Community members “incredulous” at Proud Boys roaming Bush’s Pasture Park with weapons

A screen capture from a video showing a group of Proud Boys roaming Bush’s Pasture Park Saturday, Oct. 17.

A group of Proud Boys armed with military-style rifles roamed Bush’s Pasture Park on Saturday, riling some residents about people drinking and carrying weapons in a city park.

A video captured Saturday shows a group of men strolling along pathways, saying they intended to make sure people made it to their cars safely in a park filled with families enjoying a sunny afternoon.

But the video, which has been viewed more than 9,000 times by Monday afternoon, records one of the men preparing for violence by saying: “Where the (expletive) are they? I thought we were supposed to brawl.”

Lt. Debbie Aguilar, a spokeswoman for the Salem Police Department, said a dozen officers were at or near the park Saturday, as well as Oregon State Police who were on standby in case violence broke out. Police took no action to intervene, she said.

“Unless there’s a specific law that’s being violated that we can address, we have to protect everybody’s rights even if we don’t agree with them,” she said.

Salem resident Joan Stembridge wrote a letter to city leaders, including Mayor Chuck Bennett, saying she was incredulous at what she saw on her walk in the park that afternoon.

 “While walking down the Soap Box Derby track, I walked by a group of about 10 men dressed in black with yellow insignias on their shirts,” she said in her letter dated Saturday. “A number of the men carried weapons, such as a baseball bat, a long metal fireplace poker, a long knife, holstered handguns, and one or two AR-15-type rifles.”

Stembridge said that afternoon, she and her husband joined a group of people wearing “Black Lives Matter” masks picking up trash after returning home to change into “BLM” shirts. After an hour she said she saw a “fairly large gathering” at the parking lot by the softball field with Trump flags.

As Stembridge and her husband walked home wearing “BLM” T-shirts, the men trained their rifles on them, she wrote.  Stembridge wrote that she was still trying to appreciate what happened in the park that day.

I realize we are at a fragile moment for our democracy. I realize our (Salem Police Department) and our community leaders are in a delicate position not wanting to create an escalation of hostilities with the potential for fatalities,” she wrote.

She wondered, though, if such actions are the “new normal” in Oregon. She declined an interview request, saying she wanted to give city officials a chance to respond.

City Councilor Tom Andersen, who lives near the park, weighed in on the weekend’s events Monday, saying the people at the park were misinformed and dangerous.

“Dangerous because they were armed, most of them heavily drinking, and looking for trouble which, fortunately they did not get. I’d say there were about 100 of these misguided individuals endangering everyone in the park and neighborhood. This should not happen again,” he wrote on Facebook.

Andersen called for a full report from the Salem Police Department and an examination on how to ban openly carrying weapons in the city and its parks.

Reports on social media said the group in the park were drinking. Aguilar said police dispatch got one report of someone drinking alcohol in the park.

In Salem, it is illegal to have alcohol in city park or to carry a loaded firearm. People can otherwise openly carry weapons in Salem’s parks.

The Proud Boys won national attention at the first president debate when President Donald Trump was pressed to denounce hate groups. Given the name of Proud Boys as an example, Trump told them to “stand back and stand by.” Some judged his response as encouraging the group to be ready to act.

A self-described fraternal order of “western chauvinists,” the Proud Boys have drawn scrutiny by national monitors of hate groups after engaging in street brawls at racial justice demonstrations in Portland and elsewhere.

On Labor Day, members of a pro-Trump rally that included some Proud Boys assaulted and pepper sprayed counter protesters at the Oregon State Capitol State Park, leading to two arrests.

Carl “Flip” Todd, vice president of the Portland chapter of Proud Boys, didn’t respond to a telephone message Monday seeking comment.

Lindsay Schubiner, a spokesperson for the civil rights group Western States Center, said what happened Saturday is another example of Proud Boys engaging in political violence on a troubling level.

She said the group describes themselves as a drinking club, and videos of a recent Proud Boys rally in Portland shows speakers slurring their words.

Schubiner said it’s important for local governments to denounce political violence and organized bigotry.

“The increase in paramilitary activity and far right violence that we’re seeing is in part a result of the fact that we haven’t seen an aligned, significant denunciation of these groups from elected officials and law enforcement,” she said.

Aguilar said Salem police want the community to be welcoming for all.

“We want Salem to be inclusive, we want Salem to be a community where everyone feels like they’re safe, where everyone feels like they’re welcome to visit,” she said.

Aguilar said police didn’t receive reports of someone pointing a gun at Saturday’s event. She said if that was reported, Salem police would respond to investigate the crime of menacing.

Aguilar said police are more concerned with serious crimes than minor offenses such as drinking in a city park.

“We can tell them don’t drink in the park, but does that solve the problem? We can’t arrest them, it’s a citation,” she said. “What is going to make the biggest impact and what is our main concern? Our main concern is the violence. We choose to look at that when we’re dealing with one of these events.”

She said it “just depends” on how police would respond to a report of someone carrying a weapon loaded with a magazine because police don’t know if the magazine itself is loaded.

“We can always ask people to show us. Unless we have some specific information that tells us that that firearm is loaded, it is very difficult,” she said. “We can ask people to show us, but they don’t have to unless we have a probable cause that it is loaded.”

 Salem police were criticized for their handling of the racial justice protests this summer, when a video of an officer telling a group of armed civilians protecting Glamour Salon how to avoid the city curfew went viral.

Salem Police Chief Jerry Moore released an internal review of the events in late June, saying the efforts to de-escalate the situation didn’t make the officer a white supremacist.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.