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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Federal Killing of a Protester Should Alarm Us All

Trump has bragged about killing an activist without any due process. That’s terrifying.

A moment in the first presidential debate that passed by quickly deserves substantially more attention. Around halfway through, both Donald Trump and Chris Wallace challenged Joe Biden to say that he would be harsh on protesters, pressing him on whether he would have sent the National Guard to Portland during the “riots” there (and implying that this would be the reasonable thing to do rather than a massively unhelpful overreaction). As evidence that, unlike Biden, he would be a “law and order” president, Trump interjected the following: 

I sent in the U.S. Marshals to get the killer of a young man in the middle of the street and they shot him. For three days Portland didn’t do anything. I sent in the U.S. Marshals, they took care of business.

Trump is referring to the killing of Michael Reinoehl, a 48-year old Antifa supporter and father of two who lived in Washington state. On August 29th, Reinoehl fatally shot Aaron Danielson, an armed member of the right-wing Patriots Prayer group. A warrant was issued for Reinoehl’s arrest. Reinoehl said in an interview that he feared being killed if he came into the hands of the police. Hours after the interview was released, that is exactly what happened. Federal agents and local law enforcement approached his apartment building and shot Reinoehl dead. 

President Trump described the killing as “retribution,” saying “this guy was a violent criminal… that’s the way it has to be.” Before Reinoehl’s killing, Trump had tweeted:

At the debate, Trump left no doubt about his position: he was pleased that his agents had killed Reinoehl, not because they had acted in self-defense, but because Reinoehl was a “killer” and the U.S. Marshals “took care of business.”  [Update: on October 15th, Trump repeated that he sent in the marshals, saying they “didn’t want” to arrest Reinoehl, so they killed him.]

A number of facts about the Reinoehl case remain unclear. First, there’s the original shooting. Reinoehl told VICE he had fired the shot, but did so in self-defense. It’s unclear exactly what happened: we do know the victim was armed with both a gun and bear spray. If Reinoehl had been brought to trial instead of killed, a prosecutor would have had to lay out evidence against him, and Reinoehl would have been able to present his self-defense argument. As it is, all we know is that there were two men with guns, and one of them shot the other. 

Reinoehl said that after the shooting, right-wing activists were making “posts of the hunt” and “saying the deer are going to feel lucky this year because it’s open season on Michael right now.” The actual way he died, though, is still uncertain. One eyewitness, an ordained minister who lived in Reinoehl’s apartment building, said that Reinhoehl “was clutching a cellphone and eating a gummy worm as he walked to his car” when officers approached and opened fire without warning. The witness now says he “fears reprisals from far-right groups and police for describing what he saw.” But other witness accounts vary; some said that Reinoehl fired at the officers. 

The police statement issued after the shooting did not allege that Reinoehl fired at them, however. A representative of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office said that Reinoehl “had exited an apartment and got into a vehicle,” and that “as they attempted to apprehend him, there was gunfire.” But police did not say who created this gunfire, and in fact the sheriff’s representative admitted that while Reinoehl was found to be armed, “we are not able to confirm at this time if he fired shots.” The Washington Post reported that “at least four members of the task force fired at the suspect in ‘a very brief amount of time’” and that “when [Reinoehl] fled, officers gave chase and then fired at him again.” Police—surprise—insist they have no footage that could resolve the question one way or the other.

The killing of Reinoehl, and Trump’s public celebration of it, is extremely troubling. Reinoehl had been charged with a crime, but not convicted. To kill a criminal suspect is the gravest possible violation of the basic rights of due process. The fact that this involved a federal task force, and that Trump had branded Reinoehl a “thug” before he had been convicted, raises the possibility that officers made little serious attempt to arrest Reinoehl. Trump says he sent them in directly to “take care” of business, and they may well have known at the time what he said publicly afterwards: that as far as Trump was concerned, Reinoehl was better off dead and his killing was an act of righteous retribution. 

At a trial, not only would Reinoehl would have been entitled to present his self-defense argument, but the conduct of the Trump supporters at the protest would have been put on full display. It is entirely possible, given that the man Reinoehl shot was armed, and both men were white, that Reinoehl would have been exonerated and the Trump administration’s effort to paint Antifa as the aggressors would have been somewhat undermined. Or, perhaps he would have been convicted and sentenced. The dead tell no tales, though, and now Reinoehl will not be tried in a court of law and have a chance to present evidence for his side of the story. 

I am surprised this has not gotten more attention, because the implications of it are very serious. Bragging about killing criminal suspects without trial is extreme even for Trump, and reminds me of Rodrigo Duterte’s open endorsement of state murder in the Phillippines. By calling this killing “retribution” and stamping his approval on it without making any argument that it was done in self-defense, Trump has signaled that he supports an “Antifa exception” to the law, and lets every law enforcement officer know that if they kill the kind of people that Trump would like to see disposed of, he will be pleased and support them. Nothing could be more dangerous for the left than to have the president suggest killing leftist protesters for “retribution” is acceptable.

Now, in some ways, what happened to Reinoehl is just a further extension of what happens to Black criminal suspects all the time in this country. Police have killed 165 Black people this year already, several every week. Nor is Reinoehl the only activist who feared for his life; in Ferguson, activists have raised the alarm about a concerning number of people tied to protests who have died, though the causes of their deaths remains uncertain. The routineness of police violence is, of course, one of the central motivating concerns of the very protests Reinoehl was involved with, and so his death should not distract from the deaths of others.

What makes his case worth paying particular attention to is the lack of pretense. Most of the time, law enforcement officers who kill suspects will claim that they felt fear for their lives, or that the victim’s death was either accident or suicide. But in this case they didn’t bother, and that’s because of the direct involvement of the president himself. We have reached the point where the president can boast about ordering the murder of an American citizen on American soil on live television and he doesn’t even get a follow-up question about it. (Nor did Biden feel the need to even say “Hey man, by ‘take care of business’ do you mean ‘murdered a guy without giving him a trial’?”) I remember when Barack Obama claimed the power to assassinate citizens around the world. It was at the very least the subject of public controversy, even if too many Democrats declined to oppose Obama over “targeted killing.” Donald Trump famously once bragged that he could shoot a man on Fifth Avenue and not lose voters. Well, I think we can also conclude that he could order an extrajudicial assassination on U.S. soil and it wouldn’t even be a major national news story. 

If Trump realizes that his agents can get away with assassinating criminal suspects in the street without a shred of pretense, we should be extremely frightened of what a second term—which Trump has promised to use to go after anarchists and Antifa members and critical race theorists—will bring. If the minister who witnessed Reinoehl’s killing is describing it accurately, the implications are chilling. I do not claim to know the facts of what happened in Portland, or even exactly what happened to Reinoehl. But having a president boasting of the violent retribution his marshals wrought, and having a country that doesn’t seem to care, gives me sleepless nights. 

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