The shooting happened before anyone really had a clue of what was going on.
It was the evening of Saturday, February 20th, when a group of protesters gathered near Normandale Park, located in a suburban area near East Portland, Oregon. They planned a march in honor of Amir Locke, a young Black man who was shot to death on his couch in Minneapolis in a controversial no-knock warrant raid.
Traveling ahead of the march were a few support vehicles and a handful of volunteers on foot, scanning the road to redirect traffic and alert people to police or other unwanted attention. Seemingly out of nowhere, they heard the yelling of Benjamin Smith, 43, who approached the group screaming about how they were “violent terrorists” and using misogynistic slurs.
One person told Smith to go home. Instead, he approached the group aggressively, and then claimed he would shoot anyone who came by his apartment about a block away, according to witnesses. Portland activist Brandy Knightly stepped in front to tell Smith that they weren’t going to be intimidated. In response, Smith pulled out a pistol, shot the 60-year-old Knightly in the head and sent bullets into four other people. Everyone Smith approached was unarmed, according to a survivor who was shot multiple times. Indeed, others could have been killed if it wasn’t for the armed protester who sprinted to the scene and put a bullet in Smith’s hip, critically wounding him.
The initial announcement of the tragedy from law enforcement framed it as an altercation between a “homeowner” and “armed protesters” with no political motive — a characterization that deeply upset the survivors of the shooting. It didn’t take long for evidence to spill forth that depicted Smith as an increasingly angry man who had grown intoxicated on his own fantasies of violence against leftists.
Within 24 hours of the shooting, members of Portland’s “furry” community came forward on social media to identify the shooter as Smith and depict a troubling history of violent threats and rants, including allegedly pulling a knife on a fellow furry during a group dinner. This revelation helped unspool Smith’s broader history of online activity, which showed a deep love of right-wing media, fascist conspiracies about the left and daydreams of shooting leftists as a form of justice.
Crucially, Smith is apparently a committed fan of Alex Jones, Andy Ngo and other far-right media agitators, and he once wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Kyle Rittenhouse True Patriot.” He used far-right Telegram channels to spew misogynistic hate, anti-Semitic comments and claims like “Communists aren’t human beings… it’s okay to kill them.”
Notably, his roommate told the press that his anger had escalated severely in the three years she lived with him — so much so that she no longer felt safe in the apartment. “He talked about wanting to shoot people all the time, how much he hated antifa and Black Lives Matter and ‘those damn commies,’” Kristine Christenson, 33, told the New York Times.
None of this is all that surprising in a post-Kyle Rittenhouse world that has fueled right-wing glee over the prospect of “self-defense” against the left. Perhaps most troubling amid this context is Smith’s fandom of Ngo; Smith is subscribed to him on YouTube and has left at least one comment encouraging violence on Ngo’s video.
Ngo has been one of the loudest opponents of the left in Portland, using his platform to post mugshots of people who were arrested at protests (leading to numerous instances of doxxing), portray Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist activists as “terrorists” and constantly claim that the “far-left” is the biggest existential threat to America today. He has consistently spread anti-left disinformation and leveraged the Rittenhouse verdict to cast blame on “antifa,” suggesting to his followers that the teenager’s shooting spree would make leftists more murderous than ever before.
This is despite the fact that “far-left” violence against individuals is basically nonexistent in comparison to the rise of right-wing attacks over the last three decades. Nonetheless, five days before Smith shot at a group of unarmed women, Ngo was on YouTube and Twitter, ranting about the Portland activist group that arranged the Amir Locke march, JFPK, and implying its volunteer armed security were terrorist threats. (Note: Some 84 percent of armed protests in America are organized by right-wing actors.)
The shooting in Portland is just another escalation in a roller coaster of political violence that has affected the Pacific Northwest during the pandemic. August 2020 saw the killing of right-wing protester Jay Danielson, who was shot in a sidewalk altercation with a self-identifying antifa supporter named Michael Reinoehl. Later that year, a Trump supporter shot at counter-protesters in Olympia, Washington, injuring one person in December. The following weekend saw another far-right shooting of an anti-fascist protester, and a near-shooting when a Proud Boy drew his handgun and trailed counter-protesters (he was ultimately arrested). More recently, there was a shootout in Downtown Portland when a 65-year-old man got into a dispute with protesters and decided to shoot his pistol at the group, whom he had described as “the real fascists” to a news crew earlier that day.
Throughout the entire time, right-wing media portrayed Portland as a land of chaotic aggression from the left, with inadequate responses from government, police and the community itself. And it’s entirely predictable that ideologues like Ngo jumped right back onto that narrative train in the aftermath of Smith’s mass shooting, spreading misinformation that he was an innocent “homeowner” who was defending himself from a mob. He has refused to redact these tweets and statements, instead doubling down on describing Smith as a “neighbor” who stood up to “antifa” (even though the march was organized by an anti-police, not explicitly an anti-fascist, group).
His latest pivot is to hammer home that “antifa” refused to cooperate with police and is hiding evidence. This discourse has fueled his fans to suggest that Smith is the victim of shady, dangerous motives, and Ngo’s comments are full of far-right joy over the premise that “antifa” got what they deserved — and that more fatal violence is the answer, with explicit references to Rittenhouse.
It should now be clear that members of the far-right are responsible for a disproportionate amount of violence toward individuals, whether it’s via car (as in the 2018 killing of Heather Heyer during the white nationalist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville) or firearm. Again and again, we see that these violent men subscribe to and consume enormous amounts of extremist content from right-wing propagandists like Ngo, Tucker Carlson, Jack Posobiec, et. al.
These are figures who never take responsibility for spreading misinformation, but rather profit as their fanbases feed upon it, confirming their own worldviews through a combination of violent hate and joyful solidarity with their equally toxic peers. Meanwhile, there is no “Good Guy With a Gun” story from the National Rifle Association for the heroism shown by the man who took Smith down on February 20th, likely preventing more casualties.
Ngo, for one, marches on, inciting harassment of one of the shooting victims by posting their mugshot from a 2020 protest arrest (one which garnered the victim a $25,000 payout from the Portland Police Bureau for mistreatment — a fact Ngo conveniently excludes). He’s trying to take down the GoFundMe campaign for the shooting survivors, claiming that it’s fundraising “extremism.” Such is the nature of a man who has been accused of furnishing far-right extremists and neo-Nazis with private information on leftists that can simplify targeted violence. Ngo is not the only one to use a tragedy to affirm his own broken belief system, and it’s beyond time to interrogate the broader impact of ideologues who spread lies about political opponents for their own gain.
It’s always difficult to pinpoint why lone wolf attacks occur; millions of other people consume miscontextualized news and bad-faith propaganda without turning to real-world violence. But experts have long warned that the widespread embrace of conspiracy and disinformation is leading to a “mass radicalization,” and there are few bigger boogeymen than “antifa,” as imagined by the cheerleaders of the far right. Ironically, right-wing media portrays American society as crumbling under the heel of progressives, when in reality it’s a cadre of conservatives who are astroturfing and insurrecting their way toward full entropy.
It almost feels like vigilante killings by men like Smith are becoming the norm — just another symptom of a national rot that keeps growing.