I’m writing this the day after two men had their throats slit for refusing to watch a white supremacist berate two women, one of whom was reportedly wearing a hijab. These men – we now know them as Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, and Ricky John Best, 53 – intervened. The man who killed them, identified as Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, was yelling slurs at the women. Details are scant, but we know that Christian slit the throats of Namkai-Meche and Best, killing them and stabbing a third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, who is being treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
It feels insensitive to write about this the day after their deaths. All across this country, people are grieving. Tens of thousands of people are telling Namkai-Meche’s mother that her son was a hero, that she is a hero for raising a man who intervened on behalf of strangers. I don’t mean to claim I have a clever take that you must listen to; I’m grieving too.
To quote an essay written after the 2015 attacks that left over 100 dead in Paris, “If it’s barbarism to write poetry after Auschwitz, then it’s also barbarism to write think pieces after Paris.” Surely the same can be said after Portland. But if so many acts of violence these days are political, Namkai-Meche and Best’s deaths feel over determined, inflection points in a time of upheaval, where our daily news is saturated, each news cycle overflowing, delivered breathlessly, as if we now exist in a present that is somehow both too fast, impossible to keep up with, even as each day stretches onward like a horizon, full of too many hours, as if time itself is at fault, offering up irresistible opportunities for horror to the world, whose villains can’t help but drop tragedies into our day.
Donald Trump is our president. His election has intensified a number of concerning problems but after Portland, none is more suffocating than the recognition of how much Trump’s administration has empowered the far-right, vigilantes like Christian, a wingnut, a denizen of those idiotic free speech rallies who would never murder someone, until he did.
And he’s not alone. One week ago, on May 20, Richard Collins III, a black man who would have graduated from Bowie State University this week, was murdered by Sean Urbanski, a white man, who stabbed Collins in the chest and fled the scene. It was later found that Urbanski, like Christian, was a follower of the far-right.
Then there is Adam Puriton, 51, a white man, accused of killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, and wounding Alok Madasani, also 32, in a bar in Olathe, Kansas on Feburary 24 of this year. At least one bystander claims Puriton shouted “get out of my country” before shooting the victims, who were Indian. Puriton is also accused of wounding Ian Grillot, 24, who was shot while trying to intervene.
These are all racist attacks. Dave Zirin was right to call Collins’ death a lynching. All of these are hate crimes. The men who are killing our friends and neighbors are empowered by the election of someone who imbibes fringe far-right beliefs about people of color and institutionalizes them into policy.
While these policies are being challenged in the courts and on the streets across this country, they’re having an effect. Despite Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ getting overturned in the courts, visas issued to the six countries targeted by his March 6 travel ban – Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen – declined by 55% compared with a year prior.
As reported widely yesterday, at least 106 civilians, including 42 children, were killed in airstrikes by the US-led coalition on Al Mayadeen, a city in eastern Syria. This news came out the same day Christian murdered the two men who dared stop him from shouting anti-immigrant slurs on a Portland train. When Islamophobia is state policy, and racism is preached from the Oval Office, it is no surprise that the shock troops of the far-right are killing people in cold blood. When the leader of the United States has your back, what is there to lose?
Which is not to let the administrations before Trump off the hook: George W. Bush instituted the PATRIOT Act, putting huge resources into the surveillance and harassment of Muslim communities, not to mention the atrocities perpetrated abroad. Obama perfected drone warfare, normalizing the practice of killing civilians without having to drop the label of ‘progressive’ or ‘anti-racist’ from his legacy. But Trump crystallizes these precedents, taking them to their logical conclusion and refusing to couch them in the denialism and technocratic language of our political elites. He admits to what he’s doing and doesn’t apologize for it, emboldening his grassroots following to act on the ideas driving his administration.
For those of us who oppose this racism, whether it’s coming from the state or vigilantes, a question arises: what can we do? The answer seems more straightforward, if also more challenging, when it comes to the racism of the state: we oppose Trump’s policies, we push for reforms that protect our communities, and we challenge the US war machine no matter what justifications it cloaks itself in.
But at the grassroots? After all, the two heroes in Portland were killed from intervening to help prevent racist harassment. And Grillot, the young man in Kansas who was shot by Puriton – he was trying to intervene. Are we to put our lives at risk to stand up to bigotry?
I wish I had an answer to that. At one level, the mode of action remains the same: you have to intervene if it feels like the right thing to do, even knowing that this could cause violence to escalate back onto you. I did this just two days ago: a woman was preaching Islamophobia at a diner, and I weighed the costs and benefits to inserting myself into a situation I could easily walk away from. I intervened. The goal wasn’t to convince a bigot to give up her bigotry, but to make her think twice about spouting it publicly, and to show bystanders that they have comrades who won’t abide by racism. And I’d done it the night before, at a bar in Brooklyn, when a man brought up the Manchester attack and began insisting it was reason to tighten our immigration policies. Fortunately, the bartender was on my side, and told the man he could either shut up or leave, with the man choosing to leave. If this is happening that often in New York, bastion of liberalism that it is, I can only imagine those in the country’s heartland are now forced to make these calculations on an increasingly frequent basis.
And these recent killings change that calculus for many of us. That’s natural. The more pressing consideration then moves to the collective level: how do we challenge the far-right as a movement, without restricting our challenges to the occasional rally or march?
That’s a question being discussed now in organizations across the country. How do we prevent racist violence without asking people to risk their safety? How do we broaden the consensus that declares the far-right unacceptable, that prevents them from berating our friends and families in a way that isn’t voluntaristic or premised on a willingness to confront the right individually, even as we know that many of us, like those men in Portland, will continue to do so as a basic requirement of our morality?
It’s a more pressing question than ever, and far be it for me to answer it on behalf of organizations or social movements. But ours is undeniably a present soaked in blood, steeped in intimidation, heavy and deluged, screaming with urgency.