Portland stands united against far-right hate

May 30, 2017

Jordan Weinstein and Sarah Levy report from Oregon as shock and outrage at a stabbing spree by a known white supremacist takes the form of solidarity and protest.

ON THE first day of Ramadan and less than a week after the lynching of a student at the University of Maryland, another racist killing took place in Portland, Oregon, in the middle of the day on a heavily traveled light-rail train.

The three men were stabbed when they stood up to a known racist provocateur who was verbally attacking two young women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, on a train in North Portland. The attacker, Jeremy Joseph Christian, was yelling racial slurs at the two, such as, "Get off the bus [sic], and get out of the country because you don't pay taxes here."

When the three men tried to intervene, Christian stabbed them all in the neck, killing two of them: Ricky John Best, a 53-year-old army veteran and city of Portland employee, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old recent graduate of Reed College. The third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, a 21-year-old poet and Portland State University student, was injured, but was taken to the hospital, where he underwent a two-hour surgery.

Community members mourn the victims of an Islamophobic attack in Portland
Community members mourn the victims of an Islamophobic attack in Portland

Law enforcement officials were quick to portray the attacker as "mentally ill," and the FBI at first hesitated to classify the stabbings as a hate crime.

The truth was obvious to people in Portland and around the country: The murder of these two men and the assault on two women is the latest evidence of the growth and confidence of the alt-right, from Berkeley to Boston to Maryland--and now, unfortunately, Portland.

But there is another side to the story beyond the awful stabbings: Hundreds of thousands of people who shared this city with Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Mechein were horrified by their murder, and many of them want to do something to stand up against hate.

The day after the killings, some 1,000 people came out to a hastily organized vigil to honor the heroes who tried to stop a racist. People of all ages and races, including many women in hijab, held candles and left flowers at a makeshift shrine at the station near where the stabbings took place.

The racist killings were in the national media spotlight over Memorial Day weekend, and on Monday, a social media campaign finally shamed Donald Trump into sending a brief tribute via Twitter to the two victims of "hate and ignorance"--though he was careful to avoid criticizing Islamophobia.

Those working for social justice in Portland won't forget about this horror. Despite the killings, alt-right organizations are still planning to mobilize on June 4 for a rally for "free speech," but a strong and growing coalition of left organizations is building for a counter-rally under the slogan "Portland Stands United Against Hate"--to show with our numbers that Portlanders will stand up to violence and racism.

FAR FROM being a bad apple or lone wolf, Jeremy Joseph Christian is a known right-wing extremist and white supremacist, with a criminal record spanning more than a decade that includes first-degree robbery, second-degree kidnapping, and carrying and using dangerous weapons.

His Facebook page is full of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments, among other hate and bile.

"I want a job in Norway cutting off the heads of people that Circumcize Babies [sic]," Christian wrote in one post. In another, he called Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh a "TRUE PATRIOT."

As Corey Pain said in the Willamette Week, "The targets of his hate may have been broad--Muslims, Jews, feminists, liberals, police--but there's no doubt Christian had announced his intention to kill."

The day before the stabbings, Christian apparently was involved in another racist incident at a transit station, in which he threw a bottle of Gatorade at a Black woman.

Christian also frequently attended demonstrations by various far-right forces in Portland. Most recently, he was seen at a so-called "March for Free Speech" in Southeast Portland's Montavilla neighborhood on April 29. Christian showed up wearing an American flag as a cape and carrying a baseball bat, with which he attempted to assault left-wing protesters, yelling "fuck all you n*****s" and giving the Nazi salute.

Christian isn't alone in Portland in threatening violence against left-wing protesters. Last July, at a march to demand justice for victims of police murder, a right-wing blogger named Michael Strickland was harassing demonstrators--when asked to leave, Strickland pulled out a loaded handgun and leveled it at the crowd.

And on Monday, while Trump was being shamed into sending a belated message of condolence for the victims of an alt-right racist, the head of the Multnomah County Republican Party told the Guardian that his party would not only continue to mobilize, but would consider asking far-right militias, like the Oath Keepers, to provide "security."

THERE'S no doubt that bigots like Christian have been emboldened by the election of Trump, who has mainstreamed their racist bile. But Portland police should shoulder some of the blame for the right gaining confidence in this city.

For example, at the April 29 "free speech" rally, though police were familiar with Christian and aware of his posts that threatened violence against Jews and Muslims--and even against officers if they tried to disarm him--the cops claimed Christian had a head injury and was mentally ill.

While police confiscated Christian's bat on April 29, they shortly returned it. Throughout the day, the police force provided protection for Christian and other members of the alt-right to parade down SE 82nd Avenue, a main thoroughfare in Portland known for its diversity.

After the march, police even organized Trimet buses to chauffeur the right-wingers back to the park where they had started, saying it was for the marchers' "safety."

This is the same police force that has been called out by the U.S. Justice Department for its excessive use of force against people with mental illnesses, including killing them. It is also the same force that only three weeks ago killed Tyrell Kyreem Johnson, a 24-year-old man who was known by the department to have mental health issues.

Between a police force that makes sure they have a "safe space" to spew their hate and a president who transmits their hateful rhetoric into mainstream politics, it's no wonder the far right is bigger and more confident than ever. Whereas a year ago, the far right might have mobilized 10 people for a publicized demonstration, today, it can bring out 100 to 200.

FORTUNATELY, THE overwhelming response in Portland was given expression by last Saturday's vigil and impromptu speakout. It was clear that while people are mourning, they are also angry and understand what happened as political.

As a speaker from the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes said:

Let's call this what it is: This was an act of terrorism. We are here to remember the people who stood up to this terrorist. The response is: 'Not in our town.'...It lets the victims of the crimes know that even though I might not look like you, I'm on your side, and I stand with you, and the members of my community stand with you.

The other reason we do it is that it lets the people who commit the crimes know: I might look like you, but I don't stand with you. I am not on your side.

Speakers voiced a range of emotions--from outrage that the stabbing had occurred to a sense of inspiration at the example of the three men who stood up to hate and paid a terrible price. At the vigil, one PSU student said while surveying the large crowd:

When I heard about what happened Friday, I was angry, and thought to myself, "What kind of city do I have to live in where I have to worry about getting stabbed?" But I realized that this [pointing at the crowd] is the city I live in as well. It's a city where people stand up to racist incidents.

The vigil was attended by some prominent political figures, but when SW asked Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler what he thought needed to be done to stop this kind of racist hate, he didn't point to the crowd. His response, after a pause, was: "You know, I don't have a good answer."

Wheeler has demonstrated time and again why the solution to right-wing violence and hate won't come from elected officials or law enforcement. He signed off on a heavily militarized police presence on May Day and congratulated the department after officers attacked protesters. This was only two days after he shook hands with police at the right wing's mobilization where Jeremy Christian first captured the media's attention.

Rather than putting more police on public transportation or similar solutions from city officials, we need a mobilization that starts at the grassroots to challenge the emboldened right and prove that the vast majority of people despise the bigots and their ideas--and won't let them voice their hate unopposed.

The three men who stood up to Jeremy Joseph Christian are heroes. They didn't know one another, but each chose to stand up when they saw a bigot harassing two women of color.

As many people at the vigil said, we must not be afraid--we must continue to stand up to racism whenever it rears its ugly head. But challenging racism and the growth of the right in the long term will ultimately take mass mobilization and an ongoing movement, which shows not only that the right's ideas won't be tolerated, but points to a real solution to the economic and social problems at the roots of the social crisis today.

The "Portland Stands United Against Hate" mobilization on June 4 is the next step toward building such a resistance. As one young woman at the vigil said, "The bigots want us to be afraid. But if we continue to come together, we will be stronger than them."

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