PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — In a year of the unusual for Portland, the saga of the Red House eviction blockade stands out.
The Kinney family’s refusal to leave their former house on North Mississippi two years after it no longer belonged to them drew together belief systems from opposite ends of the political spectrum and sparked a standoff that made national news.
Perhaps the most unexpected part? The unusual melding of tactics and ideology appears to have won the day — so far, at least.
On Sunday, city officials and representatives of the blockade reported a tentative agreement, allowing the reopening of streets and sidewalks around the house that had come to look more like a war zone.
For a decade before the Black and indigenous family’s plight hit the press in November, the Kinneys had been employing tactics that were straight out of the anti-government “sovereign citizens” playbook.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Sovereign citizens believe that they — not judges, juries, law enforcement or elected officials — get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they don’t think they should have to pay taxes.”
In a press release published Dec. 14, the family denied any involvement with the sovereign citizen movement, calling the idea “absurd.”
“This Afro-Indigenous family is reclaiming the land — invoking their right to self-determination and ancestral right to inhabit the land,” according to the statement.
But after the sheriff’s office attempted to evict the family in September, the Kinneys became a cause célèbre for local left-leaning anarchist and “antifa” or anti-fascist activists who swarmed the North Mississippi neighborhood and set up camp. They erected barricades in the blocks around the home while protesting a situation they said was caused by capitalist greed and systemic racism.
Since then, an online fundraiser for the family has raised more than $300,000, and the current owner of the house — who wasn’t involved in the family’s mortgage problems, and who bought it at a foreclosure auction in 2018 — has reportedly expressed a willingness to sell it to the Kinneys at cost after citing fear that activists could harm his family.
JJ MacNab, a senior researcher who tracks the right-wing anti-government movement for the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told the Portland Tribune it’s the first time she can think of where anarchist-leaning antifa forces had joined with self-styled “sovereign citizens.”
If the property owner indeed does sell the property under duress, she said it would be a “terrible outcome. … Any victory in the sovereign movement, no matter how small or insignificant, is going to be marketed and used to make that movement stronger.”
One prominent Portland activist predicted the deal could boost the local anti-police resistance more than the clash with Homeland Security agents earlier this year, dubbed the “Fed Wars.”
“Seriously, if this deal holds, the Red House saga would be the biggest win we’ve seen since the Fed Wars, and I’d argue this is a much more substantial and definitive victory for the revolution,” said Mac Smiff on Twitter. “The results of this will ripple across the nation.”
Tangled family history
Long before the barricades rose up along Portland’s latest occupied territory, the Kinneys faced spiraling costs, both legal and financial, in the fall-out from what the family has described as an “automobile accident.”
On Feb. 7, 2002, three days after William Kinney III celebrated his 17th birthday, he was driving toward Cleveland High School with two friends when he ran a stop sign while traveling at high speed, colliding with another car at Southeast 33rd Avenue and with Franklin Street, according to court documents.
In the other car was Frederick Goetz, an 83-year-old long-time outdoors columnist for Oregon newspapers, known for helping the homeless and crusading for the environment, and who once owned Cameron’s Books. Goetz died. His wife, Ann, also was injured.
The charges in the fatal crash included accusations of second-degree manslaughter and multiple counts of assault and hit-and-run.
Kinney, who now goes by the name William X. Nietzche, had been driving on a suspended learner’s permit at the time of the collision, and had been cited three times for the same violation the previous August, The Oregonian reported at the time. He was convicted on two of the charges and spent the next five years behind bars in juvenile and adult facilities.
In letters of character sent to a judge, William’s family described the incarceration as agonizing. One family member, Michele A. Metcalf, wrote in 2005 that the family was facing “financial devastation” due to an “outrageous mortgage.”
Federal court records show that, a month after the crash, the Kinney family mortgaged their home for a $96,300 loan with an adjustable interest rate. Two years later, they paid off their first loan by taking out another, refinancing it for $126,500.
The interest rate on the family’s loan was high, The Oregonian’s investigative business reporter, Ted Sickinger, wrote, “though subprime lending practices in that timeframe were often far more abusive.”
Nietzche later told the newspaper his legal fees cost about $26,000, and the family also sent him money for the jail commissary and paid for jail phone calls.
He and his supporters have said the family is a victim of predatory lending.
Jesse Merrithew, a local lawyer, wrote on Twitter, “If you think the fact that this family fell into the trap set by predatory lenders because they felt the need to hire private counsel to defend their teenage son against Measure 11 charges makes this story LESS about race, we need to talk.”
Anti-government tactics surface
Nietzche’s brushes with the law continued. In 2007, police arrested him for driving without a license and possession of cocaine. He didn’t show up for court appearances until, in May 2010, he was arrested again for again driving while suspended.
By then, it appears, his mother, Julie, had embraced “sovereign citizen” views. Court documents show that Nietzche also embraced the movement.
MacNab, who has researched the family’s sovereign-citizen links, said most sovereign citizens are right-wing, but they also can be “anarchist” or “hippie” sovereigns.
There’s also an African-American branch known as Moorish who, according to the Anti-Defamation League, “claim to have special rights because of their ‘Moorish’ status or because they are ‘indigenous inhabitants’ of North America.”
Nietzche’s court filings, MacNab said, are “kind of a hybrid between regular sovereign citizen and Moorish.”
The refusal to recognize government authority didn’t help Nietzche. He rejected the prosecution’s plea offer of about a year in prison, The Oregonian wrote at the time, and clashed with his defense lawyer, James Britt.
As the stepson of Portland Black Panthers leader Kent Ford and brother to Patrice Lumumba Ford —convicted of seeking to aid the Taliban in 2003 — Britt, who died in 2013, was no stranger to strong anti-government views. A video posted online, however, shows him chiding the Kinney family outside the Multnomah County Circuit Courthouse after a September 2010 hearing, telling Nietzche’s brother, Michael, “Your brother is being as dumb as you are,” adding “Learn the rules… Read a book, brother. Educate yourself.”
A jury found Nietzche guilty and, during a sentencing hearing, he was found in contempt 12 times for loudly interrupting a judge. He was sentenced to five and a half years in prison.
Conspiracy claims, threats
Since then, the Kinneys have portrayed Britt, the judges, banks and police as part of a long-running conspiracy against them, calling it “treason” and a “plot.”
In 2017, the family stopped paying the mortgage on the home. Nietzche has said they were confused after the company holding their mortgage sold it to another company. The family declined an offer to mediate the debt.
In 2018, the new lender foreclosed on the Kinneys and developer Roman Ozeruga purchased the home at auction. The $260,000 sale price was used to pay off the family’s $112,000 debt, penalties and foreclosure costs, with the remainder going to the family.
The Kinneys, however, have continued to refuse to leave the house, with Nietzche filing a variety of sovereign-style legal actions, including a purported criminal complaint against Ozeruga as well as a federal judge who ruled against the family.
Among the clashes this year:
• In February, Nietzche and an ally, Omari James Brunson, entered the Multnomah courthouse downtown, in what Nietzche said was an effort to execute citizen’s arrests on judges. Brunson is another Moorish sovereign citizen who has had repeated encounters with law enforcement.
• On March 30, when Multnomah County animal control officers responded to a claim of animal abuse filed by a Kinney neighbor, Nietzche yelled at them and said they had no jurisdiction, calling the property “tribal land.”
• On Sept. 9, Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputies came to evict the family. Nietzche, while video-recording the incident, told them the family’s appeal was still pending and appeared to threaten them, saying, “Hey, I promise you: You’re gonna get the Second Amendment. … You can’t take our land.” The Second Amendment of the Constitution deals with the right to keep and bear arms.
• On Sept.16, Nietzche was taken into custody in eviction court after advancing on the judge and threatening him with the “Second Amendment.”
For MacNab, the situation shows the danger of the sovereign citizen movement, which has led to violent conflicts elsewhere.
“The sovereign movement markets to desperate people,” she said, adding that it “feeds into the ego. It tells you, you’re a victim, and it tells you that with this secret knowledge, you’re powerful.”
She said she doesn’t doubt that the banks were “slimy…. But instead of contacting a real lawyer and figuring a way out of that hole, (the Kinneys) just kept digging. They took what was probably a horrible situation and made it so much worse.”
Collective action sparks apology
News of the family’s eviction spread on social media, with Nietzche urging local activists to camp out in an “Occupy”-style protest.
In October, a sheriff’s captain submitted an affidavit in court asking for more time to execute the eviction, citing the presence of dozens of campers and reports of armed individuals patrolling at night.
On Dec. 8, an effort by Multnomah sheriff’s deputies backed by Portland police to evict the family collapsed into a hasty retreat by police, chased by people hurling rocks and paint at officers, pushing them and pounding vehicles.
As the standoff grew, reporters and members of the public began sharing information about what led up to it, sparking a vigorous debate on Reddit and other social media platforms. Liberal critics noted Nietzche’s postings of what appeared to be right-wing QAnon propaganda — a bizarre conspiracy theory involving Democrats, Satan sex-trafficking and more —and questioned their level of support among progressive Portlanders.
However, the Kinney’s supporters remained steadfast, and some of them echoed Nietzche that the media coverage was being manipulated by banks and developers. Video circulated of one of them bearing a military-style assault rifle.
The family, in its Twitter feed, also blamed Portland officials’ public statements for racist death threats they were receiving.
“The community has come together to build a perimeter around the Red House to ensure protection for those holding the land,” the Kinney family said in a statement on Dec. 10. “We refuse to be characterized as a violent movement when our leadership is rooted in an Afro-Indigenous ethic of land reclamation.”
On Dec. 12, as part of a negotiated deal, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell sent the family a letter apologizing for public statements that portrayed the encampment as dangerous.
“We apologize & understand that following our tweets earlier this week your family received threats,” Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell wrote in a Dec. 12 letter to Kinney family. “Nobody should be subjected to this kind of stress and harm & we apologize for the role our tweets played.”
On Sunday, the family urged activists to help remove the barricades, saying the city had apologized and promised “not to attack supporters.”
The precise future of the Kinneys and the Red House on Mississippi is yet to be determined. As the family’s Twitter feed noted, executing a purchase agreement with Ozeruga hasn’t yet happened.
“We’re still in the thick of it,” said a message issued by the family Twitter account Sunday afternoon. On Monday, Wheeler said he believed there had been an “agreement in principle” between the Kinneys and the developer who owns the house.
Zane Sparling contributed reporting to this article
The Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group’s papers are a KOIN 6 News media partner