Salem leaders say they’re constrained by the Constitution when handling far-right events

A man wears a Proud Boys jacket during a Nov. 7 rally at the Oregon Capitol. The group has been a regular presence at Salem events over the past year. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem police made no arrests following several reports of intimidation during a right-wing political rally Saturday, saying victims who came forward declined to press charges.

Members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group that’s been involved in street brawls in Salem and around the U.S., closed off a public park in Salem Saturday during a gun rights rally.

Videos from the event showed men wearing Proud Boys attire and carrying handguns reportedly providing “security” for the event.

While some residents have expressed concerns that the rallies are source of political violence and intimidation, city leaders said they need to respect First and Second Amendment rights and state law.

The event drew about 200 people according to police, including Jo Rae Perkins, a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory who was the GOP’s U.S. Senate candidate for Oregon last year.

Proud Boys Canada has dissolved after it was earlier named a terrorist group in that country.

Salem resident Les Margosian planned to go to the event to hear State Rep. Mike Nearman, who is facing criminal charges for his role in letting violent demonstrators into the Capitol in December, speak.

He said Nearman didn’t attend the event, although he was listed on a flier advertising it.

Margosian, 78, sat down at the amphitheater to listen to the event’s speakers. He said 15 minutes later he was accosted by four men wearing Proud Boys attire, black shirts with a yellow “PB” on the chest and armed with handguns.

“They came and sat down next to me and said, ‘We’re going to escort you out of here. You cannot stay any longer,’” he said.

Margosian said he asked what would happen if he didn’t leave.

He recalled one of the men saying something to the effect of, “You can do it your way, or we can do it ours.”

Margosian took that to mean he would be assaulted if he didn’t leave.

He left the park feeling angry and “kind of a hopeless feeling.”

“Angry at City of Salem for allowing things to get to this point. Angry that people had kicked me out of my own city park,” he said.

As of Monday afternoon, Margosian said he hadn’t pressed charges but planned to.

Treven Upkes, Salem police spokesman, said police followed up on two incidents of harassment where the victims declined to press charges.

“It makes it harder for us to take action when someone doesn’t want to be a victim,” he said.

He said police will respond if there’s overt criminal activity taking place, but otherwise must follow people’s constitutional rights.

“Unfortunately, quite often there are constitutionally protected events and speech that can be uncomfortable to people that are still allowed to take place,” Upkes said.

He said more than 30 officers were assigned to the event, driving through the parking lot or on bikes.

“They were out,” Upkes said.

Salem police released a statement Monday afternoon swatting down rumors that have abounded on social media regarding a lack of police presence at the event and reports of people being forcibly removed from the public area.

We understand the concerns of those who read the social media commentary. We share those concerns because officers were in the area, and if those circumstances were occurring, any criminal behavior could have been addressed with immediacy,” it said.

The release said the dispatch center received two 911 calls regarding the rally and officers immediately responded to each.

Police said they also received two false 911 calls detailing Proud Boys with “clubs, chains and knives attacking people” and drunk people terrorizing others near the carousel.

“Officers were in each area at the time of the calls and no such activities were occurring,” the statement read.

Mayor Chuck Bennett said he understands it’s upsetting to see people who “appear to be pretty worked up gathering in large groups in one place.”

He said community members are asking why the city isn’t doing anything.

If people are talking about rallygoers carrying guns, he said, that’s allowed under state law.

“What we don’t do is check ideology at the front gate of the parks as to who gets to use them and who gets to hold their own event,” Bennett said.

He said no one was hurt and no property was damaged.

“People have to kind of calm down a little bit here,” Bennett said.

Councilor Tom Andersen said the city is constricted by the rights of free speech and the right to assemble. He said people have a right to be upset.

Both he and Bennett referenced the American Civil Liberties Union’s defense of neo-Nazis right to demonstrate in Skokie, Illinois in the late 1970s under the First Amendment.

Andersen said one of the goals of Salem police is not to escalate situations.

“Confrontation would have escalated into something that would make Portland look like they’re all standing around singing kumbaya. The alternative to the way that things were handled would have made things much, much worse,” he said. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected].

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