The Arraignment of Extremism
On May 30, 2017, Courtroom JC3 at the Justice Center in downtown Portland looked the same as it always does at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, except for the glaringly out-of-place news cameras in the corner of the gallery. The docket proceeded as scheduled. Various defendants appeared before the Court, one after another, with those in custody escorted into and out of a glass chamber opposite the Judge’s desk. The room grew increasingly tense as the 2:30 docket crept slowly through its agenda. Anxious whispers multiplied with each defendant that came and went; the public was waiting in anticipation for Jeremy Christian to be put on display.
“Here they come,” the victim’s advocate whispered quietly, to no one in particular, as the deputy district attorneys entered the room. They carried themselves with purpose, like soldiers of justice—their pace brisk and purposeful, their presence formidable. Micah Fletcher, the only surviving victim from Friday’s incident on the MAX train, entered shortly after the attorneys with his family by his side. The two other victims of the tragic event, Taliesin Namkai-Meche and Ricky Best, had lost their lives as a result of the incident that now came before the Court.
Jeremy Christian, the defendant accused of committing the two murders was escorted into the glass enclosure. Fletcher sat in the center of the room. His uncompromisable courage could be seen carried in his shoulders—he sat tall and unwavering in the gallery as he faced Jeremy Christian for a second time.
“Free speech or die, Portland!” shouted the defendant from the glass box in the corner, almost immediately upon his arrival. “You ain’t got no safe place! This is America! Get out if you don’t like free speech.”
The courtroom fell silent for one deafening moment before proceedings continued. Christian’s next appearance was scheduled for June 7th, when he will be arraigned for indictment. Sentences were kept short and papers were signed swiftly.
Christian, from the glass box, interrupted: “Death to the enemies of America. Leave this country if you hate our freedom. Death to Antifa. You call it terrorism, I call it patriotism! You hear me? Die.”
The defendant’s last four words were nearly drowned out by a rumbling wave of angry cries from the crowd that had gathered outside the courtroom. The arraignment ended as abruptly as it began, and Jeremy Christian was promptly removed from the glass display case and taken back into custody.
The rising volume of the demonstrator’s agitation caused a hush to fall over the courtroom once again. The docket came to a screeching halt as officers moved to diffuse the situation in the hallway and escort Fletcher and his family out of the courtroom through the back door. Officers sealed the doors to JC3 while debating in low voices about how to handle the state of affairs, taking into consideration the delicate nature of the situation, and the presence of live-streaming broadcasts. Members of the press scribbled frantically on their note pads.
A few minutes later the doors were reopened, and the gallery spilled into the hallway. Solemn expressions and a number of cameras, with large, vacant lenses lined the hall, observing and recording the pensive parade that marched quietly out of the court.
There was a heaviness to the atmosphere that had settled in and around the courtroom that afternoon. Two men had died, and one severely injured, for defending two teenage girls from racist hate-speech and anti-muslim bullying. Accepting the reality of what happened that day—that two people had lost their lives for doing the right thing—is harrowing. The Portland community had just experienced a sobering instance of violent extremism, the torment of which was reflected in the faces of those who had gathered in the courthouse that day. The collective solemnity that saturated the hallway outside of JC3 was foreboding, and ominous. The scene seemed to be emblematic of a larger sentiment: that incidents of violent extremism and political violence can no longer be boxed into any one context—they can occur in any culture, city, or country. There is no populace on earth immune to such tragedy.
Extremism is defined as the holding of fanatical political or religious views. If considered in terms of a political spectrum, the extreme of one ideology lies at the farthest point from center on one side. If one extreme exists, it is almost inevitable that an extreme exists on the opposite side as well. In Western discourse, discussions of violent extremism often have a tendency to include, if not focus on, examples of extremism within a spectrum of beliefs rooted in Islam. This inclusion occurs even to the point where it has made its way into definitions and explanations of extremism, even here. Such a tendency is extraordinarily problematic, because the frequency with which violent extremism and Islam have been associated together has fostered biases that have in turn encouraged a polarization in how people view Islam. Friday’s incident, however, provided a concrete and undeniable example of how violent extremism can occur not only outside of Islam, but can take root in any belief—political, religious or otherwise. Another such example is the terrorist attack executed by a man named Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the attack known as the Oklahoma City bombing. Then there is Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park Bomber, who was responsible for injuring 111 people and killing 1 at the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, bombing an abortion clinic in Sandy Springs, Atlanta, and an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama. Another is Clayton Waagner, who, along with Eric Rudolph, was a member of Christian terrorist organization Army of God, and was the perpetrator of the Anthrax Hoaxes. The list goes on, demonstrating that the association of Islam and terrorism is inappropriate, given the laundry list of American non-muslims that have committed acts of terrorism.
It is disconcerting, at this juncture, to consider the consequences of Friday’s MAX train murders and the effects that may have already begun to ripple across the Pacific Northwest. Muslim women and women of color may see reason to be concerned for their safety if they choose to use public transit and could make Muslim women afraid to wear a hijab in public, or to be. Those who witness racist acts, Islamophobic hate-speech, or hate crimes in general may second-guess their desire to directly intervene out of fear that their actions will be met with violence. These consequences could result in an unintentional tolerance of this unacceptable behavior, a tolerance borne from fear. With hate crimes on the rise, the spread of a fear that has the power to discourage people from fighting back could have disastrous consequences.
The effects of not only the incident on the MAX, but also of the reaction to Tuesday’s arraignment, are already being felt throughout the city. Mayor Ted Wheeler called upon the federal government to cancel several right-wing political gatherings, including a “Pro-Trump Free Speech Rally” scheduled for Sunday, June 4th. The ACLU opposed the cancellation, calling Wheeler’s demands unconstitutional, in defense of the right to free speech of the alt-right groups who have organized the rallies.
Murmurs of concern circulated on Wednesday as alt-left groups began to react to the week’s events in pointed retaliation against the alt-right. For example, a group on Facebook with the name “Arms Up Shoot Back” created an event titled “Defend Portland! No Nazis On Our Streets!” The possibility of the alt-right and the alt-left meeting face-to-face on the streets of downtown Portland is quickly becoming a topic of anxious debate.
The First Amendment can seem like a double-edged sword in situations like this. Though the language of the amendment affords the right to peaceful assembly, a peaceful gathering can turn violent at the drop of a hat when extreme political rhetoric makes an appearance. In times of such polarized yet passionate political activism, how can we simultaneously protect the right to freedom of speech and counteract the violence that may be incited when people speak freely from a place of political polarization?
It should be noted that this dilemma is analogous not only to the schism that divided our nation along party lines last November, but also to the antagonism between radical Islamic terrorist organizations and Western nations. Polarization taken to extremes can cause violence locally just as it does globally.
Clearly, it can be tempting to focus on negative consequences and possibilities in the wake of tragedy. Therefore, it is crucially important that we shift our attention to how this incident can catalyze positive growth for our community, our society, our nation, and our world. Now more than ever it will be important for us to challenge ourselves to be fearless—to uphold the example set by Taliesin Namkai-Meche, Ricky Best, and Micah Fletcher—to honor them by standing against hate and violence together, both as a community and a nation.
There will be pitfalls to avoid in this endeavor, such as fighting violence with violence. As stated by Fletcher to a Portland news station: "We must stand hand-in-hand with one another and find a way to start ending the anger and the hatred and to not allow anger and hatred to flood our city streets with violence and with the destruction that can come with it."
The views reflected in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.
Photo: “Pioneer Courthouse Interior” originally posted to Google Images by Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.