A peaceful public prayer meeting scheduled in the US city of Portland, Oregon on Saturday afternoon ended with violence against a conservative prayer group. Commentators have called it a "low-level civil war".
The National Sentinel pointed to the growing divisions in American society: “If this isn’t evidence of a nation bitterly divided, then nothing is.”
A rally in the name of “freedom and courage” organised by Joey Gibson, US Senate candidate for Washington and leader of the Vancouver-based Patriot Prayer ended in skirmishes with Antifa attackers.
The counter-demonstration from local anti-fascist groups maintaining they had to “defend the city from a crew of outside agitators”, quickly turned into a riot, an online news portal in Oregon, oregonlive, reported.
The legal, permitted Patriot Prayer demonstration had begun at 4pm at the Terry Schrunk Plaza. Counter-protesters arrived at least an hour ahead of time to scupper the march planned through the streets of Portland after the prayer rally.
Antifa, officially classified as a domestic terrorist organisation in New Jersey, attacked Christian conservative members of Patriot Prayer, which had obtained a permission from the city authorities for their gathering.
“Things turned ugly shortly after 6 pm”, when the Patriot Prayer rally moved to Third Avenue to begin their permitted march through the streets of Portland, The Oregonian reported. As Patriot Prayer members began their march, they were pelted with eggs, bottles of water and, in some cases, mace and pepper spray. Firecrackers were also directed at the conservative marchers, injuring several.
Ignoring their First Amendment rights – which guarantees expressions of religion and assembly – Antifa also targeted Christians with utility knives, clubs and chemical sprays, according to law enforcement.
Riot police on scene had to fire pepper spray-filled paintballs into the Antifa attackers to drive them back. Flash bangs and tear gas was being used, a Twitter user noted. But Portland police denied reports from Twitter users that they had used tear gas, suggesting that Antifa had used it instead.
Several Antifa activists were detained, but not before local police declared a riot, revoking Patriot Prayer’s permit, and effectively shutting down the march. Police had to deploy rubber bullets to disperse the leftist agitators. The Federal Protective Service, also present on Saturday, then shut down the Terry Schrunk Federal Plaza too.
“Portland Police set us up!” Patriot Prayer supporters shouted as they re-gathered at Terry Schrunk Plaza, after their permit got revoked. They said the police had not protected them during the attacks.
Antifa members routinely justify their violence directed at conservatives by maintaining that Christian groups such as Patriot Prayer are “Nazis” and “fascists”.
Anti-fascist groups, or Antifa, “are a subset of the anarchist movement and focus on issues involving racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, as well as other perceived injustices,” according to the NJDOH website.
“Violent confrontations between Antifa members and white supremacists—as well as militia groups—will likely continue because of ideological differences and Antifa’s ability to organize on social media. In the past year, Antifa groups have become active across the United States, employing a variety of methods to disrupt demonstrations.”
Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson says that his movement has nothing to do with race or white supremacy — because he himself identifies as a person of colour. In a Facebook Live video from last year in August, Gibson said Patriot Prayer was about protecting free speech.
Four people were taken to area hospitals by ambulance, one with a serious injury and the other three with less serious injuries. A police officer was also taken to a hospital, according to a statement by the Portland police department.
The police department detained four suspects and said it was aware of instances of “criminal behavior” that was recorded, including disorderly conduct, assault, theft, among other crimes.
“We seized numerous weapons early on, and interceded and separated people when necessary. However, once projectiles, such as fireworks, eggs, rocks, bottles and construction equipment were thrown and people were injured, we ordered people to disperse,” Deputy Police Chief Bob Day noted in a statement.
Eugene Antifa, a far-left extremist group, had posted on Facebook its intention to attack Patriot Prayer members before Saturday. “It is very important that antifascists keep up the pressure so that we can stop them once and for all,” it wrote.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Patriot Prayer “trolled the Northwest with a series of rallies designed to provoke violence”.
These were not the first skirmishes between Patriot Prayer and anti-fascist groups in Oregon’s largest city. A recent “goodbye party for a prominent conservative activist transformed into a clash between the left and the right,” according to the Portland Tribune.
Also, fights had broken out between Patriot Prayer and counter-protesters last year at a rally following a stabbing on public transportation because a hijab-wearer felt “harassed”, NPR reported.
Patriot Prayer cancelled their San Fransisco rally last year because liberal politicians and media were miscommunicating the nature of Gibson’s group to the public and inciting violence, they said.
“The rhetoric from Nancy Pelosi, Mayor [Ed] Lee, the media, all these people are saying that we’re white supremacists and its bringing tons of extremists,” leader Gibson said on Facebook.