Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

How Portland Is Dealing With Civil Protest Escalating To Civil Unrest


In poll after poll, Americans say they are worried that civility is slipping away, that people have become meaner, angrier. It may come out in a nasty tweet, an argument, a protest, but sometimes it boils over into violence. That happened in Portland, Ore.


Since President Trump took office, that city has seen activists take to the streets and occasionally do battle. As part of our series on civility and incivility in polarizing times, NPR's Tom Goldman looks at a city where civil protest has boiled over into civil unrest.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The contrast has been jarring. A city parodied in the comedy "Portlandia" for being progressive and nice has had its streets devolve into anger and chaos.


GOLDMAN: Like the scene shortly after President Trump was elected where the police used flash bang grenades and tear gas against protesters, some of whom threw bottles and lit fires. Since 2017, there have been nearly 50 large protests in Portland, not all this violent, but many called for an active police response.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Participants who violate ORS 166.025, disorderly conduct of a second degree, are subject to arrest.

GOLDMAN: A few months after the left began demonstrating against Trump, the right-wing group Patriot Prayer responded...



GOLDMAN: ...Leaving its base in nearby Vancouver, Wash., and showing up in Portland for the first of many demonstrations. Joey Gibson is Patriot Prayer's leader.


JOEY GIBSON: One of the most liberal cities in the United States of America yet here we stand together in the one place that we are not supposed to be.


GOLDMAN: People protest peacefully all the time in Portland for all kinds of causes. But when the protests got violent, it was the extreme left against the extreme right. On the far right, Patriot Prayer says it wants to protect free speech and the Second Amendment. But it has attracted other groups who include white supremacists, and that has provoked the far left, the anti-fascist movement Antifa, which says Patriot Prayer promotes hate. Here's Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

TED WHEELER: The current level of frustration and the anger, the polarization, the fear - that's something that surfaced after President Trump was elected. But it was always there beneath the surface.

GOLDMAN: Beneath the surface because Portland and Oregon have had a painful racial past. When Oregon became a state in the 1850s, its Constitution banned nonwhites. Over the years, it remained a destination for believers in racial and ethnic exclusion, particularly in the 1980s and '90s when there was an influx of neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers. Ultimately, these groups were forced underground.

ERIC WARD: We really did draw a moral barrier against hate.

GOLDMAN: Civil rights activist Eric Ward runs the progressive Western States Center in Portland.

WARD: People came together - Republican farmers, law enforcement, community activists. We may not have agreed on very much, but we agreed that bigotry and overt hatred didn't have a role.

GOLDMAN: That was decades ago. Now the extremes on both sides are back in the spotlight.


GOLDMAN: A downtown brawl in Portland six months ago became international news. Video showed people swinging batons, landing punches, spraying mace. There were no immediate arrests. And at a recent press conference, the mayor still was angry about that and about laws that some officials said prevented prosecution.


WHEELER: How am I supposed to explain this to my 12-year-old daughter, that we allow adults to fight on the streets of our city? Is there anybody here who actually thinks that this is a good idea? I don't.

GOLDMAN: The unrest has forced the mayor to try to act, sometimes, his critics say, clumsily. He proposed an emergency ordinance that would separate protesters known to be violent by putting them in designated areas at set times. Critics said it would limit free speech and assembly rights. The City Council voted down the proposal. Wheeler still defends it.

WHEELER: It's common-sense stuff that, frankly, other cities all across the country already do. But anything in Portland that is seen as a potential abridgement of First Amendment rights is looked at with great skepticism. And we could not overcome that skepticism.

GOLDMAN: While the mayor and council debated free speech, it wasn't always clear what the groups on the streets wanted to say. At times they didn't seem to be advancing a specific cause, except flamboyant hatred of each other.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: You're annoying and speaking out of turn.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: I am protesting, which is my God-given right.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: So am I. I'm protesting your presence. Now shut up and get out of my [expletive] face.

GOLDMAN: Scenes like these were videoed and amplified as they traveled around social media. They may have been fleeting and, for many, just noisy, foul-mouthed street theater. But for some Portlanders, the menace felt real. Civil rights activist Eric Ward.

WARD: Your neighbors of color, your Muslim neighbors, your immigrant neighbors are terrified by what they are seeing. They don't want to see fighting on the streets.

GOLDMAN: And the fear has brought some people, everyday Portlanders, here...


GOLDMAN: ...To the English Pit Shooting Range where a person who goes by the name Oak came for training.

OAK: I'm actually trans and, like, part of the Portland queer community. And a lot of people I care about have been attacked.

GOLDMAN: Oak says it's a scary time when knowing how to shoot a gun is a good life skill.

OAK: Just trying to, like, learn how to protect ourselves just for safety and for feeling, like, strong.

GOLDMAN: Oak's teacher on this recent visit to the local range was Ross Eliot.

ROSS ELIOT: As soon as you get it lined up and you feel comfortable and you're ready to go, then just pull the trigger.

OAK: Do I wait for something or do I just...

GOLDMAN: Lately, Eliot has trained a lot of people who consider themselves marginalized. He's on the far left of the political spectrum, and he says he embraced guns as part of the activist toolbox. Guns have also given him an added advantage in polarized times - connections, he says, with people on the right.

ELIOT: If I can competently discuss an AK-47 or an AR-15 or some aspect of gun culture that they're interested in, they immediately don't just dismiss me out of hand.

GOLDMAN: Like his good friend and fellow gun enthusiast Leanna Steiner.

LEANNA STEINER: I voted for Donald Trump - constitutionalist and conservative.

GOLDMAN: Steiner and Eliot discovered they both own guns, and the common interest has helped them talk politics. They keep things civil but rarely agree. For instance, Steiner thinks calling the right-wing street protesters fascist is unfair.

STEINER: I find the left to be way more fascist as far as shutting down people's points of view and not wanting to hear what somebody has to say.

GOLDMAN: Eliot, her friend, is firmly anti-right when it comes to protesters.

ELIOT: When you have fascists actively organizing, you just need to, at the very least, show up and be a part of the people that are saying, no, we don't want this in our community.

GOLDMAN: Portland's mayor, Ted Wheeler, meanwhile, continues his quest to balance the right of protesters to protest with the rights of Portlanders to be safe. And city government is taking steps. A recently passed ordinance opposing white supremacy requires training for every city employee. The police bureau is examining all of its crowd control tactics, which have prompted several lawsuits. Wheeler hopes all these efforts will help as the city braces for more protests because, he says, we know they're not over. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "CANYON WALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on