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Portland Train Murders Highlight Oregon's History Of White Supremacy


We now turn to the chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, Randy Blazak. He teaches criminology at the University of Oregon and has been tracking the white supremacist movement in the state for more than 20 years. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: While Portland has a reputation for being progressive, it is also the whitest big city in America. Tell us about Oregon's history with racist policies.

BLAZAK: Well, we've kind of got a long history that goes back to the founding of the state. I mean the Oregon Trail was - the Land Donation Act was for white settlers only. The state was founded in 1859 as a white-only state, and then that was on the books until 1922. Portland and Oregon had the largest Klan west of the Rockies, the largest per capita actually in the whole country.

SHAPIRO: That's amazing.


SHAPIRO: Oregon had the largest per capita Klan membership in the entire country.

BLAZAK: That's right. It was very active. They elected a governor, Governor Pierce, who went to work outlawing Catholic churches as one of his first duties, which was soon overturned by the Supreme Court. But it was a very active Klan state. And it's a part of the explanation about why Portland is as white as it is in the year 2017 - is this long racial history the state has.

SHAPIRO: Has Oregon ever taken steps to address or undo legacies of its racist past?

BLAZAK: Sure. I mean it's had to rewrite some parts of the Constitution that had words like colored people and mulattoes in the constitution. That was only taken out about a decade ago. There has been an attempt to redress or at least acknowledged some of its history, but it's kind of woven into it up into the modern-day issues around gentrification where we see minority people being pushed out of neighborhoods to make room for incoming moneyed whites. I mean it's sort of this long story that's been told that has many chapters. And this unfortunately is just the latest chapter in our history.

SHAPIRO: Well, what do you see in today's chapter that's different from what we've seen in the past?

BLAZAK: You know, we've certainly had racial violence, including the murder of an Ethiopian immigrant by skinheads in 1988 in Portland. But this version is...

SHAPIRO: I remember that. I was in school at the time in Portland.

BLAZAK: Yes, Mulugeta Seraw - I mean many people still remember that incident that - you know, this brings about the role of the Internet, the role of online radicalization and the way that this subculture has sort of morphed into this more invisible world. I mean there used to be physical places that you would go to Klan rallies or to skinhead meetings. And now it kind of takes place online, and people express those views more openly. And so it's a new version of an old phenomenon. But in a way, it's more insidious because it sort of exists in the ether and not in a physical place.

SHAPIRO: We just heard about the debate in the city over whether this so-called Trump free speech rally with alt-right groups should be allowed to go forward. Are you concerned that there could be more violence if these happen?

BLAZAK: There's a lot of tension that's been building. It's been building in this city for a long time. I mean Portland became known as skinhead city in the 1990s because of, like, rival factions of racist skinheads and anti-racist skinheads going at it. And so we're seeing a new version of this. But it's been kind of magnified by the election politics and the rhetoric of the alt-right and the ability to kind of rally the troops fairly quickly over the Internet. And I think the city is sort of bracing itself for something that might turn quite ugly.

SHAPIRO: Do you go into the chat rooms and other places where these communities gather online? And...


SHAPIRO: Can you describe how they've been reacting to this stabbing?

BLAZAK: You know, both sides have been talking about this incident. There are members of people on the right-wing side of the spectrum that would like to see more of this violence and have vilified the victims as sort of the people who prop up the status quo and defend multiculturalism and the Islamification of America, as they've called it.

The people on the left side are concerned that the police are overly protective of what they're calling fascists in the streets of Portland and are not doing enough to shut down these folks who of course have a First Amendment right but also are causing concern around the issue of agitating more right-wing violence. So it's really - it depends on where you're standing what the perspective on the city's role on this issue is.

SHAPIRO: That's Randy Blazak, chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime. Thanks for joining us.

BLAZAK: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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