Portland prepares for city's largest far-right rally of the Trump era

Police are fearful of an outbreak of violence at the ‘End Domestic Terrorism’ rally, which is targeted at Portland’s antifascist groups

A rally in Portland, Oregon in August of 2018.
A rally in Portland, Oregon, in August of 2018. Photograph: John Rudoff/AP

Portland is preparing for a large far-right rally on Saturday that may be the largest in a series of demonstrations that have descended on the city in the Trump era.

Police in the Oregon city are fearful of an outbreak of violence at the “End Domestic Terrorism” rally, which is targeted at Portland’s antifascist groups, who in recent years have clashed with rightwing activists in running street battles.

The protest has been promoted primarily by Floridian Joe Biggs, a member of the rightwing Proud Boys organization. Biggs is a combat veteran and a former employee of the conspiracy broadcaster Alex Jones’s Infowars network. He claims that up to 1,000 people from around the country will attend Saturday’s unpermitted event on the city’s waterfront.

In promoting the rally on social media, Biggs has brandished a Trump-themed baseball bat, appeared in videos wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Training to Throw Communists Out of Helicopters” – a reference to the Chilean Pinochet regime’s methods for executing dissidents – and has taunted antifascists, saying “You’re not gonna feel safe when you go out in public” and “I’m gonna stomp your ass into the ground, Antifa”.

In more recent days, Biggs has urged supporters to tone down their rhetoric after notifying them on Facebook that he had received a visit from the FBI.

The Proud Boys are a “western chauvinist” fraternity, founded by the activist Gavin McInnes, who have been involved in previous episodes of street violence in the city. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as a hate group. The group, which is banned from most mainstream social media platforms, has been encouraging its members to make the trip to Portland for the event on its Telegram channel, an encrypted messaging service.

Quick guide

What is the 'alt-right'?

Who coined the term 'alt-right'?

The white supremacist Richard Spencer devised the term in 2010. He has described the movement as "identity politics for white Americans and for Europeans around the world". 

What does it stand for?

The movement supports extreme rightwing ideologies, including white nationalism – used interchangeably with white supremacism – and antisemitism. It positions itself broadly against egalitarianism, democracy, universalism and multiculturalism.

Some "alt-right" supporters have argued that their hardline, extremist positions are not truly meant, but are a way to disrupt conventional and accepted thinking. Memes, irony and ambiguity are sometimes used in an attempt to wrongfoot critics.

How does the 'alt-right' relate to the Trump administration?

The Trump administration includes figures who are associated with the "alt-right", including the former Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon, who worked as chief strategist in Trump's  White House in 2017. Many of Trump's policy positions have won favour with the movement.

Other rightwing groups have also said they are attending, or have been mentioned by Biggs and others, including “patriot movement” groups like the Three Percenters and the Oathkeepers, who often openly carry firearms at public events, and American Guard, who the Anti-Defamation League describe as “hardcore white supremacists”.

The rally has also been heavily promoted in conservative media outlets along with its underlying message – the claim that anti-fascist groups, known as “antifa”, are domestic terrorists.

Rightwing groups have framed the event as a response to an incident during the last rightwing rally in the city, on 29 June, in which the conservative writer Andy Ngo had milkshakes thrown at him and was punched by several masked protesters. Ngo was briefly hospitalized.

The background to the latest potential confrontation is a long string of violent rallies since 2017 in which rightwing organizers, often living outside the city, have brought in activists and supporters to square off against leftwing counter-protesters.

Several anti-fascist groups have made calls for people to attend a counter-protest to the rally, including the protest group PopMob, which is promising a poop emoji costume parade and a brass band. Elsewhere, Rose City Antifa , one of the longest-standing anti-fascist groups in the country, made a call on its website for “the community to defend itself”.

The city, meanwhile, has attempted to rally community groups behind a message of no tolerance for violence. Speakers at an event organized to promote this message last week included the Portland police chief, Danielle Outlaw.

Outlaw and Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, have each told people intending violence to stay away. “Don’t come. We don’t want you here,” Outlaw said last week.

The message has been underscored by the consequences meted out in the last week over previous, related events.

On Thursday, Joey Gibson, leader of the Patriot Prayer group, became the fifth person charged over an episode of political violence earlier in the year. Gibson was caught on several video streams allegedly leading a May Day attack on Cider Riot, a bar popular with the city’s left. This incident is the subject of a million-dollar lawsuit by the bar’s owners against Gibson and other defendants.

The FBI and the Oregon State Police have said they will assist local city police with enforcement on Saturday, and Wheeler has suggested he may ask the state governor to call out the National Guard.