The mayor of Portland, Oregon, sparked controversy when he urged the federal government to prevent two alt-right demonstrations from taking place at a federal plaza in Portland.
Ted Wheeler has served as the mayor of Portland, Oregon since January 1, 2017. He is a member of the Democratic party and previously served as Oregon’s state treasurer.
On May 29, 2017, Wheeler used Facebook to urge publicly that the federal government revoke permits for two upcoming demonstrations scheduled to take place in the Terry D. Schrunk Plaza in Portland. The first demonstration, called the “Trump Free Speech Rally,” organized by a Portland-based organization called Patriot Prayer, was scheduled to take place on June 4. According to its Facebook page, Patriot Prayer is dedicated to “fighting corruption and big government.” The second demonstration, called the “March Against Sharia,” was organized by ACT for America and scheduled to take place on June 10. ACT for America is a conservative organization that combats “what it describes as ‘the threat of radical Islam’ to the safety of Americans and to democracy,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. The permits were issued by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), reports Oregon Live.
Joey Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer, told Oregon Live that his event would include 50 or 60 private security personnel, many of whom have “conceal carry” licenses. These licenses allow individuals to carry concealed weapons. Federal law prohibits guns from being carried inside federal property like the plaza in question, but according to Gibson, weapons could be carried outside, but near, the plaza.
Wheeler’s Facebook post said, in part, “I have confirmed that the City of Portland has NOT and will not issue any permits for the alt right events scheduled on June 4th or June 10th. The Federal government controls permitting for Shrunk [sic] Plaza, and it is my understanding that they have issued a permit for the event on June 4th,” according to The Washington Post. He also said, “I am calling on the federal government to IMMEDIATELY REVOKE the permit(s) they have issued for the June 4th event and to not issue a permit for June 10th. Our City is in mourning, our community’s anger is real, and the timing and subject of these events can only exacerbate an already difficult situation.”
The mourning mentioned by Wheeler is a reference to a double murder that took place on May 26 in Portland. Two men were stabbed to death after confronting another, who was “screaming anti-Muslim slurs” at two young women, the Post reports. Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best were killed on a light-rail train after intervening to stop the assailant from shouting what police described as “hate speech toward a variety of ethnicities and religions,” according to Oregon Live. A third man was also injured in the incident.
The alleged killer, Jeremy Joseph Christian, had attended the “March for Free Speech,” an event organized by Patriot Prayer in April 2017, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Organizers of that event asked Christian “to leave after he yelled racial epithets and ‘Die Muslims!’ and threatened Gibson,” Oregon Live reports. A photo of Christian shows him giving the Nazi salute at the event, according to the Post.
Gibson responded to Wheeler’s Facebook post by distancing himself from Christian’s alleged actions. “What I say, the things that I say, the things that I preach goes against everything that Jeremy Christian would’ve said,” he asserted on Facebook. Gibson urged federal officials to respect his group’s permit, so that Patriot Prayer would be able to maintain control over the rally. “If they pull our permits, we cannot kick out the white supremacists. We cannot kick out the Nazis. Do you get that?” he said, according to the Post. “If anyone has a sign, a racist sign or anything, they will be gone. If anyone screams anything racist, they will be gone. But if they pull our permit, we will not have that right.”
At a press conference on May 29, Wheeler told reporters that his “main concern is that [the organizers of the rallies] are coming to peddle a message of hatred and of bigotry,” according to CNN. “They have a First Amendment right to speak, but my pushback on that is that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” Wheeler’s claim drew criticism from free speech advocates, including the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU of Oregon reacted to Wheeler’s remarks in a series of tweets, saying “The government cannot revoke or deny a permit based on the viewpoint of the demonstrators. Period. It may be tempting to shut down speech we disagree with, but once we allow the government to decide what we can say, see, or hear, or who we can gather with. History shows us that the most marginalized will be disproportionately censored and punished for unpopular speech. We are all free to reject and protest ideas we don’t agree with. That is a core, fundamental freedom of the United States. If we allow the government to shut down speech for some, we all will pay the price down the line.” In an article for the Post, Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote that, “the government may not deny permits for speech because it views the speech as promoting ‘bigotry or hatred,’ whether toward Muslims, blacks, whites, police officers, capitalists or whomever else.”
Michael Cox, a spokesman for Wheeler, told Oregon Live that “it’s not up to the mayor to sanction or not sanction speech events.” Cox also said, “The mayor’s request to revoke the permit is in no way intended to censor political speech,” Oregon Live reports. “The request was made because the mayor’s top priority is the safety of everyone in our city. He believes that this rally is planned for the wrong time at the wrong place in the wake of a horrific double murder and in the midst of the Rose Festival.”
The GSA denied Wheeler’s request that the two permits be revoked. Wheeler responded to the federal government’s decision by saying, “I am a firm supporter of the First Amendment, no matter the views expressed. I believe we had a case to make about the threats to public safety posed by this rally at this place and at this time,” Oregon Live reports.
On June 4, the “Trump Free Speech Rally” drew hundreds of supporters and a larger number of counter-protesters and onlookers, according to Reuters. Anti-fascist activists wearing masks reportedly shouted “Nazis, go home” at the demonstrators in the square. Fourteen arrests were made, and police used Twitter to display the numerous weapons they had confiscated during the demonstration, including “a hunting knife, brass knuckles, clubs, roadside flares, a slingshot and several homemade shields,” Reuters reports.
The rally scheduled to take place on June 10 was cancelled by organizers. Scott Pressler, an employee of ACT for America, explained his organization’s decision to cancel the rally in a post on Facebook, saying “Due to Mayor Wheeler’s inflammatory comments and what we feel is an incitement of violence, he has shamefully endangered every scheduled participant,” Oregon Live reports. “Consequently, in order to ensure the safety of those who had planned on attending, we have taken the decision to cancel the Portland March Against Sharia,” he continued.
Prepared by Will Haskell ’18
September 19, 2017