Kat Knapp wasn’t worried when she crawled into bed Saturday night, despite not having received a promised call from her wife, June Knightly, who was out volunteering at a protest in Northeast Portland.
“She had told me that she’d call me if she was out after 9,” Knapp recalled. “I didn’t get a call. But I've been trying to get better at not worrying about her at those things. So I went to bed and fell asleep.”
Knapp woke up to her dog barking in the living room at a car in the driveway, and she assumed it was Knightly, home from the event. Knapp put on her robe and went to greet her wife at the door. But, when she looked out the window, it wasn’t Knightly’s truck that she saw in the driveway.
The car belonged to friends of Knightly’s from the activist community. Knapp stepped out of her house as the car doors opened and people emerged. Knapp recalls someone saying, “Kat, there’s something we need to tell you about June.”
“I knew at that point,” said Knapp. “I knew.”
But it wasn’t until someone said the words, “she’s gone,” that Knapp fell to the ground in shock.
"She was so fierce and so sweet at the same time. I had never known anyone like her."
Knightly was killed Saturday evening by a man who vehemently opposed the protest movement she had volunteered to defend. She had spent the past few years volunteering as a “corker,” someone who helped temporarily block traffic to allow demonstrators to safely march down a street. On Saturday night, Knightly and other corkers were at Normandale Park in Northeast Portland to support a “Justice for Amir Locke” protest, a gathering in honor of the 22-year-old Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police in early February.
Ben Smith, a man whose apartment sat across from the park, at the intersection of NE 55th and NE Hassalo, had grown increasingly upset that groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement had used Normandale Park as a gathering spot. According to people who knew him, Smith detested Black Lives Matter and anti-facist groups, and had talked about shooting them in the past.
Smith allegedly followed through on that threat Saturday night. When he noticed a group of four women, including Knightly, gathered on the street outside his apartment preparing to guide a group of demonstrators out of the park, he approached them angrily.
“He walked up to us yelling about protesters in his neighborhood,” said Dajah Beck, one of the women in the group, in an interview with the Mercury.
A video recording of the incident, obtained by county prosecutors, breaks down what happened next.
"Participants are heard on the video telling [Smith] to leave them alone and return home," reads an arrest affidavit filed in court Tuesday. "[Smith] responds by demanding they 'make' him leave and he approaches a participant aggressively, who pushes him back. [Smith] continues to yell at participants and a few moments later, [Smith] draws a handgun and fires at multiple people, striking five."
The shooting only ended when one of the protest attendees ran up and shot Smith in the hip (Smith allegedly shot this individual, too).
Knightly was struck with a fatal bullet to the head. The five others—including Smith—were sent to the hospital with gunshot wounds.
"She was going through her own battles and still out there, because she really was passionate about this world being a better place."
Andre Miller was running late to the Amir Locke rally, and arrived on the scene with his teenage daughter shortly after the shooting victims had been taken away in ambulances. Knightly’s body remained in the street.
“She was just lying there, on the ground,” he said. “I saw her truck as I walked up, and I knew it was T-Rex.”
Miller knew Knightly as “T-Rex,” a nickname given to her by friends for her tall stature and general fierceness in the face of a conflict. It was one of many names Knightly adopted. Knightly's legal name was Brandy, but she had changed it to “Amazon” in the ‘90s and then to June—her favorite grandmother’s name—in the early 2000s.
Miller, who helped organize many of Portlands’ racial justice protests in 2020 had spent countless days and nights walking alongside Knightly as she drove her truck slowly at the front of a march, making sure the street was clear for those on foot.
Knightly, who was 60 at the time of her death, did a lot of her corking work from the driver’s seat of her truck, because of a knee injury that forced her to walk with a cane. Knightly was scheduled to get a knee replacement later this year. It wasn’t the only ailment slowing her down. Knightly had been diagnosed with cancer twice, and had just been declared in remission by her doctor.
Miller recalls seeing Knightly at protests while she was going through chemotherapy and losing her hair. It was her commitment to activism through these personal hardships that inspired Miller.
“She was going through her own battles and still out there, because she really was passionate about this world being a better place,” he said.
That passion was what first drew Knapp to Knightly in 1999. Knapp had posted a personal ad on a gay dating website and Knightly responded. When they met for lunch in downtown Portland at the Roxy diner, Knapp remembers being impressive by Knightly’s extensive advocacy work in the local queer community and surprised by the gentle way she spoke about her teenage son.
“She was so fierce and so sweet at the same time,” Knapp recalled. “I had never known anyone like her.”
Knightly, who was from Portland originally, loved Fleetwood Mac, small dogs, and leopard print. Knapp said Knightly had a powerful presence, but after getting to know her, most people saw her caring, sensitive side.
Knightly had come out as a lesbian later in life, and appeared eager to make up for lost time by spending much of her spare time volunteering to support the city’s queer community. Knapp spent many weekday evenings attending fundraisers and work parties with Knightly, who served as board chair of the Lesbian Community Project, a now-defunct lesbian activism group in Portland.
“We were always doing something for the community,” Knapp said.
Knightly spent much of her life working as a collections agent for credit card and mortgage companies. While she hated “hounding people for money,” Knapp said, Knightly found joy in being in charge of a team of employees she cared for. She carried her ability to build trusting relationships and orchestrate plans over to her advocacy work. Along with her involvement in Portland’s queer community, Knightly spent time delivering warm meals to unhoused Portlanders and pitching in to help racial justice demonstrations after the 2020 murder of George Floyd sparked protests across the city.
Knapp said her wife’s altruism and outlook on society would sometimes lead to ideological arguments.
“She was always so optimistic about the world…. That drove me crazy,” said Knapp. “She wouldn’t believe that things couldn’t get better. She had faith that things would always work out. We would go around and around about it.”
It was through protest work that Pete Forsyth met Knightly. Forsyth also began volunteering at racial justice protests in 2020, and he and Knightly bonded over being some of the older activists in the group.
“June was an incredibly dedicated community member whose primary focus was keeping people safe and helping people out,” Forsyth said. He recalled how Knightly would offer her truck up to help people who couldn’t afford a rental van or people who needed a rest during a high-intensity march.
“She was always looking to find a way to help people out who were in greater need than herself,” Forsyth said.
Forsyth also volunteered as a corker during demonstrations that took to the streets, often using his bike to slow traffic. He said the job made him the target of threats from people who opposed protesters. Forsyth recalled corking during a youth racial justice march in Southeast Portland in 2020, which featured elementary school kids and their parents walking down the sidewalk. That was the first time he saw someone threaten his friend, a fellow corker, with a gun. Those kinds of threats are why Knightly and most corkers have been trained in de-escalation techniques.
“[Knightly] was so skilled at talking to people in those high-conflict moments, and calming them down,” said Forsyth.
Knapp was always a little worried when Knightly would attend protests, since she knew of the threats corkers and demonstrators face. Yet she trusted Knightly to know when she was entering a particularly unsafe situation—and steer clear.
“I was not worried on Saturday,” said Knapp, “because she was not worried.”
Jenny Trook was one of the first people Knapp called when she learned of Knightly’s death. Trook considered both women family, as they had welcomed her into their home and life when Trook moved to Portland in 2007. Trook became friends with Knightly through an online lesbian forum, and said Knightly “took her under her wing” to introduce her to Portland’s queer community.
“She was like a big sister to me,” said Trook. “She saw me through breakups. I met my wife through the friend group she introduced me to. She is why I have the life that I have here in Portland.”
Trook remembers Knightly as a strong-willed, soft-hearted woman who was patient, wise, and had a “wicked sense of humor.” She loved to work in her vegetable garden, and found joy in cooking for friends (including the “most perfect tuna casserole”). Knightly helped Trook design her wedding dress, and hand-dyed the lace used to cover the gown. She loved glitter and had an eye for interior design.
“All she wanted was for others to be safe."
Knightly was also very aware of her privilege as a white, financially secure person in the world, Trook said.
“She felt like it was her duty to do reparations in her community,” said Trook. “But she didn’t need accolades for it. She just felt it was what the community deserved.”
That’s how Maria remembers Knightly. Maria, which is pseudonym for a woman who asked the Mercury not to disclose her identity out of safety concerns, said there’s one word to encapsulate her first impression of Knightly: “Badass.”
“She was really humble and didn’t try to make herself be known or stand out,” said Maria, who met Knightly while volunteering as a corker at demonstrations in 2021. “She was always wanting to give.”
Maria recalls working bravely alongside Knightly to stop cars from attempting to drive into a march.
“With her by my side it gave me a sense of protection,” said Maria. “I was fearless.”
Knightly’s absence will be felt across Portland, Maria said. She pointed to the population of Portland’s homeless community that grew to rely on Knightly’s meal deliveries, and the strangers she would protect during large demonstrations.
“All she wanted was for others to be safe,” Maria said. “She was truly a light and a protector in our community that a lot of people don't realize.
The weekend’s shooting has made Maria hesitant to continue corking at demonstrations. But, she said, she knows Knightly would have wanted her and other corkers to keep going, even amid heightened threats from right-wing activists—like those who have accused Knightly’s group of provoking the violence.
“I feel like the worst has already happened,” said Maria. “We can't give up now. That’s not what T-Rex would have done.”