Portland’s Powderkeg Problem

Feelings are understandably very raw in Portland at the moment. With good reason. For very pragmatic reasons, Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, has called for the suspension of constitutional rights.


2) 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 Plaza, and it is my understanding that they have issued a permit for the event on June 4th.

3) 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.

4) I am appealing to the organizers of the alt-right demonstrations to CANCEL the events they have scheduled on June 4th and June 10th. I urge them to ask their supporters to stay away from Portland. There is never a place for bigotry or hatred in our community, and especially not now.

From the perspective of a city’s mayor, this is an understandable, if unconstitutional, position. That the permits are characterized as being issued to “alt-right” groups is itself a curious characterization.

CNN affiliate KATU said the “Trump Free Speech Rally Portland,” is scheduled for Sunday.

Joey Gibson is organizer of that rally. His Facebook page says the effort is “about fighting corruption and big government with the strength and power of love.”

The alt-right “dog whistle” is, apparently, “Trump free speech.” Perhaps supporting Trump would be enough to earn the characterization.

When asked if he identified with Wheeler’s “alt-right” description, Gibson said: “When someone can explain to me what alt-right means, I’ll answer it. I’m a libertarian. I’m not right wing, I’m for gay marriage, I’m against the drug wars.”

CNN offers this definition:

The so-called “alt-right,” is a far-right movement that has been linked to white nationalism, racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism.

Given the way accusations are hurled with definitional abandon these days, this definition does little to define the alt-right. Perhaps it can only be defined in the negative, anything other than extreme leftist progressivism, though that suffers from the same lack of boundaries.

As Eugene Volokh explains (for what seems like the millionth time), there is no time-out clause for free speech and association.

The murders in Portland are of course appalling — but, no, the government may not deny permits for speech because it views the speech as promoting “bigotry or hatred,” whether towards Muslims, blacks, whites, police officers, capitalists, or whoever else. Nor can the government impose viewpoint-based timeouts for speech after certain events.

Wheeler goes down the “hate speech isn’t free speech” path, which plays well to the crowds but is, of course, utter nonsense.

“My main concern is that they are coming to peddle a message of hatred and of bigotry,” Wheeler told reporters, referring to organizers of the two rallies. “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.”

And as Reason’s C.J. Ciarmariella twits, the twitterlawyers are raising Chaplinsky’s “fighting words” doctrine, despite their complete lack of grasp of its inapplicability.

The ACLU of Oregon, in contrast to the National’s squishy ambivalence on free speech, has chosen to oppose Wheeler’s call for suspension of the Constitution in a six-point twitstorm.

1. The government cannot revoke or deny a permit based on the viewpoint of the demonstrators. Period.

2. It may be tempting to shut down speech we disagree with, but…

3. once we allow the government to decide what we can say, see, or hear, or who we can gather with

4. history shows us that the most marginalized will be disproportionately censored and punished for unpopular speech.

5. We are all free to reject and protest ideas we don’t agree with. That is a core, fundamental freedom of the United States.

6. If we allow the government to shut down speech for some, we all will pay the price down the line.

The argument is cast in terms of the “most marginalized,” which may be best explained as an effort to appeal to those least inclined at the moment to value constitutional rights when they conflict with their emotions and political agenda. Don’t do it for the “alt-right,” but for the marginalized, as it will ultimately be used to silence those you prefer if it can be used to silence those you hate.

It’s hard to fault a mayor for wanting to avoid a potentially violent clash in his city. Portland is a powder keg, primed to explode. But Ted Wheeler’s approach to calming the city didn’t end with rosy wishes.

Now is the time, we must come together as a community and love one another. We must reject hatred and violence. We must seek justice.

Calling the scheduled and permitted protests “alt-right” serves to further inflame passions. Calling for the violation of constitutional rights promotes authoritarian reactions. That any support for Trump, or free speech, or views that aren’t progressive, is evil or hate speech doesn’t serve to eliminate violence, but justify it. Much as the perpetration of horrific violence against three men who defended two women was a tragedy, firing up responsive violence against others by emphasizing the wrongfulness of their “disagreeable” beliefs isn’t any less violence.

In light of the tragedy in Portland, and the anger in response to it, it might well be a sound exercise of discretion for the two protests now scheduled to shift set, if their purpose is not to further inflame a city ready to explode. Had Mayor Wheeler asked for the organizers to give some time for a city to heal from tragedy, and the organizers not been bent on capitalizing on outrage to make their point and court violence, perhaps they would exercise discretion and push their protests back a bit. That would be entirely up to them, but it would be a way to show that they are no more inclined to fuel anger than those on the other side.

That didn’t happen. And should Portland explode, no one will be any better for it and each side will point at the other and scream about hate.

7 thoughts on “Portland’s Powderkeg Problem

  1. Joe Tittiger

    Anyone that has a clue as to what a right is, would not even be applying for a “permit”.
    Applying for the permit say’s that one you don’t know your rights, and two that you don’t give a shite about them.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is a brutal irony about needing a permit to exercise free speech, though the Supremes have held that time, place and manner restrictions are constitutional. The inner anarchist might, and probably should, bristle at this constraint.

  2. Fubar

    When asked if he identified with Wheeler’s “alt-right” description, Gibson said: “When someone can explain to me what alt-right means, I’ll answer it.

    From the first draft of my forthcoming treatise explaining the entire universe with minimal handwaving:

    An afternoon nap is alt-night.
    In darkness, the dim is alt-bright.
    We can all fly around
    Without leaving the ground,
    By flapping our arms in alt-flight.

  3. Scott Jacobs

    My favorite part is where the WaPo got some dolt of a “Conflict Resolution” professor opine about the constitutionality of the mayor’s move (spoiler: he says it is perfectly fine) when they have the greatest living scholar on First Amendment law on fucking payroll.

    At times like this, I’m rather sad that the Mayans were wrong.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve been twitting about that insanity today. The writer was Derek Hawkins. He broke the rule about making people stupider.

      That said, much as Eugene is a brilliant First Amendment scholar, let not get too hyberbolic. Even he can be wrong.

  4. Matthew S Wideman

    A lot of people need to grow up…. I never thought I would see a politician advocating such a kindergarten position. Is there a “feelz” exception to the 1st Amendment??

    It’s times like this I think of my grandfather’s being so poor during the depression he had to cornmeal and water. That same guy parachuted into France and fought the Nazis in his twenty’s. I don’t say this to brag about my grandfather’s life(because I am sure most of us on here have an equally shitty relative great depression story), but to show our country has been through some worse times than a crazy guy stabbing people. My grandfather’s brother died of Spanish Flu! Yet, the country didn’t close schools and factories because it would affect the WW1 war effort. It feels to me like we have lost a bit of grit and determination. Whatever happened to the Tom Joad Democrats, who were tough and didn’t worry about issues that involved feelings??

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