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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Spectators drawn to Portland street brawls

Observers at 2018 rally watched from sidelines as right, left squared off

By Sergio Olmos, Underscore
Published: August 15, 2019, 6:00am
3 Photos
Joey Gibson, leader of Patriot Prayer.
Joey Gibson, leader of Patriot Prayer. Kit MacAvoy/Portland Tribune Photo Gallery

Aug. 4, 2018 — Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland

The summer of protest is coming to an end.

Three friends are standing at a distance, the way one does with paintings in a museum, making observations. “They’re both shouting at each other,” says Aiden Langsing.

They’re here instead of at brunch — at Tom McCall Waterfront Park, like Harcourt Road in Hong Kong or Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, a site of protest and bloodletting — wanting to see it.

“We came to see a fight, but nothing has happened,” Langsing says, standing on the perimeter of a rally. They contemplate getting Thai food. “I wish we had more exciting stuff to say,” he tells me.

Band of others: Patriot Prayer and Joey Gibson

Joey Gibson, leader of Patriot Prayer.Spectators drawn to Portland street brawls
Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Portland The summer of protest is coming to an end.
Joey Gibson, leads supporters in prayer on the steps of the Capitol Building in Salem, Ore. following the conclusion of a flag waving rally in October 2017. Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer, is extremely active on social media, where he has attracted a large following.Idealistic ‘freedom fighter’ Joey Gibson offers inner circle a kind of kinship
Carmen Estel comes around the shuffleboard table and leans in. "You see this?" She uses her glass to point to her boyfriend. "This is hanging…
Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson, center, leads a protest in Portland in December 2017, a week after an undocumented Mexican resident of San Francisco was acquitted of the murder of Kate Seinle. It drew activists from both political extremes, including Kerry Hudson, left, who can be found at many Patriot Prayer rallies and Luis Enrique Marquez, right, a prominent anti-fascist protester.Patriot Prayer – the new face of ‘nativist bigotry’
Steven Stroud is sitting across from me, opening a bag of Reese’s Pieces, in the visiting room of a prison in Oregon that has been…

Portland rallies are at their most dangerous when both sides get bored. By late afternoon, several people will end up in the hospital, dozens will have to wash pepper spray out of their eyes and police officers will discover four Patriot Prayer members in a parking garage nearby, three unloaded rifles between them, overlooking part of the protest route.

They’re “a quick extraction team,” they tell police, on hand in case someone on their side gets hurt. The police note that they have all the right permits, and the rifles are in cases, and so they let them be.

Thousands of people protest in the streets below, unaware of who’s watching above.

Watching from the sidelines

“I can feel him pulling me towards him,” Chelsea Thorkildson says, looking at Langsing, her boyfriend. “He’s more worried about me here.” She’s wearing a sweater over a sundress, holding a reusable water bottle.

“There’s a lot of sexually deprived men, especially on this side,” she says, arching her eyebrows toward a cluster of Patriot Prayer supporters. “One of them had all this armor and walked by, staring at me,” she says, laughing. She re-enacts the encounter for the group, widening her eyes and falling over herself. They all laugh.

These rallies straddle the line between the absurd and serious.

Hundreds of Patriot Prayer attendees, mostly men, are mingling around the waterfront. Some are wearing the Proud Boy Fred Perry polos. Others are dressed in protest regalia: homemade shields, gas masks and American flags sometimes used as batons. GoPros and iPhones stream to thousands who attend online, vicariously. A significant number have shown up to downtown Portland looking like special forces soldiers in the desert, with helmets and bulletproof vests in the color tones of the last war.

Spectator sport

At the edge of the crowd, looking on, is a 17-year-old girl wearing a Make America Great Again hat.

“It’s exciting to watch,” says Skylar Mcloud. “They’re mad; they’re passionate.”

She’s short, standing on her tiptoes at times to see what antifa is doing. They’re across the street, chanting in unison, things such as “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA.” The counter-protesters number in the thousands; most of them came to this protest dressed no differently than if they were running an errand at Whole Foods.

There’s a subgroup within the larger group, inkblots in a larger picture, dressed in black and covering their faces, making it difficult to distinguish one from another. They’re a Rorschach, and the group moving in phalanx toward the front now, wearing helmets and carrying oil drums as shields, moving into the cover of an upcoming edition of National Review. The subgroup will soon become all that some people will see on that side of the street.

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“I came here alone,” Mcloud says. Her parents don’t like it, she tells me. She goes to high school “outside of Portland, but not far,” she says.

Many of the attendees are from outside Portland. Patriot Prayer is based in Vancouver. Anti-fascist group Rose City Antifa is its foil.

Matt Hayes, a 54-year-old Tigard, Ore., resident, is standing beneath a tree at the edge of the park, smoking a cigarette. “I was at home and my girlfriend told me to get out of the house,” Hayes says, whiskey on his breath. “So I came down to see if there was a melee.”

He’s wearing a plaid shirt and a baseball cap. He’s taking laps around the rally and popping into Kells Irish Pub on Second Avenue, watching some of the ballgame with a Makers Mark neat, and coming back for the action.

Editor’s note:

Portland police are warning of another potentially violent weekend of protest, as Proud Boys, a national alt-right group, plans to gather supporters downtown on Saturday. Two years ago, dozens of Proud Boys from around the country joined with members of Patriot Prayer, a Vancouver-based group, for a “freedom march” that devolved into a brawl with counter-protesters, led by Rose City Antifa, an anti-fascist group. 

Over the past year, Sergio Olmos, a reporter for online news site Underscore, has been following Patriot Prayer, meeting with its organizers, supporters and detractors, in an effort to better understand a dynamic that has rocked Portland for the last few years. Over the coming months, Portland Tribune and The Columbian will be carrying his stories, which also can be found at underscore.news.

“I’ve only got four hours of parking,” Hayes says, contemplating the drive back to Tigard if nothing happens. It’s a hot summer day. He’s not the only person who’s antsy.

“I’m going to take a shot,” he says. He puts out his cigarette and walks back to Kells.

They’ve all come to see it.

Steve Drury watches it on the news and social media. He lives in Vancouver. He’s a 55-year-old man out of work. He doesn’t have many friends. He describes himself as antisocial. “I hate everybody,” he likes to say.

He said he’s never met anyone from Patriot Prayer, but he’s intrigued by what he sees.

“We’ve got people brawling in the streets,” Drury says, “and I really kind of want to know what’s going on.”

In a couple months, Drury will come out from behind the keyboard and show up to a Patriot Prayer event, a pro-gun rally at Clark College, and will have a hard time walking away from it.

“My Facebook friends went from 500 to 5,000,” Drury says.

March 14, 2019 — A bar in Vancouver

It’s nearing midnight and Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson is sipping Patron on ice and exploring the idea of the cage match. Drury — now one of his two informal lieutenants, along with Russell Shultz — is sitting one table over, listening to him speak.

“Patriot Prayer vs. antifa,” Gibson says. “We could sell tickets.”

Something changes in Gibson’s face, as if he is realizing how that sounds. “Each side picks its own charity,” he adds.

Shultz is at Gibson’s elbow, drinking a beer. Drury is sitting farthest away, an iced tea in front of him — he doesn’t drink alcohol. Gibson is contemplating the cage match, the spectacle of its conflict, seeing another way to sell access to it.

“You set it up,” Gibson says to me.

I explain that journalism ethics prohibit me from that kind of thing, but I mention that the mayor of Portland hinted at something similar.

“(Ted) Wheeler didn’t say that,” Gibson says.

I pull up a Willamette Week article on my phone and he reads Wheeler’s exact words at a press conference, three days earlier:

“If you want to come here and fight somebody, and you’ve got somebody in mind, and they agree, can you do us all a favor? Rent a boxing ring. They’re available. The streets of our community are not a boxing ring.”

Gibson returns my phone and leans back, taking a sip of his tequila. He’s reveling in it. Shultz and Drury are looking on, Gibson is staring straight ahead, the relevance and alcohol intoxicating him.