Portland-area rocked after attacks
For the second time in 30 years, a local hate crime has shocked Portland and the nation, challenging the city's reputation for tolerance and forcing residents to confront a darker reality.
Three Good Samaritans protecting two teenage girls from a man hurling anti-Muslim and other slurs at them were brutally attacked by the assailant on board a MAX train last Friday, May 26. Two were slashed to death and the third was seriously wounded. Their bravery has been praised by everyone from average Portlanders to President Donald Trump, while many are asking how such a thing could happen here.
"Our community remains in shock and mourning, but we're also tremendously grateful to our heroes and their families for their selflessness and heroism," Mayor Ted Wheeler said Monday. "Their sacrifice is supreme and I do not want future generations to forget that."
The attack is the most serious hate crime in Portland since the November 1988 killing of an Ethiopian immigrant by racist skinheads, which also shocked residents and became a national news story that tainted the city's reputation for years. Local protests and a widely publicized civil trial over the murder were intended to send a message that such hate will never be tolerated in Portland — which makes the MAX attack so much more incomprehensible.
Mayor suggests memorial
Wheeler said he will propose a permanent memorial to the victims when the time is right.
The three victims did not know each other, but represented a cross section of the region. All stepped forward when a MAX rider apparently began yelling at the two girls simply because one of them was wearing a hijab.
Southeast Portland resident Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, grew up in Ashland, where he is remembered for his kindness. He graduated from Reed College in 2016 and became an environmental consultant. His mother, Ashland resident Asha Deliverance said her son was determined to change the world.
"He was taking it into his hands to do something. He had such a big heart and big reach," Deliverance said of her son.
Happy Valley resident Ricky John Best, 53, was a U.S. Army veteran and employee of the Portland Bureau of Development Services. The bureau opened two hours late on Tuesday, the first business day after Memorial Day, so his co-workers could grieve. Best leaves behind a wife and four children.
"It didn't matter about race, ethnicity, religion. He just wanted to help whoever was in need. He was a hero way before his sacrifice on the MAX," Eric Best said of his father.
Southeast Portland resident Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, is hospitalized and expected to survive. He is a Portland State University student and an accomplished poet known for entertaining fellow MAX riders with his verses.
Fletcher's grandmother says he has stood up to social injustice before.
"He's actually done that a number of times and been in some risky situations. His mom always said, 'Someday, Micah, someday' but we were hoping that someday would never happen," said Janice Heater, his grandmother.
The suspect, North Portland resident Jeremy Christian, 35, was quickly arrested after fleeing the train when it stopped at the Hollywood Transit Station. He is charged with aggravated murder, attempted murder, intimidation and felony possession of a restricted weapon. Intimidation is a state hate crime.
He was arraigned Tuesday afternoon. Christian has a lengthy felony record, including robbery and kidnapping.
A Multnomah County grand jury is expecting to consider additional charges in coming days, and the FBI is investigating whether Christian committed any federal crimes.
Local, state and even federal officials seem to know Portland's national reputation is at stake. In addition to deploring the crime and honoring the victims, many of them are repeatedly stressing how such a thing is the opposite of what the city stands for.
Since Trump was elected president, the city has repeatedly been portrayed as a hotbed of liberal resistance. Several Oregon cities, including Hillsboro, Portland and Beaverton, have confirmed their status as sanctuary city, and anti-Trump protests have sometimes turned violent.
Evokes Seraw memories
There are many similarities between last Friday's attack and the Nov. 13, 1988, killing of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian who came to Portland to attend college. Back then, community leaders said that killing was the opposite of what Portland stands for, too.
Like the spontaneous confrontation on the MAX train, Seraw's killing was apparently unplanned. A group of skinheads who had been drinking left their Southeast Portland apartment late at night. A fight erupted and Seraw was beaten to death with a baseball bat.
The brutal killings last week and in 1988 happened after periods of well-reported growth in local far-right activity. Racist skinheads were increasing in number in Portland before Seraw was killed. Local right-wing extremism had been in the news since Trump was elected president last November.
Ten days after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center had reported Oregon had the highest per-capita reports of hate crimes in the country.
Before Friday's attack, Christian had been observed yelling racist threats during a so-called March for Free Speech along 82nd Avenue. It was held on April 29, following the cancellation of the annual 82nd Avenue of Roses parade because of threatened violence between right- and left-wing activists. A similar march had taken place in Lake Oswego. Dozens of extremists participated in both marches.
Then and now, the hate crimes immediately made national news, with civil rights organizations, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, weighing in. Within days of Friday's MAX attack, original stories were being reported by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.
Friday's attack was also shocking because it took place on a MAX train approaching the Hollywood Transit Center. Transit is the preferred mode of transportation of many local leaders, who urge regional residents to take it as often as possible. Ironically, two days before the attack, advocates for minority and low-income riders urged TriMet to keep armed police off MAX trains and buses, saying they posed a greater threat than other passengers.
The Seraw killing resulted in a highly publicized trial that cast light on a racist underbelly of the city that seemed impossibly at odds with its public image as a progressive paradise. Three skinheads involved in his death were convicted, including Kyle Brewster, a former Grant High School student from a wealthy family, and Ken Meiske, a one-time street kid nicknamed Ken Death, who was the subject of a short film by Gus Van Sant. When it was all over, local and national civil rights leaders said a message had been sent that Portland does not tolerate hate.
Nearly 30 years later, the city is back in the spotlight for a similar crime. It is too early to know whether Christian will go to trial and how it might be covered, but Portland's reputation is already part of the story.
Lyndsey Hewitt, KOIN 6 News and the Medford Mail Tribune contributed to this story.
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