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Walia Mohamed, a Somali immigrant to Portland, Ore., no longer rides the city’s light rail system. She has stopped wearing her hijab, too. These are simple things, but she no longer feels safe doing either of them.
The last time she rode the train was nearly three years ago, on May 26, 2017, when she was 17. She hadn’t noticed Jeremy Christian on the train at first. But he saw her and another black teenager, and for reasons she still cannot fathom, he began bellowing “Muslims should die!” And “Go back to Saudi Arabia!” And “Kill yourselves!”
A group of men intervened, confronting Mr. Christian. There were heated words and shoving. Only when Ms. Mohamed saw one of the men clutching at his neck, with blood running through his fingers, did she realize that Mr. Christian had a knife.
“We started running,” Ms. Mohamed testified last month in the murder trial of Mr. Christian, an avowed white supremacist. “I thought he was going to come after us and kill us, too.”
Mr. Christian stabbed three of the good Samaritans who intervened. Two died: Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, and Rick Best, 53. The third, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, was wounded in the neck but survived.
On Friday, Mr. Christian, 38, was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder. Mr. Christian, who has a history of making extremist statements on social media, previously served more than eight years in prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, according to court documents.
In Portland, a city often portrayed in popular culture as a progressive paradise, the killing of the men provoked outrage, along with reassurances that the city would not tolerate hate. But it also set off a new round of questions about whether Oregon had fully shed the legacy of it is founding as a racially pure Cascadia that white supremacists still fantasize about.
Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859 with a constitution that, uniquely, forbade black people from living, working, or owning property in the state; the provision was not repealed until 1926. In the 1920s, the state legislature barred Japanese immigrants from owning or leasing land. By the 1970s, extremist groups like the Aryan Nations had found fertile ground for their beliefs.
“White supremacy has been indoctrinated,” said Zakir Khan, who leads the Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “That’s just the culture that people absorbed.”
In recent years, Portland has been the site of white supremacist rallies and Antifa counterprotests. It has also seen a white man try to sic a pit bull on an African-American man who he said was “in the wrong neighborhood”; a driver screaming at a pregnant Muslim woman to remove her hijab; and the conviction of a white supremacist who deliberately plowed his Jeep into a black teenager. (He was sentenced to at least 28 years in prison, in what was believed to be Oregon’s first hate-crime murder conviction in more than three decades.)
“The incident aboard the MAX train on May 26, 2017, left a deep wound in our community, a community that rejects hate, racism and violence in any form,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat, said in a statement after the verdict. “The conviction won’t fully take away the pain inflicted on the families, friends and loved ones of the victims in the MAX attack, but the hope is that they find relief in the legal justice that was served today.”
Even so, civil rights advocates say they have seen few signs that Portland has reckoned with its racist history or is taking the necessary steps today to eradicate bigotry.
“I’ve been in situations where I’ve been humiliated in public, and no one responds,” said Teressa Raiford, an African-American community organizer and mayoral candidate whose family has lived in Portland for four generations.
“They are conditioned to feel safe, and we aren’t,” she said of white residents.
Some observers have said that if the city took a more forceful approach to racist attacks, the train attack might have been avoided. The day before the attack, an African-American woman, Demetria Hester, reported that a man had harassed and assaulted her in an incident that began on a light rail train. Prosecutors later said that man was Mr. Christian.
In his murder trial, the woman testified that Mr. Christian had been shouting epithets on the train, and she had asked him to lower his voice. When he followed her off the train, she said, the incident escalated: She pepper-sprayed him, and he threw a full bottle of Gatorade, hitting her right eye “like a bullet,” she testified.
Mr. Christian did not testify during his trial. His lawyers argued that he acted in self-defense when he felt threatened by the men confronting him, and that his words, vile as they may have been, were protected by the First Amendment.
“Even if you decide that he’s a white supremacist or a bigot, or just a big jerk,” Greg Scholl, a lawyer for Mr. Christian, told the jury, “that doesn’t mean he committed all of the crimes he’s accused of. The issue is not the legality of racism.”
Ms. Mohamed and the other target of his rant, Destinee Magnum, an African-American who was born in Portland, have said that they think constantly of the two men who lost their lives standing up for them.
Mr. Namkai-Meche was a recent Reed College graduate working as a consultant. Mr. Best was an Army veteran who left behind a wife and four children.
Some of Mr. Namkai-Meche’s last words were “I want everybody on the train to know, I love them,” according to a witness.
“He was a hero and will remain a hero on the other side of the veil,” Asha Deliverance, Mr. Namkai-Meche’s mother, wrote in a Facebook post. “Shining bright star, I love you forever.”
When cellphone video of Mr. Christian’s attack was played in court, Ms. Magnum wiped tears from her eyes as the recorded sounds of her screams became louder and louder.
She recalled her fear in those moments.
“I’m just trying to live life,” Ms. Magnum said, but Mr. Christian was yelling at her that “because of our religion or because of our color, that we don’t deserve to be here and we don’t deserve to live.”
That made no sense to her, she said.
“I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, so I don’t feel like I should go somewhere else,” she said. “I don’t feel like I have to ‘go back to where I came from,’ because I was born here.”
Vanessa Swales contributed reporting.