Editor’s note: This story contains depictions of intense violence as well as graphic accounts of misogynistic language.
In 2020, Portland’s racial justice protests brought five women together over the shared interest of keeping their community safe. Two years later, their lives were torn apart when an enraged stranger opened fire on them at a park in Northeast Portland.
Four were shot. One died. Another is paralyzed.
“It’s not the gunshots, or the memory of seeing that unfold,” said Dajah Beck, who was struck in the arm and chest by a single bullet. “It’s the parts of us that we lost that night. It’s the parts that did not leave the park that night.”
The five women initially forged a strong friendship while serving as “corkers,” a term for people who use their bodies, bikes or personal vehicles to redirect traffic around a march. They were used to being harassed on the job, usually by motorists upset that a march shut down traffic or by people who disagreed with protesters.
But they had never imagined that their small team of volunteers — people on the periphery of a political movement that drew national attention — would be the primary target of a violent attack.
Benjamin Smith lived in an apartment adjacent to Normandale Park. On the evening of Feb. 19, 2022, he saw the group of women standing by their vehicles at a nearby intersection. They were preparing to assist a racial justice march at the park later that night. Smith stormed toward the group, shouting misogynistic slurs.
The women responded calmly, asking Smith to go home. Moments later, Smith took out a handgun and began to shoot. He only stopped firing when he was shot by an armed bystander.
The violence took place at what felt like the tail end of nearly two years of frequent protests in Portland focused on police accountability and racial justice. By February 2022, the city was no longer hosting nightly demonstrations that ended in clouds of police tear gas or property destruction. These demonstrations had become increasingly villainized by right-wing groups, conservative media outlets and local officials because they sometimes included acts of vandalism and arson.
Smith’s social media activity leading up to the shooting was saturated with racism, Nazi sympathies and anger toward the Black Lives Matter movement. Since 2006, numerous people had reported him to local and federal law enforcement for his violent and sometimes threatening behavior — raising the prospect that the shootings could have been prevented. He’s pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, four counts of attempted murder and four assault charges. He will be sentenced Tuesday and faces the possibility of life in prison.
For the five women, Smith’s sentencing represents a bookend — but it won’t bring them closure. In a series of recent interviews, they described — many for the first time publicly — what happened at Normandale Park and in the year since.
The women’s stories provide a new perspective on a chaotic scene, illuminate cracks in the systems built to protect them and shine a light on the complex trauma that comes with surviving a targeted shooting. OPB agreed to identify some of the women by their first name or their preferred nickname because they’ve received threats.
“All our perspectives from that night are so different,” said Deg, a 30-year-old woman who lost the use of all her limbs in the shooting and needs a ventilator to breathe. “It’s a piece of a puzzle that is important to be shared. It feels important for me to be able to use my voice, which fortunately I still have.”
The women forged their friendship in the streets of Portland. Several described the racial justice protests of 2020 as a “call to action” for them to volunteer their time and resources to protect Portlanders’ freedom of speech.
Kat Knapp, whose wife, June Knightly, was killed by Smith, recalled the first time Knightly corked.
“I was taking out the garbage in July 2020, and I heard this march coming up the street, and June said, ‘Get the Black Lives Matter sign, we’ll get in the truck and help,’” Knapp said.
Knightly, who was 60 when she died, quickly became part of a tight-knit group of friends bound together by their shared passion in supporting a political movement. She wasn’t able to march in demonstrations due to arthritic knees, but she found purpose behind the wheel of her black truck. Her corking friends knew her by the nickname “T-Rex.”
Dajah Beck, 40, often rode a motorcycle while corking. Prior to 2020, she spent her free time seeing live music and volunteering with the Red Cross to assemble disaster preparedness kits.
Deg loved spending time in nature. Before the shooting, she was working on a degree in grief therapy, which she wanted to use to lead backpacking trips for youth who’ve experienced loss.
Hank, 37, described herself as a “low-key workaholic” and a scientist. She biked everywhere, spent time with her partner and their cats, and worried how to keep their many houseplants alive. Hank was a planner, always prepared, responsible. “My superlative would have been something like ‘most likely to be people’s emergency contact.’”
Allie Bradley, 36, enjoyed gardening and taking long drives in her car. She said she was feeling adrift in her life prior to 2020, due to financial and relationship stress, and putting energy into the protests gave her purpose.
The women grew close spending long nights together on the peripheries of marches, diffusing tense situations and directing traffic.
“The thing that we love the most is being able to uplift the voices of others around us and keep them safe,” Bradley said. “That’s all that we want to do.”
The five women were the kind of friends who helped one another move, watched each other’s pets when they were traveling, and celebrated important events together. When Knightly was diagnosed with cancer in 2021, the friends gathered at her house to offer comfort.
They knew each other’s families. They were each other’s emergency contacts. Together, they had trained to keep unexpected violence from harming people they cared about. But when violence found them, they couldn’t protect each other.
The sun had already set by the time the women met at Northeast Hassalo Street and Northeast 55th Avenue — the southwest corner of Normandale Park — on that February evening a year ago. They arrived 30 minutes before the planned 8 p.m. march, which had been organized to memorialize Amir Locke, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police a few weeks earlier. Demonstrators had begun gathering on the other side of the park behind a line of evergreens and out of sight from the corkers.
Before every demonstration, the women would meet up to review the march route and plan where to position their vehicles.
As the corkers discussed the night’s strategy, a man in his 40s strolled by carrying a grocery bag under his arm. He approached Deg and asked what was going on.
“I told him about the march, and he asked what time we were leaving, and I told him around eight o’clock,” Deg said. “And he looked at his watch and was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ I kind of felt like maybe he would come back and join the march.”
Hank overheard this interaction and came away with a different feeling. She was used to curious neighbors asking questions, but these felt unusual.
“His questions were too specific,” Hank said. “‘When are you leaving? How long are you all going to be at this intersection?’ You know, it just wasn’t right.”
Benjamin Smith returned to the intersection some 20 minutes later, as the women were preparing to work. He was no longer carrying his grocery bag and appeared unarmed. But he was screaming.
Beck was adjusting her motorcycle helmet as Smith approached. She said his words felt more specific than the kind of vitriol she was used to hearing from people angry about the marches.
“It [felt] so clearly targeted,” Beck said. “I mean, what he was saying was so specific, he wasn’t talking about protesters … it was, ‘You fucking cunts, you fucking terrorist cunts.’”
The women quickly attempted to de-escalate the moment by speaking calmly and clearly. Hank told Smith the group was about to leave anyway to assist the march and began walking toward her car. He followed her.
“That’s when he said, ‘If I ever see you again, I’m going to shoot you in the head,’” Hank said. “And it was just like this lightning bolt. I was like, ‘We need to desperately get away from this person.’”
Beck heard Smith threaten Hank. She hit record on the GoPro camera affixed to her motorcycle helmet. The video would later become the key piece of evidence in prosecutors’ case against Smith.
Just then, Bradley, who was running late, pulled up in her Ford Bronco. She saw a man yelling at her friends and slammed her door to draw Smith’s attention.
“My thought was like, ‘Look at me, look at me … I’m the threat. I’m the scary one,’” Bradley said. “I wanted everyone else to just get in their cars and leave.”
Bradley asked Smith if this was really how he wanted to spend his evening. Smith said he did and then lunged toward her with his hands raised. She put up her own hands to protect her face and stepped back.
Beck said it seemed like Smith was trying to provoke a fight. Perhaps then, he could feel justified in using violence as self-defense, she thought.
“What he kept saying was, ‘Make me, make me leave, touch me, push me, make me go,’” Beck said. “People threaten us all the time. It’s part of the work, but he was different. I’ve never been scared like that.”
As soon as Smith pushed Bradley, Knightly stepped out of her truck. Knightly leaned on her cane as she walked slowly toward Smith. She urged Smith to go home.
Smith pulled a handgun from his pocket and pointed it at Knightly’s head.
Bradley was standing 4 feet away. “For a brief moment before he pulled the trigger, I thought, ‘Maybe he won’t shoot,’” she said. “And he did.”
Smith shot Knightly in the face. As she collapsed, Deg stepped toward Smith with a small canister of mace. Smith shot Deg in the neck. He pivoted toward Bradley, and shot her at the nape of her neck and chest. Smith then shot Beck in the side of her chest, grazing her arm. Bradley stood to run to her car, which caught Smith’s attention. He shot Bradley two more times. In the melee, Smith also shot and injured an unidentified man who had come to the demonstration to volunteer as a medic. The man had walked over to help the women after he heard Smith’s shouts.
Beck’s memory of the shooting is muddled, but the video she recorded allows her to describe the event with precision.
“The way he moved, you can see he’s in a shooter stance … it’s not uncontrolled,” Beck said. “It’s aim, fire, aim, fire, pause, aim, fire. He was not shooting wildly.”
Then two gunshots rang out that sounded distinctly different from Smith’s bullets. A bystander had run up after hearing gunshots and shot Smith in the hip.
In Beck’s video, the violence lasts eight seconds.
Hank had been sitting inside her truck when Smith shot Knightly, and she ducked below the dashboard. As soon as she saw Smith fall, she thought, “This is my chance to call 911.” A 911 operator told her that an ambulance would arrive in 14 minutes.
“I just completely lost it,” Hank said. “I was like, ‘Cool, every person that’s here … every single one is going to die.’”
After the shooting stopped, Bradley saw Deg and Knightly on the ground, surrounded by blood.
“And I just screamed, I screamed for help,” she recalled. “I screamed until my voice broke.”
The shooting was traumatic. So was the aftermath.
After what felt like an eternity, dozens of people surrounded the five friends, Smith and his other victim. Many were volunteer medics with emergency medical supplies. Several attempted to resuscitate Knightly, but it became clear that she was already dead. One medic attended to Smith, applying pressure on his wound and wrapping him in an emergency blanket.
Police officers arrived before paramedics. Hank was still on the phone with a 911 operator, who directed her to walk toward the police lights and identify herself as the caller.
As she approached the line of police cars, Hank said officers turned on their headlights, and she could see the silhouettes of rifles pointed at her. Officers shouted at her, she said, to put her hands in the air.
“I was horrified,” Hank said.
Beck, who lost her glasses when she was shot, recalls seeing the fuzzy outline of police standing by their cars. They were not yet allowing ambulances to pass.
“I realized at that moment they’re not coming to help us,” she said. “I lost it. I was so angry.”
Paramedics were eventually able to reach the victims and Smith and check their wounds, while police questioned those present. Bradley recalled one officer repeatedly asking her how many people were in the park when the shooting broke out. She didn’t know. Deg, who drifted in and out of consciousness after being shot, remembers an officer doing what she described as “interrogating” a friend who was comforting her in the back of the ambulance.
Before getting into her own ambulance, Beck handed her helmet camera to an officer.
“This is evidence,” she told him. “I got everything.”
Kat Knapp remembers waking up that evening to the sound of her dog barking in the living room.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, June must be home,’” she said. “I looked at the clock and it was 10:30, and it didn’t even register to me that this is really late for her to be coming home.”
Knapp was used to Knightly coming home late after volunteering at protests and had been trying to worry less about her when she was gone. Knapp put on her robe, walked to the living room and looked out in the driveway. But she didn’t see Knightly’s truck.
“There’s this little car that I’ve never seen before,” Knapp said, “and I was like, ‘What? What are these people doing in my driveway? What’s going on?’”
The car’s passengers were other protest helpers who knew Knightly. “We need to talk to you about June,” one told Knapp.
“He said, ‘There was a shooting at the park, and June is gone’,” Knapp recalled. “And I just, I ended up collapsing on the floor.”
Fourteen months have passed since the shooting, but the emotional and physical scars remain indelibly present for those he targeted.
Knightly’s stuff is exactly where she left it when she headed out to help protesters one year ago. A basket brimming with her craft supplies sits at the foot of her favorite armchair.
“She had a huge heart and an amazing sense of humor,” Knapp said of her wife. “And she didn’t understand her impact on people at all. She was so loved.”
While she wasn’t at Normandale Park that night, Knapp feels responsible for sharing what happened to Knightly that evening — since Knightly isn’t able. Knapp wants to know what made Knightly step out of her truck that night and approach Smith. She’s pressed the women who were there for details over and over, searching for clues.
“What was she thinking? What was her plan?” Knapp said. “She was capable of magical thinking. I imagine in that situation, I think she was probably convinced that she could take him.”
Knapp said she’s lost her purpose in life without having Knightly to share it with.
“I don’t know who I am without her,” Knapp said. “I’m still here and, you know, I just get through the day. And then there’s the next day.”
It took Bradley a year to fully recognize herself in the mirror again. She was shot four times, leaving eight scars across her thigh, stomach, chest and neck. The wounds brought infection, serious bruising, unexpected shocks of pain, and general discomfort for months.
“My body just didn’t feel like it was my own,” she said. “It was difficult to look at yourself and be like, ‘I don’t know who that person is.’”
The physical pain came with frequent nightmares and an easily triggered adrenaline response to sudden noises and movements. She described the emotional trauma of feeling permanently violated by Smith’s bullets.
“I feel like I had these things done to me that I never consented to that are going to live with me for the rest of my life,” Bradley said. “I’m never going to be able to erase the physical marks of what this person did to me.”
Hank was the only one of the five friends who left Normandale Park without any gunshot wounds. That weighs heavily on her.
“This is a really wild thing to say,” she said. “Sometimes I wish that I did just get shot so that it would maybe appease like, you know, some of the survivor’s guilt.”
Hank is also burdened with the symptoms of a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. Riding her bike is too overstimulating and she can still only work part-time. She recalls trying to use her laptop a week after the shooting, and the words on the screen appeared garbled and incomprehensible.
“I was on disability for six months because I was having trouble reading anything more complicated than my phone,” Hank said. “I didn’t cook for months because it was too much for my brain. I went from being like a low-key workaholic to I couldn’t even cook for myself.”
Beck’s arm is still sore from where Smith’s bullet hit her, and it took months for her chest wound to heal.
“This isn’t something that made me stronger, it made me a person who is angrier, who is more bitter, who’s more pessimistic. I’m reactive, I’m aggressive,” Beck said. “It feels like I’ve been drowning this entire time.”
Deg spent five months in the hospital. Smith’s bullet hit a vertebra at the base of her neck, paralyzing her from the shoulders down.
“Accepting what happened to me was a challenge,” Deg said. “Seeing your limbs not moving and feeling like you’re able to control them, but not, is horribly shocking.”
She spends most days in bed at her parents’ house in Portland, and avoids spending time in public or even leaving home. Deg’s health makes her especially vulnerable to viruses and her paralysis makes her feel defenseless.
Smith’s bullet did more than take away Deg’s control of her body. She dropped out of college, and is no longer pursuing a career that would allow her to use hiking trips as a form of grief therapy. “It’s not a realistic opportunity anymore,” she said.
The trauma has turned a group of close friends into family. Both Hank and Beck became certified caregivers to help look after Deg on a weekly basis, and all the women are constantly checking in with each other over text message.
Bradley said she can’t imagine going through the emotional and physical recovery process alone.
“I would not be here if I didn’t have them,” she said. “They make me laugh, they give me purpose when I feel like there’s no reason to keep going.”
Knapp, who didn’t know the other corkers very well before her wife’s death, said their support has made the past year tolerable.
“These four women are so amazing,” Knapp said. “I can see why June truly loved these people.”
While most survivors will attend Smith’s sentencing hearing in person to provide victim statements, Deg will make her statement over video. She doesn’t want Smith to see her body.
“I don’t believe that he feels remorse,” she said. “I feel like he was very proud in that moment of what he was doing and that he was enjoying himself. And if he were to see me, then it would give him an image of joy to carry through his sentence. That’s not something I’m willing to give him.”
The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office says Smith, 44, faces at least 55 years in prison. Smith declined to comment on the impact his shooting left on its survivors prior to his sentencing hearing Tuesday afternoon. The survivors and victims of Smith’s shooting don’t expect to feel a sense of closure with his sentencing.
“It’s not justice,” Beck said. “There’s nothing that can bring my friend back, there’s nothing that can bring back those parts of us that we lost. There’s no repair there. It just is. The damage just is.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Dajah Beck’s last name. OPB regrets the error.