Portland, Oregon is often regarded to be an open-minded haven in a country fraught with racial tension; attracting vibrant and creative types from across the US.
However, it’s not a particularly diverse city by any means, and behind the public image of trendy coffee shops and alternative lifestyles, there is a very real and divisive darkness.
Indeed, the history of Oregon cannot be discussed without addressing the many decades of racism and white supremacy which have left deep scars throughout the state.
Upon its formation in 1859, Oregon was the Union’s only ‘no-blacks’ state. Many people are unaware that until 1926, black people were completely banned from entering the state.
Oregon has a deeply troubling history of Ku Klux Klan activity, with the largest Klan membership per capita of any US state by the 1920’s (known as the Klu Klux Klan back then). This sort of terrible legacy is not so easily forgotten.
According to FBI statistics, hate crimes soared by 40 per cent in Oregon between the years 2016 to 2017.
There are multiple active white supremacist groups operating in Portland alone, with large far right rallies in the city currently making global headlines.
This old darkness came to national attention in August 2016, when a young black man named Larnell Bruce was struck by a jeep outside a 7/11 convenience store by a known member of a white supremacy gang.
The impact was such that 19-year-old Larnell – described as ‘a loving, energetic and passionate young man’ – was thrown a substantial distance across the road. He later died from his severe injuries.
Perpetrator Russell Courtier, then 40, was a known member of the notorious European Kindred, having joined while in prison. He bore the gang’s initials on his tattooed leg as well as on a baseball cap he had worn on the night of Larnell’s death.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), Portland based European Kindred is ‘the most feared white supremacist gang in the Pacific Northwest’; with members having previously committed hate crimes, murders and rapes.
Following his arrest, Courtier was recorded using the N-word in a police cell; with the footage later played before a disgusted courtroom.
Courtier’s vile body art, language and murky past – as well as the horrifying footage of Larnell running for his life from the speeding jeep – combine to tell a terrible and all too familiar tale of racism, ignorance, hate and fear.
However, the legal proceedings were far from clear cut, as explored with care and depth in new BBC documentary, A Black and White Killing: The Case that Shook America.
This doc covers the trial of Courtier and his girlfriend Colleen Hunt, which ended in April of this year. The verdict followed two years of public anger over Larnell’s death, a crime which for many demonstrated the need for decisive action against white supremacy in Oregon.
Unlike other hard-hitting documentaries, A Black and White Killing does not seek to find out who killed Larnell. From the first tragic moments we know exactly who killed him and how.
What this two-part documentary aims to uncover is what exactly was going on in Courtier’s head when he ended Larnell’s life. And whether or not Larnell was killed for the colour of his skin.
For Courtier to receive a guilty verdict of intentionally killing Larnell, each of the 12 jury members had to agree. They also bore the weight of deciding whether or not Courtier’s actions constituted a hate crime.
The twists and turns of the trial, as well the various startling interviews, make for a tough watch, and one which recognises such a devastating crime leads to more questions than answers.
While filming the doc, BAFTA award winning filmmaker Mobeen Azhar delved deep into the complexities of white supremacy in America; an issue which has become of greater concern in recent years.
There are many moments within the documentary which will shock and enrage viewers. One man Azhar speaks to, Jimmy, happily mounts swastikas on his van, and claims African American individuals are more prone to violent behaviour.
Another man boldly claimed some of his friends had been forced to pretend to be gay as this was an easier path than being a straight white man in America.
UNILAD spoke with Azhar about his experiences covering the trial of Courtier, and how his initial perceptions of Portland have been challenged.
Azhar explained how beneath the ‘irreverent and ironic’ surface of the supposedly liberal city, there was an ‘ugly underbelly’.
The majority of the avowed white supremacists Azhar spoke with felt their voices had been ‘silenced’ by liberals, set in the firm belief that white, straight American men no longer receive respect in Portland or in the US as a whole.
This is despite Portland being known as ‘the whitest big city in America’, according to a 2016 report from The Atlantic, with 72.2 per cent of the population being white. Just 6.3 per cent of the population is African American.
Azhar told UNILAD:
What they’re saying is that they understand that they’re no longer at the top of the triangle. And historically, in America, white, straight men have always been at the top of the triangle.
The fact that that is perhaps now being challenged, I think there’s still a long way to go but conversations are at least happening.
I want people to watch this and really take on board that in order to understand what is happening in these very polarised times when they’re talking about race – not only in America but also in the UK and Europe as well.
In order to understand what is going on, you have to get people to engage in these conversations. So that’s why I’ve released an appeal to people to understand what this horrible case can tell us about race in contemporary America that’s also relevant to us in the UK right now.
Portland is regarded to be a place of free speech and political activism, and there are those who interpret this by posing themselves as victims while wilfully ignoring historical evidence to the contrary.
Azhar’s composure when faced with troubling and hateful remarks is remarkable, and he has told UNILAD how he focused on finding common ground with such individuals, asking them about their dogs or how they’d decorated their home.
For Azhar, finding that ‘human connection’ is vital to getting beyond the ‘spectacle’ of their racism, no matter how shocking the person’s ideology may be.
After uncovering the humanity beneath the monstrous words and actions, Azhar discovered lives which had been disrupted or fractured early; leaving individuals vulnerable to evil ideologies.
Just finished watching @Mobeen_Azhar's documentary A Black and White Killing: The Case that Shook America about the Larnell Bruce murder and subsequent trial. Incredible, thought provoking documentary I sincerely hope you all watch. BBC 2, 25th of August at 9:00pm.
— Will Barber – Taylor (@Blackadder345) August 18, 2019
Difficult themes are tackled throughout the doc, such as whether an old prison tattoo always represents what lies inside a person’s heart and mind, and whether those who felt forced to join racist groups on the inside can truly change once they are free.
As well as meeting with unrepentant white supremacists, Azhar encountered former white supremacists looking to change their ways, and learned of the grave dangers hanging over the heads of those seeking to leave such gangs.
Azhar looked at the role of white supremacist groups as a supposed means of protection in US prisons, with gangs such as European Kindred wielding a frightening power in the prison yard. Many men Azhar spoke with felt they had ‘no choice’ but to join a prison gang for their own safety.
Azhar told UNILAD about his shock at how segregation was being ‘nurtured’ within the US prison system:
These gangs, overwhelmingly, are segregated along racial lines. Now I don’t believe that you join up to one of these gangs and your membership is kind of temporary and then you say, ‘Okay, fine, I’m out of prison now so I don’t subscribe to this ideology’.
I’ve met people who’ve been in these gangs, and they were very clear and open. They said the protection these gangs offer comes at a price.
Quite often that price is life-threatening. So they have a system known as blood in and blood out. Meaning that if you want the protection of the gang, if you want to join the gang, you need to spill blood.
“Nothing he could have said would have helped in any way. “ Family of Larnell Bruce, Jr. about hearing from Russell Courtier at sentencing. He was advised by attorneys NOT to speak. #LiveOnK2 pic.twitter.com/jKjatANl6w
— Mary Loos (@MLoosKATU) April 16, 2019
Azhar explained how such gangs will ‘pump you with their own ideology’, filling a person’s head with notions of ‘white pride’ and the ‘purity of race’:
They’ll talk about these things, and that has an accumulative effect.
Particularly if you’re in prison for months and years rather than weeks. And so I think there’s a real problem there because if you have countless men who are effectively leaving prison having been in these gangs that have a massive impact.
Not just an impact in prison, but an impact on general society. And I think that’s something that needs to be urgently looked at.
It’s clear more needs to be done to work towards a world where no family has to bear the pain of a loved one having been murdered as the result of a hate crime.
Following his death, Larnell’s family set up the Larnell Bruce Jr. Foundation, an organisation dedicated to education, advocacy and responsive therapy.
The foundation has worked tirelessly to lobby for updated hate crime legislation in Oregon, supporting a bill to strengthen and modernise the state’s hate crime statute. Senate Bill 577 was passed in June, and marked the very first overhaul of Oregon’s hate crime legislation since the 1981.
Was Larnell Bruce killed because he was black? We ask that question in a two-part series on Sunday and Monday nights BBC2 9pm. A heartfelt thanks to the people who invited us to film with them. The films follow superb young journalist Mobeen Azhar as he watches a murder trial.
— guy king (@earlofantrim17) August 23, 2019
UNILAD spoke with Larnell’s father and stepmother about Senate Bill 577, which has elevated the status of serious hate crime charges from misdemeanours to felonies.
This bill will introduce harsher sentencing for those who commit hate crimes, and will change the way in which hate crimes are documented. Previously, a reported hate crime would have been documented as an assault and battery, which would then be recorded as racial assault battery.
Larnell’s father, Larnell Bruce Sr. told UNILAD about the significance of this bill:
Senate Bill 577 will give people of colour a little bit more of an armour out here when they’re being harassed in a racially profiled manner.
Under new legislation, recorded crimes will have to be regulated and documented, whether or not an arrest has been made. It’s hoped this will help improve monitoring efforts within areas where hate crimes are particularly prevalent.
Larnell’s stepmother Natasha Bruce, who raised him since he was two years old, told UNILAD the foundation is now working to make things easier for other families who have had to endure similar situations.
Natasha told UNILAD about the lack of support currently available to those affected by hate crimes:
We would like to set up a funding and a programme that would help people pay their rent and bills while going through it.
After my son was murdered, I couldn’t even take time off from work. I had to go back to work two weeks after he passed away, the week after I buried him.
There’s no victims’ rights set up like that. You know, there’s stuff out there for domestic violence and there’s stuff out there for child abuse and all those types of situations.
We just hope that we can help someone whose going through what we’re going through, and make it a little easier. Because we know from personal experience that it will never be better. But it could be easier.
Larnell's father, Darnell Bruce Sr. speaking to Coutier:
"What you did was bigger than us. The ideology you have is bigger than us. This world doesn’t belong to anyone, we all have the right to be here."
— Alex Zielinski (@alex_zee) April 16, 2019
The death of one young man in Portland highlights many decades of racial injustice in the US. It’s a deeply human story of loss and waste, set against a wider landscape of opposing political identities and racial tensions.
This documentary makes for a terrifying yet thought-provoking watch for anyone interested in trying to understand the ongoing fight against white supremacy in the US, and indeed worldwide.
You can catch A Black and White Killing: The Case that Shook America on BBC Two, 9pm on August 25 and 26. It will be made available to watch on iPlayer soon after broadcast.
If you have experienced a bereavement and would like to speak with someone in confidence contact Cruse Bereavement Care via their national helpline on 0808 808 1677.
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.