A man who police say opened fire at an anti-racist protest in Portland on Saturday, killing one person and injuring at least four others, had radical right-wing views and a history of threatening violence, according to people who knew him.
Benjamin Smith, 43, was identified by police as the suspect on Tuesday, after anti-fascist researchers and the Oregonian had previously named him. Smith is currently “hospitalized in serious condition,” police said.
The deceased victim was identified by loved ones as June Knightly, 60. Known by the nickname “T-Rex,” she was a beloved longtime member of Portland’s activist community, and would often assist with security and traffic control at protests to keep marchers safe.
“She just had that demeanor about her to keep everyone calm and keep everyone safe,” her friend Nacie Runyan told KGW8. “She was just this bright light of a motherly figure as well and that's why everybody warmed up to her almost immediately, because of what she did for everybody else.”
Knightly is survived by her wife, Katherine Knapp, and an adult son, according to the Oregonian.
“She was so beautiful inside and out,” Knapp told the outlet. “I was so proud of her and all the work that she’s been doing in this movement with Black Lives Matter.”
Knightly had been at Saturday’s demonstration, which was held in protest of the police killings of Black people including Amir Locke, as part of a small group of volunteers focused on traffic control, witnesses said.
Dajah Beck, 39, who was part of the group, told the New York Times that a man approached them and began yelling at them, calling them “violent terrorists” and misogynistic slurs. He also threatened to shoot them if they passed his house, she said.
They tried to de-escalate the situation, she said, but he then began firing. Beck was shot in her side and her knee, and then said she saw “my two friends on the ground covered in blood.” One was Knightly, she said.
In a news release on Sunday, police said they believe “the incident started with a confrontation between an armed homeowner and armed protesters.” But Beck said on Twitter that this was not the case, and that video of the shooting she captured on a GoPro camera will substantiate that.
“We were unarmed traffic safety volunteers who weren’t with any protestors,” Beck tweeted. “Four women trying to de-escalate & he unloaded a 45 into us because he didn’t like being asked to leave and stop calling us terrorist c*nts.”
A law enforcement source told the Oregonian an armed protester, who has not been identified, shot Smith in defense after he’d opened fire.
Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News, but said in the Sunday release that it was a “very complicated incident, and investigators are trying to put this puzzle together without having all the pieces.”
“The scene was extremely chaotic, and a number of witnesses were uncooperative with responding officers,” police said. “Most people on scene left without talking to police.”
Smith had expressed anger over protests and the presence of people experiencing homelessness in his area, people who knew him told Oregon Public Broadcasting. His roommate, Kristine Christenson, said he had “gotten more and more radicalized” in recent years, particularly during the pandemic.
“He talked about wanting to go shoot commies and antifa all the friggin‘ time,” Christenson said. “He was just a sad angry dude. … He talked about wanting to do this for a while. He was angry at the mask mandates, he was angry at the damned liberals.”
Christenson moved into Smith’s apartment seven years ago and said nothing seemed worrisome about his behavior at the time. But toward the end of Barack Obama’s presidency and throughout Donald Trump’s, particularly once the pandemic hit, he began exhibiting extremist views, she said. He owned numerous guns, and she at times heard him shouting racist slurs and speaking misogynistically, she recalled.
“As the years went on, he’s just gotten more and more radicalized. He got angrier and angrier,” Christenson told OPB. “I have not been comfortable living with him for a while. I did not feel safe with him, especially this last two years with the whole COVID thing. I think that made him even more angry.”
Smith was active on Reddit, Christenson told the Oregonian. Posts from his account, which were found by anti-fascist researchers, espoused antisemitism and praised Kyle Rittenhouse, who was found not guilty of charges including murder after shooting at protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Smith was also a furry, posts indicated, and a member of the Portland furry community said he’d been largely ostracized locally because he had been known to have hateful views and “violent tendencies.”