The fatal stabbing on a Portland light-rail train last weekend is a troubling reminder that even in 2017 America, there’s no guarantee a woman of color or a woman wearing a hijab can travel free from harassment or harm. It can happen anywhere, including a city famous for progressiveness.
Hatred of this kind was made manifest when 35-year-old Jeremy Christian stood over the two women and screamed at them to get out of his country.
When three brave men stepped forward to intervene, this contemptible white supremacist stabbed them, killing 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and 53-year-old Rick Best, and wounding 21-year-old Micah Fletcher.
Is it any wonder Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has pressed organizers of a right-wing event this weekend, which is billed as a “Trump Free Speech Rally,” to cancel? Is it any wonder the mayor feels their presence will inflame a community still soaked in grief and shock?
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It’s an understandable request, but still wrong. Organizers lawfully obtained the permit needed to rally in a federal plaza downtown on Sunday, and the feds have properly refused to revoke it.
Certainly, protests can get out of hand, a lesson we learned on inauguration night at the University Of Washington in Seattle, where protesters descended on Red Square. They were there to oppose Milo Yiannopoulos, whose offensive bullying and bigotry got him banned from Twitter but weren’t enough to put off UW Student Republicans, who raised over $7,000 for the event.
Bats, pipes and shields were confiscated from the protesters. Bricks and paint were hurled across Red Square by rival groups. A man was shot. The chaos was repeated two weeks later when Yiannopoulos spoke at the University of California Berkeley.
Ann Coulter, another Republican firebrand who’s complained about “the browning of America,” recently canceled a Berkeley speaking engagement after the university claimed it could not accommodate her due to threats of violence.
She called it a “sad day for free speech,” and for a change, she wasn’t wrong.
The boundaries of free speech sometimes extend into unpleasant, even detestable territory. The line between it and hate speech can be blurry. But provocateurs live on both sides of the political fence, and turning them into free speech casualties erodes the foundation of democracy.
Writers, entertainers, gadflies and politicians purposefully agitate. Their speech can promote lies and whip crowds into frenzies, aiming to win popularity at all costs. It can destroy reputations and careers.
Free speech can falsify history; it can be thoughtless, tasteless and incite anger, not just through words but through actions such as flag-burning and destruction of religious symbols.
Like it or not, it’s all protected under the First Amendment. And we shouldn’t trade it for anything.
President Trump has done his share of scapegoating Muslims, refugees and immigrants. Many have accused him of being the pied piper of far-right rhetoric. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in America, says more than 100 Anti-Muslim groups now exist, a number that’s grown nearly 200 percent since 2015.
But the president also condemned the May 26 violent attacks in Portland, calling them unacceptable. “The victims were standing up to hate and intolerance. Our prayers are w/ them.”
Chances are the Portland Trump rally will focus on immigrants, but that doesn’t mean everyone in attendance is a racist or a bigot. Wanting to reform immigration policy is not inherently racist; it would behoove liberals to remember that.
If the rally has anything hateful to say, let it be exposed to the light of public scrutiny. Putrid things grow in darkness and secrecy. If the words coming out of their bullhorns include rancor and racism, no constitutional amendment will protect them from the judgment of history.
Maybe the Notre Dame University students who walked out of their commencement ceremony a few weeks ago to protest Vice President Mike Pence had the right idea. It was impolite and disrespected the graduation speaker, but the students did not impede or interrupt; they simply turned and refused to listen.
We can do the same; we can change the channel, or counterprotest, which will happen in Portland — peacefully, with any luck. But if we care about our great and diverse land, we must protect access to free speech, not shut it down.
Any force that tries to suppress dissent must be stood up to, and that includes a well-meaning mayor in a city still reeling from tragedy.