Greene: Rally clash in Portland is another iteration of the fight for free speech

Like much of the country, Portland saw protests after Trump’s election that closed highways. Political strife escalated again in April when the city canceled its Rose Festival because of threats from self-identified anti-fascists that violence would break out if the Republican float was not removed.

The tension in Portland skyrocketed May 26 when Jeremy Joseph Christian, a 35-year-old vocal conservative-extremist, stabbed three men on a light-rail train. Christian was reportedly screaming at two black women, one wearing a hijab. Three men stepped in to defend the women, surrounding Christian. He brandished a knife and two of the men were killed while the third was stabbed in the neck and survived.

No matter what the circumstance, this was a tragedy and a shock to Portland. Nobody — liberal or conservative — wants to see political discourse turn into public violence. This instance should have served as a wake-up call to Portland. Obviously, the political climate has gotten out of hand.

Unfortunately, instead of capitalizing on this an opportunity to learn from mistakes and unite the community, Portland’s mayor Ted Wheeler has answered a physical attack with an ideological one.

After the stabbings, Mayor Wheeler called on the federal government to revoke the permit for a Trump Free Speech Rally set for June 4. He also asked the federal government to deny the permit for a Portland March Against Sharia set on June 10. The City of Portland had already refused the permits.

According to CNN, Wheeler said “My main concern is that they are coming to peddle a message of hatred and of bigotry. They have a First Amendment right to speak, but my pushback on that is that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Mayor Wheeler doesn’t seem to understand the First Amendment very well.

Despite modern misconception, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. This is why the ACLU stood up for the KKK in the past, and why they stood up against Wheeler with a post on Twitter. The few exceptions there are to the First Amendment usually have to incite direct violence face-to-face, called “fighting words.”

Even if these rallies had been hate groups and Wheeler had a legitimate reason to believe they would have disrupted the community the Supreme Court has previously ruled that it is the government’s job to protect the free speech of those whose ideas incite violence, not let the mob shut down their rights.

However, neither of these groups Wheeler attacked ever intended to incite hatred or violence.

The Portland March Against Sharia stood up to his accusations on Facebook: “Our March Against Sharia includes all religions, genders, sexual orientations, and walks of life. What a beautiful thing it is for such a diverse group of Americans to be able to come together in such a divisive political time, to unify behind such fundamental human rights.”

The post maintains that the group is not “alt right” and only “standing up for the protection of those most vulnerable in our society.”

At a time when all other politics are tearing us apart, you would think that standing against Sharia law — an extremism driving people out of their homes and attacking innocent civilians — would be the one thing that everyone could unite over. Instead, Wheeler has made this issue a partisan one, and the march will be held in Seattle instead.

The Trump Free Speech Rally’s Facebook page describes it as “an uplifting experience to bring back strength and courage to those who believe in freedom.”

Christian attended a previous free speech rally by the same organizers, and footage showing him giving a Nazi salute there had fed into Wheeler’s controversy. Joey Gibson, the rally organizer, told CNN “Jeremy Christian has nothing to do with us. He hated us, he threatened me. We did everything we could to kick him out. We didn’t want him with us.”

Liberals are always diligent in reminding us that the actions of a few radicals are not enough to judge all of Islam. This lesson should be applied to conservatives as well. Just because one conservative is an extremist prone to violence doesn’t mean we can judge them all as hateful.

In the end, the rally was held in Portland. The organizer held a moment of silence for the two men who died and asked the crowd to avoid violence. Unfortunately, Wheeler had already done the damage by loudly proclaiming the rally as hate speech. The rally itself stayed calm, but afterwards, they clashed with anti-fascist protest groups. The city responded with tear-gas and 14 arrests.

Instead of prosecuting these rallies, politicizing tragedy to shut down the views he doesn’t share and creating more polarization in his city, Mayor Wheeler should have used them as a platform to find common ground. He could have attended the rallies and showed his conservative citizens that he is their mayor too. Even better, he could have given a speech at the rallies urging people to come together as a community and overcome their political differences with open discourse.

Unfortunately, there are too many politicians in modern America like Ted Wheeler who don’t understand the need to come together despite differences. These politicians would rather make every issue a partisan one and shut down competing views than confront issues head on and stand tall as the leader of their community.

Next election, instead of blindly voting for an incumbent or the representative of your chosen party, ask yourself which politician will be brave enough to facilitate real dialogue and stand up for the rights of everyone regardless of political opinion.

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Patience Greene

Patience Greene