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Did Trump Campaign Rhetoric Empower the White Extremist Who Killed Two Bystanders on Portland Train?

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For the second time in a week, a military man was killed by a white extremist. On Friday, 53-year-old Ricky Best, a retired Army veteran, and 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche were fatally stabbed, with a third man critically injured, as they tried to defend two teenage girls against an attack by a man going on an anti-Muslim rant. The two young women, one of whom wore a Muslim hijab, were riding a commuter train when, according to witnesses, Jeremy Joseph Christian started shouting ethnic and religious slurs. Police arrested Christian, a convicted felon, soon after the attack. “In many ways, I think his rhetoric has more to do with the campaign and the ideas unleashed in the campaign over the last 16, 18 months by the Trump folks than it does with hardcore neo-Nazism. Or at least it’s a mix of the two sets of ideas,” says our guest Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin the show on this day after Memorial Day in Portland, where for the second time in a week a military man was killed by a white extremist. On Friday, 53-year-old Ricky Best, a retired Army veteran, and 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche were fatally stabbed, with a third man critically injured, as they tried to defend two teenage girls against an attack by a man going on an anti-Muslim rant. The two young women, one of whom wore a Muslim hijab, were riding a commuter train when, according to witnesses, Jeremy Joseph Christian started shouting ethnic and religious slurs. Best and Meche, along with a third man who intervened, were stabbed. Best died at the scene. Meche died at a hospital. Portland Police Department spokesperson Pete Simpson described the scene.

SGT. PETE SIMPSON: Officers at the platform went down onto the train. They found one male victim suffering from traumatic injuries. They attempted lifesaving measures there on the train, but they were unsuccessful. That victim died here at the scene. Two additional stabbing victims were located and immediately transported by medical personnel. One of those victims, when they arrived at the hospital, also passed away. The third victim is at the hospital being treated. He is suffering from what are believed to be non-life-threatening injuries.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In an emotional interview with CNN, 16-year-old Destinee Mangum, one of the targets of Christian’s hate speech, described what happened. Mangum, who is not Muslim, thanked the three strangers who saved their lives.

DESTINEE MANGUM: He told us to go back to Saudi Arabia, and he told us that we shouldn’t be here and to get out of his country. He was just telling us that we basically weren’t anything and that we should just kill ourselves. … This white male, from the back of us, came, and he was like, “He’s talking to you guys.” And he was like, “You guys—you can’t disrespect these young ladies like that.” And then they just all started arguing. … Me and my friend, we were going to get off the MAX. And then we turned around while they were fighting, and he just started stabbing people. And it was just blood everywhere, and we just started running for our lives. … I just want to say thank you to the people who put their life on the line for me, because they didn’t even know me. And they lost their lives because of me and my friend and the way we looked. And I just want to say thank you to them and their family, and that I appreciate them, because without them, we probably would be dead right now.

AMY GOODMAN: The attack unfolded hours before the start of Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, when most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims observe a daily religious fast. Police arrested Christian, a convicted felon, soon after the attack. He was booked on two counts of aggravated murder and charges of attempted murder, intimidation and being a felon in possession of a restricted weapon. Christian was ordered held without bail, is scheduled to be arraigned today. Following the attack, the Portland mayor, Ted Wheeler, announced the city will not issue permits to alt-right groups for planned supremacist rallies in June.

The attack comes just six days after 23-year-old Richard Collins III, an African-American student at Bowie State University and Army second lieutenant in Maryland, was fatally stabbed by an alleged member of a white supremacist Facebook group called “Alt-Reich: Nation.”

Well, for more, we’re joined by Heidi Beirich. She’s Intelligence Project director of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Heidi, welcome to Democracy Now!, joining us from Montgomery, Alabama. Can you tell us what you know about this attack and about this man who will be arraigned today?

HEIDI BEIRICH: Yes, well, Jeremy Christian, based on extensive Facebook postings, was motivated by pro-Hitler ideas, a love of the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, other extremist ideas, in particular related to the Islamic faith. And it looks like, for some reason, he decided to act out on those anti-Muslim ideas. He was also a Trump supporter who had shown up at Trump rallies, sieg-heiling at one of these events. So he’s a true radical in terms of his ideas.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, some people have suggested that the incident fits into the broader pattern or the history of neo-Nazi violence in the Northwest. Could you comment on that?

HEIDI BEIRICH: Yeah, I mean, look, the Northwest has been victimized by neo-Nazis and skinheads for a very, very long time. And this also has involved murders of people of color and antiracist activists. There’s no question. Neo-Nazis have tried to move into that region for years to create a homeland, thinking that because it has a white population, that would be a good place to be. But what I find interesting about Jeremy Christian is, although some of those ideas are there in his writings, in many ways, I think his rhetoric has more to do with the campaign and the ideas unleashed in the campaign over the last 16, 18 months by the Trump folks than it does with hardcore neo-Nazism. Or at least it’s a mix of the two, two sets of ideas.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Christian’s Facebook page includes several posts in which he espouses extremist views. On April 19, the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Christian praised Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, writing, “May all the Gods Bless Timothy McVeigh a TRUE PATRIOT!!!” In a post dated May 9th, Christian wrote, “I just Challenged Ben Ferencz (Last Living Nuremberg Persecutor) to a Debate in the Hague with Putin as our judge. I will defend the Nazis and he will defend the AshkeNAZIs”—a reference to European Jews. Heidi, can you talk about this?

HEIDI BEIRICH: Yeah, well, look, the praise of McVeigh is particularly troubling. You know, people sometimes forget that McVeigh, who was directly inspired to commit that bombing in 1995 by reading a neo-Nazi novel called The Turner Diaries, that that was the largest domestic terrorist attack prior to 9/11. And there have been many, many people who have praised McVeigh over the years. We had an incident actually just in the past week in Tampa in which four neo-Nazis, one of whom converted to Islam and then killed two of his roommates, had bomb-making material—a very serious incident. There was a picture of McVeigh in their room. And so, when you’re praising McVeigh, what you’re talking about is killing people, and you’re talking about being inspired by white supremacy. And, you know, we also had the incident in Maryland where this black man was killed by someone who was involved in a neo-Nazi, you know, so-called alt-right group. So we’re seeing a lot of this right now. It’s actually quite scary.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. Speaking Monday, Wheeler urged white supremacist groups to cancel their plans for upcoming demonstrations in Portland.

MAYOR TED WHEELER: Our city is in mourning. Our community’s anger is very real. And the timing and subject of these events can only exacerbate what is already a very difficult situation. I’m appealing to the organizers of the alt-right events to cancel the events that they’ve scheduled on both June 4th and June 10th. I urge them to ask their supporters to stay away from Portland at this difficult time. There is never a place for bigotry or hatred in our community, and especially not right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This comes as the top Republican in Portland said he’s considering using militia groups as security for public events. Meanwhile, Multnomah County GOP Chair James Buchal told The Guardian that Republicans could make their own security arrangements rather than relying on city or state police, including groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters. This comes as a video recently surfaced of Buchal lamenting what he called “open borders.”

JAMES BUCHAL: His enemies are my enemies, and his enemies are all our enemies. Our enemies want a lot of things that are bad for us. Above all else, they want open borders, because they know if they keep—keep the borders open, bring in all sorts of people from Third World countries who have no conception of liberty, they have no experience with liberty, many of them may not even be interested in it—if they keep doing that, it will change this country forever, and it will destroy everything that is special about America. And this election was very important, because our enemies were on the verge of winning essentially permanently. Eight more years of this, and that may well have been the end. And then Trump got elected. So now our enemies are more dangerous than ever. They’re more ruthless than ever. They’re more determined than ever. We are really in a life-and-death battle for the future of our society.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Multnomah County GOP Chair James Buchal. I wanted—Heidi Beirich, your response?

HEIDI BEIRICH: Yeah, well, I mean, those are outrageous claims related to bringing in militias and whatnot. You have to wonder if these folks don’t realize that it just wasn’t that long ago that militia groups took over a wildlife refugee in a very, very dangerous, you know, situation in eastern Oregon. And, you know, to hear, on the one hand, the mayor calling for calm and honoring the victims and so on, then have somebody else from the GOP side calling to have militias brought out is just, frankly, frightening.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to the ACLU of Oregon saying that Mayor Ted Wheeler’s efforts to keep far-right protesters from holding more rallies in Portland is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, Heidi.

HEIDI BEIRICH: Yeah, I think the ACLU is actually right in that case. We have to protect people’s First Amendment rights regardless of how heinous they are. I can understand the mayor being upset, not wanting to see more hate in his town, but this is probably the wrong tactic to take. A better one would be to continue with the positive events, like the vigils that took place over this past weekend, which draw attention to the better parts of our nature, and allow these other folks to have their events. Unfortunately, their hate will be on parade during them.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, I wanted to ask you also about how long it took President Trump to respond to these attacks. It was only on Monday that he tweeted, quote, “The violent attacks in Portland on Friday are unacceptable. The victims were standing up to hate and intolerance. Our prayers are w/ them.”

HEIDI BEIRICH: You know, President Trump, whose words in the campaign against immigrants, against Muslims, against others, unleashed a wave of hate crimes and bias incidents, especially right after the election. The SPLC had documented about 900 of them in the first 10 days. He has been incredibly reluctant to denounce the hate violence that in many cases has been perpetrated in his name. And this is another example where he waits several days, and then this tweet only went out on the official president of the United States account, not from the Twitter account that he usually fiddles with. You know, he didn’t mention the Jewish population during his Holocaust Remembrance Day speech. It’s outrageous that he won’t stand up and denounce these hate crimes, given the role that he’s played in stoking the anger out there.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Trump administration’s proposal to cut all funding for the Department of Homeland Security program known as Countering Violent Extremism? Can you explain more what that program is and why the Trump administration is trying to get rid of it?

HEIDI BEIRICH: Sure. So, under the Obama years, the Countering Violent Extremism set of programs gave money basically to Muslim groups that were fighting extremism in their community and then, in the latter years of the Obama administration, to organizations battling against white supremacy. Of course, the understanding was extremism comes in both those forms, so both need to be fought.

Now, Trump kind of in the way that he doesn’t seem to realize that there’s a wave of hate crimes breaking out across this country based on racist and white supremacist ideas, it appears that he wants to cut the part of the Countering Violent Extremism program devoted to battling white supremacy. It’s as though domestic terrorism doesn’t come from white supremacist ideas, when in fact in the United States the bulk in recent years of domestic terrorist incidents have not been inspired by radical interpretations of Islam, but by white supremacy, which is, frankly, an indigenous thought process that goes back deep into our history. And like I said, we’ve just had three incidents—Maryland, Tampa and now Portland—that show how dangerous and violent these ideas can become.

AMY GOODMAN: Heidi Beirich, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Intelligence Project director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking to us from Montgomery, Alabama.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Yale University professor Tim Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Stay with us.

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