At a racial justice demonstration in Portland on Feb. 19, well-known and respected activist June Knightly was shot and killed by far-right vigilante Benjamin Smith, who also shot and injured five other activists before an armed protester opened fire against him. Activists in Portland have long warned of the increasingly brazen and dangerous violence from far-right groups and individuals, and many fear that such violence will only increase and that the police will do little to stop it. In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc welcomes back Portland-based author and organizer Shane Burley to discuss last week’s shooting in Portland and what it says about the state of right-wing extremism in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Shane Burley is the author of Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse and Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It. His work has appeared in a range of outlets including NBC News, Jacobin, Al Jazeera, The Baffler, The Daily Beast, Truthout, In These Times, and Protean magazine.
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Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and as always, it’s good to have you all with us. The armed right wing in America is a very serious threat to our country, to our lives, to our future. In some parts of our nation like Oregon, the Northwest, the mountain states, the border states, are particularly swarming with armed right-wing militias and individuals who have few compunctions for killing those they see as the enemy, like anybody white who demonstrates for Black lives is an ANTIFA terrorist, for them, to be taken out.
Now this played itself out in Portland, Oregon, just recently, at the end of February. There was a march to honor Amir Locke, who was killed by Minneapolis police, and Patrick Kimmons, who was killed by Portland police. Now, far from the heart of the demonstration were five women serving as security monitors, and they were confronted by a man who swore misogynist epithets at these women. He then opened fire, killing June Knightly, who was affectionately known as T-Rex. Five other women were wounded, two critically. The murderer was shot by another man who came to the women’s defense. And then the police arrived en masse only to arrest the man who stopped the rampage.
We’re going to delve into all of that, what happened that evening, but also take a deeper look into the armed world of neofascism in America, with a man who’s been covering this for some time and has joined us before, and I’m glad he’s back with us now, Shane Burley. And Shane’s written two books, Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse, and Fascism Today: What it is and How to End it. He’s written for Jacobin, In These Times, NBC News, Truthout, and many other publications. He’s at work on an anthology of anti-fascist writing called No Pasaran and a new book on antisemitism. And welcome back, Shane. Good to have you with us.
Shane Burley: Thanks so much for having me back.
Marc Steiner: So take us back to the other week and what happened in Portland, exactly. Were you there?
Shane Burley: I wasn’t there, no. No, I wasn’t.
Marc Steiner: So talk a bit about what happened, and to our listeners across the globe.
Shane Burley: So, because there’s been an escalation in protests here around the George Floyd protests in 2020 and have continued basically up until now, there is a regular interval of police protests, abolitionist protests confronting police violence. There was, again, that night another protest talking about the folks you mentioned being killed, but also everyone that’s been kind of under assault from police violence.
So a neighbor came out, decided to confront the folks. Reports had come out later, this person had been kind of themselves a part of a pathway of radicalization, so they had been obsessed with the protests, conspiracy theories around ANTIFA and other things, got into a conflict and opened fire on a group of people, killing one of them, like you mentioned. And it was only when a counterprotestor actually shot back and hurt them very badly that they were able to stop. And that’s likely what saved people’s lives, was the armed counter-demonstrator shooting back. This is pretty common. The shooting itself is significant. But having those kinds of threats is reasonably common. You and I were talking before the show. I, as a journalist on site, usually wear a bulletproof vest when I’m at these sorts of events.
Marc Steiner: Really?
Shane Burley: Yeah. Absolutely. And when it was large scale I would have to wear a AAA-rated helmet – That’s a bulletproof military grade helmet – And also a gas mask and ballistic goggles that could withstand being hit by police munitions, because we’re talking about a three way fight here. We’re talking about threats from the far right groups or reactionary vigilante types, and also an assault from the police, like you mentioned. A crowd of protestors gets shot and then the one person defending themselves is the one that gets arrested, and that’s not an uncommon dynamic. So those spaces are quite frightening in a lot of ways.
Marc Steiner: So one of the dynamics here I think that you mentioned briefly and that I read in a number of pieces about what happened in Portland was the issue of the guy firing back and shooting the guys. I think his name was Ben Smith, the guy who did the killing and who’s now in custody, we should add. But people, I can see people going, oh, what? Wait, wait, wait. What do you mean? Now we’re going to be carrying guns at demonstrations and there are going to be shootouts? Let’s talk about what is going on and what you think this dynamic is that’s taking place.
Shane Burley: Yeah. And just to make it so people understand, this isn’t like a state where there are pistol permits. I can go out and I can buy a gun with really no problem, conceal carry permits come without a police interrogation or anything. You can take an online class, takes about an hour, and then you get a concealed carry permit. So it’s really easy to have guns here. And Oregon residents on average own guns a lot more than the other parts of the country. So it’s not uncommon for people to have guns.
And the reality is that people have been under assault from the far right and vigilante folks so much and the police have stood down so frequently that I think the message has been sent that the way you protect yourself here is to carry a gun. So to kind of rewind a little bit to 2020, there were obviously well over 100 days of sequential protests against police violence and protests in Portland. And then on Aug. 22, there was this Back the Blue rally where Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, other far-right militias came and basically attacked the protestors. It was an all out assault. So they were pulling guns, they were hitting people with munitions, tear gas, paintballs, batons. Lots of people were very seriously hurt.
This is the one time the police chose not to intervene. Before and after, they had been beating up protestors regularly, using tear gas, military grade CS gas, hitting people with batons, did the same nightly. But in this one case, they stayed several blocks away and got on the megaphone and told people to police themselves. So what that says to me –
Marc Steiner: Are you saying they told people to police themselves, or that’s just…
Shane Burley: On the megaphone they said, make sure to police yourself. So if I go to a protest and I’m covering a largely nonviolent demonstration, the police bust it up using extreme force. Then the far right shows up, attacks protestors, and police do nothing. That sends a message to me that we’re on our own and that people are going to have to do what they can to defend themselves because that is not what police have been doing. They’ve been doing the opposite. So I think a lot of people are very aware of those dynamics and take action to do that.
Now do I think that guns at a protest are a great idea? Probably not. They escalate the situation, particularly when armed people come in. As a reporter, I’ve been confronted with guns by a lot of these folks. If I had a gun, if I pulled out a gun, they likely would’ve opened fire. That would escalate the situation. But the reality is, and I think people need to acknowledge, the reality is that what stopped more people from dying that night was a counterprotestor shooting the shooter. That’s what happened. And so I think that’s an uncomfortable reality for a lot of progressive people who would like to think that having this blanket anti-gun mentality is what keeps people safe. But that is a little utopian in a world where there are millions of guns floating around and they’re used disproportionately against left-wing protestors and marginalized folks.
Marc Steiner: So just to be clear for people who are watching or listening right now and have not been aware of what happened in Portland in this demonstration that I outlined at the beginning of our conversation, the man who actually committed the murder and really critically shot two other people, and three other people were wounded, all women, he is in custody, charged with murder and a number of crimes. The man who actually shot him has not been charged. Am I right about that? Just to get that clarified.
Shane Burley: That’s correct, yeah. The person who fired back has not been charged.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk a bit about what all this really means in terms of all you’ve been covering. You just came back from the border. You just came back from interviewing a guy who wrote a book about the militias on the border. And there are people in communities on the border, there are people I know on some of the reservations in the Indigenous world who are arming themselves as well in case they are attacked by the crazy cowboy militias. That’s real. So let’s just talk about what you… And you’re kind of covering this for a while pretty intensely. When you look at this demonstration, what took place, when you see everything that’s building up, especially in the areas we talked about in the West, what does that portend for you? And what do you think we’re facing, from your analysis?
Shane Burley: I mean, I think it is like you mentioned, a sort of frontier mentality that people not only must but have the right to take matters into their own hands. So this is what the border militias do, and this is what Patrick Strickland, he wrote the book Marauders, a great reporter, has this book that’s coming out. He writes a lot about what these border militias do is they get an impetus to intervene based on conspiracy theories about the border, and they feel like they must do something. Dangerous things are happening, and they go there to intervene, and they do things like putting up fake water stations, whereby a migrant crossing the border might think they’re going to get lifesaving care and instead get maybe pulled into border patrol. They have unlawfully detained. There’s a lot of reports of them unlawfully detaining migrants and trying to bring them to border patrol.
Basically, they’re there harming migrants trying to cross the border to safety. They’re invading communities that don’t want them. And they’re doing so with a lot of paramilitary apparatus. Weapons, body armor, coordinating that way. And they engage in an incredible amount of violence. All of this is based on this presentation, this self presentation of protection that they are there actually protecting “real Americans,” or protecting the community. And that’s how this violence often plays out, under the pretense that this is actually defensive action even though it’s clearly offensive.
And I think that’s the same thing we’ve seen in places like Portland, where they’ll come in, these far right groups come into the city. They’re usually not from the city. They’re usually from outside. And they come and say they’re there to defend the city. Then they put themselves in an antagonistic position, and then use any opportunity to bring weapons out, suggesting it was defensive. And so I think part of this is about this psychology or this fantasy that pervades these communities that they actually are sort of heroes amidst this story. And if it wasn’t for them, things would get even worse. Therefore, they must intervene. And I think that’s especially dangerous because that leads people to take really extreme action under the idea that they’re meeting the standards of some kind of moral equivalence.
Marc Steiner: So a couple of things I really want to explore. One that has to do with Portland and Oregon where you are and what happened with this demonstration, and then kind of a larger question about the connections with things we’ve all witnessed in the last couple of years in America. But let’s start with Portland. What we saw here was a guy who, clearly online and in other places, had been talking about the dangers of the left, talking about all this other stuff and how that has to be attacked. He was well armed. He had a stockpile of weapons. And that to me in some ways Portland seems like a lightning rod. Portland seems like a center of what could be emblematic for the entire nation. Because you have this city that’s a relatively progressive city, surrounded, in many ways, by a really conservative world that’s well armed with militias. A lot of demonstrations take place in Portland.
So in this particular case if I’m right, five women were shot, two of them I think are still critically wounded and still in the hospital if I’m correct. You can correct me if I’m wrong about that. So I’m just curious. What is that political dynamic? What do you see playing itself out in a place like Oregon?
Shane Burley: I mean, this has played out for decades in Oregon. In the ’80s it was sort of a crisis around neo-Nazi skinhead groups that were coming into the city at the same time as there was growing radical left-wing movements, growth of the militia movement in the ’90s. Aryan nations would come from over the border in Idaho and to recruit. There’s always been this tension between what’s in the middle of the state and what’s surrounding it. And that’s happening in a much bigger way now. There’s movements called things like Timber Unity which are basically fighting for a repositioning of the economy to reposition it towards rural areas. So for example lowering the cost of diesel fuel, those sorts of things.
Those have actually become really contentious points that are then wrapped up with social politics as well. So what we’re seeing is the further radicalization of all right-wing politics in the state. That includes the politicians that are much more beholden to militia influences in the primaries. And we’re seeing that basically all the ways that the COVID crisis and the economic crisis that’s followed has intensified those conditions is only making it more of a sharp line divide. So we’re seeing here, like you said, it’s called here the I-5 corridor because it goes from Vancouver and Portland down to Eugene, Oregon, and then to the right and left of it are deeply rural areas, many of which have had their social services completely stripped out, that don’t have a lot of the deep community support that you need, have deep levels of poverty increasing, and are having shrinking populations. And so that creates a really volatile mix where the center of the state controls politics and sort of the agenda of the state at large. The other people feel disenfranchised, and they have a very big disconnect from one another.
Marc Steiner: You raised a couple points here, before I get to the larger question, and we conclude together. And many, many years back, many years back, I lived in Oregon for a short while in the Southwest part of Oregon, and it was kind of a political commune, collective community that lived out in rural Oregon. And my friends still live there, a lot of my friends still live there. But one of the things that happened there was this coalition that people consciously built in the ’70s and partially the ’80s as well, I think, between the Indigenous rural community, the Indigenous community, and this group of people who had moved into Oregon to live, to fight around the same issues to save the environment, to save jobs.
And you raised an issue here about what people face in rural Oregon and other parts of our country where the timber industry is declining, other things declining, people are desperate and don’t have a lot. And so in the middle of that rise this kind of nationalist very racist movement that can pull people in to say, we have to fight the wealth of this country, but from a very right-wing perspective. So what do you think is the possibility for something broader to be built that crosses lines that people don’t think need to be crossed, addressing the issues that face people who move to the right and arm themselves in the face of what they face?
Shane Burley: I mean, I think this is the question, it’s how are you going to get right-wing people to organize in a way that confronts their grievances practically? Because their grievances are real. The poverty of rural conservative areas is real and only getting more severe. And there are types of organizing that, obviously from our perspective, are going to be kind of a failure. They’re not actually going to get the conditions that they need to get at to solve those problems. I mean, there’s a big part of it. Part is that the organized left of the last 30 years has centered itself on college campuses and in urban areas, the labor movement, which was in a lot of ways one of the bridges to larger social movements for just working class folks, they might actually get involved in larger issues through a union, those have declined. Churches are also a place where people engage in civic life, not always progressive, obviously, but it is a way to convene with their neighbors. That started to decline.
So a lot of the institutional world has left, and what it’s been replaced by is, frankly, Facebook groups and places that are really endemic with conspiracy theories. So the answer, I think, is to find ways of bridging those out of a shared practical necessity. Not for going in there in the kind of proselytizing way that a lot of progressive groups do, but out of pure necessity. The way that a lot of right-wing conservative groups have dealt with, for example, the land is based on a certain kind of property entitlement rather than shared views like I think you’re talking about with the coalitions that would involve Indigenous folks where they’re like, we’re here to preserve the land, protect people’s Indigenous legacies, but also just kind of the environmental continuation of the space.
That kind of logic has been gone, and I think we need to re-engage what that actually looks like and to show people that a more progressive approach or one that’s inclusive actually wins real material gains for people’s lives. They need to trust that these sorts of things, that working across boundaries, across borders, across identities, is going to actually benefit them. And I think we’ve been really poor at finding a way both of actually doing that, but even in communicating the intention to. So that’s I think something that’s going to have to change. And I don’t want that to come across as though we need to put up with the crap that these right-wing groups do. Safety comes first and confronting their stuff comes first. But we need to actually look at the underlying conditions if we want to actually have a fundamental change. Otherwise, we’re just going to be responding to crisis after crisis.
Marc Steiner: So a couple things in conclusion here. One has to do with connections. I’m curious what you see as the connections between what the United States witnessed on January the 6th, what’s happening on the border between Mexico and the United States at this moment, the story you just did, and what just happened in Portland, where these five women were shot, these six women were shot and one was murdered and two are in critical condition. There’s a connective tissue here. And I wonder how you see that and what you think has to be done.
Shane Burley: This might seem like a really out there comparison, but I see this in a similar way to the fracturing of the Protestant reformation. Now the theological kind of distinctions, you can believe in those or don’t believe those, but they aren’t physical. They’re not of the material world. But they had real material consequences. They had real social political consequences. People died. Wealth was moved. You could even argue that countries were formed. There’s a lot that proceeded from those breakages that really happened almost ephemerally. And I think what’s happening right now is an ideological war of ideas and perceptions about the world largely based on falsehoods: conspiracy theories, a lack of consensus reality. That’s actually creating real political violent material volatility. And that is defining a lot of the fragmentation that’s happening now.
And so I think what we’re seeing is a breakup of consensus social projects and a fractional war that’s taking place. And a lot of it’s happening, they’ll argue that it’s happening over real material issues. But actually it’s happening over perception. It’s actually how they interpret those issues, whether or not the government is actually captured by satanic pedophiles, whether or not there’s actually a flood coming over the border. We can disprove those things, but that doesn’t mean that they’re understood as having been disproven.
So I think what’s happening now is that change of understanding, that change of interpretation is creating an actual change of our political system. And so I think that’s going to create a vulcanized, if not politically, at least socially in the coming 20 years. I do not see us repairing to a sort of singular nationhood like we had before, even though that was a bit of a falsehood then, but even the appearance of it in the future. I think instead, we’re going to have to start thinking of ourselves and solving issues as coalitions of people working together voluntarily, not just because we’re forced together into one political mobilization.
Marc Steiner: What you just said requires a longer discussion. Maybe we should have you and others join on that discussion and see where that takes us.
Shane Burley: Absolutely.
Marc Steiner: Because it’s an interesting point. And one kind of absurdist ending to this, I have to ask this question. In a very serious discussion about the end, with the horror of what happened to these women who were shot, this guy, Ben Smith, what I read about was part of some weird group. I’d never heard of it before. Furriers, or fur people? What is that?
Shane Burley: I had not heard much about [inaudible]. Furries? Are we talking about furries? I’ll talk to you about furries all day. So furries are folks that like to dress up and act as animals for sometimes erotic reasons, and sometimes just to kind of embody what they think is a spirit animal. It’s become a kind of big vibrant subculture over the last 10, 20 years, lots of costumes and pageantry and shared conventions and kind of camaraderie and that kind of thing.
Marc Steiner: Okay. Well, don’t [inaudible] too deeply today. But I had to ask a question of you. You might know the answer.
Shane Burley: Totally.
Marc Steiner: So Shane Burley, thanks so much for joining us once again. It’s always a pleasure to talk with you, man. I appreciate it. Look forward to many more conversations. Keep up the work.
Shane Burley: Thanks for having me back.
Marc Steiner: All right. Take care, my friend. All right, good. Once again, I want to thank Shane Burley for joining us. You can read his work in Truthout and many other places. And we’ll be having him back. And reminding you all that on March the 15th, we’ll be launching a five part series on the rise of the right with my co host Bill Fletcher Jr.. You don’t want to miss that. And we’ll be continuing our look at the right in the course of this year in programming throughout the year. Because it’s an important issue that we all have to confront and face for the future.
So for all of our colleagues and friends here at The Real News, Dwayne Gladden, Kayla Rivera, Stephen Frank, and those who make the show possible, I want to say thank you, and all of you to please keep on tuning in, whether you’re watching us or listening to us. And write to me at email@example.com, and I’ll write you right back with whatever you have to say. So I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.