Members of the Patriot Prayer group at the rally in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 4
Photo: Mike Bivins

When the Patriot Prayer group and the Proud Boys—two groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups with white nationalist leanings—decided to rally in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 4, counter-protesters made plans to have a presence there as well.

From a First Amendment standpoint, both groups had a constitutional right to be there. Police showed up—ostensibly to keep order—but by many first-hand accounts, when it came time for police to flex their muscles, they seemed to target the counter-protesters while simultaneously protecting the Patriot Prayer and Proud Boy members.

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Similarly at “Charlottesville 2.0” on Aug. 12, some have suggested that police seemed to go out of their way to ensure that white nationalist groups were provided with special transport and protection on a day when many more people showed up to demonstrate against them. Again, there have been accusations that police appeared to target counter-protesters when it came time to bring the hammer down.

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It’s a story we could write every single day on The Root and it would still be the same. Even when Black Lives Matter activists gather to peacefully protest in the name of justice, the police response seems to lean towards being confrontational and antagonistic rather than maintaining the peace.

At the Patriot Prayer rally, four people were arrested and at least three were injured by nonlethal crowd control munitions used by police, according to OregonLive. All were identified as counter-protesters.

Jeremy Alva is a 33-year-old Portland resident and president of Games to Gather, a nonprofit dedicated building positive environment within the local gaming community. He attended the rally in Portland along with a friend as an observer.

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Alva told The Root that he arrived pretty early in the day and noticed that the police created a barricaded area in the park with only three entrances. People who came through any of those three entrances were searched. He also noted that most people—including the Patriot Prayer group—avoided the barricaded area the cops had created.

“We got there about 10:30 a.m,” Alva said. “The Patriot Prayer bus was unloading, and they were all wearing armor and helmets and seemed to have the same type of color scheme going on—not an actual uniform, but just similarly dressed. I saw one man with a baseball bat, and he still had it when I saw him later during the day.”

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Alva said that most of the confrontations he witnessed were verbal with a lot of yelling. He witnessed the end of one physical altercation that stopped without police intervention. For the most part, he said the groups stayed on their individual sides of the park.

Things changed when police arrived, however. Alva said he believes law enforcement escalated the tension on that day.

“After 11:30 a.m., four or five trucks with cops in armor showed up, and it was strange because there was nothing happening,” Alva said. “They definitely appeared when nothing was happening. They stood in a line facing both sides of the road and began policing who could go back and forth.”

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Alva said it seemed that police were singling out counter-protesters.

Mike Bivins, a 30-year-old freelance journalist in Portland, echoed Alva’s observations.

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Bivins went to the rally to document it through video and live tweets. He observed both sides mostly yelling at each other and noted that there was one physical altercation.

Once police got involved, Bivins said it was hard to tell what set off their engagement with the crowd.

“I heard explosions, and everyone started panicking,” Bivins said. “I did not see what started it, but police seemed to be policing the Antifa/counter-protester group more than the Patriot Prayer group.”

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The Root sent a query to the Portland Police Bureau’s Public Information Officer Sgt. Christopher Burley, and asked him about the Patriot Prayer rally. The Root told him that the witnesses we spoke with said the police seemed to be targeting counter-protesters and asked him if he thought that was a fair assessment of what happened.

Burley told us via email that Portland police’s “response during crowd management events is related to the behavior of individuals and not based on political beliefs or speech.”

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We asked Burley about the reported injuries people suffered as a result of police use of “riot control agents and less lethal impact munitions.” He referred us to the official Police Bureau statement on the issue.

In the statement, PPB says that the “intent of law enforcement today was to provide a safe environment for all participants, nonparticipants and community members while ensuring the peaceful exercise of the First Amendment.”

PPB acknowledges the use of six different types of “riot control agents and less lethal impact munitions” including aerial distraction devices, .60 caliber less lethal round, rubber ball distraction devices, stinger rounds, 40 mm less lethal impact round and pepper spray.

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Out of the hundreds that turned out for both sides, at least three people were reportedly injured by the crowd-control munitions used by Portland police. The reported injuries included third-degree chemical burns, open wounds and a traumatic brain injury.

While the city’s Police Chief Danielle Outlaw told reporters that her department would stop using flash-bang devices for now, she still defended the actions of her officers at the Patriot Prayer rally, according to OregonLive.

Ultimately, all of those injured during the rally—as well as the four people arrested—were reportedly identified as counter-protesters. That follows the narrative of what many said on social media—that the police appeared to have purposely targeted the counter-protesters while mostly ignoring the Patriot Prayer group and their allies.

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In Charlottesville, Va., and Washington, D.C., on Aug. 12, some reported on social media that police made Unite the Right members surrender the flagpoles they were carrying.

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Unite the Right 2 did not have the same number of white nationalists turn out as they did last year—some reports say only about two dozen showed up—and that surely played a role in police action and response. As NPR reported, “they were vastly outnumbered by the number of police assigned to protect them. They were vastly outnumbered by the number of reporters present to observe them. And they were certainly outnumbered by the many, many counter-protesters whose chants just drowned them out.”

By some accounts, police attitudes toward counter-protesters were antagonistic whereas their attitudes toward white nationalists appeared to take a friendlier approach according to the witnesses we spoke with and witness accounts on social media.

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It is worth mentioning that the idea of white nationalists infiltrating law enforcement in this country is something that has been discussed, studied, and investigated for years. Last year, a police officer with D.C. Metro was investigated after he was photographed wearing a shirt with a racist symbol on it while he was on duty.

Could there be a direct connection between police response to white nationalists and the presence of racist or white nationalist officers on a police force?

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Taken separately, all of these factors could be described as isolated incidents—but when put together, it paints an ugly picture of law enforcement in this country and the role they play in upholding white supremacy, racism and the tenets of white nationalism.

So, do police shield white nationalist groups? Do police target counter-protesters? Do police try to silence the voices of those with whom they disagree?

In short, yes.

Jonathan Savage, 34, is an attorney with Savage Law Group in St. Louis. He told The Root he believes there is a clear bias in policing that dates back to the inception of police during the days of slavery.

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“I’m from St. Louis and I was here during the time before and after Ferguson,” Savage said. “There’s clearly a bias as it relates to police protection and police serving in black communities compared to the way they serve in communities that are not black. In my opinion, that dates back to slavery—when the police force was established in order to make sure slaves stayed in order and did not run away. I think that has transcended into modern-day policing. From the time that slavery was abolished, through the Jim Crow era, to the 70s all the way up to now.

“I would call it an innate bias and innate disposition as it relates to a fear of blacks. I think officers—whether they are black or white—are taught to fear what society deems as people who look like thugs—black people,” he added.

Savage, who is black, said he has been racially profiled in his own town, even while driving a nice car, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. He said that there is an “innate bias” that “subjects blacks to a higher standard of criminality than it does for people who are white.”

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According to Savage, those attitudes bleed over into how different communities are policed. In black communities, he said, there is a lack of protective policing and an emphasis on keeping black people in order.

“It is not the type of policing that is protecting and serving and being a part of the community,” Savage said. “We all fear crime. No one wants to be raped. No one wants to be murdered. In black communities, violent crime is heightened because we lack protection.”

So how does that translate to the policing of activists and rallies?

“Wherever you are, the police always make sure there’s tightened security so that white people can freely express their First Amendment rights: freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” he said.

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“On the other side, whenever there are black activists who pose no threat to officers or anyone, officers are brought out to these communities when we express our constitutional rights—not to protect us, but to keep us in order,” Savage continued.

“They come out with batons and in riot gear in order to create a heightened fear. In my opinion, it draws fear but also a sense of adrenalin for those who protest. It makes everyone madder.

“It’s unfortunate that we don’t get the same protections as those organizations that are founded on hatred. Whenever anyone who has a voice against oppression wants to protest, we are met with opposition, we are met with force—and that perpetuates the racism,” Savage said. “It gives a voice to racism. It becomes pretty clear when you see these things—you see the president of the United States shunning athletes who want to be a voice outside of the field. They want to do something better for their community and the world, so they decide to take a stand against racism by protesting. Then you have the president demoralize and dehumanize them while simultaneously enabling the white supremacy groups.”

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So how do we fix this, especially in this political climate? Savage has some ideas.

“One of the only solutions is education,” Savage said. “Police officers, unfortunately, have unfettered discretion to do what they want when they want because that is the way the laws are written. A police officer can essentially commit murder if he says he feels his life is in danger.

“We need to get on the books and change the laws. People need to be educated to the sensitive nature of race and how it can be demoralizing to African Americans—it is a sensitive subject. Those on the other end of the spectrum need to understand why we feel the way we feel. Why it’s wrong for you to protect a group that is essentially founded on hate versus a group that is simply saying black lives matter?”

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