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'Here It Is': Extremism Researchers Worry About The Rising Violence During Protests

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The fatal shooting last weekend of a right-wing demonstrator in Portland, Ore., set off a chain of events that last night led to more bloodshed. The suspect in last weekend's shooting, 48-year-old Antifa activist named Michael Forest Reinoehl, seemed to confess to the killing in an interview with Vice News. Moments after that interview aired, word came that Reinoehl himself was dead in neighboring Washington state. It's a shocking development for Portland, a city that's seen some of the most tumultuous scenes of protests in recent weeks.

To understand what's going on, we have two people, Conrad Wilson of Oregon Public Broadcasting and also NPR's Hannah Allam. She covers extremism. And, Conrad, I want to start with you in Portland. What more do we know about the circumstances of Reinoehl's death?

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Well, this whole sequence of events started last Saturday in downtown Portland after this massive caravan of vehicles called a Trump cruise rally drove through the city. A man who attended the rally named Aaron J. Danielson was shot and killed. He was 39 years old and a supporter of this far-right regional group called Patriot Prayer.

And then yesterday a judge here in Portland issued an arrest warrant for Reinoehl, who - you know, who called himself an antifa activist. The warrant was for a murder charge. The U.S. Marshal Service said around 7 o'clock last evening they tried to arrest him near Olympia, Wash. It's about two hours north of Portland. And according to the marshals, they attempted to peacefully arrest him, but he had a gun. Officers on the scene opened fire. Reinoehl was shot and died at the scene.

All of this happened on the same night that Vice News aired an interview with him. And in the interview, he basically acknowledges that he shot someone in what he called self-defense. He says a friend of his was threatened by someone holding a knife. We have not been able to confirm that. Reinoehl says his actions that night were part of something bigger. Here's a little of what Reinoehl told Vice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL FOREST REINOEHL: I hate to say it, but I see a civil war right around the corner. That shot felt like the beginning of a war.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

CORNISH: Hannah, let's put these comments in context because on Instagram and in this Vice interview, Reinoehl says he supports militant anti-fascism. These are activists that President Trump and his supporters portray as domestic terrorists. What's going on?

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Well, the American left is not known for fatal violence. And so, in fact, this shooting is quite a milestone because it's the first U.S. homicide linked to the militant left in decades. Now, the White House and right-wing media are portraying it as proof that they were right to warn about what they called radical leftist mobs. But we should remember that attack data show that the extreme right is still by far the deadlier and more active threat in the U.S.

That being said, we are seeing the left respond to the increase in right-wing violence across the country. Guns are more visible among protesters now. We've seen militia-style groups forming on the left, more calls for physical confrontation instead of the usual, you know, doxxing, this tactic of expose and expel. And Reinoehl's Instagram account suggests he was on the most militant fringe of the protest movement. He wrote that he is 100% antifa, depicted himself as a foot soldier in a revolution, wrote that casualties are to be expected. And he called anti-fascists his, quote, "brothers in arms."

So I asked Brian Levin about this. He leads an extremism research center at California State University, San Bernardino. He's been tracking the left's evolving response to right-wing violence in recent years. And I asked him what went through his head when he heard that the shooter was an anti-fascist, and this was his reply.

BRIAN LEVIN: Here it is. For us, it wasn't a question of if; it was a question of when, and here it is.

CORNISH: Conrad, can you help me understand how Reinoehl fit into the ecosystem of protesters in Portland, right? I mean, people have been in the streets for nearly 100 days now.

WILSON: Right. His social media postings go from photos of nature - I mean, pictures of him snowboarding, his kids and dog. And really from late May shortly after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis and on, his posts are almost exclusively about the Portland protests.

The fallout from his death is still very much unfolding. Among racial justice protesters, there is a sense of shock that police killed him, I mean, even some emerging conspiracies brewing about why they couldn't just bring him in and whether they ever intended to arrest him. And I think that just shows the level of mistrust after these months of protests in Portland. So this is an already very tense situation. And then the Justice Department weighed in with a pretty inflammatory statement. Attorney General Bill Barr called out Reinoehl as a dangerous fugitive, and said, quote, "the streets of our cities are safer with this violent agitator removed."

CORNISH: Days before the Portland shooting, we saw the 17-year-old who's aligned with pro-police right-wing causes charged in the fatal shootings of two civil rights protesters. He shot three, actually. Two died in Kenosha, Wis. Then we have this similar case in Portland, but with the ideologies of the apparent shooter and victim flipped. Hannah, how concerned are watchers of this of escalation?

ALLAM: Well, they note that these shootings of the past week or so didn't come out of nowhere. The tensions have been building steadily over the summer. At protests now, like we said, you see more guns, you see more agitators, vigilantes operating openly. And we've seen other kinds of violence - brawls and car-rammings and beatings. And so there was a sense of something building, of, you know, something coming to a head. And we've got the election, we've got the pandemic and deep polarization. So yeah, researchers say they're most concerned about the far right, but they're definitely keeping an eye on escalations from the left as well.

CORNISH: What are you both going to be watching in the days ahead? Conrad, let me start with you.

WILSON: Well, tomorrow marks the hundredth day of protests here, and there's a number of events in the coming days that could yield more political violence. I mean, there's a memorial for Aaron Danielson, the Patriot Prayer supporter who was killed last weekend. There's a similar caravan rally of Trump supporters scheduled for Monday. Leaders and law enforcement here are deeply concerned that these two deaths will just further exacerbate a very tense environment. And while many here call for calm and an end to the violence, there just does not seem to be a strategy to de-escalate.

ALLAM: And it's not just in Portland. I mean, looking across the country, analysts say the threat level is the highest they've seen in recent memory. And they are worried about the spread of violence, especially with the rhetoric coming from leaders all the way up to President Trump.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Hannah Allam and Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson. Thanks to you both. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.