Portland fatal stabbings point to rise in hate speech, civil rights advocates say

Civil rights advocates say the stabbings point to larger trend.

ByABC News
May 28, 2017, 8:36 AM

— -- Civil rights advocates say the stabbings in Portland, Oregon, that left two people dead and one injured come amid an increase in incidents of hate speech and hate crimes around the country since the 2016 presidential election.

Jeremy Joseph Christian of North Portland has been arrested in connection with the stabbings on a light-rail train in Portland on Friday afternoon. A preliminary investigation by the Portland Police Bureau indicates that Christian, 35, was on the train "yelling various remarks that would best be characterized as hate speech toward a variety of ethnicity and religions." He has not as yet been charged with a hate crime but does face multiple charges.

At least two of the people Christian stabbed had tried to intervene and calm the suspect, police said.

A review of his record with the Portland Police Bureau shows Christian is not flagged as a criminal gang member, nor does he have any known mental health history listed. But police said homicide detectives will "extensively examine" the suspect's background, including what they called his "extremist ideology."

Portland's FBI special agent in charge, Loren Cannon, said it's too early to say whether Friday night's violence was an act of domestic terrorism or a federal hate crime.

Local reporters say they recognize the suspect as the same man who drew media attention at a right-wing rally last month while yelling racist remarks and giving the Nazi salute.

In a video recorded by a reporter with the Portland Mercury media outlet, a man who identifies himself as Jeremy Christian, is seen at the "March for Free Speech" in Montavilla on April 29. Police are seen confiscating a baseball bat from the man, who is wearing a baseball cap backwards and a flag evoking the Revolutionary War draped around his shoulders. The man then confronts protesters at the right-wing event and yells, "I'm a nihilist!"

In a second video recorded by the Portland Mercury reporter at the event, the same man is seen yelling, "F--- all you n------!" as organizers appear to refuse to let him enter the rally.

Photos taken by the Portland Mercury reporter also show the man with his hand in the air, appearing, according to the paper, to give the Nazi salute.

ABC News has not independently confirmed that the man seen in the photos and video is the same Jeremy Christian who is under arrest.

"When I saw the Portland attack, which is horrific, part of me isn’t that surprised because of the pattern that’s been going on for the last several months," Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, told ABC News in a telephone interview Saturday.

In the first 10 days after the 2016 presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center says it documented nearly 900 reports of bias incidents, including hate crimes. Between Nov. 9 and March 31, the Alabama-based civil rights group counted 1,863. Beirich said the organization had not seen that many bias incidents since immediately after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

"I don’t think there’s any question that we’re seeing more of it than we’ve ever seen, and it has really scary consequences," Beirich told ABC News.

Witnesses told police there were two young women on the train in Portland on Friday shortly before the stabbings happened, when the suspect was allegedly yelling remarks against ethnic groups and religions. Police said witnesses described one of the women as wearing a hijab. The women left before officers arrived on scene, witnesses told police.

The young women have been identified and detectives have been in contact with them. Their names are not being released at this time, police said.

Detectives are continuing to investigate the incident.

Christian is being held without bail at the Multnomah County Jail on charges of aggravated murder, attempted murder, intimidation in the second degree and felon in possession of a restricted weapon. He will be arraigned Tuesday at the Multnomah County Court, according to the Portland Police Bureau.

In a statement responding to Friday's attack, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said anti-Muslim incidents in the United States increased more than 50 percent from 2015 to 2016. The Muslim civil rights group blamed the rise, in part, on negative campaign rhetoric in the presidential election against immigrants and Muslims.

Local reporters in Portland as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center have found a Facebook page they believe belongs to Christian which features anti-Muslim and pro-Nazi comments as well as praise for Timothy McVeigh, who was was convicted of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, one of the deadliest terror attacks in U.S. history.

ABC News has not been able to independently confirm whether the Facebook page belongs to the Jeremy Christian who was arrested in Portland in connection with Friday's stabbings.

Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center said the views expressed on the suspect's apparent Facebook page are troubling.

"These are sentiments that we find widespread in the white supremacist community," Beirich said.

Beirich said Friday's attack is just one example of how this hate speech, if not condemned, can lead to physical violence.

"This kind of hate speech is not innocuous; it’s not stick and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. It’s the exact opposite," she told ABC News. "We know hate speech is connected to violence."

ABC News' Olga Delauz, Shelby Kimball, Jonah Lustig, Alyssa Pone and Brendan Rand contributed to this report.