Jonathan Levinson, OPB:
At Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge Women’s March in January, Ross Eliot brought up the rear, more concerned with what might be happening behind the group than keeping pace with the many chants from the roughly 250-person crowd.
Eliot was there as security. He was looking over his shoulder for anyone who might attack the group.
With the threat of right-wing violence on the rise, Eliot is among a growing number of activists on the left who are taking a page out of the 1960s civil rights movement: armed self-defense.
Eliot has been a leftist activist in the Pacific Northwest and proponent of armed self-defense since the 1990s.
He said his philosophy is informed by his early experience as an activist in Seattle.
“It was just sort of the standard procedure that you should know about labor history, you should know about working-class issues,” he said. “And it would be expected that you would also know how to use a rifle.”
Rosie Strange has been on the receiving end of those threats.
Strange is an activist in The Dalles, Oregon, a small town about 90 minutes east of Portland. Last summer, she was eating breakfast at a popular pancake joint in town. A few tables away was Bryan Brandenburg, who at the time was the jail commander at NORCOR, a regional jail in The Dalles. The jail also houses Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees, which critics say violates the state’s sanctuary law. (A Wasco County judge recently ruled the jail’s contract with ICE doesn’t violate the sanctuary law, but some of the jail’s practices do.)
Strange, whose car is covered in political bumper stickers, usually has protest signs stashed in her trunk. She said she got a sign from her car that said “De-ICE NORCOR” and set it on her table while she ate.
Later that day, she started receiving messages from friends.
The Sherman County sheriff, who uses NORCOR to house local inmates, had posted a picture of her from that morning on the department’s official Facebook page saying her actions were “disgusting.”
The vitriol came pouring in. She received hundreds of threats and attacks in the comments.
“Including,” she said, “that I should be shot in front of my children.”
Sherman County Sheriff Brad Lohry never accused Strange of violating any law and he acknowledged that she had asked the department to take the post down. Lohry said he would only do so if Strange apologizes to Brandenburg.
Strange said she no longer feels like she can rely on the police to protect her.
“It’s led me to make really serious decisions about my safety for my family,” she said, “And I feel that I can never ever call the sheriff again.”
So, she got a gun.
Strange knows the statistics that say her gun is more likely to be used against her than to protect her. But she said those statistics lack nuance.
“They’re still not able to cover that gap for people like me. Women of color, activists,” she explained.
Strange feels relying on police to protect you is a privilege.
“I refuse to wait for a police officer to get to make the decision of how dangerous my white assailant is,” she said, referring to a past domestic violence incident when she said the police took the word of her white abuser over her own.
There’s an old trope in gun control circles: If you’re being robbed, instead of playing the hero with a gun it’s much safer to simply cooperate. Give them what they want.
“Well what if they want you dead?” asked Fordham University School of Law professor Nicholas Johnson.