Over the weekend as large crowds of protesters in Portland chanted in support of Black lives and against an ongoing federal police crackdown around the courthouse, some heads turned when a few young men were spotted in the crowd wearing flak jackets over their Hawaiin shirts.
These were purported to be members of the so-called Boogaloo Boys, a mishmash movement of extremists that calls for another civil war, among other things.
“We don’t support violence, I want to make that clear, we are not racist,” said an apparent spokesman, in a video posted to Twitter by Portland freelance journalist Sergio Olmos.
The men added that they were out on the streets in support of the protests, and agreed with many of the same things being called for by Black Lives Matter leaders and others.
Extremists implying they’re showing up to protest federal overreach in a liberal city seems like strange bedfellows. But in the Northwest, the far right has been protesting what it calls federal tyranny for years. In fact, experts say extremist groups on both ends of the spectrum have flourished in the region in part due to its vast geographic and cultural distance from Washington D.C.
Sign Up For Breaking News Alerts
Stay on top of the latest stories and developments, sent when news breaks.
Four years ago, Oregon was also in the national spotlight for a protest that included vandalism of federal property: the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Men in cowboy hats calling themselves Patriots tore down fences and bulldozed over land considered sacred to Native Americans. The Obama administration then estimated the siege caused close to a million dollars in damage to the bird refuge property and buildings.
In Portland this summer, the damage tally is much smaller. The latest estimate from the Department of Homeland Security is $50,000, mostly attributed to vandalism and graffiti at and around the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse.
And the far right has mostly been quiet about the alleged federal crackdown, which is just fine with Eric Ward, executive director of Western States Center, a Portland group that tracks extremism in the Northwest.
“We have our hands full with a quasi federal police force,” Ward said.
Ward’s group is among those that have filed lawsuits against the Trump administration’s presence in the Democratically-controlled city.
“We don’t now need quasi military formations on the streets of Portland to add to that,” Ward said.
For the past three years, far right extremists have regularly descended on Portland to clash with leftists. These protests were often a spectacle, almost always tense and sometimes violent. So few people here are eager to see any strange bedfellows alliances with far right patriots, who Ward contends are selfish and cherry pick from the Constitution.
“With a few exceptions, they are made up of leaders who hold up the constitution with one hand and crush it with the other,” Ward said.
One far right leader who has lately shown some support for the issues raised by Black Lives Matter is Ammon Bundy, who even said he entertained attending a recent BLM rally near his home in Boise, Idaho.
At the very Portland courthouse that’s now the flashpoint of the NEW protests, Bundy was acquitted for leading that 2016 wildlife refuge occupation.
“If you think that somehow the Black Lives Matter is more dangerous than the police, you must have a problem in your mind. If you think that Antifa is the one that’s going to take your freedom, you must have a problem in your mind,” Bundy told his followers in a video posted to Facebook recently.
He added that federal police forces have turned into a huge bureaucracy and need to be defunded. The militia leader later claimed he was ostracized by his own supporters for saying that.
Experts say that’s because the far right generally views what’s happening in Portland to be a liberal urban political fight.
But western historian Patty Limerick says that could change. She says President Trump picked the wrong region for a standoff. There’s a long and complicated history of fighting the federal government in Oregon in particular, and it crosses political boundaries.
“By one point of view, President Trump might have had an advisor, and he didn’t, who said, ‘you know this thing where you’re going to be sending these personnel from federal agencies into a western city, um, I wouldn’t do that,'” Limerick says.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reported the administration is planning to send even more federal officers to the city, in addition to the 114 already on the ground. The move comes as clashes between some protesters and federal agents appear to be showing no signs of abating.
Portland will be going into its 61st continuous night of protests tonight.