Portland police hands-off strategy during violent political clashes criticized by some, praised by mayor

The decision by Portland police to use a hands-off strategy to opposing rallies drew criticism this week as violence between the two political groups ended with gunfire Sunday, according to a report. 

The far-right and far-left groups squared off with paintball guns, bats and chemical spray as they clashed in Northeast Portland – despite calls by officials and police to remain peaceful. 

“People were lighting fireworks and dispersing chemical spray, as well as firing what appeared to be paintball and/or airsoft guns,” police said in a statement. “Some property destruction was observed.”


Members of the far-right group Proud Boys and anti-fascist protesters spray bear mace at each other during clashes between the politically opposed groups on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Alex Milan Tracy)

Members of the far-right group Proud Boys and anti-fascist protesters spray bear mace at each other during clashes between the politically opposed groups on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Alex Milan Tracy) (AP Photo/Alex Milan Tracy)

In addition to setting off fireworks, Antifa members were seen throwing smoke bombs and firing paintballs, while right-wing demonstrators smashed out windows of Antifa activists’ trucks.

Police had directed officers to observe the fights from a distance, even as local residents were caught up in the fray. But an apparent exchange of gunfire downtown eventually prompted police to intervene for the first time, according to The Oregonian. A man was arrested after the shooting, but it was not clear if the incident was tied to the earlier clashes, police told Fox News.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, in a statement Monday, contended it was the right strategy. He argued that previous announcements by him, police, and other officials decrying hate speech, and bigotry – along with the hands-off approach – caused at least one of the groups to relocate to a separate area in the city. 

He added that the fighting on Sunday largely stayed between the two political groups. 

“With strategic planning and oversight, the Portland Police Bureau and I mitigated confrontation between the two events and minimized the impact of the weekend’s events to Portlanders,” Wheeler said. 

“In the past, these same groups have clashed with extremely violent and destructive results. This time, violence was contained to the groups of people who chose to engage in violence toward each other. The community at large was not harmed and the broader public was protected. Property damage was minimal,” he continued. 

Wheeler and police were concerned that a large police presence would entice Antifa activists into fights with officers as well as damage to local property, according to The Oregonian. 


Officials told the paper they wouldn’t send officers into the demonstrations unless people were getting seriously hurt or a “life safety emergency” occurred.

However, many people were still concerned about the public violence that continued between the two groups.

“Your city terrifies me,” tweeted Tanny Martin, an out-of-towner from Austin, Texas, according to the paper. “These aren’t protests, they are planned violence. And your leaders just let them keep doing it, the police tacitly support it. Horrific.”

“Counter protestors going to confront Proud Boys are NOT making things more safe, they’re actually making it worse,” tweeted Lakayana Drury, a member of the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing.

Amy Herzfled-Copple, deputy director of programs and strategic initiatives at the Western States Center, a Portland-based organization that monitors right-wing extremism, told the Oregonian that without a rule of law and law enforcement to intervene and protect public safety, it only “reinforces the lawlessness and fear that anti-democratic groups thrive on.”


“It’s time for city and county officials and communities outside Portland to take responsibility for countering such violence,” Herzfled-Copple continued. “Portland isn’t an island. It requires support from all levels of government.”

Wheeler noted the city will continue to investigate criminal behavior and will “press charges when possible.”

Fox News’ Edmund DeMarche contributed to this report

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