PORTLAND, Oregon — At least 14 people were arrested on Sunday amid competing protests in Portland, Oregon, over a tangled web of emotions to arise from a deadly commuter train stabbing in May.
Hundreds of supporters of US President Donald Trump converged on Terry D. Schrunk Plaza for an event billed as a “Trump Free Speech” rally. They were slightly outnumbered by a mixed assemblage of counterprotesters across the street who viewed the free speech rally as an implicit endorsement of racism given its close timing to the racially charged stabbing.
The groups were separated by a wall of officers, heavily armed and wearing protective body armor, from local and federal police agencies.
What began as a tense exchange of name-calling and profane insults took a turn when counterdemonstrators began throwing glass bottles, bricks and balloons of “foul-smelling liquid” at officers, Portland Police said. Officers used pepper spray to push back the counterdemonstrators and closed the park where they had gathered, threatening to arrest anyone who remained.
Portland Police could not confirm which side those arrested belonged to. CNN crews on the scene observed that most of the arrests were concentrated in the area of counterdemonstrators.
The rallies come in the wake of the stabbing deaths of Ricky Best, 53, and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, 23, as they tried to defend two Muslim women from what police described as a barrage of hate speech.
Suspect Jeremy Joseph Christian raised the free speech issue in his arraignment Tuesday
“Get out if you don’t like free speech!” he shouted as he entered the courtroom. “You call it terrorism; I call it patriotism. Die.”
Concerns raised early on
Tensions continue to build in Portland as the incident has turned the city into the latest battleground over free speech and race relations in the Trump era.
“We hope and pray that both sides try to keep in mind that in the big picture it might be easy to forget with all the emotions running high that we all have the same basic needs,” Portland resident Margie Fletcher told CNN.
Her son, Micah, was wounded as he and the others tried to intervene in what Portland police called “hate speech toward a variety of ethnicities and religions” directed at two women on the train.
Christian faces charges including two counts of aggravated murder, attempted murder, two counts of second-degree intimidation and being a felon in possession of a restricted weapon, police say.
Signs of animosity among the groups holding rallies began to emerge last week in online forums. The tensions put police on high alert and prompted the mayor to call on the federal government to revoke the event organized by a group called Patriot Prayer. Terry D. Schrunk Plaza is federal property where guns are barred.
“I’m a strong supporter of the First Amendment no matter what the views are that are being expressed,” Mayor Ted Wheeler told HLN on Friday, “but given the timing of this rally, I believed we had a case to make about the threats to public safety.”
Federal officials declined the request, saying there was no legal basis to revoke the permit.
Protester: A vote for Trump not hate speech
Wheeler also called on protest organizer Joey Gibson to postpone the event. Gibson told CNN the event was planned before the stabbings and that Patriot Prayer had nothing to with Christian. It was about taking a stand for President Trump and free speech in a liberal part of the country.
He said his group is not racist or alt-right and it should not be held responsible for the actions of counterdemonstrators, many of whom identified as anti-fascists.
Anti-facists have become a recurring presence at events testing the limits of free speech. They were blamed for riots that led to the cancellation of conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos’ scheduled talk at The University of California, Berkeley, and have shown up at events featuring Ann Coulter.
They tend to equate such events with fascism and Nazis, messaging that was evident in signs declaring “No more Nazis.”
On each side protesters carried signs reflecting a variety of causes. Counter-demonstrators chanted expletive-ridden slogans denouncing Trump. They carried signs proclaiming “Supporters of Trump are traitors to America” and “Freedom ends where harm begins.”
Across the street, Trump supporters waved “Make America Great Again” signs and wore the corresponding red hats.
In addition to the arrests, a large pickup truck flying two large American flags cruised past hundreds of anti-fascist protesters and honked its horn. Several people in the group ran up to the truck and ripped out the flags, bringing them into the crowd as others applauded. Others threw multiple large water bottles, sticks and other projectiles at the truck, which then sped away.
One Trump supporter said she was marching in support of “free speech” after the mayor’s attempt to silence the Patriot Prayer event. Another wearing a “Police Lives Matter” T-shirt said she wanted to “reverse the lies” surrounding Trump supporters.
“Just because we voted for Trump doesn’t equal hate speech,” Debbie Sluder said.