Jeremy Christian Doug Brown

After nearly three years of trying to suppress the memory of a gruesome, painful afternoon, Portland is begrudgingly reacquainting itself with Jeremy Christian, the white supremacist charged with fatally stabbing two men and injuring another after they tried to defend two Black teenage girls—one of whom was wearing a hijab—from Christian’s racist diatribe on a MAX train. The trial for 37-year-old Christian, who’s facing two counts of first degree murder and 11 related charges, began on January 28. It’s expected to continue for more than a month.

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The headline-grabbing trial will undoubtedly zero in on the specific actions Christian took on May 26, 2017 that led to the deaths of Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche. But for those following the case from outside the courtroom, it’s important to remember that the crime took place in an environment that allowed Christian’s violent behavior to thrive long before the criminal justice system decided it was worth prosecuting.

A month before his arrest, at a protest organized by the Vancouver, WA right-wing militant group Patriot Prayer, Christian had marched in Portland’s streets while giving a Nazi salute. Carrying a baseball bat and draped in an American flag, Christian yelled racist slurs at counter-protesters as Portland police stood by and told reporters that he was just mentally ill.

A day before his arrest, Christian boarded a MAX train and unleashed a hateful, rudderless tirade against African Americans, Jews, and Mexicans. When confronted by fellow passenger Demetria Hester, a Black woman, Christian redirected his vitriol toward her.

“You do not have the right to even be on this train,” Christian said to Hester, the woman told reporters after the incident. “You don’t have a right to speak. You’re Black. You don’t have a right to be here. All you Muslims, Blacks, Jews—I will kill all of you.”

Hester claimed that none of the passengers intervened in Christian’s verbal assault and that the train’s conductor never responded to her repeated attempts to get their attention. When Hester got off the train at the Rose Quarter Transit Station, Christian allegedly threw a half-filled Gatorade bottle at Hester’s face, and she maced him. Though police arrived before Christian left the area, they told Hester and witnesses that they didn’t have enough evidence to arrest him.

Christian’s night didn’t end there. According to a video taken by another public transit rider, Christian went on to board another MAX train, continuing where his earlier rant left off.

“Fuck all you Christians and Muslims and fucking Jews,” Christian is recorded saying to no one in particular. “Fucking die.” He then threatened to stab the MAX conductor.

No one intervened. Less than 24 hours later, Christian had swung his knife at three men who interrupted another of his hateful rants.

In Portland, it’s common to blame the city’s current inequities on the region’s racist past. Portland’s history—from real estate policies that once limited people of color from buying homes in most neighborhoods to being home to one of the largest Ku Klux Klan chapters west of the Mississippi—laid the groundwork for the majority white metropolis of today. What’s less acknowledged are the ways in which Portland continues to tolerate, if not encourage, the kind of blatant racism that Christian espoused.

Christian is in court this month because he killed two people, not because he spewed bigotry at two teenagers of color. It’s a distinct possibility that, had no one interfered that May afternoon, Christian would still be moving freely through Portland, his racist rants keeping more passengers of color off of public transit and prompting more white Portlanders to nervously pop in their earbuds.

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Since Christian’s murders, members of Patriot Prayer have continued to carry Confederate flags and handmade weapons through Portland streets in order to stoke fear among marginalized Portlanders. People of color have continued to report hateful attacks in public spaces, Portland’s first Black woman on City Council has become a magnet for racist rage, and—in a city that’s 6 percent African American—30 percent of people killed by police have been Black. More often than not, it’s communities of color calling on city leaders and law enforcement for change.

As the nation returns its attention to 2017’s grisly MAX killings, it’s worth remembering that while Christian might represent the fringes of Portland’s far-right bigotry, his ideology was enabled by the city’s quiet tolerance for racism—an attitude that, as the days leading up to the murders proves, isn’t as uncommon as we like to think. 

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