As tensions continue in Portland following the racially charged murder of two men on Friday, the top Republican in the city said he was considering using militia groups as security for public events.
Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, and Rick Best, 53, were stabbed to death and 21-year-old student Micah David-Cole Fletcher was injured when they came to the aid of two women being subjected to hate speech on public transport. The suspect, Jeremy Christian, 35, was found to hold white supremacist views and to have attended an “alt-right” rally in the city.
On Monday, Donald Trump issued a belated message of condolence. Asked about the president’s tweet, Portland mayor Ted Wheeler told the Guardian: “Our current political climate allows far too much room for those who spread bigotry. Violent words can lead to violent acts.
“All elected leaders in America, all people of good conscience, must work deliberately to change our political dialogue.”
Multnomah County GOP chair James Buchal, however, told the Guardian that recent street protests had prompted Portland Republicans to consider alternatives to “abandoning the public square”.
“I am sort of evolving to the point where I think that it is appropriate for Republicans to continue to go out there,” he said. “And if they need to have a security force protecting them, that’s an appropriate thing too.”
Asked if this meant Republicans making their own security arrangements rather than relying on city or state police, Buchal said: “Yeah. And there are these people arising, like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters.”
Asked if he was considering such groups as security providers, Buchal said: “Yeah. We’re thinking about that. Because there are now belligerent, unstable people who are convinced that Republicans are like Nazis.”
Buchal ran for Oregon attorney general in 2012 and has stood for election to Congress and the state legislature. The Oath Keepers are described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the US”, recruiting current and former military and law enforcement personnel. They have recently appeared at rallies from Berkeley, California, to Boston, standing with activists from the far right, activists holding what were once fringe positions who have recently risen to national prominence.
The Three Percenters are described by Political Research Associates as “a paramilitary group that pledges armed resistance against attempts to restrict private gun ownership”. They were a highly visible presencein Burns, Oregon, before and during the occupation of the Malheur wildlife refuge by rightwing militia early in 2016.
Buchal told the Guardian it was important not to become involved with extremists, and said that on the Three Percenters website, “right there on the front page there is what looks like a solid commitment to this not being about race at all”.
The main reason Buchal gave for his attraction to the militia groups was the cancellation of the Avenue of the Roses Parade, an annual Portland community event scheduled for 29 April, after organisers received an anonymously emailed threat of disruption.
The anonymous message claimed “Trump supporters and 3% militia” were encouraging people to “bring hateful rhetoric” to East Portland. “Two hundred or more people”, the email said, would “rush into the middle and drag and push those people out”.
When the parade was called off, Buchal issued a statement in which he bemoaned a “criminal conspiracy to commit crimes of riot” and a letter to Mayor Wheeler in which he lamented “rising lawlessness” in Portland.
In response to the cancellation, a local far-right organizer, Joey Gibson, organized a “free speech rally” – the event at which Christian, the suspect in Friday’s double murder, was filmed throwing fascist salutes and yelling racial epithets, and where he approached antifascist counter-protesters armed with a baseball bat.
Asked about Gibson’s organizing efforts for the far right, including a planned rally this Sunday which leftwing counter-protesters have vowed to oppose, Buchal said such actions were understandable.
“I think that for a long time there has been a closing of the mind and a censoring to a point where now people feel justified in using force to prevent the expression of opinions with which they disagree,” he said. “I believe that the left – the ‘antifa’ [antifascist] crowd – fired the first shot in that regard.
“There is definitely something wrong if criminal gangs are essentially allowed to shut down normal and traditional activities of Republicans. With that climate arising, the question becomes: what do you do? A lot of the rank and file party members are old and frail people. They are intimidated by what’s going on.”
The video depicts Buchal making a fiery pro-Trump speech. He says of the president: “His enemies are my enemies and his enemies are all our enemies.”
“Our enemies are more dangerous than ever,” he continues. “We are really in a life and death battle for the future of our society. And these globalist people are not going to give up.
“If we don’t tell out fellow citizens that there are these dark forces in the government, like the CIA and the shadow government, who are trying to take Trump down with lies, who is going to tell them?”
Spencer Sunshine, an associate researcher at Political Research Associates who last year co-authored a major report on the growth of the far-right Patriot Movement in Oregon, said: “The Oath Keepers have been acting as a de facto security team for white supremacists and neo-Nazis for the last month or two.
“The Three Percenters have no accountability and are implicitly a deeply racist group, and sometimes have explicitly racist members. They have no interest in screening those explicit racists out.
“Consideration of the use of unaccountable, private paramilitary groups by one of the main political parties is a dangerous lurch to the far right.”
In a statement, Rose City Antifa, a Portland antifascist group, said: “That the GOP need[s] to bring in private armed security rather than rely on Portland Police speaks volumes on their stance against ‘violence’. These private security elements of the extreme right claim to be supporting ‘free speech’ when in reality their main goal is directing violence and hate speech towards antifascist protesters and activists while protecting white supremacists.”
The group pointed to what it said was evidence of Oregon Three Percenters attending “alt-right” rallies.
On Tuesday, the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League wrote an open letter to Buchal in response to his comments to the Guardian.
The letter read: “We think it is important for you to know that the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters are not a benign ‘security force.’ They are, in our judgement, militia-style, anti-government extremist groups.”
It also urged him to “reconsider any plans to use these extremist groups to provide security services.”
Mayor Wheeler said in a statement on Monday that he had denied a permit for the planned “free speech” rally on Sunday and a possible follow-up.
“I have confirmed that the City of Portland has NOT and will not issue any permits for the alt-right events scheduled on 4 June or 10 June,” Wheeler said.
The mayor added: “The federal government controls permitting for Shrunk Plaza, and it is my understanding that they have issued a permit for the event on 4 June. I am calling on the federal government to IMMEDIATELY REVOKE the permit(s) they have issued for the 4 June event and to not issue a permit for 10 June.
“I am appealing to the organizers of the alt-right demonstrations to CANCEL the events they have scheduled on 4 June and 10 June.”
Gibson told the Guardian that he would press on with the rally.
“There will be hundreds of people down there regardless of what I do. I will be down there with a permit in a controlled safe environment,” Gibson said.
“Without a permit it could get ugly because we have no right to kick people out.”
Portland police bureau spokesman, sergeant Peter Simpson, told the Guardian that using private security was ambiguous under state law.
“It’s a complex issue. Private security in Oregon needs to be certified by the state. That said, people showing up to assist do not. We don’t advocate bringing in outsiders to police an event.”
He also said that police were monitoring the build-up to the planned rally on Sunday.
“We are aware of the heated rhetoric regarding the planned events next Sunday and are working to determine what our role may be in protecting public safety.”