The Anarchist Storm over Portland

Federal law-enforcement officers face off with rioters in Portland, Ore., July 30, 2020. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)
A retired assistant U.S. attorney explains how far-left anarchists have invaded the Pacific Northwest.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S tephen Peifer, a retired assistant U.S. attorney in Portland, Ore., sat down with National Review’s Luther Abel to discuss the state’s long and infamous struggle with left-wing extremist groups, why federal officers were deployed to Portland, and what makes the current situation in the city uniquely concerning. This interview is part of a series of reports that Abel has filed on the ongoing unrest, including his accounts of his first and second nights at the protests and an interview with a Portland mom who wishes to move her family far from the violence. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Luther Abel: What’s going on in Portland?

Stephen Peifer: To quote my good friend Bill Williams, the U.S. attorney, it’s losing its soul. It’s been losing its soul for a while, and this — what we’re going through now — is the tipping point for Portland.

L.A.: What was Portland’s soul?

S.P.: When I moved here in 1974, it was a very tolerant place, and people with different political viewpoints got along very well. You could run a political campaign and not have to worry about somebody physically harming you or something, or you could take a position in a political race without fear of being retaliated against. Those days are gone.

L.A.: Has the radical Left always been part of Portland? How did you become familiar with them?

S.P.: I was in a good position to know about them because I worked in the U.S. attorney’s office for 28 years. I prosecuted domestic-terrorism cases. In the process of that I learned a lot about the anarchists and the various left-wing movements like the Earth Liberation Front, the Animal Liberation Front — all the liberation fronts. And I prosecuted the biggest ecoterrorism case in American history, called Operation Backfire that involved the torching of various facilities back in the late Nineties up until about 2001. We didn’t crack the case until about 2005. But to answer your question, I became very aware of the radical presence in Oregon, and I investigated and prosecuted the anarchists and their like.

L.A.: Portland has often been home to demonstrations and protests. Are the events of the past two or three months really so different from the typical Portland program?

S.P.: Yes. When Trump was elected, that’s when things really began to come apart more than usual around here, the reaction was so extreme. Prior to that time, you would have May Day parades that would turn into free-for-alls and damage. The anarchists have been here in one form or another since the 1990s at least. Well, you know there were anarchists involved in the World Trade Organization riots in Seattle in December of 1999. And some of those people migrated down here.

L.A.: What is it about Oregon and Portland that attracts these anarchist sorts?

S.P.: Ironically, it’s tolerance. The tolerance has disappeared now, but it was originally tolerance. It’s sort of a live-and-let-live attitude that allows certain political points of view to flourish. I prosecuted the case involving a cult that came up from L.A. to Oregon and was virtually an all-black cult by the name of the Ecclesia Athletic Association. They ended up beating children, and it was basically human slavery. That was around 1990, and the leader was a guy named Eldridge Broussard. Anyway, I mentioned that because they came on the heels of the Rajneesh. I was involved in the Rajneesh case, and in both those cases, Oregonians were tolerant at first.

They said, “The Rajneesh, they just want to live their life out there in central Oregon, and they’re doing good things with the land, and let them do it.” Lo and behold, it turned out to be a criminal enterprise, and that’s to put it mildly. And, of course, with Ecclesia Athletic it turned out to be a criminal enterprise that resulted in the death of one girl and numerous children being beaten over time. This all goes back to what I was saying, that there’s a tolerance, and historically it’s been that way. The [current brand of] tolerance has gone so far to the extreme now that they just don’t tolerate dissent.

L.A.: The Portland police are depicted as weak by some on the right and as authoritarians by those on the left. What’s their deal?

S.P.: I can really answer that question because I started working with the Portland police in 1975 when I started in the district attorney’s office. All my cases involved either the Portland police or the Multnomah County sheriff. At that time, the Portland police, by and large, were not college educated. They had lower standards for hiring than Multnomah County did, which required a college degree. Most of the officers back in 1974, 1975, I would not describe as being racist. A lot of them were what we used to call “thumpers,” the ones who would overreact in an arrest situation. They were just as likely to be thumping a white person as a black person. A lot of them had been on the force responding to the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at Portland State. [The officers] got a bad reputation there.

I can definitely say that the Portland Police Bureau bears absolutely no resemblance today to what it was like in 1975, none. It’s gone through so many reforms and administrations that have changed the entire system there. You say some people say they’re weak. I don’t think “weak” is the word. I think that they’re sort of burdened by just an incredible array of expectations that have been foisted upon them over the years. They operate under a federal agreement that was forced on them by the Obama administration, where they had to go to federal court. The things that [the Obama administration] did to Portland, they didn’t do, for example, to police forces in Chicago and New York, which have a lot of endemic problems, too.

L.A.: How do you think the unrest in Portland ends?

S.P.: It’s not going to end well. A lot will depend on the presidential election. I think a lot of it will keep heating up as the election gets closer. We’re sort of in a lull right now, and I think Antifa — I call them “anarchists” — I think they’re trying to figure out what to do now that the Oregon State Police are involved instead of as many federal officers.

L.A.: A question about that. I’ve heard from a few people I’ve interviewed that there were multiple federal agencies involved in these clashes. Is this true? And if so, why?

S.P.: Yeah. I want to talk about that because I want to make sure to get some things straight. I know a lot about it, and having worked in that courthouse for 18 years, from the time it opened in 1997. I know how it operates, so I know who’s there. When they were first hit [the federal courthouse], starting on May 29, I believe — which was a horrible night — they had scaffolding up because they had been working on the stonework. So, the Antifa members — how do we know they’re Antifa anarchists? Because they inscribe the “A” with the circle around it; they carry red and black flags, the anarchist flags. These were not just run-of-the-mill protesters. Anyway, they get up on the scaffolding, and that gives them access to a higher part of the wall.

I think that was the first night they broke a window or a door. But inside the courthouse was just a handful of federal officers, Federal Protective Service. I’m in constant contact with my fellow retirees and people in the office. The most troubling thing was that for weeks, for a month before the reinforcements were sent in, that’s all they had, and things were getting worse and [the anarchists] were tearing off plywood and burning it. They were breaking windows. They were using slingshots to hit windows up where the U.S. attorney’s offices are, the fifth and sixth floors. So [the feds] had to send in reinforcements. There was no other way to do it. The Portland police were not helping out; they were prohibited from it, probably by order of the mayor. And so it was just a tiny handful of Federal Protective Service people and U.S. marshals from inside.

L.A.: Is there anything concrete you can point to that would indicate the mayor’s office told local police to back off of that area?

S.P.: No, that’s just a general assumption.

L.A.: Informed by your knowledge of local politics?

S.P.: Yes. Local police never protected the federal building from night one onward. And that’s the difference. In prior events like this, when there was an attempt to attack [the federal courthouse], [the anarchists] never got anywhere close to it, and maybe it was because at that time they weren’t self-confident enough to do it and didn’t want to risk their necks in the attempt. But there was a substantial police presence years ago when that would be attempted. The Portland police were too busy defending the justice center. You look at the justice center now, and you can’t tell what actually happened because they boarded up so much of it with plywood and painted the boards gray so that they blend in with the building.

There was no city police protection for the federal building that I can recall. I can’t say every single night because it has gone on for months now. For people to say that the federal officers were not necessary, well, that’s the only way that the feds were going to prevent the anarchists from getting in the building. I mean, the mob wanted to get in the building. They did everything they could. You can see videos at the time of how close they got to getting in the building. [The anarchists] would send in their fireworks and other incendiary things that would cause a fire.

L.A.: It is a common refrain at the protests that the police are too militarized. Perhaps. However, I see protesters in body armor, motorcycle helmets, carrying bats and pipe.

S.P.: The [anarchists] use commercial-grade green lasers that are extremely dangerous, and law enforcement don’t use those. I prosecuted the case of a guy who pointed those lasers at airliners passing overhead. The laser gets in the cockpit and completely blinds the pilot. I’m sorry, I’m very familiar with those. You can’t just buy them at Walmart. You have to find a source for them, not the sort of pointer you use to give your PowerPoint lecture. So when I saw the green lasers, I knew that this was getting very serious.

In fact, when [the anarchists] brought down the George Washington statue, the CBS affiliate had a live feed, and most nights they are downtown with it. But this night I just happened to turn it on, and it was at the George Washington statue. And I said, “This is not good.” I really knew it wasn’t good when I started seeing the green lasers, because immediately the cameraman left, because he would have been in the line of fire, so to speak. I figured they had the green lasers for a reason. They were trying to chase the police back or anybody else recording it. Sure enough, an hour later they had the statue down. It was totally predictable.

L.A.: It felt coordinated to you?

S.P.: Yes.

L.A.: Why aren’t more of these anarchists being prosecuted? What’s standing in the way?

S.P.: Well, the anarchists themselves are very careful. I mean, they go through a lot of training. The ones that do get prosecuted are usually the youngest ones. It’s sort of like a fraternity; you have to go through this hazing to become a member. And a lot of wannabes, they’ll get caught up in it. They’re usually younger, like this 18-year-old who was charged with arson of the federal courthouse, just within the last day or two; he’s a typical example of somebody 18 years old. Most of the members of Antifa are older than that. I don’t know if he was officially associated with them or just got caught up in it. The young ones are those who tend to get arrested.

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