The mourners gathered at a TriMet stop in the heart of Northeast Portland’s Hollywood district Saturday evening. Carrying candles, flowers and signs filled with messages of love and peace, tears wetting their faces, they greeted each other silently.
Everyone was stunned by the events that had taken place just one day before, when, on a sunny Friday afternoon — the first day of Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims, as well as the first day of the three-day Memorial Day weekend holiday — a known white supremacist found himself on a crowded commuter train with two teen girls and a group of would-be heroes. Witnesses say the racist man hurled hateful words toward the two teens, one of whom happened to be wearing a traditional Muslim head covering known as a hijab. At some point, a small group of men stepped in to defend the teenagers from the white supremacist’s verbal attacks. Two of those men — Army veteran, city of Portland employee and father of four Rick Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old Reed College graduate who spoke only of love in his dying moments — were murdered for their act of human decency. A third good Samaritan, 21-year-old Portland State University music student and poet Micah David-Cole Fletcher, survived the vicious attack.
As the vigil progressed, one thing was clear: While we can all be horrified, devastated and grief-stricken by what occurred on that MAX train — while we can send love to the families of the slain, injured and terrorized and donate to the many GoFundMe accounts that have been set up for their families, medical bills and children’s college funds — the one thing we absolutely cannot afford to be is surprised.
As one young woman who spoke at Saturday night’s vigil said: White supremacy is nothing new in Portland. And these acts are becoming increasingly common. We must stop them in their tracks, she said. We must, as those three Portland heroes did, be willing to put our bodies on the line to stop white supremacy-fueled acts of violence.
Her words resonated with the mourners. People looked at each other. Would they be willing to put their body on the line? Would they be willing to do what Best, Fletcher and Namkai-Meche did?
The question is a powerful one: Would you be willing to die to defend a stranger?
If you think you don’t need to worry about such things, you are kidding yourself. There is little doubt that white supremacists and other right-wing extremists are a growing threat in this country. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, “right-wing extremists have killed or injured more than 800 people in the last 25 years.” In the last decade, right-wing extremists — the majority of whom identify with organized or loosely fashioned white supremacy groups — have carried out nearly 75 percent of all extremist killings in the United States.
In a letter released this week, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said he was “sounding the alarm about domestic terrorism and hate crimes in America.”
“The scourge of ideologically motivated violence of all kinds, no matter where it happens or in what form, is one of the key issues of our time,” Greenblatt stated. “The deadly attack in Portland is not a rare or isolated event. Rather, this is the latest in a long string of violent incidents connected to right-wing extremists in the United States.”
Greenblatt, along with many from the Portland area, is calling on our nation’s leaders to come out in strong condemnation of these types of homegrown terrorist acts and to “craft policy to counter all forms of violent extremism, including white supremacy.”
A few days after her son was slaughtered for doing the right thing, Namkai-Meche’s mother wrote to President Trump and implored him to take action.
“Your words and actions are meaningful, here in America and throughout the world. Please encourage all Americans to protect and watch out for one another. Please condemn any acts of violence, which result directly from hate speech and hate groups,” Asha Deliverance wrote in her appeal to Trump.
We should demand no less of our political leaders — and, ultimately, of ourselves.