On April 18, Benjamin Smith was given a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder, attempted murder and assault, following his shooting of a group of unarmed women in Portland’s Normandale Park. Every indication is that the February 2022 attack — which killed June Knightly and injured four others — was politically motivated, driven by Smith’s anger over a racial justice demonstration that the women were supporting. Smith, who used social media to voice his fondness for Nazis and his hatred for the Black Lives Matter movement, called the women “terrorist cunts” before opening fire. Despite this evidence the Portland Police, both in their public statements and in their investigatory interviews, labored to frame the incident as “a confrontation between an armed homeowner and armed protesters,” essentially suggesting that Smith was defending his home from a riotous mob.
In a statement released ahead of the sentencing, the survivors of Smith’s assault thoroughly refuted the police narrative: “The ‘incident’ did not ‘start’ with a mutual ‘confrontation’,” they wrote. The confrontation was entirely one-sided. “The gunman . . . aggressively approached a calm group of women . . . more than 100 feet away from his residence. His victims, who had training and experience with de-escalation, urged him to depart peacefully. Smith shot them at point blank range.” Likewise, “Smith was not a ‘homeowner'” and his apartment “did not immediately adjoin the area where the shooting took place, nor any area where protesters gathered.” The racial justice march, which so angered him, was “more than two full blocks away, out of eyesight, and separated from the scene by a fenced baseball stadium, a line of trees, and a field.” The women he attacked were not themselves protesting, but waiting to help direct traffic. And finally, “At the outset of the attack, Smith was the only ‘armed’ individual.” It was when the shooting started that the gunfire drew the attention of an armed bystander, who then shot Smith and effectively ended the assault.
The cops’ misstatements concerning the details of this case, and their framing of the events so as to both blame the victims and give Smith the best opportunity to claim self-defense, cannot be understood as simple errors or innocent mistakes. They are instead part of a decades-long pattern of the Portland Police ignoring, excusing, or facilitating violence from the right, while simultaneously criminalizing the political left.
This bias was most evident during the Trump years, as far-right groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys made regular incursions into Portland. In each instance, the cops’ enforcement efforts were directed almost entirely against left-wing counterprotesters. For instance, police did not attempt to disarm Proud Boy Alan Swinney when he pointed a gun at the crowd opposing an August 22, 2020, pro-cop “Back the Blue” rally — though he was later charged and convicted. A week later, the cops likewise made no move to stop Trump truck caravans from driving through the city, shooting bystanders with paintballs and spraying them with mace. At another demonstration, several months earlier, they declined to arrest Tusitala “Tiny” Toese after he was filmed, with another rightwing thug, repeatedly kicking a man already on the ground, aiming for his head. Police labeled the incident “mutual combat.”
Later, Lt. Jeff Niiya, the head of the riot squad, assured Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson that the cops would not arrest Toese at an upcoming demonstration, though he was wanted on a warrant. Niiya also provided Gibson intelligence on left-wing protests, and once notified him that the police would not be monitoring a Queer Liberation Front demonstration, essentially giving a green light for an assault.
In contrast, police have consistently tried to discredit antifascist activism: When the coalition-builders PopMob (short for “popular mobilization”) organized an antifascist dance party and served vegan milkshakes — some of which were thrown at fascists — the Portland Police circulated a ludicrous lie that the milkshakes contained quick-drying cement. They did not, as was readily apparent from the fact that hundreds of people were drinking them without suffering any ill effect.
One Lieutenant explained the Bureau’s enforcement priorities by stating that the far right was “much more mainstream” than their leftwing antagonists. In police circles, this view seems to be a matter of received wisdom. In his 1994 book, Skinhead Street Gangs, Portland Gang Enforcement Team detective Loren Christensen openly declared that when nazis march, “it’s the counterdemonstrators who will cause the most problems.” At the time the city was in the midst of a protracted conflict between racist and antiracist skinheads, which gained national attention after three white supremacists murdered an Ethiopian immigrant named Mulugeta Seraw. The police, and their loyal mouthpieces in the media, were systematically dismissive of the politics involved, describing it simply as gang conflict. More infuriating, they often conflated the two sides, or deliberately misidentified antiracist skinheads as nazis.
The Portland Police Bureau’s Gang Enforcement Team was ordered to monitor skinheads as early as 1987. The “gang” label helped legitimize police intelligence operations against the left and gave them a convenient excuse to neglect enforcement when antiracists were the victims of violence. On more than one occasion in the nineties, Portland Police declined to investigate shots fired into the homes of antiracist activists. This deliberate indifference continues into the present. In 2010, when an antiracist skinhead was shot outside of a downtown bar and left paralyzed, police were quick to dismiss it as gang rivalry. Antifascist researchers identified the suspect as Tom Christensen. Police, however, never made an arrest, despite ample evidence. Christensen later received a thumping at the hands of a Chicago antifa group.
A decade later, the police were similarly indifferent to the 2019 death of Sean Kealiher, a well-known antifascist. His murder does not seem to have been politically motivated, but it is hard to shake the idea that the police indifference was. It wasn’t until Oregon Public Broadcasting and The Intercept demanded the investigatory files, that the police arrested a suspect who had been identified years earlier. The culprit immediately confessed.
The Portland Police do not merely accommodate the violence of the right. They participate in it. They are, locally, its main purveyors. Consider, for instance, the more than 6,000 uses of force, in Portland alone, against racial justice protestors in 2020. It was later revealed that the Police Bureau’s crowd control training included a Proud Boys meme celebrating violence against a “dirty hippy.”
This pattern is not reducible to the prejudices of individual officers, though that certainly remains a problem. Instead, it points to a tendency inherent to policing. The central function of police — more even than law enforcement or public safety — is the preservation of existing inequalities, especially those related to class and race. The defining difference between left and right is precisely the left’s egalitarianism and the right’s inegalitarianism. The very nature of policing therefore lends itself to an affinity with the right and a hostility to the left. That rightward tilt is apparent in the violence they enact, the violence they allow, and the lies that they tell.
The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).
For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.
The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.
Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.