By Paul Vercammen, Bill Kirkos, Traci Tamura and Emanuella Grinberg
PORTLAND, Oregon (CNN) — Police used pepper spray to break up competing protests in Portland, Oregon, on Sunday as a tangled web of emotions arose over a deadly train stabbing in May.
Portland Police said they closed Chapman Square due to criminal activity and threatened to arrest anyone who remained in the park. Officers deployed impact weapons and chemical munitions after protesters threw projectiles at them including glass bottles and bricks, officials said.
At least four people were arrested Sunday during the dueling rallies, Portland Police said without providing details.
Hundreds of supporters of US President Donald Trump converged on Terry D. Schrunk Plaza for the event, billed as a “Trump Free Speech” rally, carrying “Make America Great Again” signs and wearing the corresponding red hats. They were slightly outnumbered by the mixed assemblage of counterprotesters across the street led by a group of self-described anti-fascists who viewed the free speech rally as a promotion of racism.
The groups were separated by a wall of officers, heavily armed and wearing protective body armor, from local and federal police agencies.
The rallies come in the wake of the stabbing deaths of Ricky Best, 53, and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, 23, as they tried to defend two Muslim women from what police described as a barrage of hate speech.
Suspect Jeremy Joseph Christian raised the free speech issue in his arraignment Tuesday.
“Get out if you don’t like free speech!” he shouted as he entered the courtroom. “You call it terrorism; I call it patriotism. Die.”
Concerns raised early on
Tensions continued to build one week after the deadly stabbing turned the city into the latest battleground over free speech and race relations in the Trump era.
“We hope and pray that both sides try to keep in mind that in the big picture it might be easy to forget with all the emotions running high that we all have the same basic needs,” said Portland resident Margie Fletcher.
Her son, Micah, was wounded and the other two were killed as they tried to intervene in what Portland police called “hate speech toward a variety of ethnicities and religions” directed at two women riding the train.
Christian faces charges including two counts of aggravated murder, attempted murder, two counts of second-degree intimidation and being a felon in possession of a restricted weapon, police say.
Signs of animosity among the groups holding rallies began to emerge last week in online forums. The tensions put police on high alert and prompted the mayor to call on the federal government to revoke the event organized by a group called Patriot Prayer. Terry D. Schrunk Plaza is federal property where guns are barred.
“I’m a strong supporter of the First Amendment no matter what the views are that are being expressed,” Mayor Ted Wheeler told HLN on Friday, “but given the timing of this rally, I believed we had a case to make about the threats to public safety.”
Federal officials declined the request, saying there was no legal basis to revoke the permit for “Patriot Prayer.”
Wheeler also called on protest organizer Joey Gibson to postpone the event. But Gibson told CNN that he hears concerns of violence at every public event he holds. He said his group is not racist or alt-right and it should not be held responsible for the actions of counterdemonstrators.
“Every single time I throw a rally, every single march, it’s the same thing,” he said Wednesday. “That what I’m going to do is dangerous, what I’m going to do is dangerous for the city because we are going to provoke other people to be violent against us.”
Protester: A vote for Trump not hate speech
In addition to the arrests, a large pickup truck flying two large American flags cruised past hundreds of anti-fascist protesters and honked its horn. Several people in the group ran up to the truck and ripped out the flags, bringing them into the crowd as others applauded. Others threw multiple large water bottles, sticks and other projectiles at the truck, which then sped away.
On each side protesters carried signs reflecting a variety of causes. Counter-demonstrators chanted expletive-ridden slogans denouncing Trump and carried signs proclaiming “Supporters of Trump are traitors to America” and “Freedom ends where harm begins.” Across the street, Trump supporters waved “Make America Great Again” signs and wore the corresponding red hats.
One Trump supporter said she was marching in support of “free speech” after the mayor’s attempt to silence the Patriot Prayer event. Another wearing a “Police Lives Matter” T-shirt said she wanted to “reverse the lies” surrounding Trump supporters.
“Just because we voted for Trump doesn’t equal hate speech,” Debbie Sluder said.
CNN’s Paul Vercammen, Bill Kirkos and Traci Tamura reported from Portland. Emanuella Grinberg, Steve Almasy and Nicole Chavez wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Jake Carpenter contributed to this report.