Portland man, former journalist, charged with federal hate crimes

By Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
Jan. 18, 2023 1:33 a.m. Updated: Jan. 19, 2023 5:48 p.m.

Violent hate crimes have been on the rise in Oregon, especially against Black people, according to the state’s bias crime data.

A man charged with arson and bias crimes in Multnomah County for setting fire to a mosque and vandalizing two Jewish synagogues is now facing federal hate crime charges.

Federal prosecutors are filing four charges against Michael Bivins, 35, for his alleged racist crime spree in spring 2022. Bivins was recorded on security cameras setting fire to the Muslim Community Center of Portland. He allegedly smashed windows at Congregations Shir Tikvah and Beth Israel. He also is accused of smashing windows at a Black-owned restaurant and vandalizing Beth Israel with anti-Jewish graffiti.

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“Bivins used spray paint to write ‘Die Juden’ on the exterior of the sanctuary building at Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue in Portland, Oregon, and he used a rock to break a window in another building on the synagogue’s campus,” a court filing outlining the charges states.

Muslim Community Center of Portland attempted arson

Surveillance video of an attempted arson at the Muslim Community Center of Portland, May 3, 2022.

PPB handout / Portland Police Bureau

Bivins, a former freelance journalist living in Portland, expressed increasingly racist views online in the months leading up to the attacks. He is also facing state charges and was indicted on May 17, 2022, in Multnomah County on 11 charges related to the hate-fueled violence.

Bivins’ string of alleged hate crimes came at the same time as a statewide increase in reported bias crimes since at least 2020. Oregonians reported 1,099 bias crimes to an Oregon Department of Justice hotline in 2020, the first year the hotline existed. The following year, 1,683 bias crimes were reported, a 53% increase.

When Bivins was arrested in May 2022, the number of bias crimes and reported incidents was increasing dramatically. Fay Stetz-Waters, the Oregon Department of Justice director of civil rights and social justice, said at the time that there had been 958 reports to the hotline since Jan. 1; 688 of them were in April and May.

“For all three years running now, the numbers that are the highest, the activity that is the most violent and increasing in intensity is anti-Black violence,” Stetz-Waters said in a May interview. “It’s everywhere. It is like a virus that has permeated the state and people are dug in … There seems to be an active effort to undermine people’s existence and it’s quite disturbing.”

Stetz-Waters said the state logged increases in anti-female incidents in early 2022 as well as anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander reports during AAPI heritage month. She also said there were increased attacks on the LGBTQ community as Pride Month approached.

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She said there are a number of small steps people can take to push back against rising hate. Learning state and local history, getting to know your neighbors and attending community events are all examples of ways people can help immunize their community against hate, she said.

The Oregon Department of Justice didn’t immediately provide bias crime data for all of 2022.

Data in Portland, which goes back further than statewide data, paints an equally troubling picture.

Portland police took reports of 10 bias crimes in the city in 2015, and another 10 are marked as “ambiguous” or still under investigation. That number steadily ballooned over the ensuing six years until 2021 when the bureau logged 54 bias crimes and another 41 “bias incidents,” a new reporting category created by Oregon lawmakers in 2020 to include expressions of racism or hate that don’t constitute a crime. Through November 2022, the city recorded 58 bias incidents and 37 bias crimes.

While hate crimes quintupled in Portland, Bivins went from racism critic to adherent.

He made a name for himself covering street protests and political extremists in Portland, often calling out and criticizing the racist beliefs he would later come to embrace. He worked for several local news organizations. Willamette Week managing editor Aaron Mesh said in May the paper was conducting a review of his work. Mesh later told OPB they did not find any concerning signs in his work.

Bivins also shared protest videos with The Oregonian/OregonLive and some national media outlets. He stopped working regularly for local media outlets in 2019. OPB never contracted with Bivins for news coverage.

Four and a half years after covering a white supremacist rally and calling some of what he saw “an abomination,” Bivins posted excerpts on Twitter from a late 19th century antisemitic screed, suggested Vice President Kamala Harris was a mad cow and called President Biden’s former press secretary a prostitute, among many other racist, transphobic and ableist insults.

According to court records, police found clothes, spray paint and a painted rock in Bivins’ mom’s house matching security footage and items recovered from the attacks. Police also said they found a racist article among Bivins’ belongings.

Willamette Week reported Bivins divorced his wife of 10 years in November 2021, quit his longtime job at Oregon Health & Science University and cashed out his retirement account. Bivins told police at the time of his arrest that he had been unhoused for the past six months and occasionally stayed at his mother’s house.

Bivins is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court Feb. 22. He is currently being held in custody by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and his state trail is scheduled to start Jan. 23.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a new comment from Aaron Mesh.

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