Extremist groups have co-opted Portland’s well-known culture of street activism and free speech and are hiding behind it to commit acts of violence, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Monday.
The comments at a City Hall press conference marked Wheeler's first major public remarks since assaults and injuries at a June 29 protest led conservatives to call for a federal investigation into his handling of the street fights between opposing groups in Portland.
On Monday, three years into his term, Wheeler sounded as if he was still in brainstorming mode and has not settled on strategy for curbing the street violence — or the hyper-political news coverage and pillorying of the Portland Police Bureau that tend to follow.
“I’ll be evaluating a whole variety of options,” he said.
Wheeler pointedly condemned last month's violence, singling out the assault on conservative writer Andy Ngo that has fueled much of the national outrage.
“What happened to him was 100% wrong,” Wheeler said. “It was unacceptable, and it was abhorrent.”
But the mayor did not mention by name Antifa, an anti-fascist group that has engaged in violence, that Ngo has accused of his assault.
Wheeler said he has to take personal responsibility for some of the “global shellacking in terms of perception” that Portland has suffered. Last week, the mayor’s office was inundated with thousands of irate emails and the city’s information and non-emergency line were deluged with calls from out of state.
Wheeler said he can do more to condemn politically motivated violence and to make it clear that the police will enforce the city’s laws.
At the same time, Wheeler noted that most of the 200 or so protests that have taken place in the city this year have unfolded without major violence.
And he said much of the narrative about Portland and his administration that has spread throughout the media — particularly in conservative outlets — is false and fueled by misinformation.
One result of that misinformation, Wheeler said, has been a deluge of threats against him, his family and the city’s employees.
He placed much of the blame for the periodic street fights at the feet of groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys — groups that attract white supremacists and who are also prone to violence. Wheeler said they come from out of state and cynically target Portland for their own political gain.
“They know that if they come to Portland, it will elicit a reaction,” he said. “That’s why they’re here.”
Wheeler also criticized Daryl Turner, president of the police officers’ union, for comments that contributed to the national backlash against Portland.
A post Turner made on Facebook asking Wheeler to “remove the handcuffs from our officers ” was read by some reporters and commentators as evidence Wheeler had directed officers to take a hands-off approach to Antifa protesters during the June 29 incident.
“He crossed a line when he publicly stated in a Facebook message that I was not allowing the police to enforce the law,” Wheeler said Monday. “He contributed to the misinformation and the noise.”
Police Chief Danielle Outlaw has flatly denied that the mayor directed the bureau to take a hands-off approach.
Wheeler said orders to the police bureau regarding protests have been consistent since he took office: He wants officers to minimize vandalism and violence and prevent protesters from blocking Portland’s bridges and transit lines.
The protests have placed a mayor who views himself as a technocrat and a political moderate squarely in the middle of one of the most polarizing conflicts between the left and right — the question of who’s responsible when groups clash in the streets and how to protect political speech while preventing violence.
On Monday, Wheeler declined to take a position on two of the specific proposals Outlaw mentioned at her own press conference last week as tools that would help her officers prevent and investigate the violence.
Wheeler said he is not yet ready to endorse the idea of a ban on face masks used to hide a person’s identity while committing crimes — which critics say Antifa members have used to avoid criminal prosecution.
Wheeler also didn’t take a position on Outlaw’s proposal that officers be allowed to record continuous video of protests to make it easier to identify and prosecute bad actors during protests. The mayor said he’d discussed the idea with Outlaw, but had questions about whether it would be possible given the Oregon Constitution’s robust free speech protections.
One of the chief's suggestions is clearly not up for consideration: Wheeler said he has no plans to make a second attempt to pass an ordinance that would allow the mayor to restrict the time and location of protests involving groups with a history of violence. The City Council voted against that idea 3-2 last November, with the mayor in the minority.
“The majority of my colleagues on the Council opposed the protest safety ordinance,” Wheeler said. “I don’t think they’re going to change their minds on that.”
The mayor’s plan for handling future protests remains unclear.
At one point Monday, he said he plans to ask city commissioners to commit more resources from the Portland Fire Bureau and the Portland Bureau of Transportation to help police separate groups that are seeking to fight.
Later, in response to a reporter’s question, he acknowledged that the city could likely do more to enforce existing rules that require protesters to obtain permits. The three protests that devolved into fighting on June 29 were not permitted.
“That is certainly one of the issues that should be on the table for conversation,” Wheeler said. “I don’t believe we can stick with the same game plan and expect to have a different outcome than we had on June 29.”