PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A University of Oregon sociology professor said Oregon’s long history of white supremacy and racial injustice should not be forgotten when considering the significance of the mass shooting that occurred at Portland’s Normandale Park Saturday evening.
“This shooting happens in that context of people wanting to protest racism and then being met with serious vigilante violence,” said Randy Blazak, a sociology professor at the University of Oregon and chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime.
Blazak spoke briefly with KOIN 6 News Wednesday and followed up Thursday to clarify and emphasize the importance of racist events in Oregon history and how those have in part led to people in the activist community wanting to arm themselves at events.
He gave historical examples such as the state law in the 1800s that made it illegal for Black people to live in Oregon and the decision to construct Interstate 5 through the Albina Neighborhood where 80% of Portland’s Black population lived at the time. He also cited the more recent example of the Proud Boys holding rallies in Portland. The Proud Boys have been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and an extremist group by the FBI.
Blazak said there’s a perception that progressive people are anti-gun, but when people are concerned about violence, they feel the need to defend themselves.
In the case of the Normandale Park shooting, demonstrators had gathered to demand “justice for Amir Locke and Daunte Wright.” Others were there for Patrick Kimmons. Police said some protesters were armed.
According to court documents, a man named Benjamin Smith confronted the demonstrators, yelled at them and demanded they leave. The protesters told the 43-year-old man to go home but Smith responded they should “make” him leave. They said he continued to yell at the crowd, then pulled out a handgun and fired at several people, striking five of them. Investigators say Smith’s shooting ended when he was shot in the hip.
The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office told KOIN 6 News someone was arrested at the scene other than Smith, but they gave that person a “no complaint” after reviewing the facts. The District Attorney’s Office also said they don’t know who shot Smith and can’t confirm it was someone in the crowd.
Smith’s roommate told KOIN 6 News he’d become more and more “radicalized” and “right-wing” over the last few years.
The roommate said, “He’s been talking about wanting to do something like this for a while.”
Blazak said there’s been an active campaign in right-wing media to turn Portlanders against each other and the idea has been spreading that the Black Lives Matter movement wants to destroy the city and that Portland must be protected against these activists.
With this in mind, he said it’s not surprising that activists should feel the need to defend themselves.
As tensions heat up between different groups in Portland, Blazak said something needs to be done to cool them down, so that situations don’t become violent again. He suggests using what he calls “credible messengers,” trusted neighbors, friends and family members, to find non-violent ways to address grievances. This could mean bystanders step in to encourage others not to use their weapons.
“It’s really just sort of having good relationships with people in the community who are committed to non-violence to talk those people off the cliff,” he explained.
Blazak also addressed how the Portland Police Bureau’s misuse of the word “homeowner” to originally describe the suspect is fueling resentment among activist groups in the city. He said the word “homeowner” implies a sense of legitimacy and a right to self-defense and has previously been used to justify violence.
KOIN 6 News has since learned Smith rented an apartment in the neighborhood near Normandale Park. Court documents say Smith was yelling at the demonstrators to leave the park, not the property he lived on.
Investigators say Smith shot and killed one person, 60-year-old Brandy “June” Knightly, and injured four others. One person was paralyzed from the neck down.
Blazak said this situation didn’t need to end this way, but he fears this could lead to more guns on the street during demonstrations and could spiral into something very bloody.
“This could have been completely different if [the suspect] just came out as a spectator and watched the folks go by. But now, we have several people injured and a woman dead,” he said.