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Mayor, without plan in hand, rejects Portland protest violence

The mayor also pushed back against the police union president, saying his recent criticism “crossed a line”


Multiple groups, including Rose City Antifa, the Proud Boys and conservative activist Haley Adams protest in downtown Portland, Ore., Saturday, June 29, 2019.

Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP

By Gordon R. Friedman
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Protests that devolve into bloody street brawls have no place in Portland and are a black mark against the city’s reputation, Mayor Ted Wheeler said on Monday, denouncing the actions of left- and right-wing demonstrators who clashed on June 29.

Wheeler offered no policy proposals, however, and would not take a position on two options given by the police chief, Danielle Outlaw. She called for new city rules barring people from wearing masks during protest and empowering officers to videotape demonstrations.

Wheeler said he plans to discuss ways to better control future protests with police, business, community and civil rights leaders. He gave no timetable for when he would land on a solution.

“I think everything should be on the table,” Wheeler told reporters in City Hall, with his wife and young daughter sitting nearby, during his first day back to work after an overseas vacation.

The mayor’s remarks evinced the complex no-wins world in which his administration attempts to control large protests that have at times attracted the world’s attention and its invective.

Wheeler brings a hands-off approach to his role as police commissioner but is the target of relentless public criticism whenever the Police Bureau is seen to over- or under-police a demonstration. His attempts to bolster police powers to control protests have been stymied by the City Council, where Wheeler is a co-equal member. And police officers themselves have pushed back against the mayor via their union president, Daryl Turner, who has accused Wheeler of hampering officers and unfairly rushing to criticize them when politically expedient.

On Monday, Wheeler repeated familiar refrains, condemning protesters whom he said had “coopted” free speech protections to turn to violence on Portland streets.

That violence is “alarming,” the mayor said, pledging to explore “ways to reduce these acts of violence in our community.” At the same time, however, he maintained that Portland is neither unsafe nor lawless, despite injuries to eight people, including bloody head wounds, during the most recent dueling protests.

Wheeler did not detail what steps he might take to reduce or end such violence, saying he would be “evaluating a variety of options” and was “reluctant to get into a laundry list” of ideas. He declined to take a position on Outlaws’ proposals regarding masks and police videotaping.

Wheeler did say he was considering having other city bureaus - such as the city transportation and fire bureaus - step in and play a role in preparing for such unpermitted protests to help police keep separate dueling demonstrators. He also said the city may have to reconsider its historic lax enforcement of unpermitted protests.

The mayor said he met Monday morning with U.S Attorney Billy J. Williams, Oregon’s top federal law enforcement official, to brainstorm legal and tactical strategies in the wake of the violent brawls.

Williams said later Monday that he appreciated the opportunity “to discuss a path forward to support law enforcement and put an end to unchecked political violence” and said he was “deeply troubled” by the violent protests.

“Portland has a rich history of civic engagement and lawful expression as protected by the First Amendment,” Williams said. “The vast majority of Portlanders recognize this and rightfully demand an immediate end to the criminal acts of a violent few whose only goal is to show up and fight with their perceived enemies. These criminals must be held accountable.”

Addressing the beating of conservative opinion writer Andy Ngo by black-clad Antifa members during the June 29 demonstration, Wheeler said the assault on Ngo “was 100 percent wrong.” The beating was caught on camera and generated outrage among politicians and members of the news media who questioned why police officers did not intervene to stop the assault.

Wheeler said the June 29 protest was “a highly evolving situation” during which at least three separate demonstrations converged, complicating the police response.

“The fact that there wasn’t more violence I think is a testament to the hard-working men and women of the Portland Police Bureau,” the mayor said.

Still, he called the violence that did unfold against Ngo and another man who was beaten by baton-wielding Antifa members “alarming,” “disturbing” and “completely unacceptable.”

Wheeler acknowledged the widespread public backlash after footage of the assault on Ngo went public, saying the “global shellacking” harms Portland’s reputation. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was among those who took to social media to criticize the city’s hands-off treatment of protesters who injured their opponents.

Wheeler repeatedly stated that many of the people who incite or commit violence at rallies aren’t from Portland. That is sometimes the case, as with Joey Gibson who lives in Washington as do many of his followers.

But the two people charged with the most serious crimes after the June 29 rally — one of whom is alleged to have beaten a man over the head with a baton, the other is alleged to have thrown a water bottle in the face of a person videotaping the protest — both live in Portland. Police reports indicate both appear to be affiliated with Antifa.

Wheeler also pushed back against Turner, the police union president, who issued a statement saying Wheeler prevented officers from adequately responding. Wheeler insisted Monday that statement was false and said Turner “crossed a line” by making it.

Turner’s statement fueled criticisms of Wheeler, and the mayor said he, his family and his property had been threatened. A bomb threat last week also caused City Hall to evacuate.

The tense protests and lingering fallout had brought Portland to “a pivotal moment,” Wheeler said, as “the politics of our nation have become more divisive.”

“In recent years things have taken a dark turn,” he said.

Another test for Wheeler and his administration is around the corner. Right-wing demonstrators, angered by the assaults last month, already are planning to return to downtown Portland in August, circulating ads on social media for an “End Domestic Terrorism Rally” or “End – Better Dead than Red.”

©2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)