On the evening of Feb. 19, a regularly-scheduled Black Lives Matter march was supposed to start out near Normandale Park in North-East Portland. Instead, someone came out of a building, approached a group of women volunteering with the march and shot them.
One woman, June Knightly, age 60, who went by “T. Rex,” was killed. Another two women and two men were injured, including a street medic who came to their aid. The shooter, Benjamin Smith, was hospitalized during the spree after someone who came to the victims’ aid returned fire.
That night’s march was titled “Justice for Amir Locke” in honor of a 22-year-old black man fatally shot during a no-knock raid in Minneapolis earlier in February. It was supposed to be led by local activist Letha Winston. Winston is the mother of Patrick Kimmons, who was shot and killed by two Portland police officers on Sept. 30, 2018. She and her organization, ‘Justice for Patrick Kimmons,’ (JFPK) regularly organizes Black Lives Matter rallies and marches in the city. These events are explicitly peaceful and nonviolent, though far-right media often make a fuss about them because armed volunteers guard the marches.
“I heard a really rapidly escalating argument with obscenities and a woman’s voice yelling at somebody, and then I heard a man say, ‘Don’t bring this blank to our neighborhood.’ And then shots. Like a whole bunch close together.” Mike Macrae, a local resident, told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
LCRW spoke to witnesses and survivors of the shooting and reviewed firsthand accounts of the incident on social media to reconstruct what happened. Because Portland protests are regularly surveilled and policed harshly, most of LCRW’s sources only agreed to speak under condition of anonymity.
Smith targeted “traffic corkers”—volunteers in a motorcade who reroute traffic ahead of a march and perform other safety functions. Since 2020 there has been a dramatic increase in car attacks against protestors. Survivors said Smith opened fire within 90 seconds of engaging the corkers.
Dajah Beck, a survivor of the shooting who spoke to the New York Times, said that she and her group were getting into their parked vehicles and getting ready to block the road the march would come down when Smith accosted them. He called them misogynist slurs and said they were “violent terrorists” who were to blame for violence in Portland.
“If I see you come past my house, I’ll shoot you,” Beck recalled Smith saying. The group tried to de-escalate Smith, but, as Beck recalls, when she looked away from Smith to a friend, he opened fire.
“Four women. Unarmed. Non threatening. One with a cane. Two more heard the shots, came to help, he shot them too,” Beck said on Twitter.
The entire incident was captured on Beck’s GoPro, which police took as evidence. According to court documents, Beck and her team “are heard on the video telling [Smith] to leave them alone and return home. Smith “responds by demanding they “make” him leave and he approaches a participant aggressively, who pushes him back. [Smith] continues to yell at participants and a few moments later, [he] draws a handgun and fires at multiple people, striking five. The shooting ended when [Smith] was shot in the hip area."
“I ducked behind a truck and when I came out, my friends were on the ground and the shooter appeared to be pinned down by someone. He shot us point blank,” Beck recounted. One of the people on the ground was Knightly. Beck said she was covered in Knightly’s blood while medics rushed to tend to her gunshot wounds.
Beck was shot twice, one bullet going through her side and another grazing her knee. She said another friend of hers “was shot five times and lived. Another friend is still in the hospital after being shot in the cervical spine and almost bleeding out.”
Court documents say that Knightly was “shot at close range in the head and died on scene." Beck was holding her and talking to her until she passed. She said that she had to run at the police who cordoned the area off, “screaming about them letting us die [before] they decided it was safe [for EMTs] to enter.”
“We were unarmed traffic safety volunteers who weren’t with any protestors. 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. We were in high [visibility clothes] and dresses. He murdered a disabled woman,” Beck said on Twitter.
Beck was unable to give LCRW an interview but said that people wishing to help those affected could contribute to this fundraiser.
“The majority of the crowd was around the corner when the shooting happened, and there is a large building on that corner with concrete walls that the crowd stopped behind when we heard the shots,” a witness who asked not to be named told LCRW.
“We didn’t even march around the corner. He was waiting for us to murder every last one of us. Had we not hid there would have been a lot more dead bodies,” Letha Winston said in a livestream on Instagram.
Smith wasn’t the only threat the marchers faced that night. Earlier in the evening, a man menaced the crowd and threatened to get a bat. Activists also told LCRW that a man came up to the cordoned-off site of the shooting while police were still on the scene and was heard saying “I hope they were shot and killed.” He apparently got physical with activists at the scene and threatened someone, saying “I’ll blow your brains out.” Activists later flyered the neighborhood to warn about this person.
Police immediately knew the identity of the shooter but wouldn’t release it to “ensure the integrity of the investigation.” Said investigation is being handled by PPB detectives Scott Broughton and Rico Beniga, who were also in charge of the still-unsolved murder of antifascist activist Sean “Armeanio” Kealiher.
In their “updated” press release from Feb. 20, the police asserted that their preliminary investigation had begun with an “incident started with a confrontation between an armed homeowner and armed protesters.” The same day, the Portland police held a press conference that was interrupted by enraged community members.
Two days later, on Feb. 22, another press conference was held with Mayor Wheeler, Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell, U.S. Attorney for Oregon Scott Asphaug, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, and the FBI.
When asked where the term “homeowner” came from by KGW’s Mike Benner, Chief Lovell said that he didn’t know how the inaccurate information was released. The damage was done, though, as over a dozen articles from both local and national outlets carried the inaccurate “homeowner” statement in their reporting.
On Feb. 21, the shooter was identified by both antifascists and those within the Pacific Northwest furry community as Benjamin Smith, a 44-year-old man who followed far-right disinformation peddler Andy Ngo on YouTube.
Smith had previously commented that the Proud Boys should “shoot people up” and also praised Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three antiracist protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two.
His last comment on Ngo’s YouTube channel said “this is why you arm yourselves folks.”
Smith, who used the name “Polybun” in online chats for the furry community—an internet subculture that strongly identifies with anthropomorphism and whose members often make anthropomorphic avatars for themselves. According to Triss Winters, a member of the furry community, Smith “was well known as being alt-right adjacent with ties to hate groups” and had been “largely ostracized from the furry community and was a known problem locally.” He had also been “banned from both of Oregon’s furry conventions and other events.”
Ngo, in typical fashion, ignored Smith’s far-right ideology and ties and focused on Smith’s time as a furry. It is important to note that the furry community at-large is overwhelmingly antiracist and antifascist and actively works to combat white supremacy and those that propagate it—as obviously evidenced by the fact that Smith wasn’t welcome at local furry functions.
A day after Smith was identified, on Feb. 22, PPB updated their previous statement with the names of both the deceased and the shooter. Later that day, the mayor and police bureau held a press conference. Mayor Wheeler did not take responsibility for prior comments about making Portland protesters “hurt…a little.” Police Chief Chuck Lovell also alleged that protesters had removed evidence from the crime scene but wouldn’t say what evidence.
The same day, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office charged Smith with one count of second degree murder, four counts of attempted first degree murder with a firearm, and four counts of assault with a firearm.
Smith’s brother, Aurthur Killion, told OPB that he’d spoken with Smith the week before the shooting. Killion said Smith had issues with protesters but otherwise seemed fine. He didn’t learn about his brother’s shooting spree until a reporter contacted him.
“I’ve called every hospital there and all of them say he’s not a patient,” Killion told OPB. “I’ve called both the detectives that were listed on one of the articles I read and neither of them would answer their phone. I called the detective branch itself and got a recorded message and that was it. Your police department in Portland sucks.”
INSIGHTS FROM SMITH’S ROOMMATE
LCRW spoke in-depth with Kristine Christenson, Smith’s roommate of around seven years. Kristine said they first met Smith when they’d just moved up to Portland and were couch-surfing. They were friends with Smith’s former roommate and lived in the living room at first.
“[A]t this time Ben seemed alright. [A] bit of a hoarder and kind of messy but alright, mostly kept to ourselves. He did let me stay there free of charge for almost a year,” Christenson said.
When their friend moved out, Christenson took up their old room and kept cohabitating with Smith. Christenson told OPB that Smith had gotten more radicalized during the Obama years. This got worse during Trump’s campaign and presidency and even worse during the COVID19 pandemic. They would hear him yelling racist slurs and saying misogynistic things about women in his room.
“As the years went on, he’s just gotten more and more radicalized. He got angrier and angrier,” Christenson told OPB.
“I tried not to think about it and I tried to ignore it as much as possible,” Christenson said of Smith’s behavior. What they recall was “just him talking about how the only good commie is a dead commie or that if it were up to him all those protesters would be shot, stuff like that.”
Christenson doesn’t recall much of Smith’s media consumption habits.
“Apart from old car videos and some music we rarely discussed media,” they said. “I did overhear some really awful stuff he would listen to but I couldn’t tell you who it was. Only voice I recognized was Alex Jones, but I don’t know if he was actually watching the show or just clips.”
Despite his hateful media diet and behavior, and despite fuming about Portland protesters, Christenson says they don’t recall Smith ever confronting protesters before this.
“I guess lucky for everyone he was lazy. He’d constantly talk about doing something but never actually leave the apartment. If it wasn’t at a park across the street he probably wouldn’t have done this,” Christenson told LCRW, adding, “Don’t get me wrong he absoluletly wanted to do this but also he’s fucking lazy.”
PPB raided Smith’s apartment late at night on Monday the 21st.
“Luckily I was across the courtyard with some neighbors who felt I shouldn’t be alone,” Christenson recalled. They said one of the neighbors poked her head out and came back in.
“There’s a bunch of guys in uniform out there,” the neighbor said.
“So I poke my head out and it’s a bunch of whatever our SWAT is called as well as regular officers,” Christenson recounted.
“Can I help you?” they asked an officer.
““No, go back inside” one replied in that cop voice,” Christenson recounted. They identified themself as Smith’s roommate and asked to see the warrant.
“Bastards broke my door and it wasn’t even locked for fuck’s sake. I was surprised by [the] amount of guns they brought down, but I don’t actually know how many I refuse to watch the video. I knew of a few but it was way more than I thought. I don’t know what the cops took, frankly I don’t want to know.”
Christenson told LCRW that Smith left guns from his large armory around the house “all the goddamned time.”
“It made me very uncomfortable to have guns that easily accessible especially with my depression and family history of suicide.”
Christenson told OPB that Smith would sometimes fix guns for people.
“As for the people, I couldn’t tell you,” they told LCRW. “I saw some of his friends now and again but I couldn’t tell you a name or a face, none seemed worth putting to memory. Just knew he had the tools to do it and would buy older guns and refurbish them.”
After media requests started coming in, Christenson started giving the following statement to reporters:
Ben Smith was a radicalized POS who made me extremely uncomfortable and unsafe in my own living space.
He rarely if ever cleaned up after himself and got angrier and more and more right wing over the past few years.
All of us who live in this apartment complex are shocked and heart-broken but none of us are surprised because he’s been talking about wanting to do something like this for awhile. But what can/do you say to that even?
And as far as I’m concerned the person who fired back on Smith saved my life.
LCRW asked about the last sentence—that the person who returned fire on Smith saved Christenson’s life.
“He never threatened me directly, but would often say stuff that would make a lot of us in the complex uncomfortable. He would also make threats against people I ally and identify with. It first became noticeable online and I eventually had to block him on all social media. But I say that because these kind of shooters often come home and shoot the people they live with afterwards,” Christenson told LCRW.
Overall, this is what Christenson had to say about Smith:
He constantly said racist and misogynistic things but always tried to hide behind the whole "Free speech" thing. I never saw him outright show white pride stuff but he'd freely use the n-word or the f-slur, like with the misogny, it was to the point I dont think he was gay/bi (he claimed to be bi) because he liked men, but because he hated women. Because I don't think he liked anyone in particular. I dunno how I got off for so long. but seriously I'm a trans leftist and \[I was\] hearing him constantly talk about how he wants to kill the commies (to him liberals, leftists, blm, antifa, etc are all commies and all deserve to be shot.)
Christenson had a message for PPB as well:
[It’s] really fucked up that I had to get confirmation from the media and not you guys and really fucked up that you didnt even bother trying to get ahold of me or the land lord. Both of us would have let you in,” they said.
“But I guess baby has to play action hero.”
ANTIFASCISTS PAY TRIBUTE
The attack shook antifascists around the country. Solidarity actions and vigils happened in Eugene, San Diego, London, Los Angeles, Bielefeld, Germany, Rome, Oakland, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Maryland, San Francisco, Seattle, Salem, Minneapolis, Boise, New York City, San Jose, Olympia, New Mexico, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Charlottesville to name a few places.
Locally in Portland, Knightly, who was nicknamed ‘T-Rex,’ was well-loved and well-remembered as a fixture in activist spaces. Letha Winston called her “a soft-hearted, wonderful sixty-year-old lady” during her livestream.
“T-Rex I love you as if you were a sister,” she said.
Winston vowed to continue Justice for Patrick Kimmons marches during the stream.
“We’re not marching against the community. We’re marching against the system that needs to be changed,” she said. “If you think Amir Locke and Duante Wright will not have any more marches you are wrong.”
If you’d like to contribute to the fund for those affected by the Normandale Park shooting, you can do so here.