CHARLENEM National Correspondent @sischarlene
PORTLAND–Portland prides itself on being the most liberal city in the northwest. But the murder trial of a White supremacist, who allegedly stabbed three men after he harassed Black girls on a subway, has led many Blacks to say the horrible crime and trial expose deeply rooted problems of racism in the city.
Racism plagues the police department, city government, business, media, and other aspects of Black life, activists and residents told The Final Call.
The expected four-week trial of Jeremy Christian, a 37-year-old self-described neo-Nazi, is expected to close at the end of February.
Mr. Christian is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the stabbing deaths of Ricky Best, 53, and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, 23, on May 26, 2017. He is also charged with attempted first-degree murder in the stabbing of Micah Fletcher, who was 21 at the time. Mr. Christian’s trial opened Jan. 28 in downtown Portland.
Mr. Christian’s attorney Dan Smith argues his client acted in self-defense and was afraid of being beaten up. Mr. Christian has pled not guilty to all charges. Initially he faced charges of aggravated murder, eligible for the death penalty, but last August Gov. Kate Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1013, which limits the types of crimes punishable by death to terrorist acts, murders of children and police officers and a few other specific types of killings. Some Blacks and Portland residents said they believe it was part of a scheme to spare Mr. Christian’s life, if he was convicted of murder.
“The bottom line is Jeremy Christian personifies everything that we have been fighting for the past three and a half years … he personified the bigotry when he attacked those women,” Daryle Lamont-Jenkins, executive director of the anti-racist organization One People’s Project and producer of the Academy Award-winning film “Skin,” “Alt-Right: Age of Rage,” and “At This Hour.”
“He personified the hatred against those that would not allow them to go forward, and most importantly, when it comes to Portland, he was part of the beginning of the strife, of the conflicts that (Antifa or anti-fascists who fight against right-wing neo-Nazis) would have with some of the hate mongers that are going into that city to try to cause grief,” Mr. Lamont Jenkins told The Final Call.
On May 26, 2017, Mr. Christian began threatening Walia Mohamed and Destinee Mangum, two young girls riding on a MAX light rail train during rush hour, according to prosecutors. Ms. Mohamed was wearing a hijab, head covering worn by Muslim females.
One of the men killed, Portland resident Namkai-Meche, was a recent college graduate in economics. The other victim, Ricky Best, a U.S. army veteran with 23 years of service, was a father of four–three teenage sons and one 12-year-old daughter.
They are etched in history as heroes for stepping up to protect the young, Muslim girls, said activists. A vigil was held the day after at the MAX station where the two were killed and Mr. Fletcher survived. They tried to stop the accused killer from harassing the girls and there was a confrontation. Instead of punches, which many thought had occurred, Mr. Christian slashed the men with a knife.
One woman says the deaths should never have happened and police failed to properly deal with Mr. Christian the night before that fateful day on the train.
“They had a chance to arrest him the night before, but you let him get away to kill the people,” said Demetria Hester, a Black woman Mr. Christian allegedly assaulted on a MAX train the night before the stabbings. He was charged with assault and menacing for shouting racial slurs and throwing a Gatorade bottle at Ms. Hester, giving her a black eye.
According to Ms. Hester, he cursed at her repeatedly and threatened her. “Keep talking ‘Black b—-h.’ … I’ll rape a ‘b—h … I got something for you! Keep talking,” he said, according to the Black Portland resident. His insults were unleashed after she told him nobody wants to be threatened because of their race, religion or gender, Ms. Hester told The Final Call.
Mr. Christian threatened to kill her, she said.
When they got off the train, he continued his hateful rhetoric, and reached in his bag, said Ms. Hester. She maced him, and he threw a bottle at her, she said. Portland Police Bureau Officer Neal Glaske responded but interrogated her while Mr. Christian washed his face, Ms. Hester recalled.
She learned about the killings when she called work to explain her absence and was told to check the news.
“I didn’t know how to process it. Oh my God! That was him! And he actually did go out and kill somebody,” she said. “I prayed and thanked God that I survived, but I cried so hard for the people who died, and the lives that were taken that could have been saved if you (police) would have did your job,” she said.
She’s still trying to process what happened. “Three years later, how this could happen, and it’s 2020, and we’re still going through the same things we were going through 50 years ago, and they say we’ve progressed? And how have we progressed? How is that progression?” she asked rhetorically.
“We live in America! People will jump up and down to protect a dog! A dog! So had she been a White woman and got off that train and said all these things had occurred. They showed a video! People literally walked past her. No one cared. In their deepest heart, they did not care,” said one activist.
Activists, victims and residents told The Final Call they feel Portland has one justice system for Whites and one for Blacks. They point to the conduct of the judge and prosecutors during the Christian trial, saying both are much too lenient.
Mr. Christian has repeatedly been disruptive in court, blurting out words of displeasure and still trying to intimidate people, they said.
Though the Good Samaritans killed and injured were White, the system doesn’t care about White lives when they are trying to protect Blacks, activists complained.
The judge, defense and prosecuting attorneys in the case are White. Ten White males, one Black male and no Black females sit on the jury. Those in seats reserved for the press, the public and victims are mainly White.
Blacks make up 5.7 percent of Portland’s estimated population of more than 650,000 people. Whites are 77.10 percent, Hispanics 9.7 percent, and Asians 8 percent of the city’s population, according to Census Bureau statistics.
The Final Call asked Brent Weisberg, communications director for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, about activists’ and residents’ concerns and allegations that the court system, including law enforcement, the trial judge, and prosecutors were being too lenient with Mr. Christian. Mr. Weisberg said he was not able to comment due to the ongoing trial. But he asked for the names of those activists and residents. When told no, he asked if their names would be printed in the story, saying he was “just curious.”
An administrator for Judge Cheryl Albrecht told The Final Call an interview with the judge or statement regarding concerns about bias were unlikely.
In the courtroom, Walia Mohamed and Destinee Magnum were at times distraught, wept and struggled to testify on Jan. 28. They were headed to the mall after school to shop but got on the wrong bus. When they were on the right track, they noticed Mr. Christian, who barraged them with hateful threats.
“He (Christian) was saying ‘f’ Muslims, saying ‘Go back to Saudi Arabia’ … He was saying,” Ms. Mohamed, as she sobbed, grabbed tissues and wiped her face. “He was saying, ‘Kill yourselves,’ ” she testified.
“I’ve never experienced any racism towards me or anything that he was saying. I just never experienced it, so this is my first time just, you know, someone just coming, say, coming for me … I was scared. I didn’t know what to do,” continued Ms. Mohamed, who said she was born in Somalia and came to the U.S. near the end of 2005 when she was about five or six.
“I was just scared because I’ve never experienced it before, and I’ve never been in a situation like that,” cried Destinee Mangum as her body shook heavily during a video playback of the stabbings. The 18-year-old sobbed profusely, put her head down then pressed it into her jacket but sounds of her shrieking filled the courtroom.
“I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, so I don’t feel like I should go somewhere else. I don’t feel like I have to go back to where I came from because I’m born here, and it just made me feel like, why? There’s no reason,” she said. Her voice trembled.
Defense attorneys claimed Mr. Christian wasn’t targeting the girls with his free speech.
“He was looking right at them when he was threatening to cut off their heads and slice their throats,” countered witness Shawn Kareem Forde, who is Black.
Standing 12 feet away on the train, the 295-pound, 6-foot, 4-inch Marine Corps vet who served in Iraq and Afghanistan said he moved between Mr. Christian and girls to protect them.
“I’m a dad, so they looked young enough and you could tell by their reaction they were totally, totally, they were out of their sorts … They were really like, scared. I just wanted him to focus on me … I didn’t want him to focus on them anymore and continue threatening them,” Mr. Forde said.
Mr. Forde said he witnessed the stabbings. He said he thought the first strike was a punch. At the next stop he and other people on the train that witnessed the horrific attack exited the train.
Ms. Hester said she hugs the girls, who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, every time she sees them.
Because of the bottle thrown at her, Ms. Hester may have permanent eye damage, according to her doctors, and she is extra-sensitive since the attack, she admitted.
“I’m extra hyper-vigilant. I have a taser now. I have two maces. I go to the gun range every other weekend,” stated Ms. Hester. The “sous” or second-in-command chef said she plans on taking self-defense classes before she embarks on a journey abroad, first to Ghana, West Africa, to study culinary arts.
“But I look at every White man as a suspect,” Ms. Hester admitted.