Experts exploring solutions to Portland's violent protests
Experts are pointing to some well-worn ideas, and a few novel concepts, as the solution to Portland's seemingly endemic protest violence.
Search checkpoints, secure perimeters and a heavy police presence have minimized violence between opposing bands of protesters as recently as Saturday, July 6, when a sect of right-wing Proud Boys squared off against anti-fascist radicals — called antifa —in Washington, D.C.
Events unfolded differently here. Once again, Portland was thrust into pundits' crosshairs after a battlefield broke out downtown Saturday, June 29. Experts say it's past time for the city's politicians and the Portland Police Bureau to learn the lessons of previous protests.
"The failure to properly police these events has allowed an increasing level of violence to occur," counterterrorism analyst Michael German told the Tribune.
German said he's observed political clashes up and down the West Coast for decades, such as the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999. "When I started seeing this series of riots," German said, "it surprised me that the police weren't better at separating the groups."
His advice has taken root elsewhere. In D.C., the setting was similar — a small huddle of conservatives dwarfed by hundreds of liberal counterprotesters, some masking their faces — but the outcomes diverged.
"The groups had little interaction, in part because of the scores of police officers among them," a New York Times reporter at the scene wrote.
In Washington, D.C., authorities corralled each side into adjacent public spaces, with a wall of badges in between. When anti-fascists attempted to erect barricades, bicycle police quickly turned the crowd back. Skirmishes were de-escalated almost immediately, according to the Washington Post.
After many of the conservatives entered a local watering hole, police lingered outside — preventing the sort of clash that occurred on the patio of Cider Riot in Northeast Portland on May 1, which triggered a million-dollar lawsuit against Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson.
Yet the Portland events on May Day already have been eclipsed by the latest round of street warfare: a June 29 milkshake-themed dance party marred by the beating of a local conservative commentator and mutual combat on Southwest Sixth Avenue and Morrison Street by Pioneer Courthouse Square.
The six-hour-long protest was punctuated by only brief outbursts of fighting, but those seconds were widely disseminated online, leaving millions with the impression that Portland streets are continuously "roamed and controlled" by armed thugs, as the Washington Examiner editorialized.
Some solutions seem obvious.
German, now with the Brennan Center for Justice after a 16-year career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, says many figures gain notoriety by participating in street brawls, and questions why these identified subjects aren't arrested and prosecuted.
Of course, there have been attempts at solutions.
Mayor Ted Wheeler's first attempt at time, place and manner restrictions for rallies went down in flames in November, with dissenting Commissioners Chloe Eudaly, Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz citing fears of unconstitutional restrictions of freedom of speech.
Opponents "were concerned the police would only apply the restrictions against liberal groups, and not against the right-wing extremists," admitted Mary McCord, the Georgetown Law professor who submitted a letter in favor of the ordinance, in a recent interview.
McCord says right-wing groups are more willing to communicate with authorities and apply for demonstration permits — a natural focal point for police to anchor skirmish lines, though the optics may be miscast as endorsement or protection of one faction.
She recommends police line-up facing both directions, rather than turning their backs to one side, and suggests deploying magnetometers and establishing a "stadium" environment.
"If you establish separate entrances for protesters and counterprotesters, people will self-select," McCord said.
To be fair, police have tried dividing protesters into opposing camps at Chapman Square and Terry Schrunk Plaza on multiple occasions. Department of Homeland Security officers conducted bag searches at entry points to the federal plaza during a protest June 3 of last year, though the day ultimately ended in violence and four arrests.
Complicating matters, the most high-profile victim of the late June protest was Andy Ngo, a conservative writer who was punched, battered with signs and doused in liquids while livestreaming the black-clad column as it marched near the Multnomah County Justice Center.
Ngo didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Michael Strickland, another livestreamer, also talked about the situation in Portland's protests.
"If we take the beating, the police won't be there to help us and the perps won't ever be identified," Strickland said in a chatroom interview. "If we defend ourselves, then we go to jail and the violent ones who start the fights instantly become the victims."
Strickland was charged for pulling a gun during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2016, though his conviction currently is under consideration by the Oregon Court of Appeals.
Strickland suggests sending the combatants out into the woods to trade blows away from the watchful eyes of law enforcement.
McCord, the senior litigator, wants the police bureau to consistently enforce the permits required for large gatherings or street marches. During a July 8 news conference, Wheeler noted that Portland Police don't "typically" enforce permit regulations for street marches, though the mayor is considering a variety of new strategies.
German said it's about regaining trust.
"It's really incumbent on the police department to be transparent, both in acknowledging problems with their previous tactics and how they improve going forward," he added.
Strickland isn't the first person to float a "Battle Royale" style solution. Wheeler signed on in March.
As he said at the time: "Do us all a favor. Rent a boxing ring."
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