For months, Reese Monson, who helps organize security for the hundreds of protesters who gather in downtown Portland, Ore., every night, has advised them to use shields made of plywood, pool noodles and 55-gallon drums — tools to deflect the riot-control measures used by the police.
Now, Mr. Monson, a leader in the city’s Black Lives Matter movement, said they were considering a new kind of shield when they go out to demonstrate against racial injustice: bulletproof vests.
“Whatever body armor you can find, we need that,” Mr. Monson said. “Whatever you can protect yourself with, we need that. Right now is a time of either life or death.”
For months, as protests by Black Lives Matter and other groups have erupted across the country, the persistent confrontations have been largely between protesters and the police, with the conflict playing out in tear gas volleys and lobbed projectiles. But in recent days the protests in Portland and in Kenosha, Wis., have taken a more perilous turn — right-wing activists have arrived, many carrying firearms, and they are bent on countering the racial justice protests with an opposing vision of America.
Violent street clashes between the two sides have broken out over the past two weeks, leaving three people dead.
The arrival of firearms, including some in the hands of left-wing protesters, has escalated the political debate over policing into precarious new territory. President Trump, scheduled to visit Kenosha on Tuesday, warns that America’s cities are out of control, while Portland’s mayor blames the president for stoking the unrest.
Three months after George Floyd was killed by the Minneapolis police, setting off tumult nationwide, two opposite movements are brawling in the streets with no sign of letting up as the country begins the final stretch toward the Nov. 3 election.
After the Trump administration’s attempt at a law-and-order crackdown in Portland backfired in July, last month brought fresh upheaval. The police in Kenosha shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back, fueling protests there and elsewhere, while right-wing groups in Portland came into the city to confront Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
Last week in Kenosha, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of Illinois went to the scene of unrest there openly carrying a rifle and saying he had come to protect businesses. Before the night was over, two people had been fatally shot, and Mr. Rittenhouse has now been charged with homicides. His lawyer said he acted in self-defense.
Then in Portland on Saturday night, a member of the right-wing Patriot Prayer group was shot to death in an apparent confrontation outside a parking garage after a caravan of Trump supporters paraded into a sea of racial justice demonstrators.
The right-wing activists say they are protecting private property and protesting city officials’ failure to contain demonstrations, where protesters at times have set fires, smashed windows, and in Seattle, occupied several blocks around a police precinct building. They have also staged rallies in support to the police.
But Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, sees peril: “The far right is now anointing themselves the only force standing between order and chaos, a dangerous step toward normalizing the political violence that they already hold a monopoly on.”
Some racial justice demonstrators are carrying weapons, too, and others have pursued counterprotesters through the streets, hurling water bottles and ripping down Trump flags. The police in Portland are investigating the possibility that an antifa protester was the gunman in Saturday night’s fatal shooting.
One federal law enforcement official, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the matter, said the most radicalized activists from both the right and the left did not appear to have a clear set of objectives.
“For a lot of these folks, the attention is the endgame,” said the official. “If you really sat down and said, ‘What are the policy objectives you’d like to see?’ They wouldn’t want that because there’s so much that comes with this, like having your voice heard in these settings and validating you to other followers.”
Lauryn Cross, an organizer with the Milwaukee Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression, said activists have had to prepare differently because of the rising threat of right-wing counterprotesters. They have to do more security planning, including examining more closely the routes they plan to march and scoping out the area before an event.
Protesters in Portland have also been reassess