Sept. 26 Proud Boys come to Delta Park, Portland, OR.
Proud Boys come to Portland Sept 26, 2020, Photo by Cody Wyatt
The Proud Boys, a mostly white nationalist militia, also a self-described Western chauvinist fraternity, descended on North Portland with supporters on September 26. The event they organized was planned and promoted since at least a month earlier. The Proud Boys have a reputation for coming to Portland(and other cities, but Portland is their favorite) to fight Antifa, Black Lives Matter(BLM) supporters and protesters in general. The Proud Boys was started by one of the founders of Vice Media in 2016, supposedly as a joke, and few of them are actually from Portland. Most come from across the river in Washington and rural areas of Oregon, and some come from much farther, like their leaders from Florida. They have been described as a hate group by the SPLC and NPR.
Their event was billed as “end(ing) domestic terrorism” and was originally going to be at the Terry Schrunk Plaza, next to the Justice Center in downtown Portland. However, the event was changed to Delta Park near Vanport, which was the site of the predominantly Black neighborhood of Portland built during World War Two, which was washed away in a flood and never rebuilt. Whether the Proud Boys knew or considered that, who knows. Probably at least some of them knew. There was a giant display about Vanport and the flood in the entrance to the Walmart across the street, and some of the Proud Boys were camped out in their rv’s there.
Proud Boys come to Portland Sept 22, 2020, Photo by Black Zebra
There was much anticipation on all sides that the Proud Boys would have a huge battle, a direct clash, with the usual protesters of Portland, as they had done before, and the elected officials of Portland tried to ban their event. It had been national news the last time they came to Portland in August. The Proud Boys and their allies, such as other nationalist militia groups like Patriot Prayer, had an event at the Justice Center where they formed a shield wall and melee’d with the BLM supporters who showed up to counter demonstrate. The Proud Boys fired paint/pepperball guns at protesters’ faces & struck people with a variety of weapons while indiscriminately emptying cans of bear/police mace into the air in front of them(mostly drifting over their own side).
Despite being so heavily armed and ready for the fight, the Proud Boys got harassed back to their trucks in parking garages after they fatigued. Perhaps that is why the Proud Boys had moved their event to a park far from downtown, with only one entrance and exit, and limited parking. Despite not getting an event permit, they announced they were coming on Sept. 26 anyways.
So expectations were heavy. Police guarded the entrance and the riot squad posted up in the space between freeways. A traffic sign greeted passersby with the phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “Hate Has No Place Here” in orange lights. On the other side of the freeway, near the historical marker for Vanport, a Black-led BLM event hosted speakers who talked about the legacy effects of slavery and racism on the cultural assimilation of Blacks in America.
A group of livestreamers who regularly attend the protests left this event as a group for the Proud Boy event on the other side of Interstate 5. After passing the police at the front, there was a long narrow road to the Proud Boy event, with only one more police car in the parking lot.
As soon as the livestreamers arrived, a group of at least 20 men in army and police gear confronted them and tried to intimidate them into leaving. They were milling about in some nearby trees and marched into the roadway when they saw people without the prescribed outfits on. This self-appointed security force were well armed with pistols, rifles, bats, mace, PBRs, and so on, often with flags on their bats and rods so they doubled as little flag poles, giving their weapons some camo. A few had taser shields, which were clear plastic with metal strips on the outside that presumably deliver a shock on contact. It was strange how I just saw an article about riot police getting these shields and the Proud Boys already had them as well.
The gatekeeping group tried to pressure the livestreamers and journalists to leave, threatening violence, and also expressing a desire to argue about politics. One big dude with a ballistic vest, bat on one shoulder and his face covered singled-out a livestreamer, and asked if he was scared. “I ain’t scared of shit, why you tryin’ to instigate shit?” The livestreamer replied, and walked on.
The crowd of Proud Boy affiliates at the entrance rhythmically chanted “fuck Antifa!” in response; they seemed to assume the press were from antifa, or at least sympathetic. A press girl filming on a Gopro asked them why they assumed they were Antifa, and he said it was “above his pay grade” to give answers to press. Another Proud Boy who must’ve been higher ranking reprimanded some of them for communicating their thoughts and beliefs at all. Later, two members of the press were assaulted there by some of these guys, one of which had his head shoved into a tree and elbowed.
Anyways, I pushed past these guys and snuck into their main rally despite their security team’s efforts, although it seemed as if they had more security following me and communicating about me. The crowd was extremely well armed; it really looked like they were expecting a serious battle with their adversaries at some point. Men covered in armor with tricked-out assault rifles on their chests were standing strategically around the event. Not everyone had an assault rifle but they definitely had enough firepower overall to completely mow down the BLM/ counter-protesters if they wanted to.
The Proud Boys didn’t get their permit because they said they were expecting 20,000 attendants during a pandemic; it was probably more like 200 that actually showed up, maybe a little more. Still that’s only around one percent of their prediction; if they had been more realistic, they might’ve gotten their permit.
Proud Boys dispersing shields from a truck, Photo by Cody Wyatt
I got a good look at the crowd and a lot of the people, pretty much entirely white men, were wearing Proud Boy polos; black with yellow trim and a little yellow wreath symbol ($40 on their website). That symbol appeared on their hats and other gear; their merch was well represented and their online store must be doing pretty well off their supporters. There were very few minorities but a surprising amount of women considering I heard that membership is men only.
American Wolf, another nationalist militia group with small but farflung membership, was handing out white plastic shields made from some sort of barrel with their logo on them from the back of a truck. Also a lot of the guys with guns in the crowd were “Three Percenters”; a nationalist militia formed after Obama’s election in 2008 based on the debunked idea that only three percent of Americans fought against the British in the American Independence War.
The leader of the Proud Boys, Enrique Tarrio, who flew in from Miami and also serves as the Florida director of Latinos for Trump, gave a speech. He spoke passionately about how they were not just a drinking club and had already saved Portland from Antifa; “We, as a group, brought law and order to Portland.”
Next up, Joe Biggs, a Proud Boy leader also from Florida, spoke about how Antifa was burning buildings and cars and looting and attacking people randomly in the street, which is something the Proud Boys would never do, because they are peaceful. And because he had been in the military, it didn’t matter he lived in Florida, “I fought overseas...that means every city in this country is my fuckin’ city. And your city. And your city…” He said, pointing around at the crowd. “We have each other’s back, we fight for each other, we back each other up, we love each other...LETS GO,” he yelled. “Sorry, I got that dragon energy.”
Followed with another chorus of “fuck Antifa.” Biggs then talked about how much he hated Portland mayor Ted Wheeler, “the worst mayor in American history.” Ted’s also a “punk-bitch” who is scared of Antifa. “They hate’m. And we hate’m.”
Then an older gentleman with a white beard who looked like a biker expressed his hope of someday having a “parade through fuckin’ Portland” without getting attacked, and introduced the leader of the Portland chapter of Proud Boys, who they “lovingly call Haji”.
His actual name was Matteo, and he had a green keffiyeh headwrap and some sort of mini AK at his side. He gave a lackluster speech calling for Oregonians to come together, and “This opposition [Antifa/BLM?], their whole game is fear. But you guys coming out here and standing in the face of that fear, is raising a big middle finger to them, and they don’t know what to do.”
Biggs interjected much more enthusiastically; “You see us burning shit right now? You see us burning cars and assaulting people? No, because we’re good fuckin’ Americans!”
Matteo’s most noteworthy line: “...hold fast, because this November, Trump may win, he may not, we don’t know…”
Biggs interrupted again: “He’s gonna win by a landslide!..we got parades, car convoys, we’re freakin’ everywhere, and we’re gonna take this country back!”
Then the guys on stage talked about being a big loving community some more, followed by a few rounds of "Trump 2020!" Then the old biker guy explained that the Proud Boys like to say "uhuru" because it means freedom in Swahili.
And then the speeches were over and they put some inspiring music on and put out a call for more beer, so I dipped out. The livestreamers were gone and a lot of the crowd seemed to be dissipating. There were three concurrent counter protests to the Proud Boy event, the one at Vanport was the smallest. Thousands had showed up to events at Peninsula and Irving Parks nearby. Those crowds were already dispersing as well, but some of the highlights there was a giant baby Trump doing meet & greets and handing out stickers promoting his own downfall, and a llama named César.
I kept expecting some sort of battle or attack from the Proud Boys throughout the day, but they never showed up. For all their armaments & posturing, they had really just been hoping to get attacked themselves, in a place and scenario where they would be guaranteed to have all the advantages, probably because the group needed a police escort when leaving their other events in Portland. If the police intervened at all where they were positioned away from the Proud Boys, it would be to crack down on the regular protesters that despise the nationalist militias.
Photo by Cody Wyatt
Later that night the regular protesters reconvened at the Justice Center, downtown Portland. It was mostly just a street/park party that had a Black Lives Matter theme, including impassioned young speakers talking about their personal experiences while standing on a ledge of the Justice Center.
“We were not meant to live in this country! Because the system has been built against us,” a young woman said, amplified by a speaker in the dark. “You need to protect your Black women!...a Black woman who got murdered in her bed did not get justice...everyone should understand that what happened to Breonna Taylor is not OK!...We’re gonna tell the world that we are fighters. We care about our Black women.”
A girl read a letter she wrote to America. “Dear America...I... can’t... breathe, and feeling the last breath of air make its final exit, how the fuck is that not enough?”
Every so often, the police would make an announcement on their LRAD(military speaker) about keeping the road open for vehicular traffic, and then at some point the riot squad would run in and try to grab some protesters and take them away. The rest of the crowd scatters, usually only a block or half block away, & then taunt the police. This takes on a pattern, based on the strategy and habits of the authorities. When the protesters are threatened by the police and do not disperse, the police theoretically then want to arrest all of them. They wait for an opportune moment, and charge in trying to grab anyone they can, but usually they can only grab one to five people at a time, and multiple officers are busy for a while with each detainee. A wall of police blocks off the crowd from the detainments and usually absorbs most of the heckling. They will occasionally grab a few more protesters while they are at it, like a couple that crossed at the crosswalk when they had the right-of-way near the police line; one was filming on their phone and one had a homemade shield. After a surprise charge and some arrests, the crowd seethes at the officers, and the police are heckled like they are a bunch of really bad comedians. After standing around awhile, the police retreat out of sight somewhere, and the cycle resets.
The police also aren’t very fast with all that riot gear on, & they mainly rely on the element of surprise to get their hands on protesters. Most protesters get grabbed because their escape is blocked by the rest of the crowd in the way or sometimes protesters freeze like deer in the headlights when the police charge in. At least half of arrests are people that freeze and let the cops grab them, or people that trip. It's actually quite humanizing of the police, to see their human limitations. I'm used to seeing them as this unstoppable, irresistible force that dispenses justice as it sees fit and is constantly patrolling the citizenry for signs of wrongdoing and crimes. And occasionally killing people because the police are scared of the citizens, and react poorly sometimes, which makes the police scary themselves.
DHS Arresting Demonstrators, Photo by Cody Wyatt
The most surprising moment of the day came after a number of police charges and arrests, and continued announcements to keep the road clear or protesters risked “arrest and crowd control measures, including but not limited to tear gas and impact weapons.” A local rapper, No Shoes, who prefers to go shoeless, started freestyle rapping at the police, in the middle of an intersection near the Justice Center. The police continued their threatening announcements but a crowd gathered around No Shoes in the intersection.
“You guys are just pawns in this system,
If you would just study and would listen,
You would figure out that you’re just being used but you stand there confused
And you just get in a fuckin’ groove and attack,
You probably get high off of that.”
He called out the officer infamous for stabbing tires with his knife, and rhymed about his charges getting dropped from the last time he freestyled directly at a line of riot police. It seemed like the police would definitely want to charge the crowd again and grab No Shoes and others. He rapped at them to leave and amazingly they did, hopping on the back of their riot vans and drove out of sight, as No Shoes chased after them still freestyling. The police dropped one tear gas grenade as they left, but the crowd was extremely exuberant over the victory.
The night was still far from over, including more police charges and arrests and at one point a line of officers cleared the park of protesters, trampling some tents of the unhoused in the process. The girl with giant glasses from Vice News was there even, surrounded by a five-person team including two security guards that looked like special agents and did not fit in very well with the crowd.
Even though that night seemed like one of the bigger hauls of arrestees by the police, the failure of the Proud Boys to show up and the continued presence of the protesters in front of the Justice Center, despite the best efforts of the authorities, felt like a victory for the Black Lives Matter movement. A victory that most people will never know about, except the people that attended or followed through the media, nonetheless inspired to continue to agitate for justice in Portland, racial and otherwise.
At no point did I witness looting or burning; I’ve seen other stuff burnt at other protests- usually a mattress or the contents of a dumpster in an intersection, safely away from other flammable objects. It was overwhelmingly the police who committed acts of violence, grabbing and striking protesters as they saw fit. The protesters did not even fight back when this happened; they would either run away from officers or if forced down on the ground mostly complied with their arrest. When others who have not been to a Portland protest try to comment on the burning, looting, and violence, they generally do not know what they are talking about, especially the President, Fox News commentators and the Proud Boys, who have a clear interest in slandering the Black rights activists and anti-fascists that oppose them. Quite a substantial day overall, despite the Proud Boys failing to deliver on the “end domestic terrorism” threat they had promised, whatever that was supposed to mean. Maybe they were talking about themselves and it was just a promise that they would mellow out.