Road to Jan. 6: How Portland police grew to love the Proud Boys and paved the way for Trump’s insurrection
Police fire projectiles at counter-protesters during a rally by the Patriot Prayer group in Portland, Oregon, U.S. August 4, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong

There were many points at which if the government had acted the Jan. 6 insurrection might never have happened.

Leading up to the failed coup every alarm was ringing. Capitol Police knew a violent invasion was in the works, the Department of Homeland Security knew, the FBI knew, warning of “war at the Capitol.” Hundreds of security officials at 80 Fusion Centers set up after 9/11 to combat domestic terrorism knew. They shared “an avalanche” of warnings about violence beginning at “1 p.m., U.S. Capitol, Jan 6.” Nonetheless, the police allowed the invasion to happen.

If armed right-wing mobs who invaded state capitols in Idaho, Michigan, and Oregon before Jan. 6 were held accountable, support for the coup might have been squelched. Instead, ProPublica reported, Trump supporters learned “it was possible — even easy — to breach the seats of government to intimidate lawmakers,” they would find sympathizers on the inside, and police would treat them with kid gloves compared to Black Lives Matter protesters.

Years earlier, if the government acted against the Bundy family, who allied with far-right militias and white supremacists to use violence for political ends, Jan. 6 might have been averted.

There is a fourth instance where the chain of events leading to Jan. 6 could have been interrupted if far-right gangs had been stopped. That case is Portland.

Since 2017, police have allowed the Pacific Northwest city to serve as a proving ground for fascists like the Proud Boys. They received legal impunity and even police support with few attempts to stop it. The far-right used political violence to network with white nationalists, militias, and other extremists, raise their image nationally, gain recruits, and build capacity.

Law enforcement support for the far-right was matched by antipathy toward anarchists and anti-fascists in the left-leaning city. This is nothing unusual. Police are inherently friendly to the right and hostile to the left given their origins in slave patrols, enforcing Jim Crow, immigrant round-ups, and squashing labor organizing. This was evident in 2016 when police indifference to or support for far-right violence spread around the country in tandem with Trump’s campaign.

Following the murder of George Floyd, cops responded to protests against police brutality with more brutality. Even in this storm of repression, Portland was an extreme outlier. Bellingcat, the investigative data site, tracked police violence during the last half of 2020 and recorded 142 cases in Portland. This was twice as many documented cases of police brutality as in New York City, which has 13 times the population of Portland.

A sampling of incidents shows how far Portland police will go to abet far-right violence. One important fact is that few right-wing extremists live in the city. The vast majority travel there, often on buses, solely to engage in mob violence against city residents. The police, more than 80 percent of whom live outside Portland and whose union president once called the city a “cesspool,” are in effect attacking the city they are paid to protect. Only in Portland did fascist gangs succeed in turning the city into their fight club; everywhere else they were shut down.

Portland Police Protect Proud Boys

In June 2018, scores of Proud Boys invaded Portland. They joined with Patriot Prayer, a hate group based in Vancouver, Washington, that acts as an umbrella for extremists. Reporters say police marched a hundred-strong Proud Boys gang into anti-fascists. It quickly devolved into a massive brawl with groups of fascists stomping lone counter protesters. One reporter wrote that police appeared “primarily to protect the Patriot Prayer followers.” Another reporter overheard a cop suggest “police should restrict the protesters to one area and ‘just let them fight,’” adding, “That is essentially what happened.” Researchers identified dozens of fascists, many by name, engaging in violence. But no one was ever charged with a crime related to that day, not even Proud Boys president Enrique Tarrio who visibly joined in the assaults.

In August 2018, close to 500 Proud Boys, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and neo-Nazis gathered in a waterfront park near downtown. Police announced checkpoints to enforce a weapons ban, but dismantled the security measures at the last minute. Fascists carried illegal hunting knives, bear mace, thick wooden poles, and ax handles with no police intervention. Nearly all wore outlawed “sap gloves” weighted, often with metal, for hand-to-hand combat.

Police acted as a force multiplier for fascists. They fired rubber bullets, chemical weapons, and “flash-bang” grenades at counter-protestors, nearly killing two people with direct hits. Police claimed objects were thrown at them, but countless videos showed an unprovoked attack on a peaceful crowd. Police then charged anti-fascists, freeing fascists to roam throughout downtown and attack people.

In October 2018, right-wing troll Andy Ngo claimed a “Leftist Mob” attacked a motorist when the video clearly showed the motorist first tried to run over Black Lives Matter protesters who were in a crosswalk with the walk sign. That prompted Patriot Prayer to invade the city for a Saturday night slugfest with clubs and bear mace amid streets packed with bargoers. Once more Proud Boys, including notorious brawler Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, were filmed stomping and punching opponents with little police intervention and no legal repercussions.

On May 1, 2019, twenty Patriot Prayer members led by Joey Gibson and accompanied by Ngo attacked antifascists at a cidery, fracturing the vertebrae of one person. (Ngo released their name, leading to threats of violence, according to friends). The bar owner claimed the police took an hour to respond. Police released a statement admitting they knew an attack was occurring but tried to justify why they didn’t respond until after the fight had ended.

In June 2019, Andy Ngo was assaulted and splattered with coconut milkshakes while filming a Patriot Prayer rally outnumbered by antifa. Police spread a false rumor on Twitter that the milkshake was made of concrete. Amplified by Pizzagate conspiracist Jack Prosobiec, the disinformation was treated as fact by right-wing media, further inciting extremists. Antifascists were deluged with death threats and City Hall was evacuated after a bomb threat. An inside source said the mayor’s office received “insane vitriol” and every office in City Hall received threats, including harassing calls that tied up emergency service dispatchers.

This was breathtaking. Portland police went from aiding far-right violence to weaponizing social media to terrorize locals and elected officials. It’s an example of psychological warfare that police regularly employ. For example, Seattle police recently admitted to faking radio chatter in June 2020 that armed Proud Boys were headed to an area occupied by Black Lives Matter protesters. The reports led protesters to arm themselves, and a city investigation concluded the police “improperly added fuel to the fire and could have had dire results.”

In August 2019 the far right planned another invasion of Portland after the milkshake incident. Proud Boys such as Joe Biggs flooded social media with graphic threats, displaying spiked bats, vowing “Death to Antifa,” advising followers to bring guns, and indicating specific activists they hoped to kill. A bloodbath in Portland was only averted because of a bloodbath in El Paso. After a Trump-inspired shooter killed 23 people at an El Paso Walmart, the FBI warned Biggs and the Proud Boys of violence but no charges were filed despite specific, felonious threats.

That day was relatively calm, but it was a step forward in far-right organizing. Enrique Tarrio hugged members of the hard-core white supremacist American Guard. Despite claims to the contrary, Proud Boys can’t get enough of neo-Nazis. In New York they fought alongside 211 Bootboys, far-right skinheads, in Charlottesville with Holocaust denier Augustus Invictus and others, neo-Nazi Keystone United in Philadelphia, extremist “Resist Marxism” in Providence, and white-nationalist Identity Evropa in Berkeley.

How It Began

There are dozens more examples of bias. Police documents reveal they see the far right as “much more mainstream” than the left. ”Friendly” text messages between police and Joey Gibson show they fed him real-time information about the movements of antifa during street skirmishes, and advised him twice on how Toese could avoid being arrested. Police once discovered a Patriot Prayer team with a “cache of … long guns” on a roof overlooking hundreds of anti-fascists. Police didn’t arrest the team and didn’t inform Mayor Ted Wheeler for two months they had uncovered what appeared to be an assassination squad despite the fact the mayor is head of the police.

The story of how Portland became a far-right magnet begins with Trump’s 2016 campaign and the founding of extremist organizations such as the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. They gave life to Trump’s unabashedly racist and violent rhetoric. Following his victory, right-wing extremists began invading Portland, Berkeley and Seattle to fight the left under the guise of free speech. Many anti-fascists argued allowing the far right to rally would lead to deadly violence. That is precisely what happened in Portland.

On May 26, 2017, Jeremy Christian murdered two men who came to the defense of a Muslim woman he was violently threatening on a train in Portland. Weeks earlier Christian had attended a small Patriot Prayer rally where he threw a Nazi salute and yelled “Die Muslims.” Before the rally, Christian vowed on Facebook to shoot police, and they reportedly knew about it without taking action. The day before Christian killed the two men, he physically assaulted a Black woman on the same train system while yelling about free speech. The victim called the police who declined to arrest Christian at the scene despite multiple witnesses.

Sticking a finger into the city’s raw wound, Patriot Prayer held a tense rally in Portland on June 4, barely a week after the murders. Police separated a small far-right crowd from some 1,500 counter protesters. Both local and DHS police were mobilized to guard federal property in the area. They gave the far-right wide reign to attack leftists and participate in an arrest. After police escorted Patriot Prayer from the area they turned their weapons on anti-fascists.

According to the ACLU, “police deployed flashbang grenades, chemical irritants, and less-lethal bullets at the antifascist gathering—to the cheers of the alt-right group.” The ACLU slammed the police, saying it knows no other force that uses such “dangerous and indiscriminate” weapons “with the regularity of the Portland Police Bureau.” Cops then “kettled” nearly 400 protesters, journalists, legal observers, and bystanders. Violating constitutional rights, police surrounded, detained, and recorded everyone’s personal information before allowing them to leave.

The Big Bang of Terrorism

These events, from the April Patriot Prayer rally to Christian’s murders to the police violence at the June rally, are the big bang of far-right political violence. It started a vicious cycle of fascists invading Portland, carrying out violence with impunity, and using viral images of past violence to recruit extremists with the promise of future violence. Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys adopted the Bundy model of inciting right-wing terrorism in rural areas to cities. This model was a precursor to the deadly Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, the invasion of state capitols, Trump’s Jan. 6 insurrection and helped mainstream violence in the Republican Party.

The link between Patriot Prayer and Christian is significant. While they kicked him out of the first rally, researchers who study the far right say it was because Christian was too explicit. “He gave away the game” by throwing a Nazi salute one said. Patriot Prayer claims it’s for free speech and tolerance, but it attracts neo-Nazis, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, anti-gay preachers, Islamophobes, and anti-feminists. Along with its many ties to the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer has also rallied with the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters — all three of which are heavily implicated in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Patriot Prayer created a broad tent for extremists, painted Portland as a threat to freedom, and threatened “the stench-covered and liberal-occupied streets of Portland will be CLEANSED.” It hit the jackpot in figuring out how to stoke violence and provide cover for “lone wolf” attacks.

This is known as “stochastic terrorism,” meaning inciting “random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.” Trump is the master of stochastic terrorism, having inspired the anti-immigrant shooter who killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the El Paso Walmart shooter who used anti-Mexican language that echoed Trump, and the Canadian who murdered six Muslims near Quebec City days after Trump’s Muslim ban.

Patriot Prayer served the same function for Jeremy Christian. Their rally gave him space to express his desire to kill Muslims, he used their language of free speech to assault a Black woman and then killed two men as he engaged in an Islamophobic attack. Stochastic terrorism allows Patriot Prayer to deny it had anything to do with the murders despite creating the conditions for Christian’s murders and activating him.

Of course, if police had arrested Christian when he committed the first assault, he would have been unable to commit the murders the next day. That police failed to act when he threatened to shoot them is even more disturbing. It has become common to be arrested and prosecuted for expressing violent intent against police on Facebook. Unlike Christian, those who are prosecuted tend to be Black or leftists.

Christian received two forms of police impunity: impunity for men who assault women and whites who commit racist attacks. On top of that is a history of impunity for the Klan, neo-Nazis, and other extremists. One historian says “murderous violence” from the far-right has “had a shocking amount of support from sectors of the U.S. government committed to ‘law and order.’” Leniency for the right is the flip side of police hammering the left. During the sixties, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover assigned a small army, 2,000 agents, to “discredit, disrupt, and destroy” the Black Panther Party, anti-Vietnam War activists, and student radicals.

Why Portland

In Portland, police impunity for the far-right and hostility toward the left was supercharged by Oregon’s history as a white supremacist state. With Black people barred from living in the state until 1926, Portland became the whitest big city in America, with a Black population of less than 6 percent, and a recruiting ground for extremists such as the White Aryan Resistance. That, in turn, spawned a culture of militant anti-fascists and anarchists willing to confront far-right extremists.

Portland police biases stem from the history of white supremacy, their affinity for the right, and hostility toward the left. In 2017, when asked why Tusitala Toese was not arrested for public assaults, a police spokesman claimed they knew nothing of him and pivoted to describing anti-fascists as their real concern.

Forceful action by elected officials could have halted this dynamic, but political leadership is weak. A source in Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office said in 2017 that they were “scared of the police” and feared “if they pushed on the police, there would be a police slowdown or strike.” The source added that the police have “institutional biases toward Patriot Prayer and white supremacy.”

Other officials are also lenient. For years, the local prosecutor was as lax in holding the far right accountable as police were arresting them. As for the governor and state legislature, one political scientist says, “It’s a white political culture that has a high tolerance for far-right and white nationalist organizing, and seems reluctant to address it for fear of alienating conservative voters.”

If officials do try to hold Portland police accountable, they break the law in retaliation. Weeks after a new district attorney advocating for police reform took office in July 2020, he was doxxed by the police, leading to death threats and forcing his family to leave their home after fascists showed up there. Police twice illegally released information about City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who won office in 2018 on a platform of police accountability, including feeding false information to the media that she was responsible for a hit-and-run accident. Police are so out of control, one court issued an order to try to stop them from tear-gassing, pepper-spraying, beating, and arresting journalists. Another court found the bureau was engaged in large-scale doxxing by live streaming participants in protests in violation of state law.

In this atmosphere of police criminality, their support for far-right violence only became more extreme.

Wild West

On August 22, 2020, a hundred fascists rallied in Portland. Kitted for combat, they stood in front of the Multnomah County Justice Center that houses the sheriff’s department, and, in back, the police headquarters. The agencies have nearly 1,400 sworn law-enforcement officers between them. Facing off against the far-right extremists were twice as many anti-fascists, Black Lives Matter activists, union organizers, and other leftists.

For two hours the opposing sides battled with mace, fireworks, blunt weapons, and fists. The fascists fired paintball guns and attacked with shields and metal and wood poles as well. There were broken bones, abdominal wounds, and chemical weapon burns. People were pummeled and stomped. Even by Portland standards, the violence was extreme.

It could have been worse. Alan Swinney, an eagerly violent Proud Boy and hulking Desert Storm veteran, aimed a revolver with his finger on the trigger at antifascists, though he didn’t fire. Many asked why Swinney was on the streets to begin with. A week earlier he shot a videographer in the face with a paintball gun and threatened to shoot him “with a real gun.” Eventually, the antifascists forced the fascists out of the area.

Here’s where things go down the rabbit hole. Despite a fascist gang on their doorstep for hours, the police were nowhere to be seen. Once the right-wingers were run out of Dodge, however phalanxes of Robocops appeared and forced anti-fascists out of downtown.

Police issued a rambling press release to justify the abdication of public safety. It whined policing is “complex,” bizarrely said they told everyone to “self-monitor for criminal activity,” and complained they were worn out by months of “violent actions directed at the police,” otherwise known as racial justice protests. Yet they weren’t too worn out to dispatch scores of riot cops hours later “to arrest and beat marching demonstrators” at a BLM protest.

A clue to police intentions came when they said they didn’t declare a riot because the two sides were “willingly engaging in physical confrontations.” You see, for a few years Portland police had been telling the far right they could engage in “mutual combat” with antifascists. But not only is mutual combat explicitly banned, but it also would never be legal because it would quickly lead to blood sport, deadly duels, and Squid Games.

That day was indicative of police’s utter indifference to fascist violence and their victims. This is the same dynamic that went on in Trump’s insurrection.

Police allowed Alan Swinney to roam the streets for weeks until a growing public outcry led to his arrest and eventually a 10-year prison sentence. He joins Tarrio who is serving a sentence in prison, Joe Biggs who is jailed awaiting trial in conjunction with Jan. 6, and Toese who was recently arrested on numerous charges.

But this is closing the pen after the horses have bolted. By the fall of 2020, the Proud Boys took their cavalcade of violence on the road to D.C. with multiple riots in the city. Then two weeks before Jan. 6, fascists stormed the Oregon state capitol in Salem, let in by a GOP legislator who was subsequently expelled from the legislature and currently faces criminal charges. The fascists were ready for the big time: Trump’s insurrection.

The dangers have only grown since the coup in a political system incapable of even mounting minimal defenses against a fascist takeover such as by strengthening voting rights and election security being shredded by an extremist GOP.

Portland officials degenerated into self-caricature by August 2021. When fascists planned another riot, police announced they would let the two sides duke it out, Mayor Wheeler took to video to proclaim “choose love,” and in the real world fascists and anti-fascists traded gunfire in Downtown Portland.

Not long after, it was revealed that “more than two dozen current and former police officers, sheriff’s deputies, corrections officers, and members of the military in Oregon” had apparently joined the Oath Keepers.

The same Oath Keepers who were just charged with seditious conspiracy in the Jan. 6 coup.