Nearly 100 people gathered in Newberg for a political rally that saw a counter-protest by a sometimes-aggressive right-wing group and its supporters on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 26.
The rally began with about 30 pro-Black Lives Matter, gay pride and other individuals gathering at the city's flagpole at the corner of First and River streets at 1:30 p.m. Many were prompted by recent actions by the Newberg School Board banning BLM, Pride and other symbols in the schools. Others from outside Newberg spoke out on larger issues such as inclusiveness, racism and police brutality.
As in past rallies in the vicinity, those gathered waved signs at motorists plying First and Hancock streets, some who honked in approval while others displayed their disdain for the effort in imaginative ways.
"It's important for us to recognize the issues," said Sam Kinsley, an Olympia, Wash., resident. "We were on our way back (from camping at the coast) and decided to stop in and join in."
Kinsley added that he has friends who live in Newberg and was aware of the contentious issues surrounding the school board's actions. He stressed the importance of students learning about the First Amendment and their rights during these formative years without censorship.
"Freedom of expression is really important to students," he said, adding that as youth growing up in Montana he witnessed bullying and the quashing of students' individuality at the hands of teachers.
Roughly a dozen from the far-right Proud Boys group assembled in the parking lot of a nearby Christian school and at 2 p.m. formed a convoy traveling south on College Street to the rally.
The self-described western chauvinist group quickly deployed, some taking up signs, flags and bullhorns to spread their message. Others armed themselves only with words and approached the protesters to discuss their differences.
Barry Johnson, a member of the Salem chapter of Proud Boys, said his reasons for approaching people on the other side of the issues was simple.
"To support the American flag, man," he said. "And to keep politics out of the schools. It's ridiculous. I'm trying to bring America back together in a small way, the best I can."
Johnson had several animated conversations with the pro-BLM/Pride rally crowd. One woman identified herself as being antifa and said the anarchist group represented "the boogeyman" for the Proud Boys.
"It's not a boogeyman, they actually show up and fight and actually try to hurt us," Johnson said, adding that one of his Proud Boys brothers was shot in Washington several weeks ago by a member of antifa. "So, when you say they're just a thought, or like our government likes to say, 'Oh, they're just an idea,' no, they're not an idea, they're organized."
Not all of the interactions between the two sides were peaceful. A particular Proud Boy's comments via bullhorn prompted an advocate to thrust her sign in his face and begin yelling "Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter." That prompted the crowd to join in and soon the man and woman were exchanging obscene language and posturing before cooler heads prevailed.
Soon after, though, the man crossed Hancock Street and continued his rants against BLM, gay pride, Newberg schools and more. This time, a pro-LGBQT woman bull-rushed the man and a scuffle ensued. Johnson interceded and calmed the two, who shook hands and returned to their respective corners. Johnson said he was somewhat encouraged by the reception.
"Some of them are very receptive," he said. "Some of them don't believe it … It's kind of sad because they've been indoctrinated with hate themselves. They actually hate us for trying to love on them. They don't see it that way. Antifa and Black Bloc have got them totally twisted."
He described Black Bloc as antifa's "hard frontline fighters."
"They're the ones, if they show up they'll start a fight with Proud Boys and claim they're the victims," Johnson said, adding that if the LGBQT and BLM communities were to tell Black Bloc to stay out of their movement, (Black Bloc) would turn on them and they would protect them. "Because they have First Amendment rights just like we have and if somebody wants to come and stop them -- like antifa or Black Bloc -- we would stand in front of them to protect each and every one of them."
Johnson said the Proud Boys have been misunderstood and demonized by their adversaries and the mainstream media.
"We love these people," he said. "They're Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or what they stand for, it doesn't matter to us. What matters to us is they are good American people. We don't question nobody's sexual orientation; we don't question the color of their skin."
On Sunday, though, their actions often belied their words. Many in the group displayed the "OK" sign, a common symbol of white supremacist groups. The group that gathered Sunday were largely unarmed, although a few sported knives on their belts and others carried batons or wooden dowels to separate themselves from their opponents.
The group of Proud Boys demonstrating Sunday, however, are part of a larger organization that has been characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist and neo-Nazi organization that sprung to the forefront during the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. They were emboldened by the former president's rhetoric during the four years he was in office, but now have found a new cause in opposing vaccine mandates and what they characterize as the government robbing citizens of their rights.