Paul Welch came to the downtown protest Aug. 4 to let his political leanings be known.
With pride he clutched his U.S. flag as he moved among the crowd of like-thinking demonstrators.
Soon a group of black-clad anti-fascist protesters, also known as antifa, demanded he lose the flag, calling it a fascist symbol. Welch refused, and a tug-of-war ensued.
It ended with Welch taking a club to the back of the head, lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood.
Only Welch was not a Proud Boy, a Patriot Prayer supporter or among the other conservative activists who descended into the area that day, many from out of town.
Video shows a struggle for a flag and then a black-clad person hit this dude in the head before he drops. I was watching the blood pour out of his head and into the street. #DefendPDX #AllOutPDX pic.twitter.com/KPRk1D8l00
— Mikeford “Eazy-B” Biziths (@itsmikebivins) August 4, 2018
He was one of hundreds of progressive Portlanders who had turned out to oppose the right-wing rally held at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
“I didn’t come as a part of any one group,” Welch said in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive. “I was just protesting outsiders coming here for their tacitly fascist event.”
Anger following the demonstration has largely been directed at Portland police, whose use of “less-lethal” riot-control weapons on counter-protesters hospitalized at least three people and injured several others.
But others, like Welch, became targets of violence at the hands of protest participants, even as police kept rival political factions apart. A video taken of his attack has been viewed more than 800,000 times online.
Many have assumed the tussle over a U.S. flag placed Welch squarely in the right-wing camp.
“I had felt like showing that a liberal, free Portland — or any major city, really — is much more American and much more numerous and strong than any of these interloping groups,” he said.
A “slightly progressive leftist” by his telling, Welch is a registered Democrat in Oregon, voting records show. He cast his ballot for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary and Hillary Clinton in the general election, he said.
The 38-year-old line cook is also no stranger to street protests in Portland. He said he attended the Women’s March held during the weekend of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
This summer, Welch, who works six days a week at a catering company, stopped by the Occupy ICE encampment on his days off to bring protesters water, toilet paper and sunblock, he said.
He’s no fan of Trump or the president’s policies. Nor of Patriot Prayer, whose repeated rallies in Portland, Welch believes, have little purpose other than to inflame the city’s liberal residents.
“They’re just offensive,” he said.
That is why Welch said he decided to show up to the counter-protest with an American flag, an emblem more common among the conservative activists than those who have demonstrated against them.
“The right and certainly a lot of smaller groups like Patriot Prayer might rush to things like the flag and try to take it up as, ‘This is our symbol exclusively,'” he said. “Part of my thinking was to take it back.”
Aside from a few odd looks, Welch did not encounter any problems when he joined hundreds of other counter-protesters who gathered at City Hall late that morning.
In fact, Welch said, he saw several other people with American flags sprinkled among the group of progressives, union members and social justice activists.
The trouble started as the throng began to march east along Southwest Salmon Street toward Naito Parkway about 12:30 p.m.
As he carried his flag, two people dressed in black and covering their faces approached Welch and demanded he turn it over to them, calling it “a fascist symbol,” he said.
Welch refused, and the counter-protesters ripped it out of his hands, he said.
Welch wouldn’t relinquish the flag.
Video captured by Mike Bivins, a freelance journalist, shows what happened next.
As Welch and the counter-protesters wrangle over the flag, another masked counter-protester begins to strike Welch’s body from behind using a weapon concealed in black fabric.
That person then uses the weapon to club Welch on the back of the head, causing him to collapse instantly. The demonstrator with the weapon wanders off.
“My bones turned to Jell-O and I just went down,” said Welch, who believes he was struck with a metal object affixed to the end of the weapon.
The video shows a crowd of onlookers watching as Welch lay on the ground in a fetal position. Another counter-protester, holding a shield, appears to stand above the injured man and jabs him with a makeshift weapon.
“I remember thinking there was a very good chance that I could be beaten to death,” Welch said.
As blood began to pool around Welch’s head, a group of volunteer street medics rushed to his aid, he said. Another medic eventually got Welch into a car and drove to an urgent care clinic on North Interstate Avenue.
It took four staples to close the 3-inch gash in the back of his head, Welch said. He spent the next two days recovering from a concussion, though he was able to return to work.
That week, Welch filed a police report. Sgt. Chris Burley, a Portland police spokesman, confirmed the bureau opened an investigation into the incident.
Effie Baum, a spokesperson with Popular Mobilization, a group that helped organize the counter-protest at City Hall, declined to comment for this story.
In the days since the attack, Welch has felt conflicted and a bit disappointed, he said.
“It strikes me as the worst sort of political theater,” he said of what happened to him. “It’s kind of like you’re playing into your opponents’ hands when you do that sort of thing. That’s not what I was there for.”
— Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
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