Portland police played role in cancellation of KKK rally
The organizer of a planned protest outside City Hall was told something unusual recently by the Portland police: "No."
The cancellation of a planned Feb. 8 protest by a former Ku Klux Klan leader came after Portland Police Bureau declined his repeated requests that officers promise specific steps to keep him and any attendees safe, police reports and interviews show.
An avowed white supremacist rally at Lownsdale Square near City Hall downtown was sure to make national headlines of the sort that the Portland leaders don't like.
And the story of the KKK rally that never happened may shed light on a new police resistance to such protests.
In the past, right-wing would-be leaders have seemingly exploited clashes with Portland left-wing counter-protesters as a tactic to raise their profile, intentionally walking into hostile crowds to spark a backlash that is captured on video. Often turning violent, such protests have fueled millions of dollars of expenses in police overtime.
Steven Shane Howard, the would-be Klan organizer, called the outcome of his cancelled rally a win in a recent interview, citing the videos of black-masked counter-protesters engaged in violent behavior — including obscene graffiti on a war memorial in Lownsdale Square — that hit social media later that day. He said he lost money organizing the event, but told the Portland Tribune he considered it an investment in "starting this group back up again," adding "You've got to spend money to make money."
But reading the police report, it's unclear whether the police believed Howard intended to ever actually hold his rally, noting that he refused to say how many people were coming and what their plans were.
Adding to the uncertainty around Howard's plans is his history. He once claimed to have left the KKK to move to Washington state, but also has said he intends to establish a Pacific Northwest branch. And at least one past protest that he tried to organize never happened, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Howard, for his part, denies several aspects of the police report documenting conversations with him — for instance, that he doesn't have an address in Vancouver, that he flew in from out of town in advance of the rally, that he intended to fly KKK members in from other states and that he has a warrant out for his arrest in the state of Washington.
"I don't know where that's coming from," he said.
Requests for publicity, safety
On Dec. 26, Howard called the phone of the communications director of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office to say that he was holding a rally.
A few days later, the message was forwarded to the Portland Police Bureau, the Multnomah County District Attorney's office and Mayor Ted Wheeler's communications office: that a man identifying himself as associated with the North Mississippi White Knights of the KKK was planning a rally outside the Multnomah County Courthouse to protest the city's policies on immigration, according to the bureau report documenting interactions with Howard.
Howard also called the Portland Tribune with the same information.
Portland police opened up a report on the upcoming rally, citing Howard's past activities and suggesting he was a "catalyst for confrontation and violence" at a March 2017 rally in Lake Oswego.
Given the likelihood of violence at a right-wing protest designed to draw counter-protesters, "I believe there is reasonable grounds to document my findings and seek further information that can seek to uphold all individuals First Amendments rights and maintaining all participants' safety," wrote Officer Andrew Hearst.
On Jan. 7, the Portland Police went to an address in Camas they found for Howard, only to find he no longer lived there. They contacted the Camas Police, who told them that there is an active warrant out for his arrest for violating a restraining order filed by his ex-wife, according to the report.
The next day they contacted Howard, a diesel mechanic, by phone. He said he was currently in Mississippi, as his job takes him all over the country, but he intended to fly out to Portland on Jan. 14, and then stay in Vancouver, Washington, with some members of the European Kindred white supremacist group, or "EK," according to the report.
"Howard told me for his event he wanted to make a statement that the KKK was in Portland," the report said.
"Howard told me he had already notified all the large local news outlets such as KGW, KOIN and KATU of the event. Howard told me he will be flying in about three other Klan members to attend the event and will be having EK as security. Howard told me they would be wearing military fatigues and not in robes."
Howard, asked about his plans to fly in to Portland in January, to fly in three KKK members and have EK function as security, denied that any of those were true.
"Where is this coming from? I never said that," he told the Tribune, adding that he lives in Vancouver. "Totally false. Did I try to get in touch with members of EK? Yeah. Do I know members of EK? Yeah."
On Jan. 28, responding to police attempts to get information on his rally, Howard said "he believes approximately 50 people will attend," according to a summary of the conversation recorded by Officer Hearst. "Howard requested security assistance getting he and his group to the courthouse and away. Howard told me if police do not provide security assistance he and his group will come armed."
On Feb. 3, five days before the scheduled rally, Howard called police again to request a meeting, saying he "wants to make sure law enforcement has a plan for his demonstration to be safe, such as areas blocked off and a buffer zone between him and counter demonstrators. Howard told me he does not plan to back out of the demonstration, but would not tell me how many people he believes will be attending nor their plans while at the courthouse."
Hearst, the police officer, wrote that he informed Howard that the City of Portland passed a resolution this past year condemning white supremacist groups, saying that "the City of Portland is proud to be a welcoming city, a sanctuary city and an inclusive city for all, and our values are rooted in peace, respect, inclusivity and equity."
"Howard interrupted me, commenting that was true unless you're a white person proud of your nation," Hearst wrote, adding that Howard asked the cop to detail how his right to protest would be protected.
Hearst said a protest liaison officer would be in touch.
It appears that conversation didn't go Howard's way. On Feb. 5, he texted a reporter that the police were not going to escort him to and from the rally, and wouldn't promise to keep a buffer area from protesters. "If they (the police) will only get involved if a crime is committed, that's stupid for me to walk into that," he wrote.
Asked about his claims, the Portland police confirmed them. "We do not provide private security for individuals or groups; our responsibility is to reasonably protect public safety and restore peace and order," said Lt. Tina Jones, a Portland police spokesperson, in an email.
Howard claims he moved his rally up to 7 a.m. to avoid a left-wing counter protest, but he decided to cancel at the last minute on the advice of his lawyer.
Instead, he said, he attended a cookout in Ridgefield, Washington.
The treatment of Howard comes in contrast to past criticisms of Portland police, including some city commissioners, suggesting they were too cordial to right-wing protesters. In response, Portland police have said they talk to anyone who will talk to them, with the aim of trying to minimize violence.
Asked whether Mayor Ted Wheeler's office weighed in on the handling of Howard's requests, a spokesperson declined to answer the question.
Clash happens anyway
Though Howard did not show up on Feb. 8, others did, including about 200 protesters, many wearing black "anti-fascist," or "antifa"-style masks. Police seemed to show little sympathy for those who appeared to try to provoke them, and three arrests were made.
"You should probably leave, because we're leaving," livestreamer Brandon Brown was told by an officer dressed in riot gear, according to video of the encounter.
Brown, who has filmed and attended Patriot Prayer events since 2018, was surrounded by a crowd dressed in black shortly thereafter, with some in the masked cluster appearing to recognize him.
Another video shows Brown being sprayed with orange liquid at close range, then stumbling blindly toward a group of bike officers clustered near the 7-Eleven at Southwest Fourth and Taylor.
"Why did you walk back in there, sir?" one bike cop asks Brown incredulously. The videographer was one of three people treated by authorities for exposure to pepper spray that day.
But while the videos spread, police sought to portray the event as minor in comparison.
"This is where perception matters. This event occurred for the most part in one city park and in in the nearby sidewalks," said Jones, the police spokeswoman, adding that she saw headlines about "Chaos in Portland."
She added, "This one tiny event doesn't define everything that was happening in the city of Portland at that particular time. Compared to a lot of our other events I would say, on the whole, it was not as tumultuous as some."
Reporter Zane Sparling contributed to this story.
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