After Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler referred to two upcoming conservative political rallies as “alt-right demonstrations” peddling “hatred and bigotry,” the event organizers are pushing back.
“I am calling on the federal government to immediately revoke the permit(s) they have issued for the June 4th event and to not issue a permit for June 10th,” Wheeler wrote on Twitter. He cited the deadly knife attack police say was carried out by suspect Jeremy Christian, a homeless man with a violent criminal history, as reason for the proposed free-speech bans.
The ACLU of Oregon also weighed in on the controversy, pointing out that Wheeler’s call for censorship is unconstitutional.
1. The government cannot revoke or deny a permit based on the viewpoint of the demonstrators. Period. https://t.co/P9gcNPAumH— ACLU of Oregon (@ACLU_OR) May 29, 2017
Joey Gibson, a libertarian activist and founder of Patriot Prayer, organized the June 4 pro-Trump free speech rally. Gibson vehemently rejects Wheeler’s characterizations and called him irresponsible.
“If they spread this lie and people believe it, people are going to try and hurt someone,” Gibson said. “It’s irresponsible, especially coming from the mayor — a guy who is supposed to be the leader of his city.”
Gibson said he has received death threats from people who believe he is connected or allied with Jeremy Christian based on local reports. “I’m used to threats, but this time it’s different because people literally want to kill me,” he said. “I know nothing of Jeremy. He showed up to one of our marches with a bat and was extremely hateful. We eventually were able to kick him out.”
In late April, Gibson organized a free speech rally in east Portland after the 82nd Avenue of Roses Parade was canceled following violent threats towards the Multnomah County Republicans.
Christian attended the rally but was kicked out by organizers after doing Nazi Roman salutes and going on a racist tirade. Gibson added that he never saw Christian before or after that incident on April 29.
Gibson directed particular frustration at Willamette Week, an alternative Portland newspaper, for its recent profiling of him and his group in its report on white supremacists and the Alt-Right. Gibson claims that Wheeler told him that Willamette Week’s reporting “set the narrative for him” in a meeting that included the Portland Police chief on May 30.
One of the speakers scheduled for Gibson’s June 4 event includes controversial figure Kyle Chapman, aka Based Stickman. Chapman gained infamy when he was recorded fighting Antifa protesters at a free speech rally in Berkeley earlier this year.
Scott Pressler, an activist with ACT for America, the national security nonprofit founded by Brigitte Gabriel, was involved in organizing the June 10 “March Against Sharia, March for Human Rights” event. The rally is part of a nationwide march in two-dozen cities against Islamic fundamentalism, according to the event page.
In a statement, Pressler announced that the Portland event was canceled following what he said was a gross misrepresentation of the group by the mayor which endangered its members.
“Our organization is not an alt-right group,” Pressler wrote. “In fact, as a gay man who works for a Lebanese-American survivor of terrorism, I am offended that the mayor would use his position as political leverage over an organization trying to stop female genital mutilation.”
The statement continues: “By his inflaming emotions and labeling us as antagonists, Mayor Wheeler has endangered the safety of everyone scheduled to participate. For this reason, and to protect our members from the radical left, we are cancelling the Portland march.”
Ahead of the June 4 free speech rally, a flier left at the impromptu memorial at the Hollywood transit center included the Rose City Antifa logo and advertised a “group self-defense” training workshop. A prominently displayed graphic image shows a chainsaw cutting into President Donald Trump’s head. “Love trumps hate, chainsaw trumps love,” the flier reads.
Antifa flyer for fighting workshop shows chainsaw slicing through Trump's head-- "By training together we can push back white supremacy..." pic.twitter.com/7qSpJVTDGe— Andy C. Ngo (@MrAndyNgo) May 30, 2017
A Facebook post by a group called Demand Utopia noted that the training had been canceled on Friday due to security concerns. “Someone in the community not affiliated with our group made a poor decision in creating a flyer that erroneously depicted this event as hosted by "antifa" and a training for June 4 along with violent images.”
Following the TriMet train attack on May 26, Portlanders have been divided on how to move forward. At the memorial, many chalk messages blamed the Portland Police, even though they apprehended Christian after he escaped on foot.
Other messages blamed Trump since police say the suspect hurled xenophobic verbal abuse at two teenagers before he knifed three men, killing two.
Christian’s social media record shows contradictory political views that make labeling him in simplistic terms difficult. He expressed support for Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and Black Lives Matter and made references to white nationalism and neo-Nazi paganism.
At Christian’s first court hearing on May 30, he yelled incoherently about free speech and patriotism, undoubtedly bringing additional scrutiny to Gibson’s free speech event on Sunday. However, Gibson said he has no plans to cancel the rally.
Editor's note: The section about the messages left at the memorial has been amended for clarity.
Andy Ngo is a graduate student in political science at Portland State University.