Living with hate in Portland

June 1, 2017

It’s been a long time since my city had such an emotional week. Maybe in November 1988 when three skinheads murdered an Ethiopian immigrant named Mulugeta Seraw, ripping the scab off the supposedly liberal wonderland of Portland, Oregon. It showed us the ugliness underneath that had been there since Oregon was founded as the nation’s only “whites only” state in 1859. Last Friday that wound was opened times three.

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A local “patriot activist” named Jeremy Christian had been bouncing around on the fringes of the alt right movement. He had been seen seig heiling at a “free speech” rally earlier in the spring and around town going on racist, Islamophobic, and anti-immigrant rants. His Facebook page was all over the place, hoping Trump would be his new Hitler, idolizing the Oklahoma City Bomber, briefly defending Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton, and, most recently, wanting to kill those who perform circumcisions. He was an equal opportunity hate machine. And as the world now knows, last Friday that hate became lethal.

I used to ride Portland’s Max train a lot when I was single. It was often a source of free entertainment and a bit of sociological research. It’s a busted circus train where the human zoo gets to mingle. It might be obnoxious teenagers trying to size up an elderly woman dressed like she just climbed down from the Russian steppe. Or maybe a suave hobo trying to make small talk with a tightly-pressed banker. It’s never the same and always seasoned with a dash of risk. At any stop the anti-Christ might step on board and take the train to hell.

That’s what happened Friday when Jeremy Christian got on the Green Line on my side of town and started harassing two teenage girls who had gotten on the wrong train on their way to the mall. Homeless Christian started ranting that it was his train because he paid taxes and they should leave his country. One of the girls was black and the other wore a hijab, so Christian launched into a racist, anti-Muslim tirade. The poor girls had nowhere to go. Three passengers, Ricky Best, Micah David-Cole Fletcher and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, tried to get the maniac to back down and Christian quickly pulled out a knife and stabbed each man in the neck, killing Best and Namkai-Meche.

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On Friday afternoon, while this was happening, I was on my way back from the University of Oregon in Eugene where I had attended a workshop on implicit bias. My thoughts were on beating the traffic to pick up Cozy from daycare. My mind drifted to my wife’s new job at an immigration law firm and the family of squirrels that had made a home in my attic, threatening to chew through our home’s wiring. While I was trying to pick which lane would get me home the fastest a man my same age, also a father, was laying on the Hollywood Max platform, bleeding to death and thinking his last thought. There’s a good chance I had met Ricky Best. He worked for the city and we often take city employees on our Fair Housing Council bus tour where we discuss Oregon’s dark history and encourage people to stand up to hate. Our bus driver is sure that we was one our riders.

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Those three men were the best of Portland; a Republican army veteran, a recent college graduate with a new job, and a PSU student who did spoken word poetry about Islamophobia. They were white men, not girls of color. They could have just thought, “Hey, this is not about me.” But it was about them. It was about us and how we stand together against the darkness. Riders on the train took off their clothes to try to stop the blood gushing from their necks while Christian, waving his knife, ran away. As Namkai-Meche gasped for life he managed to say, “I want everyone one the train to know I love them.”

When I first heard the news, I went into “official” mode. As the chair of Oregon’s Coalition Against Hate Crime I had to alert the network of community partners and start talking to our contacts in the Portland Police Bureau and the Department of Justice about an appropriate response. There were vigils to speak at and interviews to give to put this horrific crime in context, including on NPR’s All Things Considered. The “hate crime expert” hat was on and there was important work to do.

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On Tuesday, I told a CNN crew I would meet them for an interview at the growing memorial at the Hollywood Max station. That’s when my expert hat fell off.

The Max station is now covered in chalk messages of love and tolerance, flowers, candles, and pictures of the stabbing victims. It was overwhelming, this complete coming together in an outpouring of collective grief and appreciation for these heroes. Two little girls were drawing chalk hearts on the pavement with Rick’s, Michah’s and Taliesin’s name in then. I thought about how much Cozy loves to chalk on the sidewalk and I broke down. How do you explain this kind of hate to a child? The next two interviews I gave they had to stop because I broke into tears in the middle of them. This wasn’t academic anymore, this was my community.

We’ve made so much progress as a society. All the measures show kids are much more tolerant than previous generations. HR departments have equity managers and police departments do trainings on implicit bias. Even in the middle of Trump’s wink and nod to our worst qualities which has unleashed a new permissiveness for hate and bullying, we’re still better than we were. Trump and his thugs are a passing fad. The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends away from bullies.

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At the memorial, I wept because I forgot that. I thought my 30 years of work on this issue amounted to nothing if hate mongers were still slaying good people on commuter trains. But all the work we do has paid off. We are better. There will always be monsters like Jeremy Christian, who see themselves as righteous patriots. They will fall through the cracks no matter how small we make them. Let us stand up to them each and every time. We’ve come to far to turn back now.

I got home from a series of interviews last night and saw that our cat had killed one of the parents of the baby squirrel that was living in our attic and just felt the weight of the grey Portland sky.

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What does the Bundy militia really want?

January 25, 2016

What does it mean to be a patriot? Does it mean upholding the laws of the land without question? Does it mean wrapping yourself in a flag and singing that dreadful Lee Greenwood song? Does it mean claiming an allegiance to the principles of the founding fathers and nothing else? Is Donald Trump a patriot? Is Barrak Obama a patriot? There are as many definitions of patriotism as there are flagpoles. That’s why the specter of the “patriot militia” is both comical and perplexing. I first interviewed militia members in Montana in 1998 and Oregon is now experiencing a new chapter in this both exciting and frightening American story.

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If you live outside of Oregon you might’ve missed the rogue group of militia MEN who took over a Central Oregon wildlife refuge on Saturday, January 2. Since then the Malheaur National Wildlife Refuge has been occupied by a small group of armed men (and the women who have come to cook for them), claiming they have a right to the federally protected land (that originally belonged to the native Paiute people).

Their goal is to “return” the land to the ranchers who can profit financially off grazing on an area that has been designed to protect wildlife, including threatened migratory birds. These men have begun to tear up the land for roads, they have disrupted Native American artifacts, they have prevented biologists from having access to their worksites and have blocked the land from use by the citizens they claim to speak for. So what do they really want?

Not the Dildo Militia

It’s easy for us city people to laugh at these rural activists, mailing them sex toys and branding them as “Y’all Qaeda.” We protest the government with clever signs and they protest it with rifles. Both sides sport beards but ours are worn ironically. While there is plenty of local opposition to the Bundy Militia, led by a “car fleet manager” from Phoenix named Ammon Bundy, there is also some local support. At the root of that support is the wording of the tenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I know you probably know the 2nd pretty well by now, but do you know the 10th?

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There is a great debate about the reach of the federal government into our lives that crosses political boundaries. Remember how the left pushed back against George W. Bush’s Patriot Act or how the right pushed back against Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act? This debate is as America as apple pie made from GMO apples that were grown with federal subsidies. If you take a literal reading of the tenth amendment, the federal government has no business doing either, and both the left and right are correct. Bundy’s group believes the federal management of this Oregon land for the American people is unconstitutional.

Also not defined as a federal authority is preserving land and protecting animals. Based on this rhetoric, the federal government has no business creating and operating national parks. If you want to march into Yosemite and start grazing your ironic sheep herd, you have that God-given right. I’ve been thinking about building a spa next to Old Faithful in Yosemite myself.

If that sounds crazy, it is. The Constitution was designed to be a living document. The first ten amendments, codified in 1789, are the backbone of our free society, but there have been seventeen amendments since then that give us the flesh and bones. (Although the 27th is pretty self-serving for the federalists.)

The problem is that many militia members (I don’t know if this includes the Bundy gang), don’t believe in anything that follows the original ten (aka, the Bill of Rights). That includes some biggies, like #13 (freeing slaves), #14 (birthright citizenship), and #16 (authorizing federal income tax). They talk about “Supreme Law” and the “Organic Constitution” because there is a belief that the 1789 document was handed down from God (similar to the 1215 Magna Carta and my 1962 Spiderman comic book). Now it’s certainly patriotic to think the U.S. Constitution is “sacred,” but it was written by imperfect men who disagreed as much as modern Republicans and Democrats. And most Americans would disagree with the Bundy militia’s extremist interpretation of the Constitution, making them a lot more like ISIS than they’d probably like to admit.

The Supreme Law folks don’t recognize most federal authority, including the FBI and federal courts. That’s why they think they can hold these “common law grand juries” to “indict” their opponents. They have zero legal power but they can make life hell for the targets of militia members by the filing of endless property liens. It completely subverts constitutional due process protections but the threat of the this action has kept many of the critics, including myself, wary from speaking out against them.

But as much as we might disagree with their macho tactics, this issue about the power of the federal government to infringe on our personal liberties is at the core of the American conversation. It was in 1789 and it is in 2016.

Conspiracy City

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After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, we began to pay a lot more attention to patriot militias. One of the best books on the topic is Kenneth Stern’s A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate (1997). Stern accurately describes the militia world as a giant funnel.

  • At the top level are a lot of issues that many Americans can find common ground on, including gun rights, tax protests and land use regulations (which would include the debate over the best use of the Malheaur National Wildlife Refuge). People’s first contact with militia is usually rallying around these types of “Don’t tread on me” issues.
  • Then the movement becomes focused on anger at the “tyrannical” federal government as the enemy, not as a democratic form of governance by and for the people. Whether it’s old school “revenue collectors” or federally funded botanists, all federal agents are portrayed as enemies of the people (unless they are defending the country against foreign enemies or brown people crossing the border).
  • The next level is where the conspiracy theories kick in. Now that The X-Files is back on the air, these dark theories have whole new audience. The federal government is controlled by a secret cabal (The illuminati, Freemasons, aliens, etc.) working to deprive average Americans of their basic rights to life and liberty. The conspirators control the media, both major political parties, and the banks, so every time you use your debit card you are giving them data to run your life.
  • Below that, that conspiracy theory becomes a very familiar face, the Jews. That cabal is now ZOG (the Zionist Occupation Government), working globally to destroy white Christian society. The global banking system is the arm of their new world order and they have you eating bagels at McDonalds without even knowing it.
  • At the bottom of the funnel are the revolutionaries who believe a “second American Revolution” is needed to banish the Jewish occupiers and restore the supreme law of the founding fathers. This is where we found Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the militia men behind the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 Americans (including 19 children).

There are fewer and fewer militia activists the farther your descend the funnel. However, Stern posits that the more folks who come in at the top on broad issues, like 2nd Amendment gun rights, the more who will make it down to the bottom and a see events like Oklahoma City (and the standoff in Oregon) as a call to violently overthrow the evil federal government.

End Game

What is their endgame? Well, it’s safe to say the Bundy militia wants a federal government that does little more than sail aircraft carriers around the oceans, but they’ll settle for the Bureau of Land Management handing protected lands over to any white man who asks. “I got some cattle!” Ammon Bundy’s father is Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who’s cows have been ripping off taxpayers for years.

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So it shouldn’t be that surprising that there is significant overlap between the federal government-hating militia world and the federal government-hating white supremacist world. Timothy McVeigh’s guidebook was The Turner Diaries, a poorly-written novel about Neo-Nazis killing “race-mixers,” bombing a federal building, overthrowing the government and launching nuclear missiles at Israel. They want to make America great again by taking us back to 1789, when the authority of (straight) white Christian men went unchallenged, before all this “political correctness” encroached on God’s chosen leaders. It all sounds like Donald Trump’s wettest dream.

It’s not clear what the racial beliefs of the white men hold up the Malheaur refuge are. One member has posted several tweets and videos about “Zionists” and nuking Israel. Their website. www.defendyourbase.net, had plenty of wild conspiracy theories (including some about Hilary Clinton) but was just taken down. I don’t know if they wisely unplugged it or it was the oppressive feds (or an anonymous Smoking Man), but it gave us a glimpse into their bent world views.

How to diffuse a stand off

After the disastrous standoffs in Ruby Ridge, Idaho (1992) and Waco, Texas (1993), authorities now know how to manage a siege with white activists (I’ll let others present the data on standoffs with black and Muslim activists). Those events showed the heavy hand of militarized federal law enforcement agencies and children were sadly killed in each.

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After Oklahoma City bombing, the 1996 standoff with the Freemen militia in Montana turned out very differently. While many called for authorities to arrest the men, the feds waited them out for 81 days. They peacefully arrested the eight man who were later convicted for various charges, including threats against public officials.

The siege at Malheaur could go either way. You get the sense the FBI is playing the long game and hoping these guys will just get back to managing car fleets. But they may also be itching for a showdown. The militia movement hasn’t had any martyrs in a while and more than one have expressed a desire to die for the cause. There’s an assumption that Ammon Bundy, who is quite charismatic, can control all these rogue men who are just hanging out in his very unregulated militia. If one the rogues goes rogue, well, they’ll get the battle with the “tyrants” they’ve long dreamt about.

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Malheaur occupiers Ammon Bundy and LaVoy Finicum have both talked to the media and presented their case in a very calm and articulate manner. They raise some important points about about the overreach of the federal government and the lack of the balance between individual rights and eminent domain. But their logic is rooted in a version on the Constitution that is not real. It’s a cartoon verson that cowboys cling to because it’s very simple and romantic. I can see how they are swept up into its poetry. But the real world is complex. We as a society evolve with this living document. Sometimes we decide that land is best used to preserve wildlife and usually we find a way to share it with law-abiding ranchers.

We can make fun of these guys. We can see how they’ve trampled the rights of the people of Harney County while pretending to defend them. We can see them as little boy soldiers obsessed with guns and cowboy hats. We can see them as entitled whites who are the media savvy face of a racist underground. We can see them as armed terrorists who would be dead by now if the were black or Muslim. Or we could see them as sparking a discussion about our faith in and fear of the government and what we should do about it.

As a parent the images from Oklahoma City haunt me. There are now children inside the encampment at Malheaur National Wildlife Refuge, perhaps being used as human shields or perhaps, like in Waco, being set up as sacrificial lambs for their revolution. Let’s hope they feel they’ve made their point and will return the land back over to the birds and biologists soon. My sense is that Bundy’s gang wants to spark a civil war and this isn’t going to end before spring.

Regular updates on the Oregon siege here at OPB News.