Filed under: Analysis, Anti-fascist, Northwest, Police
An antifascist analysis of white nationalist, Jeremy Christian’s trail in Portland, Oregon. On Friday, February 21st, Christian was found guilty on all counts.
The murder trial of Jeremy Christian in Portland, Oregon will probably go to his jury this Tuesday or Wednesday as formal testimony ended on Friday, February 14th, 2020. A verdict could occur as soon as Wednesday.
Christian is facing a potential life sentence in his trial after his attacks on a MAX transit train in Portland led to the death of two men, life-threatening injuries to another and hate crime charges of intimidation. In May, 2017 Christian had been engaged in a loud rant against two young women on the train he perceived as Muslim (one was wearing a hijab, the other was an African-American woman), when others on the train intervened. In the ensuing struggle Christian was verbally and physically confronted; he then counter-attacked with a knife.
Christian’s attorneys have pursued a two-pronged approach in an attempt to avoid a potential life…The other side started it [and] attempting to show that Christian didn’t really know what he was doing.
Christian’s attorneys have pursued a two-pronged approach in an attempt to avoid a potential life sentence in Oregon prisons, where his original charge of aggravated murder (and a potential death penalty) was removed from the state code in 2019. The first part of their approach has been obvious: The other side started it. Various CCTV and phone videos of Christian on the train show a large loud white male yelling at two seated women. When other people on the train came between Christian and the two women he re-directed his attention to them. An self-described ‘use of force expert’ who testified in Christian’s defense offered up the opinion that he was out-numbered and therefore had to defend himself. He claimed that those who confronted Christian had ‘tossed gasoline on the fire’. Christian’s defense attorneys phrased this as: “…his sympathetic nervous system had been activated,” he went on auto-pilot and did not stop until all three of the men confronting him had multiple stab wounds, two of them fatal, one life- threatening.
The second part of his defense may have more consequence, since his attorneys are avoiding an insanity defense, but attempting to show that Christian didn’t really know what he was doing. If the state can convince the jury that Christian planned the attacks ahead of time (the ‘first degree’ portion of the law) in pursuit of terrorism (the hate crime section of the law), then he would qualify for the life sentences in Oregon.
The defense approach has been to offer up three relatively inept neuropsychologists who have attempted to testify that Christian is cognitively impaired and/or that he is autistic. None of the defense expert witnesses is well – known or well-published in their field. Nor did any of them fare well under the state’s cross examination. One fumbled in finding sections of her own report; another shut his eyes while he was replying to the attorney’s questions. This latter expert was challenged by the attorney repeatedly, “It’s difficult for you to answer “Yes” or “No”, isn’t it?” “You invented that category ‘atypical autism’, since it’s not in the DSM-V, correct?” He also was unaware of the Christian Identity movement, the white supremacist religion that Jeremy Christian had sought books on during his last prison stay.
To counter the defense the state offered up 40 witnesses as well as photos of Jeremy Christian at a Patriot Prayer rally a month before his attacks, Facebook posts of Christian’s (including deleted posts) which ranted about the “ZOG government”, “May all the gods bless Timothy McVeigh”, threatened antifa in Portland and said he would ‘fucking stab anyone who tried to deny his free speech.’
At one point the state repeatedly introduced evidence of approximately 20 fights in prison where Christian had targeted Latino men. All this, plus audio/video of Christian riding a MAX train one day before the attacks and loudly threatening to stab ‘N…..s’ and anyone who confronted him was played to the jury.
Reading juries is always difficult and those who predict verdicts should be forced to produce evidence of what they predicted before the presidential election of 2016. My brothers, who were criminal defense attorneys, told me that if you had a bad case you wanted a jury. Then, as one explained, ‘if the law is on your side, you cite the law at length. If the facts are on your side, you cite the facts. If both are against you, you take your shoe off and pound the table a lot.’
Despite the fairly good shoe-pounding by his defense attorneys, the jury witnessed Jeremy Christian disrupt the court proceedings a number of times with racist outbursts and threats to ‘kill antifa’ until the judge informed him he would be permanently removed from the courtroom the next time. He has now seemingly resigned himself to his fate, since he appeared each day in jailhouse garb rather than the street clothes he could wear.
One of the befuddled defense neuropsychologists asked in his report “What set Jeremy off?” and answers with a list including the 2016 election, the march in Charlottesville, the U of C Berkeley riots and the April 29, 2017 Proud Boys/antifa confrontation in Portland, Oregon. It was the ‘zeitgeist’, he concludes, using a word for which the state’s attorney mocked him.
The state’s attorney may mock him, but I don’t think we can dismiss the point. It is the zeitgeist.
There are numerous cases all over the United States that mimic the Jeremy Christian trial. In the Bay Area a young man who was initially declared incompetent is now standing trial for his attacks on a group of young Black women, one of whom he killed. A bus rider in California opened fire on the other riders while shouting racist screeds. An older white woman in Iowa has just been convicted of deliberately attempting to run over Latinx teen- agers with her pick-up truck. An East Coast attorney is attempting to defend his white supremacist client’s shooting spree by citing the speeches of the president.
Those of us who believe in restorative justice and compassion for those with obvious psychiatric disabilities will have to openly talk about what we will actually do – in the long and short term – to deal with the many dispossessed who, because of the zeitgeist, are being drawn to white nationalist and neo-fascist politics.
Jeremy Christian is almost certainly going to prison. But his jury will weigh the fact that a day before his murderous attacks he had targeted a Black woman who pepper-sprayed him before he could attack her further. They can’t toss his record of at least 20 physical altercations while he was previously in prison. They can’t eliminate their memory of his court outbursts or the numerous records of his racist rants against police officers and anyone else who came near him. They heard the testimony of Micah Fletcher, the survivor who put his body between Christian and the women he was attacking and, as a result, came within minutes of bleeding out from his neck slashing. They heard the testimony of the two women who said they thought they were going to die. The jury knows that Christian was in attendance at a Patriot Prayer rally in downtown Portland a month before his attacks, they know he wanted to have a Christian Identity priest attend him in prison.
For anti-fascists, Christian’s sentence will solve almost nothing. To quote from a neo-Nazi in a decades-old film, “You think sending us to prison will make a difference! Prison is our graduate school.”
Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, white nationalists, and other far-Right groupings in the Pacific Northwest have stayed far away from this trial, though a few lone wack-jobs have maintained an on-line presence. We cannot count on that in the future. The legal strategy of the state and some groupings, with the SPLC as the most notable example, is to attack these individuals and organizations case by case. As we have seen in the past three decades in Portland, (cases against White Aryan Resistance, the Volksfront and others), they may lose the case yet increase their membership and influence.
At some point, those of us who believe in restorative justice and compassion for those with obvious psychiatric disabilities will have to openly talk about what we will actually do – in the long and short term – to deal with the many dispossessed who, because of the zeitgeist, are being drawn to white nationalist and neo-fascist politics.
Twelve years ago, Jeremy Christian was a Portland teenager who had been failed by the school system, yet was interested in reading the Mercury, selling Spiderman comic books and listening to heavy metal. As I was walking away from the courthouse the last day of testimony there was an angry white guy – no more and no less crazed than Jeremy Christian – giving a loud racist screed in the middle of the street.
Everyone in Portland knows that there are scores, if not hundreds, more Jeremy Christians on the streets.