Lives collide, blood is spilled
The two men involved in the highly publicized, politically charged Aug. 29 fatal shooting in downtown Portland had everything and nothing in common.
Police believe Michael Reinoehl, 48, shot Aaron "Jay" Danielson, 39, in the chest at point blank range. Six days later, Reinhold was killed by law enforcement officials trying to arrest him. The two deaths made national news because Reinoehl was a supporter of the anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement and the loose-knit, far-left antifa collective. Danielson was a supporter of Patriot Prayer, a right-wing organization based in Vancouver, Washington.
The shooting happened after clashes between Trump supporters and counter-protesters in downtown Portland. Court records reveal Reinoehl laid in wait for Danielson, who was wearing a Patriot Prayer cap, before shooting him. Everyone from Mayor Ted Wheeler to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden have weighed in on the violence, with each side blaming the other for it.
But, despite their final confrontation, interviews and news reports reveal Reinoehl and Danielson had a lot in common. Both had aligned themselves with movements and organizations considered extreme by many. Each was obsessively drawn to the near-nightly protests in downtown Portland, documenting their experiences on social media. Both risked their lives by providing security for their sides. Reinoehl was shot and wounded breaking up a fight during a protest on July 26. Danielson told friends that counter-protesters armed with makeshift weapons repeatedly pepper sprayed and threw objects at him.
Both men also foreshadowed their own deaths.
"We truly have an opportunity right now to fix everything. But it will be a fight like no other! It will be a war and like all wars there will be casualties," Reinoehl posted on Instagram in June.
Danielson was convinced that the government or some entity was monitoring his phone, and that someone eventually would take him out, said Jordan Reilich, a longtime friend of his who is not politically active.
"I'm sure it's just a coincidence some antifa crazy stalked and killed him," Reilich said.
And each now is a martyr to their causes. Patriot Prayer held a memorial for Danielson in Vancouver that attracted hundreds of people on Sept. 5. And Portland protesters are accusing law enforcement officers of murdering Reinoehl instead of trying to arrest him. Trump intensified the situation Saturday by calling Reinoehl's death "retribution" during a FOX News interview.
Friends defend both men
Friends publicly defended both Danielson and Reinoehl after each was killed. The day after Danielson was shot, Luke Carrillo, who had known Danielson for 20 years, told reporters, "Aaron was not a radical. He was not a racist and he was not a fascist. He was not an inciter or an instigator. He was a freedom-loving American who died expressing his belief — a right which is given guaranteed to all of us through the constitution."
Other friends also denied to the Portland Tribune that Danielson was a racist, saying he spent much of his free time hanging out with a racially mixed group at a Southwest Portland tavern, near where he lived. His strongest defender was a Black man who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
Friends also defended Reinhoehl.
"Nightly, he would break up fights," Randal McCorkle, a regular at the protests who became friends with Reinoehl, told the New York Times. Other protesters described Reinhoehl as a "guardian angel" who protected them from opponents.
But, unlike Danielson, some of those who knew Reinoehl also criticized him. They included his sister, who asked not to be identified and described him as someone who "was not very stable" to the New York Times. About Reinoehl's involvement in the protests, she said, "It made him feel like his existence meant something again."
An acquaintance also denounced Reinoehl to KOIN 6 News, a news partner of Pamplin Media Group.
"I'm heartbroken for his family, I have sympathy for the family. I don't have sympathy for him," said Craig Gilbert, who runs Gilbert's Tire Pros in Gresham, where Reinoehl was a customer for more than a decade.
The contrasting reactions may reflect personal differences. Reinoehl's sister said he had been estranged from his family for years and he was reportedly supporting himself by doing odd jobs for friends. Reinoehl also was in trouble with the law. He had been charged with endangering the life of his 11-year-old daughter by speed-racing with her against his 17-year-old son on Interstate 84 in Baker County on June 8. A warrant for his arrest had been issued on July 8 when he failed to appear for his hearing.
In contrast, according to Reilich, Danielson was still close to his family, although he had never married or had children. He also owned a specialty moving business with Carrillo.
Danielson was obsessed with politics long before Reinoehl, however. Several of Danielson's longtime friends say he was already anti-government and open to a wide range of conspiracy theories when they first met him. But he also opposed the chaos in the streets that followed Trump's election in 2016, and was drawn to the pushback against Portland activists that Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson brought to his group's downtown rallies. Gibson said he first met Danielson at one of his rallies three years ago.
Although Danielson was a Christian, he did not push his religion on anyone or even talk about it very much, his friends say. He did not talk much about Patriot Prayer, either. Instead, he talked about what happened when counter-protesters showed up to disrupt its rallies, resulting in the street fights that took place throughout much of 2019, Reilich said.
When racial justice protests began happening every night in Portland after George Floyd was killed on May 25, Danielson began going to them and documenting how they frequently escalated into violent confrontations with the police. Friends say he posted hundreds of videos of the protests on a YouTube channel that was taken down after his death. Danielson and another frequent participant at conservative street events, Chandler Pappas, also volunteered to provide security for the pro-Trump caravan that ended up in Portland on Aug. 29.
Reinoehl described the shooting as "self-defense" in a Vice News interview released shortly before he was killed.
However, that explanation is contradicted by videos of the shooting and court records. Although Danielson also was armed with a handgun, it was still in his holster when he was shot.
Violence no surprise
Retired Portland State University professor William Meulemans said he is not surprised by any of this. He has researched political extremists for more than four decades, personally meeting with left-wing radicals and right-wing reactionaries in Southern Oregon, the Deep South, Ireland and Israel. His book, "How the Left and Right Think: the Roots of Division in American Politics," was published by McFarland last year.
"Portland is a microcosm of the country and the country is polarized," said Meulemans, who accuses Trump of fueling the divisions.
Although Meulemans has not been attending the Portland protests and never met Reinoehl or Danielson, their stories are remarkably similar to many of the others he has documented. According to Meulemans, people drawn to extremist politics have a lot in common, despite their different opinions. Among other things, they believe the world is falling apart and that only direct, personal action can save it. They reject democratic solutions, believing government is the problem. And they are energized fighting against a perceived enemy they believe is causing the crisis.
"You can find variations among people, but there are also commonalities among the extremists. There are overwhelming similarities between the extreme left and the extreme right," said Meulemans, who retired from PSU in 2012 and taught at Southern Oregon College in Ashland for 20 years before moving to Portland.
Meulemans said he finds Reinoehl's personal story familiar. Many extremists replace broken family relations with the friendships found in common political causes, he said. Meulemans said he even understands the apparent contradiction between Danielson's lack of faith in government but support for the police, a secondary theme of the pro-Trump caravan that brought him into Portland the day he died. Meulemans said that was common among the Protestant militias in the long Ireland conflict, which ironically helped the police infiltrate them.
"The context might be different, but the patterns of thinking are the same," Meulemans said.
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