NEWS

As anger grows over Proud Boys clashes, city officials say they have 'few options'

Dianne Lugo Virginia Barreda
Salem Statesman Journal

Planned Parenthood Columbia Willamette is no stranger to protesters. 

The organization has operated since 1968, providing reproductive and health services at centers in Salem, Beaverton, Bend, Milwaukie-Oak Grove, North East Portland, South East Portland and Vancouver, Washington. 

And like Planned Parenthood clinics around the country, the locations have seen their share of objectors throughout the years.

But not like what they're seeing now.

Eight months ago, Pastor Ken Peters’ The Church at Planned Parenthood began gathering at the Salem clinic, hosting a monthly “service” across the street, as Peters’ calls it. 

A row of clergy witnesses stands between a group of antifascists and leftwing supporters and Proud Boys and rightwing supporters at a Church at Planned Parenthood event outside Planned Parenthood in Salem, Oregon on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

Those gatherings in an otherwise quiet residential northeast Salem neighborhood are “designed to shame and intimidate our patients, and keep them from accessing health care, no matter what the consequences,” Anne Udall, president and CEO of PPCW, said in a statement to the Statesman Journal. 

And for the past two events, the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, joined The Church at Planned Parenthood as self-described "security." Violence erupted between Proud Boy members and antifacists. 

Church has ties to violent events

Peters established the Church at Planned Parenthood in Spokane, Washington in 2018. 

Since then, Peters has partnered with people across the country, spreading to nine different cities including Atlanta, Everett, Washington and Knoxville, Tennessee, where Peters now lives.

Salem is the latest stop for the group. 

Peters and his church are no stranger to controversy. 

Rightwing activists and Proud Boys stand guard with paintball guns at a Church at Planned Parenthood event outside Planned Parenthood in Salem, Oregon on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

A judge in Washington issued an injunction against the organization in September 2020 after the Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho successfully argued that the group’s loud protests outside its facility interfered with patient care and violated local laws that prevent excessive noise outside healthcare facilities. 

The court ordered Peters and The Church at Planned Parenthood to move their gatherings across the street an hour after new patients enter the Planned Parenthood. 

Portland violence:Portland rallies turn violent, shots fired in confrontation

Peters has also made national headlines as one of the pastors who spoke at the Freedom Plaza the night before a right-wing mob attacked the U.S. Capitol.  According to CNN, Peters had flown into D.C on a private jet owned by Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow and prominent Donald Trump supporter. 

A Jan. 5 video shows Peters leading a prayer for Enrique Tarrio and “his organization.”

Tarrio is a leader of the Proud Boys and was sentenced to five months in prison Monday after he was arrested for burning a Black Lives Matter banner in Washington, D.C and attempted possession of a large-capacity ammunition feeding device. He was arrested with two high-capacity magazines in January following the insurrection.

Peters insists, however, that he has no relationship or connection with the Proud Boys.

He said he did not invite the group to Salem in July but was grateful for their presence. 

“We felt very threatened [by armed counter protesters],” Peters said. The church is peaceful, he said, and that “We’re not connected with the Proud Boys at all but I sure appreciate them defending us. I mean, who’s going to complain about that?” 

Salem clinic brawls 

July’s rally at the Salem Planned Parenthood clinic attracted at least 20 individuals dressed in Proud Boys attire who were acting as security for the organizers.

Some members were seen carrying sidearms, paintball guns, bats and body armor. 

The health center is nestled between the entrance to the busy Village East Shopping Center off Lancaster Drive NE and a quiet residential area. 

The group clashed with about 40 counter-protesters — also seen armed with bats and paintball guns, and individuals from both sides sprayed mace and pepper spray at each other and at police officers. 

At least three people were arrested and face charges such as rioting, disorderly conduct and robbery.

Proud Boys and rightwing supporters spray chemical irritants at antifascists and leftwing supporters at a Church at Planned Parenthood event outside Planned Parenthood in Salem, Oregon on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021.

The Church at Planned Parenthood and at least a dozen Proud Boys returned to the clinic Aug. 10, as did the counter-protesters. One person was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct. 

Proud Boys again acted as security for the church group, forming a line in front of the organizers for about two hours before violence erupted with some antifascist protesters later that evening.

Individuals from the opposing groups launched chemical irritants and smoke fireworks at each other after a verbal altercation, police officials said.

Several people from both groups wore gas masks and helmets and carried shields, paintball guns and bear mace cannisters. Some individuals from both sides openly carried firearms. 

Salem Police detectives are still doing follow-up investigations into alleged criminal behavior at the Aug. 10 rally and are asking possible victims of crimes to file a police report. 

'This is a neighborhood'

During the Aug. 23 Salem City Council meeting, councilors Chris Hoy, Vanessa Nordyke, Tom Andersen and Jim Lewis expressed frustration at the ongoing violence involving Proud Boys and counter-protesters. 

“I’m really upset about it on several levels," Hoy said during the meeting. "I want people to understand that this isn’t like having a protest at the state Capitol, which is a public property which is equipped to handle that kind of situation. This is a neighborhood.”

Hoy said he had received dozens of emails and comments about August’s incident and had since had meetings with Salem City Manager Steve Powers, the city attorney and Police Chief Trevor Womack, challenging them to step up efforts to curb future violence. 

Prior coverage:Groups clash outside Planned Parenthood in Salem; police arrest 2

It’s a difficult ask, Womack told the council.

“Trust me, we share a lot of the same sentiment. We’re getting very tired of it as well,” Womack said. “There’s certain groups that seem hellbent on conflict and confrontation that we wish would no longer come into our city either.” 

The police agency is working hard to find new ways to approach this problem, he said, but the department has “very few options” if people show up with the intent of confrontation in a public area.

Until a crime actually occurs, police cannot intervene, he added. Offensive speech, carrying paintball guns and gas masks are not crimes by themselves until used in an unlawful way. 

Salem does require a permit for community events held in a public right-of-way, including the sidewalk. Because the event blocked pedestrian activity, a permit should have been acquired, City Attorney Dan Atkinson said.  

Police did not give citations to the church, Proud Boys or counter-protesters for not having a sidewalk permit, Womack said, because trying to enforce “small violations” during a protest can diminish the department’s ability to respond to violence. 

“When someone crosses over from constitutionally protected activities into criminal behavior, especially threats or violence, that’s when we face immediate intervention. And that’s what we did on Aug. 10,” Womack said. 

Violence in Portland

Womack referenced the eruption of violence in Portland during his comments to the council.

Over the weekend, Proud Boys gathered in the city for a rally, ending with the group roaming the streets, brawling with counter-protesters in a neighborhood and firing shots in downtown Portland.

Residents in Portland criticized the lack of police intervention during the clash. Womack sympathized with Portland Police’s struggle to stop the violence. 

“If there’s an agency that’s figured out how to stop them from occurring, I need to meet that chief,” he said. “We’re all working on this issue together and being as creative as we possibly can, trying to strike that balance between constitutionally protected activities and public safety or criminal behavior.” 

Community frustration:Salem police respond to complaints of inaction at rally

Hoy reiterated that he and police are limited in what they can do, despite mounting calls for city leadership to block the church or the Proud Boys from gathering in the neighborhood. 

“I think sometimes people have this sense that we can just tell people that they can’t do stuff,” Hoy said.

The Church at Planned Parenthood will be gathering in Salem again in September. It's unclear if Proud Boys plan to attend.

The church has also announced additional demonstrations at two new Oregon Planned Parenthood clinics, one in Bend in late August and another in Eugene in September. 

Dianne Lugo is a reporter at the Statesman Journal covering equity and social justice. You can reach her at dlugo@statesmanjournal.com, 503-936-4811 or on Twitter @DianneLugo