The Hollywood Transit Center, in Portland, Oregon, was quiet on Sunday morning, but its concrete walkways were filled with words of love and grief. By twos and by threes, by bike and by foot, people arrived to leave flowers or messages of remembrance for Taliesin Namkai-Meche and Ricky Best, the two Portland men who, on May 26th, were fatally stabbed on the light-rail train, after they tried to stop a man from shouting anti-Muslim insults at two teen-age girls, one of whom was wearing a hijab. (Another man, Micah Fletcher, who also intervened, was badly wounded but survived.) At the Transit Center, a small, dark-haired girl drew a heart on the sidewalk with thick orange chalk, carefully underlining it three times, as if for emphasis. On one of the walkway walls, in bold pink letters, someone had recorded Namkai-Meche’s parting words, uttered as medics carried him away on a stretcher: “Tell everyone on this train I love them.”
The mood in downtown Portland later that day was far different. Joey Gibson, a right-wing activist from nearby Vancouver, Washington, had drawn a few hundred people to a pro-Trump “free speech” rally in a small park outside City Hall. Gibson’s group, Patriot Prayer, had briefly attracted the attention of Jeremy Christian, the suspect in the May 26th stabbings; though Gibson had posted a Facebook video condemning Christian and acknowledging that his gatherings had attracted “legitimate Nazis,” he had declined to cancel the Sunday rally. Outraged counter-demonstrators, their numbers far larger than those of the rally itself, assembled around the park, and in some places the two sides were separated by little more than a bank of rhododendrons and a line of police in riot gear. Officers confiscated bricks, sticks, hammers, and makeshift wooden shields, and, after announcing over a loudspeaker that some of their comrades had been assaulted, herded one group of counter-demonstrators away from the park with pepper balls and stun grenades. By the end of the afternoon, the police had made fourteen arrests.
At the start of his rally, Gibson called for a moment of silence for Namkai-Meche and Best, but he clearly had other heroes, and other victims, on his mind. “I’ve had a rough week,” he said. “I’ve never had so many death threats.” The speakers, who included several right-wing Internet phenoms, decried political correctness, the press, the nanny state, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, who after the stabbings had called for the rally’s federal permit to be rescinded and, failing that, had urged Gibson to reconsider his plans. Some speakers even allowed themselves to express disappointment in Donald Trump. “I thought I was going to get up in the morning and America was going to be great again,” said one. “We have to be the change we want to see in the world.” The crowd, some of whom were dressed for street fighting, in bulletproof vests and hockey helmets, roared in approval. One after another, as the chants of the counter-demonstrators rose and fell around them, the speakers extolled freedom, patriotism, and their own courage in standing up for their beliefs—even in liberal Portland.
Two hours after the crowds downtown dispersed, the suburban parking lot of the Muslim Educational Trust Community Center was filled to overflowing. Hundreds of people had gathered inside for an interfaith memorial service. Through an online fund drive the trust had raised more than six hundred thousand dollars for the victims’ families, and, for nearly three hours, speakers from Portland’s Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and Jewish communities expressed their gratitude for the actions of Namkai-Meche, Best, and Fletcher. Namkai-Meche’s mother, father, grandmother, and sister reflected on his final actions. “My little brother stood up for justice,” his sister said. “He stood up for love.” At the very end of the evening, Fletcher, out of the hospital but walking stiffly, stepped up to the stage. Earlier in the week, he had posted a Facebook video in which he thanked Portlanders for their support but implored them to turn their attention to the teen-agers who had been harassed, and whose lives, he said, had been changed forever.
Fletcher asked viewers to imagine the girls’ experience. “This man is screaming at you,” he said. “His face is a pile of knives; his body is a gun. Everything about him is cocked, loaded, and ready to kill you. You can feel this has happened before; the only thing that was different was the names and faces. And then a stranger, two strangers, three strangers, come to your aid. They try to help you, and that pile of knives just throws itself at them, and kills them.” Last night, pale and slight behind the microphone at the community center, Fletcher repeated his plea, as eager to disavow heroism as the Patriot Prayer aficionados had been to embrace it. “There’s nothing heroic about protecting the children,” he said. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.