OregonMakings of a Street Brawl

Over the past year, Sergio Olmos, reporter for 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.
Sergio Olmos3 months ago38713 min

Observers at 2018 rally watched as right, left squared off

August 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 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.

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 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 men. “One of them had all this armor and walked by, staring at me,” she says, laughing. She reenacts 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 like “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 National Review. The subgroup will soon become all that some people will see on that side of the street.

“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 itself is based in Vancouver, Washington. Anti-fascist group Rose City Antifa is its foil.

Matt Hayes, a 54-year-old Tigard resident, is standing at the edge of the park, smoking a cigarette beneath a tree. “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 ball game with a Makers Mark neat, and coming back for the action.

“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, Washington. 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’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
An undisclosed bar, Vancouver, Washington

Photo by KIT MACAVOY, Pamplin Media Group
Joey Gibson, leader of the Patriot Prayer movement, has stayed away from recent Portland protests after being hit with several lawsuits.
Photo by KIT MACAVOY, Pamplin Media Group

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 realizing how that sounds, adding “Each side picks its own charity.”

Shultz is at Gibson’s elbow, drinking a beer. Drury is sitting furthest, an iced tea in front of him — he doesn’t drink. 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 ethics prohibit me from that kind of thing, but I mention that the mayor of Portland hinted at something similar.

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

I pull up a Willamette Week article on my phone and he reads Mayor Ted 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 tequila. He’s reveling in it. Shultz and Drury are looking on, Gibson is staring straight ahead, the relevance and alcohol intoxicating him.

 

During the past year, Underscore reporter Sergio Olmos worked with editors at the Portland Tribune to produce this first story in a multi-part series. This story and subsequent coverage will be published in partnership with The Pamplin Media Group and the Vancouver Columbian. Reporting for this series was supported by funding from Meyer Memorial Trust.

Sergio Olmos

A probing, long-form journalist, Sergio joined Underscore in 2019. Él habla español.

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