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Two dead heroes and a stabbing on a train: Hate-crime trial forces Portland to reckon with its dark side

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/23/2020 Katie Shepherd
a group of pink flowers: A memorial is pictured in Portland, Ore., on May 30, 2017, after 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and 53-year-old Ricky John Best were fatally stabbed on a MAX train. © Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA via AP A memorial is pictured in Portland, Ore., on May 30, 2017, after 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and 53-year-old Ricky John Best were fatally stabbed on a MAX train.

Jeremy Christian liked to ride the train when he’d been drinking. He would later tell a psychologist hired by his public defenders he rode to “talk politics” and “get someone’s goat.”

One sunny afternoon in May 2017, after drinking about 35 ounces of sangria, the hulking man with untamed hair stepped onto a Portland, Ore., train car and fixed his eyes on two black teenage girls. He strode toward their seats, his 6-foot-1, 235-pound frame looming over them, and allegedly told them to get out of his country.

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“His eyes were so dark,” one of the girls, Destinee Mangum, told KOIN 6 News a year later. “And you can see that he wasn’t in the right mind frame at the time.”

Minutes later, Christian had stabbed three men who came to the girls’ defense on the train, killing Ricky John Best, 53, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23. Another, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, survived a gash across his throat.

Jury selection began Tuesday to select the 12 people who will decide Christian’s fate in the trial for murder, attempted murder and hate-crime charges. Christian does not deny the killings. He and his lawyers challenge the claim of prosecutors that the attack was a premeditated hate crime. They portray him as a troubled man with undiagnosed mental illness. He could face a life sentence without parole if convicted.

The deadly attack rattled Portland, a city already on edge after months of volatile protests following the 2016 election of President Trump. The train slayings, and events surrounding them, shattered any illusion that the city had dealt with its long history of racist violence, dating back to Oregon’s founding days as an all-white state. It resurfaced memories of a brutal 1988 murder in which three neo-Nazis beat to death Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw. It felt like little had changed in the passing years.

“All of a sudden, time evaporated between 1988 and 2017,” Randall Blazak, who studies hate groups and chairs the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, told The Washington Post. “It really brought to bear this history that we have,” as well as “our delusion that somehow ‘Portlandia’ had solved all these problems. That was traumatizing.”

No one has argued that Portland is dominated by racists. Thousands celebrated the men stabbed on the train as heroes, dedicating a mural to honor them. But the images and history that emerged contrasted with the reputation of the city as a progressive haven.

After Christian was arrested in the train killings on May 26, 2017, bigotry forced its way into public view. Supportive white supremacists flocked to his Facebook page, where he had posted racist talking points and lionized Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh.

“His Facebook page was full of rantings about things that are common among white supremacists,” Blazak told The Post. “His page was becoming a hangout for other like-minded people while he was in jail locked up. They were going to his page and posting things like ‘Jeremy, you are our hero.’”

The response exposed the persistent bigotry festering in underground subcultures deeply rooted in the Pacific Northwest.

“This attack ripped a scab off of our city from a very old wound that has never had a chance to heal,” Blazak said.

When a far-right group that had attracted Christian’s attention decided to stage a rally nine days after the attack, thousands filled the streets in protest. The city endured a string of vicious street fights between far-right groups and the anti-fascist activists known as “antifa.”

Portland’s tensions over extremist violence were mirrored across the nation in the wake of Trump’s election and his travel ban against citizens from Muslim-majority nations, particularly in Charlottesville, where Heather Heyer was killed by a self-professed neo-Nazi at the “Unite the Right” rally.

Blazak believes the trial offers a chance for the city to begin healing.

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The psychologist’s report filed by defense attorneys details Christian’s long history of violence and declining mental health over nearly two decades. Other court records, Facebook posts and video shot at a protest before the deadly attack suggest a spiral into extremism, xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.

Christian’s clash with law enforcement began in 2002, when he robbed a convenience store armed with a .38-caliber pistol. Then 20, Christian donned a ski mask and handcuffed the store clerk to a cigarette rack. When a police officer cornered him a few blocks away, Christian turned toward him and lifted his gun, according to the psychologist’s notes. The officer fired three shots, hitting Christian once and marring his face with a large scar below his right eye, the Oregonian reported.

A judge sentenced Christian to 90 months in prison.

“He had fears and confidence issues he did not want to admit,” a woman who had been friendly with Christian told the psychologist, according to his notes.

Christian began to flirt with conspiracy theories after he was released from prison, barking out bizarre claims as people strolled past his secondhand comic-book stand, according to the psychologist’s report.

Christian posted online about unmasking “antifa” and shared white supremacist-linked memes about “Vinland,” a failed Viking colony in North America that some on the far-right have mythologized.

In April 2017, Christian showed up at a political rally in Portland planned by a far-right group with connections to the anti-government Patriot movement and the Proud Boys. At one point, a local reporter filmed Christian, wearing the American flag like a cape, flashing a Nazi salute. The symbol was too much even for the political provocateurs hosting the rally, who eventually told Christian to leave, Willamette Week reported.

About a month later, Christian boarded another train in northeast Portland and allegedly sauntered over to the two black teenagers riding home from school. Christian has denied making bigoted comments to the girls, according to the psychologist’s notes filed in the case.

In an interview with author Arjun Singh Sethi, 16-year-old Mangum remembered Christian yelling at her: “You’re nothing”; “Kill yourself;” “Get out of this country;” “Burn.”

She and her best friend, 17-year-old Walia Mohamed, moved away from Christian as he allegedly berated them.

“Muslims should die,” Mohamed, who was wearing a hijab, recalled Christian shouting in the same interview, which appeared in Singh Sethi’s book, “American Hate: Survivors Speak Out.” “Go back to Saudi Arabia.”

Three riders on the train, Best, Namkai-Meche and Fletcher, stood up to separate Christian from the girls.

“If you don’t like free speech,” Christian recalled saying, according to his psychologist’s notes, “then get out!”

A scuffle broke out after Christian slapped at a phone in Namkai-Meche’s hands, then shoved him. Fletcher pushed Christian back. Prosecutors say Christian then pulled out a knife and stabbed all three men.

Throughout pretrial hearings, Christian has been disruptive and often appeared disturbed in video footage recorded in the courthouse. At his first court appearance, he shouted, “You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism. You hear me? Die.” Once, he yelled “Free speech or die, Portland.”

The defendant spoke up in court on Tuesday, albeit without any potential jurors present, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. “I don’t care how much time I get in prison, if I’m found guilty or innocent,” Christian said. “All I care is that the public gets to see and hear what happened on the train.”

Despite Christian’s declared intent to use the trial to share his views with a captive audience, Blazak said the trial will probably help Portland begin to repair the damage done to the city. Already, Oregon lawmakers have changed the state’s hate crime statute to make it easier to charge bias-motivated crimes. City officials have attempted to curtail the violent rallies that plagued Portland’s streets in 2017 and 2018.

“It will be the beginning of the healing period,” Blazak said. “[The attack] did hold up a mirror to the city, to ‘Portlandia,’ and really forced us to look at this history and ask — if you’re not going to do something now, when are you going to do it?"

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