Prosecutors in Portland, Oregon, charged a right-wing gunman with murder on Tuesday, three days after he opened fire on a group of unarmed women who were directing traffic along the route of a protest march against police violence.
The gunman, Benjamin Smith, 43, killed a 60-year-old woman and wounded three other women, as well as a male protest medic who responded to their calls for help, before a volunteer security guard for the protest ended the rampage by shooting the attacker in the hip.
When Portland police officers arrived at the scene of the rampage, however, they were skeptical of the testimony from the victims and other witnesses that the attack had been unprovoked, and they arrested the volunteer security guard after he reportedly described his role and surrendered his semi-automatic pistol.
The next day the Portland Police Bureau outraged survivors of the attack and their allies in the racial justice community by issuing a press release that wrongly stated that the incident had “started with a confrontation between an armed homeowner and armed protesters.” The police also claimed that a lack of cooperation from protesters who witnessed or recorded the shootings meant that “investigators are trying to put this puzzle together without having all the pieces.”
Critics of the police like the civil rights advocate Zakir Khan suggested that the use of the term “homeowner,” which was uncritically echoed in media reports, was intended to mislead the public into assuming that the gunman had merely been defending himself or his property, which evidence subsequently uncovered by reporters showed to be untrue. Smith, in fact, rented an apartment near the route of the planned protest march, and his roommate told The Oregonian that he was obsessed with guns and harbored a deep hatred for the Black Lives Matter movement and antifascists in the city. “He talked about wanting to go shoot commies and antifa all the friggin’ time,” Smith’s roommate, Kristine Christenson, told Oregon Public Radio.
The first victim to make her account public, Dajah Beck, insisted that Smith had indeed launched an unprovoked attack on four unarmed women. Beck, who was shot twice, told The New York Times that Smith approached the women as they were working to reroute traffic ahead of the march, started screaming that they were “violent terrorists,” used a misogynistic vulgarity, and threatened to shoot them. When the women asked him to leave, he shot them at point-blank range.
“We were unarmed traffic safety volunteers,” Beck wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Four women trying to de-escalate & he unloaded a 45 into us because he didn’t like being asked to leave and stop calling us terrorist c*nts. We were in high vis and dresses. He murdered a disabled woman.”
Beck added that video evidence would substantiate her account, since she had recorded the whole encounter on a GoPro attached to her motorcycle helmet, and the footage had been taken by the police. “I got the whole thing,” Beck wrote. “Do not believe PPB press releases or the statements of mass murderers.”
It is not clear if Portland’s police chief, Chuck Lovell, had seen Beck’s video before he told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday that the incident “was a confrontation between an armed resident of the area and armed protesters,” but a prosecutor in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office told a court later in the day that the video clearly documents an unprovoked rampage.
The video shows that Smith approached the women and confronted them, “yelling at them and demanding they leave the area,” prosecutors wrote. The women can be heard on the recording telling Smith “to leave them alone and return home.” Smith responds “by demanding they ‘make’ him leave and he approaches a participant aggressively, who pushes him back,” according to the prosecutors. Smith “continues to yell at participants and a few moments later … draws a handgun and fires at multiple people, striking five.”
Prosecutors filed nine criminal charges against Smith, including one count of murder and four of attempted murder.
The video might also have offered proof that the shooting of the gunman was, in fact, an act of self-defense, since prosecutors released the volunteer security guard after the footage was obtained and declined to charge him with a crime. According to Oregon Public Radio, court records show the man, whose identity has been revealed by far-right figures online, is licensed to carry a firearm. The man did not respond to an interview request from The Intercept.
The woman Smith killed at the scene with a shot to the head was identified by her family and friends as June Knightly, a cancer survivor who walked with a cane and went by the nickname T-Rex. According to Beck, Knightly, a veteran LGBTQ activist who had become a fixture at Portland’s racial justice protests, stepped in between Smith and the other women to shield them.
Her name was June Knightly. She was a protector of the innocent, an advocate for the vulnerable, a beautiful person, and my dear friend. She died putting herself between a dangerous man and three unarmed women, including me.
Say her name today. pic.twitter.com/V896QjtfAD
— SSDGK ? (@dontgetkettled) February 22, 2022
Smith, who received emergency medical care from protest medics, was hospitalized but is expected to survive. Two of his victims were treated for gunshot wounds at the same hospital and released; two other victims remain in critical condition. One of the injured women was shot in the cervical spine and is currently paralyzed from the neck down, prosecutors revealed on Tuesday.
“I will never let the headline be ‘armed protestor confronts homeowner,’ which is the lie that was being peddled,” Beck wrote late Tuesday night on Twitter. “The rally was over a block away from us. It wasn’t even visible from our location. We were alone. We were a small group of women, alone. He saw us alone and he came for us. He didn’t go to the crowd. He came for us. This wasn’t a protestor altercation.”
“We were alone. We were targeted. She was wearing a dress, I was wearing a high visibility vest. My currently paralyzed friend is five feet tall. So tiny. So hopelessly outmatched by his size and violence. June put herself between our sweet, tiny friend and this monster,” Beck added.
She also tried to clear up mistaken reports that the women who were shot were in a crowd of protesters. In fact, the march — a recurring racial justice protest called Justice for Patrick Kimmons, named for a Black man fatally shot by the Portland police in 2018 and led by his mother — had not yet reached the edge of Normandale Park where the women were getting positioned to block traffic. “We were alone. I never even saw the crowd that night. We were gunned down long before they reached us,” Beck wrote. “The person who returned fire and saved our lives came to us because I was frantically calling for help as the situation escalated. He was not with us when it started. The fact that he made it there as fast as he did is a miracle.”
Antifascist researchers, who identified Smith before the police did, revealed that the gunman has an online history of violent rhetoric and a reputation for extremism among members of the furry community. (Furries are people who strongly identify with anthropomorphic animals and create fursonas, or identities of themselves as those anthropomorphic animals.)
As the antifascist researcher Chad Loder reported, a message on Smith’s Telegram account explicitly called for mass shootings by right-wing groups. “If the Proud Boys shot up somebodies car they probably deserved it,” a message attributed to Smith read. “Thus far they sadly haven’t shot up someones car, because good christ that needs to happen.”
Although the police reportedly interviewed Smith’s roommate on the night of the shooting, it was not until two days later, after his roommate told reporters that he had stockpiled weapons, that the police executed a search warrant and removed a large number of guns from his apartment.
Smith’s YouTube account show that he follows Andy Ngo, the right-wing activist from Portland whose career as a pundit is based on inaccurate reporting and wild exaggerations about antifascism. Ngo has repeatedly claimed that the Justice for Patrick Kimmons protesters are violent extremists, based solely on the fact that the marches against police violence are routinely guarded by armed volunteers — as seen even in a music video dedicated to the cause.
Five days before Smith shot the women clearing an intersection for the JFPK marchers, Ngo railed against the group on YouTube and Twitter, posting two video clips of the group’s armed security team preparing to guard a protest this month and engaged in a pair of tense confrontations with motorists that spilled over into violence during one march in early 2021. Ngo also drew attention to information in one video that his followers could use to identify someone working with the JFPK security team.
(In September 2020, Andy Ngo tweeted a booking photograph of one of the women Smith shot, Dajah Beck. At the time, Ngo gloated over Beck’s arrest at what he called a “violent Portland BLM-antifa protest.” The following year, when Beck was awarded $25,000 by the city to settle a claim “for injuries suffered during an encounter with Portland Police officers” that night, Ngo made no mention of that development.)
While the presence of armed racial justice protesters at left-wing marches distresses advocates for gun control, and the vast majority of armed demonstrations are by right-wing groups, it is not hard to understand the logic of anti-police protesters, who feel that the police will not protect them, choosing to provide their own security.
“Let’s make one thing clear: The person who opened fire carried out an act of mass violence. The protester who shot this person ended the violence,” Robert Evans, a writer and investigative journalist, observed on Twitter after the shooting rampage aimed at the Justice for Patrick Kimmons march. “I understand that people find this logic unsettling. Portland protests have been attacked repeatedly for years with everything from batons to improvised explosives and firearms. That’s the reality. People are going to take steps to defend themselves.”
The vigil for T Rex is beautiful
Fires burn and snacks abound
Love and sorrow fill the air
Bodies are needed to protect the grieving and memorial pic.twitter.com/K2nYkK0nCM
— Dr. Juniper L. Simonis (they/them) (@JuniperLSimonis) February 22, 2022
Correction: February 23, 2022
This article has been updated to correct a reference to the type of pistol used by a volunteer security guard who ended an attack on a protest in Portland on Saturday by shooting the attacker. The gun was a semi-automatic pistol, not an automatic one.