Terror & Murder on the Max: How to Offer Support in the Wake of a Community Trauma

It has been a Memorial Day weekend full of tear-glistening eyes and cracking voices here in Portland, where so many conversations since Friday evening have at some point turned to a discussion of “what happened on the Max.” Two men murdered, a third severely injured — after all three came to the aid of two teenage girls, one wearing a hijab, who were the target of vicious hate speech by a spitting-angry White man.

Memorial at the Hollywood transit center, Portland

In a town that prefers to be known for its craft breweries and legal Oregon-grown marijuana, a town that likes its rain, can’t handle its snow, embraces its green spaces and celebrates its huge biking culture with a turnout of thousands for the World Naked Bike Ride, spitting-angry White men yelling hate-filled invective in public are a distinct minority. This is a town plastered far and wide with various versions of “All are Welcome Here” posters in the windows of stores and restaurants. The local grocery chain prominently informs its shoppers that everyone who can afford them is just as welcome to its peppered honey chocolate goat milk truffles as anyone else.

And yet, the dark political mood giving rise to tense stand-offs and near-riots between factions of armed-and-angry White bigots and the loose coalition of anti-fascists and anarchists confronting them on the streets of Portland since the presidential election speaks to the realities of a city never highlighted in any Portlandia skit. For all its promotion as a progressive utopia of hippies, Burners, techies, creatives and queer-trans-poly kinksters, this city’s long history of White supremacy, red-lining, gentrification and police mishandling of mental illness easily paints a different portrait.

Yes, these are troubling times in the City of Roses.

And yet, even with tear gas and percussion grenades being tossed about on downtown streets with too much regularity in recent months, the Max train murders, carried out in broad daylight in front of a crowd of afternoon commuters, shine a harsh light on how much worse things can get. In a few precious seconds, a mundane afternoon commute turned into a horrifying community trauma.

Complicating matters: The fact that Portland, even with more than two million people residing in the metro area, is still, in some ways very, much a “small town.”

Already, I personally am familiar with several connections — by just one or two degrees of separation through friends, family and clients — to both men killed on Friday. I will not be surprised to learn of similar connections to the young man still recovering from his wounds, nor even to the hate-filled killer who carried out the slaughter. And when all the other riders in that Max car — those who bore witness to this act of bigotry and brutality — are accounted for, I expect to learn of even more people I know directly touched by this horror. That’s the kind of “small town” Portland remains even with all its astounding growth in the past decade.

To me, that speaks not just of how such terrorism — I’ll dare use that word here — can seep into every crack and crevice of a community, but also to how much Portland will grieve this barbaric act in the months to come.

Many who neither had to witness this gruesome act nor lose a loved one merely because they had the decency and compassion to speak out against a hate crime will nevertheless be in a position of providing support, offering condolences or listening to harrowing recounts of “what happened on the Max” last Friday.

Seeing as how many of us are already a bit challenged when it comes to supporting friends and family members in their grief — a complaint I often hear in my therapy practice even when it comes to more common forms of loss — I wish to offer a few thoughts that may be of help to those directly touched by this savage act of terror, as well as those traumatized in learning about it:

  • There is no “right thing” to say. Too often, we silence our wish to offer condolences for fear of saying “the wrong thing” or not knowing “the right thing” to say. It’s time to get over that. It is often painful for grieving people to feel like they’re being avoided, especially out of fear. Offer your love, your gratitude, your remembrances. Keep it simple, keep it compassionate, speak with integrity, and you are unlikely to do harm.
  • Listen with love in your heart. The last thing shocked and grieving people usually want is to hear about your anger, your fear or your political views. Listen with empathy for what it’s like to have the world turned upside down, for what it’s like to witness violence, for what it’s like to feel helpless and scared.
  • Make explicit offers to help. Rather than telling grieving people, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” think about something you’re capable of and willing to do that you believe might be helpful to the bereaved — and then make a clear, direct offer to help (e.g., “I know this is a very difficult time; let me come over and mow your lawn / take your dog for a walk / pick up your kids from school”). This saves the bereaved from having to ask.
  • Don’t rubberneck on the trauma. As a video released Sunday by one of the teenage girls who became the target of the Max murderer’s hate speech makes clear, asking the victims or witnesses to repeat the story of what happened can be overwhelming. If someone wants to tell you their story, you can indicate your willingness to listen, but don’t press them for details. If someone you love is really struggling with memories of what they witnessed or heard, this link can help determine if counseling might be useful.
  • Remember the dead. Attend a vigil. Light candles in your windows at home. Say a prayer. The beautiful memorials — from candles and flowers, to the chalk drawings and messages written on the walls of the Hollywood transit center — are a simple, meaningful way for the community at large to express grief. They often become a place to gather and talk and remember.
  • Contribute to a fundraiser. The young man who survived will have medical bills. The families of the men who died will have funeral expenses and may have financial stressors from the loss of a breadwinner. There are several GoFundMe fundraisers established to help in these matters, as well as scholarships being established in memory of the men who died. Just enter Portland, Oregon, in the GoFundMe search engine, and you’ll find several options.
  • Turn off the news. If coverage of this event is making you terrified of riding the Max or the bus, or in general scared of strangers, stop reading and watching the news about it. However horrifying, this sort of event is mercifully rare in Portland or, for that matter, in much of the rest of the world. Terrorism wins by frightening people. We need not be complicit in that process.
  • Live by their example: Stand Up, Speak Out. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of times people stand up against hate speech, especially when coming to the defense of others, the result is NOT murder. More often than not, it results in the big-mouthed bigot shutting up, leaving the scene or having a conversation with the police. We will all be living in a much darker, more dangerous world if we don’t rise to the occasion as Rich Best, Taliesin Meche and Michael Fletcher did on Friday. May we have the courage and strength they displayed in ever larger numbers.

Tamara Webb, LPC, LMHC, is a psychotherapist and writer in Portland, Oregon. Email her at tamara@fivebodiescounseling.com.

Photography by Marlene Andrejco.