Portland Family Parade Becomes Unexpected Battlefield for Political Activists

Demonstrators on both sides of the political spectrum protest in Portland, Ore., along the route of a parade that was canceled amid safety concerns. (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, ORE. — The annual Roses Parade that snakes along 82nd Avenue here each year provides families with familiar springtime escapism. Church clubs and veterans groups hold banners and wave. Members of the local Chinese-American community bring their dramatic lion dance. The “clown prince” makes an appearance on his clown-car “throne.”

But not this year. In place of the family-friendly scenes on Saturday were masked protesters, police armored in riot gear and about 100 people waving Trump campaign flags and sporting “Make America Great Again” hats.

Right-wing vlogger Joey Gibson shouted into a bullhorn, “We’re here to stand tall and stand against their threats!”

A threatening letter suggesting leftists planned to attack the float of a local Republican group — and social media chatter suggesting the dispute could devolve into a street brawl — turned this quiet neighborhood’s annual parade into an unexpected battleground in the escalating war between political extremist groups.

Organizers canceled the event days before it was to be staged, but the clash between the left-wing and right-wing groups went on.

For months, the groups have been colliding across the country but largely were confined to university campuses and surrounding streets. On one side are the anarchists and “antifascists,” or antifa — left-wing groups that wear masks, dress in black and have sometimes caused peaceful marches staged by progressive groups to end with violence or property damage. On the other side are members and allies of the so-called alt-right, a loose coalition of people with far-right ideology — including white nationalists — who turn up at events, they say, to defend free speech and free assembly against antifa groups.

In Berkeley, riots have broken out multiple times in recent months, notably on April 15 for a tax day march and after leftists tried to block appearances by two conservative provocateurs, commentator Ann Coulter and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Both incidents prompted counter-protests and were ultimately canceled because of the fear of violence.

The Portland incident has taken the clash to a new level, with the threat of violence spilling over into residential neighborhoods and business districts.

There were at least three arrests during the incident Saturday, but no violence was reported. Still, it has left residents of the Portland neighborhood concerned that political tensions in the country have grown so extreme that they are disrupting everyday American life.

“It’s part of the national trend that’s beginning to trickle down to the smaller and smaller communities,” said Rich Jarvis, spokesman for the Rose Festival. The event is supposed to be a “time out” from divisive politics and social strife, he said.

“Put it aside, take a break, come to the festival and enjoy the community,” he said. “This isn’t a place where you bring in anger and issues that are bothering the community.”

This part of East Portland has become one of the city’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods. A main thoroughfare, Southeast 82nd Avenue is lined with nail salons, fast food restaurants and big box stores. Men in dirty coveralls stand smoking cigarettes outside a muffler shop. At a Sizzler, a marquee announces that a trip to the salad bar comes with free onion rings.

Between those big box stores are sushi restaurants and packed dining rooms filled with families enjoying afternoon dim sum. Women leave Lee’s Sandwiches carrying paper bags of baguettes, and the menu features nine Asian sandwiches.

The parade has become a celebration of the diverse cultures that have settled here as inner Portland neighborhoods have gentrified, bulldozing affordable housing and edging families out.

Concerns about this year’s event began last weekend, when parade organizers got wind of some antifa groups objecting to the Multnomah County Republican Party’s float, which had been a part of the parade before. The antifa groups said people with racist beliefs planned to join the float, so they pledged to “shut it down.”

Organizers also got an email, purportedly from an antifa group, threatening to “drag and push out” those who “espouse hatred toward lgbt, immigrants, people of color or others.” Antifa groups have denied that they sent the note.

Concerned for the safety of spectators and participants, the organizers decided to cancel the event.

Many of those involved in the dispute — the antifa groups, the right-wing activists, the Multnomah GOP and even Portland’s mayor — expressed shock and dismay that the parade, which is a local institution, would be canceled over what they felt were perfectly manageable security concerns.

“These people who are throwing the parade have never been threatened before, so they were kind of worried, and were concerned about property damage too, I guess,” said Gibson, a conservative activist based in Vancouver, Wash., in an interview before the event. He protested along the planned parade route Saturday to support the GOP.

Gibson, a YouTube personality whose Patriot Prayer group has participated in multiple protests opposing the antifa, accuses the leftist groups of squelching free speech.

“Anyone who’s been going on the streets a lot to protest these protesters, we’re used to the threats,” he said.

In an interview via Facebook messaging, an organizer with Oregon Students Empowered, an antifa group, said the group did not want the parade canceled but rather the GOP float removed from the parade. People they knew to be neo-Nazis and racists were planning to be present, which they believed was inappropriate and a threat to the community.

“I’m not sure exactly what we would have done, but we would have shut it down without harming anyone who is not affiliated with the Republican group,” said the organizer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of becoming a target of the police.

James Buchal, chairman of the Multnomah County Republican Party, said he is confident that the event could have gone on safely.

“It probably would have been nothing more than 30 to 40 punks wearing masks who could easily be kept at bay,” he said. “It would have been very easy for the police to have marched along side of us or do whatever they needed to do so the community wouldn’t have to lose the whole thing.”

Along the two-mile route where the parade would have taken place, people say they’re disappointed by the cancellation.

Riz Ashraf, 33, says he usually brings his family to the event.

“I guess we don’t have enough safety force in our city,” he says, shrugging. He thinks canceling in light of hazy threats sends a dangerous message that “people can’t do anything.”

“I feel bad for the kids,” he says.

Outside, Maddie Drvenkar, 45, says the cancellation of the parade and the cancellation of Ann Coulter’s speech in Berkeley only feeds into people’s fears.

“To not give them a chance to speak gives them the upper hand,” he says. “We’re fueling their fires.”

“The anarchist thing pisses me off,” he adds. “But I guess the definition of anarchy is chaos.”

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