NAI Elliot, which manages the property, announced Friday that anyone who parked except to shop or work would be towed at their own expense.
“Once we leave, our cars are toast,” a woman with the demonstrators told the crowd.
And nearby businesses seemed to have gotten the memo, too. Many had blocked off their parking lots, and C-Tran’s Park and Ride near the shopping center was also blockaded with a security guard standing watch.
After some confusion and rapidly changing plans, the group settled on a more public area: the parking lot at Marine Park. As joggers passed by and children swung at a nearby playground, the crowd suited up in body armor and took stock of their medical gear, bottles of milk for the neutralization of tear gas, and a framed photo of John Wayne.
The shuttles Gibson promised, as it turned out, were a series of three small buses, including two former Educational Service District 112 Ford E350s that arrived shortly after 10 a.m. The buses have a 12-passenger capacity, according to descriptions of the model. Nonetheless, demonstrators crammed onto the vehicles, pressing against windows and standing on the bus steps. Gibson himself made a brief showing, as did Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, another well-known Patriot Prayer member.
But it took several hours for the buses to travel back and forth across the river, leaving a crowd waiting in a “hurry up and wait” holding pattern at the park.
Most there declined to offer their full names, telling The Columbian they mistrusted the media and feared the newspaper would misrepresent what was happening.
Several members of the crowd introduced themselves as having come from outside the region, or even outside the state. One man noted he’d driven up from Southern California — about a 16-hour trip, he said — and a man who introduced himself only as a Tacoma Proud Boy called himself a “street defender.”
The Proud Boys call themselves a “pro-Western fraternal organization” with libertarian views. The Southern Poverty Law Center has categorized it as a racist hate group, though members of the organization, clad in their signature black-and-yellow Fred Perry polo shirts, denied the affiliation with white nationalists.
A man who introduced himself as Merit Springfield identified himself as a member of the American Patriots Three Percenters. The name, according to a profile by Politico Magazine last year, is a reference to what the group believes was the percentage of the American population who fought the British during the Revolutionary War. That same article describes the organization as a “diffuse, bottom-up” militia group.
“We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Springfield, who was clad in body armor. “We’re just trying to exercise freedom and protect freedom.”
Springfield also said “our guys” were not armed.
“That’s not the narrative,” he said.
In a Facebook Live video this week, Gibson said demonstrators are always armed at rallies.
“I can’t think of one rally where we did not have guns with us,” Gibson said. “We always have guns.”
But Gibson told Oregon Public Broadcasting on Friday that he would not be bringing his guns. Portland bans loaded firearms in the city without a concealed carry permit and does not recognize concealed handgun licenses in other states. Gibson doesn’t have a concealed license in Oregon.
Vancouver Police made no arrests and issued no citations, a department spokesman said. No one had to be towed from the Fred Meyer lot, said Jordan Elliot, NAI Elliot vice president.