Think Out Loud

Seeking answers to surge of deadly gun violence in Portland

By Sheraz Sadiq (OPB)
Feb. 22, 2022 6:49 p.m. Updated: March 1, 2022 10:37 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Feb. 22

Portland police cordon off an area around a shooting on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. One person was killed and four injured after a neighbor reportedly confronted a group of protesters near Normandale Park in Northeast Portland.

Portland police cordon off an area around a shooting on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. One person was killed and four injured after a neighbor reportedly confronted a group of protesters near Normandale Park in Northeast Portland.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

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On Saturday night, Benjamin Jeffrey Smith allegedly shot and killed June Knightly and wounded four other people who had gathered at a protest against police violence held at Normandale Park in Northeast Portland. A day later, a second mass shooting took place in Southeast Portland, leaving one woman dead and a man and two children injured. Last year, Portland recorded 90 homicides, a record number for a city struggling with a surge in gun violence. Joining us to talk about the recent shootings and gun violence in Portland are Ryan Haas, managing editor for OPB News, and Lakayana Drury, founder and executive director of Word is Bond.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller:  Let’s start with the actual rally itself before we get to the shooting. What was the purpose of this rally on Saturday evening?

Ryan Haas:  This was a small rally to protest police killings. Portland often has rallies like this from racial justice advocates. People had gathered to speak about local police killings of black men such as Patrick Kimmons and Quanice Hayes, but they were also demonstrating against the Minneapolis police killing of Amir Locke.  You probably remember Locke was the man who was shot and killed earlier this month as police served a no-knock warrant.

By all accounts, this was supposed to be a small march in a Northeast Portland neighborhood, basically the kind of protest that happens all the time in the city and might go unnoticed beyond local residents.

Miller: What has OPB been able to learn from eyewitnesses about what happened?

Haas:  People at the scene Saturday night were very clear about what they saw.  A white man came up the street toward a smaller group of protesters and started shouting derogatory remarks and profanity at them.  That person then started shooting a gun, according to witnesses that we spoke to.  Those people say the man shot several rounds and, as you said, we know it injured four people and killed one person. Demonstrators said that this was basically an unprovoked attack. It does appear that one person with the demonstrators shot back at some point and critically injured the shooter.

Miller:  What have you been able to learn about June Knightly, the Portland woman who was killed?

Haas:  By all accounts, Knightly was a longtime activist who had been involved in community groups for years. Her wife told the Oregonian that Knightly worked on LGBTQ issues for years, but she really became active in racial justice causes in 2020 after a Black Lives Matter protest passed their home.  Knightly regularly posted on social media about social justice causes and mutual aid groups that she supported.  She was known to some demonstrators by her street name, T Rex.

People who we spoke to said she was really skilled at de-escalating tense situations when antagonistic people or groups would confront protesters.  They say that’s what she was trying to do on Saturday when she was killed.

Miller:  She was volunteering as what’s known as a Corker. Can you describe what that means?

Haas:  That’s a term that protestors use and it describes someone who helps block traffic or keep interference out of protests, particularly when folks are walking in the street. That can be dangerous if traffic is coming through.  Some folks say that that’s what Knightly and some of the other protesters were doing when the shooting happened.

Miller:  What have you learned about the suspect who was first identified by antifascist researchers?

Haas:  With very little information coming out from the city or police after this mass shooting, lots of independent researchers and journalists spent the weekend trying to confirm who the shooter was. OPB and others were able to successfully identify that shooter as 43 year old Benjamin Jeffrey Smith. We should say he’s not been charged at this point. He’s basically under suspicion.

Smith’s roommate spoke to us last night and said he had really become radicalized over a variety of issues in recent years.  Smith allegedly railed at times about “Commies and Antifa.” He bemoaned people experiencing homelessness and criticized COVID-19 health restrictions; a lot of these kinds of very far right ideas. The roommate also said Smith collected many guns and at times talked about violence against people who angered him, and protesters.

We also spoke to Smith’s brother. He said he didn’t think his brother was an extremist, but he did acknowledge that Smith complained about Portland at times. Smith’s brother’s main issue was that Portland police had not really communicated with him at all as of last night.

Miller:  That was actually an issue that came up in a press conference this morning.  Police were asked about it and they said, “We’ve been very busy.”  Officers have been up for 36 hours and they look forward to talking to him at some point. Police, meanwhile, as you noted, didn’t actually publicly mention Smith’s name until about two hours ago. That was long after independent researchers and the Oregonian and other media and OPB had written articles about him. What have they said about what happened on Saturday night?

Haas:  Very little to be honest.  They mostly just said that Smith is someone who lived in the area and he’s suspected of killing Knightly. We were able to learn a little more through a search warrant that the Portland Police Bureau carried out  last night on Smith’s apartment. It states that they were focused on looking for computers, guns and other items that might illustrate motive or connection to this crime. And while Smith has not been formally charged yet, the warrant was granted under suspicion of second degree murder, first degree attempted murder, assault and unlawful use of a weapon. Those charges may change later as the District Attorney’s Office considers the evidence in this case, but they do give an indication of how Portland police are thinking about Smith.

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Miller:  How unusual is it for police to take almost 2.5 days after a mass shooting to identify the suspected shooter?

Haas:  I mean it’s very unusual, frankly. I’ve covered a few mass shootings in my time as a journalist and I can’t think of a single time that it took police three days to acknowledge if the shooter in an incident was alive or dead, in custody, or on the loose. The city and the Police bureau defended that decision today in that press conference you mentioned.  They said they didn’t want to put potentially wrong information out there, but several media outlets and independent researchers were able to confirm his identity before police confirmed that information. I think that’s very unusual. There’s just a level of frustration right now for people who live in Portland who wanted to know more about the circumstances of the shooting over the weekend and we’re left guessing at what may have happened.

Miller:  Meanwhile, this was not the only mass shooting of the weekend. What do we know about what happened in Southeast Portland?

Haas:  This was a very tragic shooting where a family was in a vehicle on [SE] Foster [Road] and somebody shot it up.  The mother in the car was killed and a man she was presumed to be in a relationship was injured.  But the really hard part here is that there were two children, ages one and five, who were also shot. Now, the man and the kids are expected to survive, but this type of shooting is really disturbing.  You could see police and city officials today were really shaken by it.  Information is still pretty sparse, but they said investigators are working the case to try to find out what happened

Miller:  And finally, Portland police officers shot and killed someone on Saturday night in a third separate incident. That probably would have gotten more attention if it hadn’t been for the shooting at Normandale Park. What do we know about what happened?

Haas:  That shooting happened around the same time as the Normandale Park shooting and you’re right, it hasn’t gotten much attention.  Much like the Normandale shooting, police say they don’t have a lot of information right now.

What we do know is that the police responded to a report of a suspicious person near an apartment building in the South Hills and as they were on their way, they received reports of shots fired. Police did confirm that two officers were involved in the shooting with a person and that person died at the scene yesterday.  Amidst everything, I was able to speak to someone who lives in the building and actually had a bullet go through his apartment window.  He said he didn’t know much about the circumstances. He had seen a person carrying a gun around the area before. He wasn’t sure if that was the same person the police killed. But what he did say is that he and his family were seriously considering whether they want to stay there anymore given all the gun violence in Portland.

Miller:  Lakayana Drury joins me now. What went through your mind when you heard about the shooting at Normandale Park on Saturday night?

Lakayana Drury: Immediately, it was the victims of that incident and I think that’s where I’d like to start, by offering condolences to the family and friends of June Knightly and also the mother that was killed on Sunday evening, and the other victims of the 206 shootings we’ve had in Portland. That was what first went through my mind.

And then the second piece that went through my mind is just how unsafe it is right now to protest.  And also to be Black in the city. Both of those things.

Miller:  I want to turn to one of the issues that Ryan talked about. I’m curious what stands out to you in the way the police have publicly handled this investigation?

Drury:  I think people right now are extremely sensitive and traumatized by what has happened and they are upset with how information is being released, the narratives in the context around those releases of information, and that those are very valid views and need to be taken into consideration.  And I think that the local law enforcement can do a better job of releasing information and giving people that sense of trust.  People want transparency and I think that there is a better response than, “We are gathering more information.” I think that there’s more that can be shared in a way that can help the community feel like law enforcement is really working to protect and to help those who want information to know what is going on.

Miller:  One of the first things that the police said about what happened is that this was a confrontation between armed protesters and an armed homeowner and that framing went national on USA Today, CNN Reuter.  That was the headline. But it’s very different from the story that has since emerged from eyewitness accounts, which is that someone who lived nearby initiated a violent confrontation killing one woman and injuring four others. It turns out that the suspect was not a homeowner, but that mistake doesn’t really seem like the most important detail. I’m curious what you think of the use of this term ‘homeowner’ which has gone everywhere.

Drury:  I think it’s another piece of the narrative that is not sitting well with activist communities.  I think it’s important insofar as where the shooter is coming from, but beyond that, the idea of using that at the forefront, I don’t believe it’s the best use of that phrase or the narrative of the story that’s coming out. I think that it should be secondary to some of the more pertinent information.

Miller:  The mayor had a press conference this morning as we mentioned, and it was focused on ‘gun violence’ broadly. He and other county and federal officials…you had a twitter thread last night focused on that phrase [(gun violence)]. The gist of what you wrote is that phrase, ‘gun violence’, is so broad that it lumps together very different issues in a problematic way. So, first of all, what do you see as the different issues that are all lumped together?

Drury:  I think that the most pertinent issue here with gun violence and why we’re seeing Portland in national headlines around the country is the gun violence that’s happening in black and brown communities. And so when we just use the phrase ‘gun violence’ as a broad term with any incident that involves guns, I think it doesn’t take into consideration the nuances of the conversation and the need to make sure that black and brown gun violence, which has gone on for far longer, stays relevant and receives the attention that it needs.

Miller:  What do you hear about guns from the young men that you work with?

Drury: They’re everywhere. It’s a part of the culture and it is unfortunately a part of life, whether you own one or you don’t own one, as a young person of color.  Guns are more accessible than laptops in this city for young people of color. And I think that needs to change.  If we’re going to take guns out of their hands or make them less accessible, you’ve got to give them something else to hold onto. And it’s a part of the fabric of this community and it’s been for generations.  That’s why, when we’re having these conversations around gun violence and we’re holding press conferences, we have to be very sure that we don’t drown out the causes and need for gun violence reform in communities of color.

Miller:  But there’s another piece of this which is the story that’s emerged from reporting by OPB and the Oregonian over the last couple of days, and what we heard Ryan encapsulate, which is that the suspect in Normandale had been radicalized in recent years. According to his roommate, he has been yelling racial slurs, deriding women and talking about “Wanting to shoot Commies and Antifa.” What do you think it would take to reverse or to prevent this kind of radicalization?

Drury:  What I saw happening on Saturday night is more in line with political violence that has been on the increase in recent years, going back to about 2016.  I think what needs to happen in regards to that type of violence is we have to return to a normalization of talking through our differences and allowing differences to be seen as strength rather than opportunities to tear each other apart.  It’s at this point now where when we disagree with people, we try to either shut it down or react violently.  Since 2016 especially, this narrative of right wing violence has increased and gone through the roof and violence against people you disagree with is seen as legitimate. I think that that is taking away from the need for dialogue and the need to realize that we are all part of this country. We cannot hate everybody that has a different opinion than you. I think it starts with how we teach our children and talk about these issues amongst them. And that’s what I try to do with the youth that I work with.

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