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Portland gunfight fuels alarm over growing use of weapons at rallies

Far-right Proud Boys regularly carry handguns and other groups have adopted less lethal weapons

in Portland

Last modified on Thu 26 Aug 2021 06.36 EDT

A gunfight in Portland, Oregon, last week is intensifying concerns over escalating violence during contentious rallies in the city, as far-right demonstrators and anti-fascist counter-protesters have repeatedly faced off.

The Portland police bureau charged a 65-year-old man from Gresham, Oregon, over a gunfight in the city’s downtown during violent clashes on Sunday. Authorities say Dennis Anderson drew a concealed handgun and shot at a group of anti-fascists who were trying to expel him from the area. At least one of the anti-fascists shot back, according to authorities, with seven shots exchanged between the two sides.

Proud Boys and members of other far-right groups regularly open-carry handguns during protest, and the shootout fueled the growing concern about the presence of firearms at rallies taking place across the US.

But other violent incidents in Portland on Sunday showed how participants have also increasingly adopted less lethal, but still dangerous, technologies as weapons for political street fighting.

On Sunday afternoon, about 200 Proud Boys and members of other far-right groups clashed with a smaller group of anti-fascists near an abandoned Kmart in the city’s outer north-east. The confrontation became a running street battle, with participants fist-fighting and attacking each other with pepper spray.

The two camps also resorted to other tactics they had deployed during previous demonstrations. Anti-fascists threw fireworks, repeating a tactic that some leftwing protesters have long used in contentious events in Portland and beyond. Similar munitions were used in several confrontations with police during Portland’s long string of protests last summer, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

At one point on Sunday, a firework thrown by an anti-fascist exploded in the forecourt of a gas station, raising alarm on all sides of the confrontation.

Some Proud Boys, on the other hand, were carrying airsoft guns, replica firearms that fire pellets with compressed air and are usually used in recreational combat games or combat training.

Those weapons, along with paintball guns, first made an appearance during clashes in August 2020, when a group of far-right brawlers used them to shoot gas-propelled pellets at a far larger group of leftwing protesters. A Guardian investigation at the time showed that participants had planned for weeks to employ the devices in a way that maximized their destructive impact.

Since then, the weapons have been used at every Portland protest where far-right groups have showed up, including on 29 August 2020, when passengers in vehicles participating in a pro-Donald Trump truck convoy shot pedestrians with the devices.

Hours after those vehicle attacks, Jay Danielson, a supporter of Patriot Prayer, a far-right street protest group that made high-profile incursions into Portland throughout the Trump era, was shot dead by a self-identified anti-fascist, Michael Reinoehl. Reinoehl himself was later shot dead by police in Lacey, Washington.

Although airsoft and paintball guns are unlikely to kill, medical researchers say that they pose a significant risk of injury to eyes, heads, and other extremities. There were an estimated 10,080 emergency room visits attributable to non-powder guns including airsoft and paintball guns across the US last year, according to data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.

Members of the Proud Boys attack a van during a clash with anti-fascist activists following a far-right rally on Sunday.

The use of airsoft and paintball guns, just like any weapon, can be prosecuted when they are used to threaten others. Earlier this month, a Portland resident was arrested for pointing an airsoft weapon at a journalist, under a statute that penalises the misuse of “dangerous or deadly weapons”. But they are not subject to any specific federal or state laws, and nor are they covered by firearms laws.

The weapons’ legal status, as well as their non-lethality, have made them an attractive option for extremist groups in and outside of the US, said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s program on extremism.

Lewis argued that the Proud Boys were likely to continue to use the weapons in Portland and anywhere where there was a “lax local response” to the group’s activities from law enforcement.

On Sunday, the absence of police during the confrontations raised questions about whether authorities in the city were willing, or able, to stop the violence.

The Portland police bureau (PPB) chief, Chuck Lovell, announced in repeated statements in advance of the unpermitted rally that protesters “should not expect to see police officers standing in the middle of the crowd trying to keep people apart”.

The tactic gave rally-goers and counter-protesters free rein, while employees of businesses located near the fracas told local media that they felt abandoned by law enforcement.

New data on firearms at demonstrations

The concerns over the events in Portland come as a new report by two national non-profits, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled) and Everytown for Gun Safety, showed that over the last year and a half, “armed demonstrations”, at which individuals other than law enforcement officers were carrying firearms, were nearly six times as likely to turn violent or destructive compared with unarmed demonstrations.

Researchers did not determine whether the presence of firearms provoked violent acts, or if participants tended to arm themselves ahead of events that were likely to be violent, said Dr Roudabeh Kishi, a researcher for Acled.

But while “it can be hard to tell the chicken from the egg”, she added, guns “may heighten tensions and intimidate protesters who aren’t accustomed to seeing them”.

Additional data from Acled highlighted the scale of violent protests in Portland.

Between 1 January 2020 and 30 July 2021, Portland saw 128 demonstrations that were violent and/or destructive, amounting to 31% of the total number of demonstrations in the city in that period. This was more than 10 times higher than the national average of 3% of demonstrations becoming violent or destructive.

In the same time period, Portland saw 21 armed demonstrations – about 4% of all armed demonstrations across the country in that time. Fourteen of those – or 67% – turned violent or destructive in that period, whereas only 16% of armed demonstrations did in the country as a whole.

Kishi cautioned that it was “important to consider the context in Portland”, adding that an “aggressive, militarized response to the demonstrations” last summer helped push “some peaceful protests into violent or destructive riots”.

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