Amid Mosque Shootings: Oregon Ponders Stronger Protections

The killing of 49 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday, March 15 occurred as police, lawmakers, and citizens in Oregon were already working to update and strengthen the state’s hate crime laws. Senate Bill 577 (SB 577) is currently still in its early stages, but is receiving support from public figures like State Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and others. 

Atta Elayyan, 33, a professional gamer turned app developer and the goalie for New Zealand Futsal Whites, the national indoor soccer team, was killed during the attacks. Born in Kuwait, Elayyan spent part of his youth in the 1990s in Corvallis, attending school at Wilson Elementary. 

SB 577 would change the crime of “intimidation” to “bias crime,” add gender identity as a motive for attack, upgrade certain misdemeanor crimes to felonies, and direct the state Justice Department to study enforcement of the new laws and how data on hate crimes is being collected. 

At the same time, police in Portland are increasing their presence “to faith-based locations throughout our city…in light of the horrific attacks in New Zealand.” 

Earlier last week, Oregonians offered testimony to the legislature about their experiences with hate crimes. Demetria Hester, from Gresham, recalled to the Senate Judiciary Committee a man who began insulting her with racial slurs on the MAX train in 2017, noting that bystanders did nothing. This man would be arrested the very next day for stabbing three other passengers who attempted to intervene after he directed the same kinds of racial invective toward two young African-American women aboard the train. Ricky John Best, 53, of Happy Valley, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, of Ashland were killed, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher, 21, of Portland, was seriously injured. 

This event spurred Zakir Khan, Oregon Board Chair for the Council for American Islamic Relations and communications instructor at Linn-Benton Community College, to become a more outspoken voice against the rise of right-wing extremism and Islamophobic violence. He believes SB 577 is a good start, but thinks the legislature needs to hold hearings to take a long, hard look at the root of the issue – the increasingly open support for white nationalism in Oregon and the Northwest. 

Khan told reporters that the increased police presence at places of worship was part of a coordinated effort to prevent any further attacks or possible copycat attacks following the attacks in Christchurch. 

The security risks posed by the Christchurch attacks are made all the more complex by the fact that the shooter announced them beforehand, alongside an apparent “manifesto” on Twitter and 8chan, the latter a known online hub for right-wing extremism and white supremacists. The shooter subsequently broadcasted the attack live on Facebook. None of these platforms were aware the threats of real violence were serious until the attack was happening. 

-By Ian MacRonald