On May 26, the first day of Ramadan, Portland witnessed one of its most disturbing assaults in recent memory. Destinee Mangum, age 16, and her 17-year-old friend, who is Muslim and wears a hijab, were riding a MAX light-rail train when a white man, later identified as 35-year-old Jeremy Christian, approached the two teenagers, spewing racist and Islamophobic insults. When three strangers bravely came to the girls’ defense, Christian pulled out a knife and attacked. Tragically, two of the men, Ricky Best and Taliesin Namkai-Mechel, were killed in the assault. A third, Micah Fletcher, sustained serious injuries.
Christian is a white-nationalist with a documented history of violent and racist behavior. In late April, he attended a right-wing rally in Portland where he performed a Nazi salute and called for the deaths of Muslims, “fake” Christians, and Jews while draping himself in an American flag.
The attack has scarred the Portland community, devastated the families of the murdered men, and profoundly impacted the two young women. Mangum recounted her experience in an interview with CNN following the attack:
He told us to go back to Saudi Arabia, and he told us that we shouldn’t be here and to get out of his country. He was just telling us that we basically weren’t anything and that we should just kill ourselves. This white male, from the back of us, came, and he was like, ‘He’s talking to you guys.’ And he was like, ‘You can’t disrespect these young ladies like that.’ And then they just all started arguing. Me and my friend, we were going to get off the MAX. And then we turned around while they were fighting, and he just started stabbing people. And it was just blood everywhere, and we just started running for our lives.
This horrifying incident only contributes further to the fear under which many oppressed minorities increasingly live, reinforced by the rise of a racist president to the White House. Yet it also reveals the courage ordinary working people are capable of, with strangers putting themselves at risk to stand up for their fellow community members. In fact, the three people who confronted the white nationalist were themselves white, showing the potential and power of solidarity across racial and religious lines.
Since the assault, there has been an outpouring of support from the community. Approximately 1,000 attended a city-wide vigil, and fundraisers for the victims and their families have topped one million dollars combined. Local unions have stood up against the attack as well, with the Oregon AFL-CIO (which includes the Amalgamated Transit Union) releasing a statement mourning the victims and asserting that “[i]t’s through unity and solidarity that we will heal from this tragic incident.”
However, there’s also stormy weather ahead for Portland, where a right wing, Islamophobic “March Against Sharia” was planned for June 10. The increasingly public manifestations of Islamophobic bigotry are deeply troubling, particularly in a state that already has the highest rates of self-reported hate crimes per capita (ProPublica), and where pronounced segregation has been exacerbated by business-friendly housing policies.
The Portland murders reflect the escalating tide of racial and religious prejudice flowing from Trump’s right-wing campaign and presidency. Trump’s bigoted rhetoric has resulted in an energizing of white-nationalists and others on the far right. With his calls to halt all Muslim immigration, create a Muslim registry, and appointments of ideologues such as Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn (who once tweeted that “[f]ear of Muslims is RATIONAL”), Trump has presided over a disturbing increase in Islamophobic hate crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported 1,094 bias incidents in Trump’s first 34 days alone, with many of them directed against Muslims.
Muslim women in particular are at risk due to the more visible nature of those who wear hijabs, such as the young woman on the commuter train. Additionally, the number of known anti-Muslim hate groups underwent an astounding increase from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016. These statistics mirror the lived experiences of those in every oppressed group in society since Trump’s vile campaign rhetoric emboldened the forces of hate.
In spite of the brutal nature of the attack and broad national and international coverage, Trump has been disturbingly (though unsurprisingly) quiet. No written statement has been issued or public comment made, and the administration’s sole response consists of one tweet sent out from his less-followed and likely staffer-run POTUS account, a full three days after the murders. Asha Deliverance, the mother of Namkai-Meche, has implored Trump in an open letter to “condemn any acts of violence, which result directly from hate speech and hate groups,” a plea which has so far been ignored.
Although Trump has actively courted Islamophobic sentiment in order to get elected, anti-Muslim bias has long been seized on by the U.S. ruling class, particularly by Republican Party leaders but also by the Democratic Party establishment, as a tool to divide working people. It has been used as a way to justify the imperialist wars in the oil-rich Middle East, wars which have caused untold human suffering and only served to line the pockets of military contractors and oil giants. The ruling class maintains its wealth and dominant position in capitalist society by using racism, sexism, Islamophobia and other forms of oppression to prevent the development of united working class movements that can challenge their brutal system. In the words of Malcolm X, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
As socialists, we believe that racism and bigotry are a product of class society and not an inherent part of human nature. As demonstrated by the massive wave of support by the Portland community for the victims of this horrific attack, the vast majority of ordinary people reject the bigoted, repulsive ideology of white supremacists such as Christian. Community members from all backgrounds are coming together and refusing to accept this wave of hate as normal. However, we cannot assume that this feeling of solidarity will automatically lead to mass movements powerful enough to marginalize and weaken far-right forces.
So how do we defeat the upsurge in hate in the Trump era? History teaches us that it will take a broad, multiracial movement of working people organizing powerful struggles against racism and for the common interests of working people. It will need to engage in bold and strategic tactics like non-violent civil disobedience and strike action. Such movements were exemplified by the U.S. Civil Rights Movement as well as the anti-Vietnam War and other powerful multi-racial movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, including a great wave of labor struggles. In particular, it was the merging of many of these social movements into a broader anti-establishment and increasingly anti-capitalist movement which threatened the stability of U.S. capitalism and forced Richard Nixon to end the war, pass a series of progressive policies, and ultimately pushed him out of office altogether. More recently this same potential power can be seen in the airport shutdowns that helped defeat Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban as well as in the Fight for $15, in which people of color, women, and working class people have come together to fight for an end to poverty wages.
Upcoming right-wing actions in Portland are likely to attract large counter-protests. These protests should be used not only as a statement against racism and bigotry, but also an opportunity for organizers of color, workers, and youth to come together to build a strong and escalating resistance against the Trump administration and the far-right forces emboldened by him.
Along with a clear anti-racist message, such a movement will also need to fight for concrete, offensive demands that can inspire and mobilize working people, and address the underlying economic problems that not only disproportionately impact oppressed minorities but also help fuel hate-crimes. According to the SPLC, Trump was elected in part due to “[a] surge in right-wing populism, stemming from the long-unfolding effects of globalization and the movements of capital that it spawned.” In other words, the ravages of global capitalism open up space in society for right-wing extremism to take hold. Studies prove that the single largest predictor of hate-related crime in the United States is income inequality (fivethirtyeight.com).
Economic inequality needs a powerful answer from the left that actively fights against bigotry and sets its sights on the political and economic elite that profit off of the suffering of working people. We cannot rely on the Democrats to lead this fight, as inequality has soared under the neoliberal policies of both political parties. Therefore, a strong independent left movement, one which unites anti-racist demands with those of economic justice for all, is the best offensive against the forces of bigotry. Building movements such as the fight for a federal $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all, and a massive expansion of clean energy and green infrastructure that can create good paying union jobs can help create the social power necessary to defeat the racist Trump administration and billionaire class. These struggles can also undermine existing racism and religious intolerance by uniting working people together in multi-racial, class-based movements.
We need a new left political party that campaigns boldly for all workers, bases itself on social movements, and that accepts no corporate campaign funding. Such a party could win over traditional Republican voters by taking a clear pro-worker, anti-corporate stand, as Bernie Sanders did during the primary last year.
But if we don’t build a workers’ party with a socialist program, working people are left with corporate Democrats as the only “left” alternative to the Republicans. This creates an opening for right-wing populist forces like Trump to harness legitimate economic frustrations to whip up fear of terrorism and crime, furthering hatred and divisions among working and middle class people and emboldening extremists like Christian.
Alongside mourning this racist, horrifying incident and the deaths of Best and Namkai-Mechel, we must set our sights on working to prevent future violent and bigoted attacks. This will require creating massive movements of ordinary people that stand in solidarity against both the forces of hate and a ruling class that exploits divisions and inequality. Completely ending racism and hate crimes, however, will require us to fight for a new kind of society, a socialist society, free of war, poverty, and the racial and ethnic divisions that capitalism creates.