Ross Eliot is a commercial fisherman, auto mechanic and author of the award winning memoir "Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth" besides editor of "American Gun Culture Report" from 2005-10. He writes the current weblog "Occupy the 2nd Amendment."
It’s March 6th 2023 in Portland, Oregon. A white man driving a shiny red pickup screams at my kids who are playing in our neighborhood park just before suppertime. The three Black girls, ages nine, eight, and five, scramble wide-eyed across the grass toward me, faces crumpling into sobs. I bend down and hold them, while keeping an eye on the truck. It cruises slowly around before pulling into the far parking lot, headlights pointed directly at us, too distant for discerning plates. The man switches on his flashers, waiting to see what we’ll do next.
It’s drearily familiar. Ever since 2016, when fascist groups began invading Portland, frequently in truck convoys, local groups have organized resistance. We never know who among them might commit another murder spree. The Charleston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Colorado Springs and El Paso mass shootings are still fresh. Almost two years ago a violent Proud Boy rally took place near my house and only one year has passed since a fascist opened fire across another nearby park, killing one woman and badly wounding several others including a dear friend of mine. Fortunately antifascist security quickly responded with their AR-15 and incapacitated the man with two well placed shots before he could hurt anyone else.
This situation is nothing new. Men in trucks flashing white power signs. Men in trucks hurling bottles and epithets. Men in trucks rumbling off the road toward families marching against police terror before swerving away at the last moment. I’ve experienced all this. Ordinarily I’d be working with a full security crew, pistols concealed but at the ready in case another deadly Charlottesville style vehicle attack unfolds. Now it’s just me and three children, all so young they can’t comprehend political issues like rising fascism. They aren’t aware that two weeks ago neo-Nazi leaflets were spread around Portland area dwellings to intimidate families like us. Still, like any playground veterans, they understand bullies and clearly see this one hates them because their skin is different from his.
As a white man with a Black wife and Black kids, my social status is split. In most other situations, that fellow in the red pickup would automatically treat me with respect. Maybe swapping jokes on a job site or admiring my own diesel rig. The only times I’ve been asked to leave public parks was by police officers. Exasperated, but politely responding to late night noise complaints from irate neighbors. No exclusions. No checking bottles or IDs. Just: PLEASE LEAVE THE PARK! THE PARK IS CLOSED! Unearned white privilege at its finest.
But sometimes privilege can be a shield. For now, facing off with the red truck, I stay in front, edging slowly sideways while assuring the kids we’ll be ok. It’s only a guess on my part. The man may have nothing left to lose and decided this evening to initiate his Christchurch. Though perhaps he slowly realizes, eliminating just one mixed family before going out in a blaze of gunfire with the cops isn’t quite worth it. Or maybe he notices security cameras posted on a nearby school building pointed right at his tailgate. Either way, he peels out of the lot in a hurry and speeds away, tires screeching.
So we make it home safe. My little ones are shaken but soon distracted by dinner and eventually books before bed. We read them stories about sharing with friends and being kind to others. They can’t help observing that the man in the red truck wasn’t very kind. I’m afraid the park may seem frightening but instead, the very next day they insist we all troop there together again. Everyone runs and swings and chases to their heart’s content, though my gaze constantly monitors traffic. It may seem like victories against bigotry are few these days, but at least our kids won’t let one local fascist ruin their play area. They’re still small… but so brave and we’re so proud of them.
Thanks to everyone who joined in and contributed towards fighting Measure 114. Unfortunately this regressive law passed, though extremely narrowly. Because 114 was written vaguely and potential litigation may slow things down, it’s difficult to say how things will unfold next. However, some issues can be addressed:
1.The Race Factor It’s not just an empty slogan when people say “Gun Control is Racist.” This typically comes into play through implicit bias in policing, yet Oregon has already provided especially blatant examples of this. Sheriffs in several overwhelmingly white counties have declared they will not enforce the measure. Even if they eventually reverse themselves, it will be obvious to rank and file officers what is expected, making Measure 114 a functional law against self defense only where significant communities of color exist.
2. Manufactured Moral Panic One of the most sensational claims promoted by gun control advocates in Measure 114 propaganda is that firearms are now the leading cause of death among children. This is only technically accurate using skewed definitions of the word “children” in two ways. The first is eliminating infants under one years old, whose mortality rate from various causes are higher than gun related deaths. The second is including young adults aged eighteen and nineteen, which bumps the statistics enough to surpass other leading fatalities.
It’s an incredibly cynical scare tactic, considering this age group votes, serves in the military, and in many cases have kids of their own. Gun violence is real and affects too many actual children, but manufacturing data to create a moral panic only makes dialogue towards solutions more difficult.
3. Money Talks I subscribe to many gun control email lists and see how fundraising ploys profit from skewed arms industry caricatures. Their carefully crafted image portrays plucky grassroots activists opposing a powerful NRA who bribe politicians with money from shady weapons manufacturers. Yet the numbers don’t match this fantasy. Pro-114 groups raised 2.4 million dollars, while those opposing scraped together just a couple hundred thousand. 114 backers reaped massive donations from billionaire tech magnates and the wealthy financier Michael Bloomberg.
The embattled NRA only ponied up $25,700 and then bungled reporting it, earning an $8,000 fine for their incompetence. The reality is pro-gun groups possess cultural clout but nothing approaching the vast resources of other notorious lobbying groups, such as Amazon or Pfizer. The NRA is a trash fire of racism and greed and operates nowhere near the same level as arms manufacturing behemoths like Lockheed-Martin or Raytheon who have little interest in donating towards 2nd Amendment causes.
4. Delays Can be Dangerous On December 8th all legal gun sales in Oregon will halt, unless some last minute injunction delays the measure. It’s unclear when they will continue, placing anyone who might need emergency self defense in a precarious situation.
Many times people have approached me for gun training who never thought they needed a firearm until something dramatically changed in their life. Perhaps stalking and violence from an ex-partner, with subsequent dismissiveness from the police. Perhaps a sudden barrage of death threats from fascists and discovering their home address broadcast on the internet. People in immediate danger must either face it unarmed or potentially buy illegal guns on the black market, further placing themselves in legal jeopardy.
5. Unintended Consequences Oregon hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1982 and Democrats enjoy a lockdown on every statewide office yet this time their candidate Tina Kotek barely edged out her main opponent. Most analysis of this faults Betsy Johnson, a former Democrat running as an independent who possibly drew more votes away from Kotek than her Republican challenger.
Interestingly, Johnson was a very pro-firearm voice in the state senate who acknowledges owning a machine gun. In 2012 she spoke to the annual national meeting of the Liberal Gun Club in Portland, which I attended, and recounted hanging a pink bandoleer full of toy ammunition in the senate cloakroom to annoy anti-gun Democrats.
Laying blame on Johnson for denying Kotek a landslide victory is easy, yet left unexamined is how Measure 114 galvanized conservative voters. For example, Measure 111 guaranteeing affordable health care barely passed and even Measure 112 which removed slavery from the constitution only received a 55.6 majority. When gun control laws appear on the ballot, they endanger actual progressive issues by associated backlash and even Democratic candidates in ordinarily friendly territory.
1. I was asked by an indigenous activist in rural Oregon to help provide community defense training and organize security details for events. She lives under constant threat from local fascists who published her address on the internet and even the school her children attend, claiming they will kill her and the kids as well. Instead of investigating these threats, local police posted her photo on their websites as a warning to other activists, despite her never having been charged or convicted of any crime. In fear for her life, she passed a federal background check and was able to legally purchase a gun. If OR 114 was in effect, she would have also needed to obtain special permission from the police, the same ones colluding with fascists threatening to murder her family.
2. Just a couple months ago one of my close friends stopped a knife wielding man attempting a gay bashing attack in a grocery store parking lot. He drew his concealed carry pistol and pointed it at the man, immediately ending the assault. When police arrived, they questioned the attacker, and because my friend stopped him before anyone was injured, simply let him go. This is typical of most instances when a firearm is used for self defense and why statistics are so difficult to come by. Just as the cops were disinterested in an attempted gay bashing, nobody keeps files on cases where firearms ended conflicts nonviolently. The pistol my friend used had a capacity over ten rounds. If OE 114 were in effect, he might have been the one arrested.
These are just two of many circumstances that really drive home what a damaging law 114 would be and why I’m fighting back. My argument against it will appear in the Oregon voter pamphlet this November and I currently have a GOFUNDME set up to help with that expense. If you can contribute a few dollars, it really means a lot.
My brief article below will appear in the official Oregon voter pamphlet opposing Measure 114 during the upcoming elections this November. I currently have a GOFUNDME to help offset that considerable expense.
Rising Fascism Makes Community Defense Necessary
Between 2005-2010, I published a ‘zine called American Gun Culture Report. My writers were overwhelmingly folks of color, LGBTQ and others who owned firearms because they cared about community defense and knew the violent history of gun control being used to disarm persecuted populations.
Since those years, I have been contacted by countless individuals sharing stories about using guns to resolve dangerous situations. Typical were examples close to me. One friend pointed her shotgun at a man who broke into her house, scaring him away, and another friend recently drew his pistol on a knife wielding man attempting a gay bashing attack, holding him until police arrived. In none of these cases were shots fired and a firearm ended the confrontations peacefully.
Many people told me they kept such stories themselves, because there is such a harmful stigma connecting guns with conservative politics. There are easily available statistics about firearms being used for terrible acts, yet none documenting how often they save lives. However, just a brief look at American history demonstrates the important role armed defense has played, from the Appalachian Mining Wars to Mississippi Civil Rights struggle. In more recent times, I have provided firearms training out in rural parts of Oregon where immigrant communities exist under regular threat from Right wing groups and law enforcement is distrusted or simply unavailable.
But gun violence finally touched my life. Last February, a dear friend was shot and almost killed at the hands of a fascist mass shooter who opened fire on a peaceful police accountability protest at a Portland park. One woman died and several others were wounded before antifascist security used their AR-15 to quickly stop him. If Measure 114 were in effect, my friend and many others would surely be dead.
Before voting, please consider all the consequences.
Thank you for your time.
I will write a more comprehensive article detailing problematic issues with Measure 114, but in brief they are:
Police issued permits – Currently any Oregonian who passes an extensive background check through the federal NICS database can purchase firearms. 114 gives cops complete power to create their own secondary system, keep files on individuals and deny applicants using their own criteria. Given abuses widely documented among law enforcement, this would create an environment ripe for further corruption. Police could easily restrict permits to preferred individuals and deny others without oversight to determine if people from particular racial or ethnic groups, religious backgrounds, LGBTQ status or political affiliations were being screened out. It’s particularly alarming given the open collusion often seen between cops and militant fascist groups, not to mention the high domestic violence rates among officers, making them even more suspect in determining who should be allowed self defense rights.
Magazine restrictions – 114 bans magazines over ten rounds, which eliminates those used in the majority of firearms. It allows those already owned, but as there is no realistic way to document when, perhaps decades old purchases took place, this further gives the police questionable power. To provide perspective, there are currently millions of magazines over the limit in Oregon . Most gun violence either involves suicides or under ten shots being fired, so this law makes very little practical sense, other than making community defense more difficult.
Debating gun politics is never smart while another mass shooting dominates the media. Rational discussions are rarely possible while emotions remain elevated and newsfeeds are awash in trauma. Heated arguments only make productive communication harder later on. There’s nothing wrong with walking away and saving serious conversations for later.
This is always important but even more so when being disrespectful appears callous towards victims. Posturing and snarky comments may feel good in the moment but only solidifies opposition. Consider actually reading articles by anti-gun activists and becoming familiar with their perspectives. Many people have very sincere personal reasons for disliking firearms and should be empathized with, even if their solutions are shortsighted.
Derail any debate about the 2nd Amendment by pointing out it was the most intrusive gun control measure in American history. Like every other freedom in the Bill of Rights, it was intended for whites only and used as justification for mass gun confiscations and disarming Black militias. Learn about the Cruikshank supreme court case which maintained this interpretation well into the 20th century. The 2nd Amendment only holds meaning once occupied and reclaimed as a means to keep all our communities secure.
Raymond Duncan Shoemaker, (1894-1977) hardly fit common stereotypes of a political radical. Yet in 1959, this respected judge accused local police of attempting to run Portland, Oregon like a police state, igniting a public feud sixty years before Black Lives Matter dragged law enforcement accountability into the national conscience. It was no singular outburst, but instead represented one fair minded man’s long time effort to enact social justice from within the legal establishment.
Raised near Glasgow, Montana, Shoemaker never cut an imposing figure, with a slim build and standing only 5’6” tall. Still, he gravitated towards heavy industries, employed on local cattle ranches and the Great Northern Railroad in his youth before traveling to Colorado where he labored in the Durango gold mines. Already curious about different peoples and cultures, he spent time learning Spanish from his co-workers. By 1916, at age 22, Shoemaker returned to his home state and joined the 2nd Helena, Montana contingent of the National Guard shortly before their deployment into Mexico during what became known as the Punitive Expedition.
This came about following many decades of political coercion and military conquest, through which the United States reduced Mexico’s territory by about 50%. Unsurprisingly, economic and social turmoil became common during those years, culminating in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Various political factions and figures colored that conflict, but none more famous than the insurgent leader Pancho Villa.
Villa naturally considered the border an illegitimate boundary and didn’t restrict military operations below it. The US government also ignored borders when convenient, most notoriously with its invasion and occupation of Veracruz in 1914. Then in 1916, Villas’s troops raided the town of Columbus, New Mexico, creating mass public outcry for vengeance. Subsequent National Guard mobilization eventually pulled young Ray Shoemaker far from home on a futile chase that drew US soldiers deep into hostile territory.
Shoemaker learned much from the experience. His Spanish fluency proved useful communicating with locals and only furthered a fascination to explore other cultures. He remained in military service through World War I, earning the rank of corporal. All these life experiences made him what people in those times called a Free Thinker.
This loose term encompassed many political stances later considered liberal, such as opposing racism, advocating for women’s rights, supporting organized labor, and deep religious skepticism. He avidly read leftist and anti-fascist literature, including the Little Blue Book series published by the socialist writer E. Haldeman-Julius. Shoemaker made extensive notes in English and Spanish between the margins of particular favorites, from The Lies of Religious Literature to The Ghastly Purpose of the Parables and Volney’s Ruins of Empires.
Shoemaker focused on veteran’s issues, joining the American Legion in 1919, the same year it was founded. However, his concern for comrades-in-arms didn’t equate a militaristic mentality. During the mid 1920s, he dashed off the lines:
How cruel are most of man’s emotions,
How mad are many of his ways,
But the cruelest of all his silly notions is war.
Shoemaker began studying law and was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1923. He married, had four sons and a daughter, then lived in California for a time before moving to Portland. All the while his political consciousness developed, in 1926 writing:
The poverty of the masses in all ages has been the direct and logical result of their slavery = chattel slavery, feudal slavery, wage slavery. [G]iven economic freedom, all men and women can earn and enjoy a good, secure living.”
In another comment that year, he was even more direct, stating:
Man must improve with the times, and the relationship of men to property must change = or the majority must get off the earth, because no food will be allowed them.
While other Americans adopted more drastic left or right-wing politics as the Great Depression spread during the 1930s, Shoemaker remained optimistic social change could occur within existing systems. Then, once the US entered World War Two in 1941, his anti-war ethics were tested. Shoemaker viewed American imperialism skeptically but saw German and Japanese fascism as greater threats to humanity. All of his sons enlisted in the armed forces and, by now too old for combat duty himself, Shoemaker served overseas as a Chief Yeoman with the famed Navy construction battalion, the Seabees.
After the war, Shoemaker took up practicing law once more and by 1951, became notable enough that when a circuit court position opened, Oregon’s governor appointed him. This awarded rare institutional power to a true believer from the old Free Thinker movement. Still, what difference could one judge make? Besides that, Portland’s police department was notorious for right-wing connections, after openly deputizing Klansmen in the 1920s to unofficial “Red Squads” who monitored domestic political activity. Even its first union president in 1942 was a longtime member of the German-American Bund, a Nazi party offshoot who marched with swastika banners and fought anti-fascists in the streets.
Portland also held a reputation for organized crime activity in those years. FBI investigations and even a US Senate Committee probe five years later revealed corruption spreading deeply from the top down. Illegal gambling halls operated semi-openly, with payoffs to beat cops who looked the other way. Any reasonably savvy official in the criminal justice system understood this and Shoemaker was no fool. In 1952 he penned a frustrated editorial titled: “Judges Under Wraps” declaring:
It seems absurd that a judge who holds his position because of his fairness, impartiality and integrity should thus be compelled to sit as a helpless referee, unable to express an opinion or judgment upon fallacious arguments, palpably false stories, or in any way to guide the investigation or help the jury to ascertain and determine the truth.
If anything defined Shoemaker’s early years on the bench, it was great kindness. Local media reported about how on April 22, 1952, he relocated his entire court proceedings to the living room of a housebound woman and later that year showed mercy on a man whose truck operator’s permit was revoked because of epilepsy. Many times he threw out cases against minors possessing alcohol or situations involving expired licenses. Other judges took a harder line with offenders, from levying hefty fines and long sentences to requiring “greasers” shave their distinctive haircuts before appearing in court. When Shoemaker saw crimes as victimless, he typically reduced or waived financial penalties and prison time.
For Judge Shoemaker, by then divorced, his personal life took a major turn on July 3, 1952 when he married again, this time to Frances Bertram Hine, a woman thirty-one years his junior. Preferring the name Billie, she came from an East coast family and worked as a Spanish teacher and swimming instructor. Their relationship was quite tender, and many intimate letters between them survived. A great purveyor of nicknames, she dubbed him “Fuzzy” and Shoemaker in turn addressed letters to her as querida, Spanish for dearie. Over the years, media accounts treated their bilingualism as a great novelty. On one occasion where the judge conducted a wedding in Spanish, Shoemaker seemed bemused at the sensation this caused, making an apology that his Arabic and Thai were terribly rusty.
Interestingly enough, Billie’s father, Henry Francis Hine, was a prominent clergyman from the Anglican church who delivered a public address in 1940 labeling atheism “the real Fifth Column” before claiming “The only reason our country is still free from enslavement is the church…” It presumably caused quite a shock discovering his new son-in-law was an atheist. Despite this glaring difference, the two men developed quite a warm friendship, attested throughout personal notes and family photographs.
Over the next several years, Judge Shoemaker grew less wary of controversy. In September of 1956 he infuriated the Oregon Temperance League after returning alcohol to an underage married man, explaining to news outlets, “It is my opinion… that any man with a family and a job who is supporting his family, doesn’t come within the spirit of the law prohibiting minors under 21 from having liquor in their possession.”
That same month police officers raided an establishment connected with gambling in North Portland. The four arrested men were Black and given well known corruption in that industry, it wasn’t surprising initial evidence connected two white city officials, who denied involvement and were apparently not investigated further. This bust drew much sensational press coverage so it made quite a splash when Shoemaker released the men with only minor fines and even returned cash that police seized, but never connected with illegal activity. One irate local minister even delivered a sermon fiercely condemning the judge.
In Shoemaker’s next published letter, during September of 1957, he called white crowds protesting Black children attending an integrated school during the Little Rock Nine affair “beasts.” His anger came across so strongly that a reporter pressed him some days later, apparently seeking a more conciliatory spin. Shoemaker responded with a personal example, citing one recent case where an all white jury found two Black defendants innocent, despite the aggrieved party being a “good-looking, well-dressed white woman…”
Also in 1957, Shoemaker revisited a favorite subject, advocating more understanding for young people, pointing out in an editorial: “I have heard many respectable adults brag a little about their own youthful exploits beyond the law” He urged less public funds be spent incarcerating minors and instead direct resources toward improving schools and better mental health treatment for “disturbed” individuals. By now, it was apparent the judge posed a regional political influence. Newspapers reported Shoemaker’s opinions on most any matter and even kept readers regularly informed about construction progress of a swimming pool at his house.
More importantly, 1957 was the year of accountability for many prominent officials involved with organized crime, including the police chief, indicted for “incompetence, delinquency and malfeasance in office.” So Portland’s Free Thinking judge grew even bolder. In April of 1958 he wrote an article condemning fascism, as recent surveys indicated many Americans believed “some super-authority should decide what is best for the people. . . that freedom of the press should be abolished. . . . [and] that some people should be denied free speech.” He particularly warned against increasing police powers to search individuals and advocated a more communal mindset among youths “whose duty it is to preserve the freedom we can so easily lose.”
An example of the policing powers Shoemaker feared soon arrived. Around late March of 1959, a radio personality named Alfred Alexander spied an intoxicated man prowling near his neighbors’ house. He confronted this individual who reacted belligerently. The encounter turned violent, with both men trading blows until the interloper revealed himself as Officer Wade Chatfield before placing Alexander under arrest for assault. The station deputy who booked Alexander reported Chatfield had been drinking, was off duty, and wearing plainclothes while apparently earning extra cash as a process server which explained his snooping.
Shoemaker summarily dismissed all charges against Alexander. The radio host then filed a lawsuit of false arrest, which also named Multnomah County Sheriff Francis Lambert. Unfortunately for Alexander, a less sympathetic judge deemed his complaint groundless and Chatfield received no further known consequences, though Lambert eventually forbade his deputies from “moonlighting.”
The police saw Shoemaker’s intervention against one of their own as a declaration of war. Sheriff Lambert certainly felt threatened, yet hesitated before taking action personally. Officer Chatfield’s drunken escapade made law enforcement look bad and further scrutiny might increase demands for civilian oversight. So Lambert waited until a better excuse came along. Street level cops, however, were far less cautious. They launched an unofficial strike against Judge Shoemaker beginning May 1st which almost immediately dropped his traffic offense caseload by 75%.
Then, after turning a blind eye or possibly encouraging their conduct for several weeks, Sheriff Lambert announced a formal police boycott on Shoemaker’s court on May 28, 1959, which he termed too “lenient,” declaring “all traffic and misdemeanor arrests” would be rerouted to Gresham. When questioned for specifics, Lambert claimed two of his officers were poorly treated when they visited Shoemaker to dispute his handling of a “motorist charged with reckless driving and resisting arrest.”
Shoemaker acknowledged the encounter and pointed out “it is the job of deputies to arrest a man, and not judge the case in court.” The judge sharply added he considered attempting “to discuss a case after it has been disposed of” to be “contempt of court.” He declared Lambert’s boycott unconstitutional, pointing out: “The law requires that the arrested person be taken to the closest and most convenient magistrate.”
Officers began making anonymous complaints about Shoemaker, echoing Lambert’s criticism and adding: “He makes a fool out of you in court and makes accusations against you so that it seems you’re the one on trial instead of the accused person.” Shoemaker fired back, stating: “A judge has a duty to stand between the public and some of these deputies who want to make a police state out of this country.” Amidst all this, one State Representative stepped forward in support, claiming Lambert’s actions “smacked of [an] attempt to intimidate the judge.”
News reports claimed officers who supported this boycott were “in the majority.” Still, it’s unclear how Lambert expected a police mutiny would play out long term and his resolve quickly faltered. Within twenty-four hours, Lambert called off the boycott following a “peace parley” arranged by the local district attorney. It concluded in victory for Judge Shoemaker who denied any wrongdoing and made no promise to run his court more harshly. When questioned, Sheriff Lambert “declined comment on the settlement.”
Their feud ignited again in October 1960 after officers chased a man for speeding who became verbally abusive once pulled over. They towed his vehicle, which was apparently not typical. When Shoemaker heard the case, he bristled, interpreting this as petty abuse of authority and struck the impound fee off a $25 traffic fine (around $222 today). The cops argued, with predictable results from Shoemaker, so they next brought their complaint to Sheriff Lambert.
Lambert assailed Shoemaker publicly, this time threatening to file an affidavit of prejudice, adding that he wanted “to get along . . . . but it is apparent that the public interest is not being served.” Shoemaker responded, framing the incident as an unjust confiscation of private property, saying officers did not have “the right to tow the car just because the man gave them a little lip.” He wondered why Lambert lacked enough “grace” to simply discuss their disagreements before “issuing press releases” because“it is up to the courts to protect the rights of individuals and the sheriff is not going to tell me how to run my court.” Once more, Lambert backed down, earning the sensational newspaper headline: “Sheriff Drops Plans to Attack Judge Here.” In 1962 he chose against seeking election again.
Judge Shoemaker continued conducting court as he saw fit and in 1964 was reelected with a popular landslide. Then, life took an unusual twist. Around the mid-1960s, his wife Billie began an affair with Dr. Babette Ellsworth, a prominent university professor. In those days Ellsworth was known for regional geology and history expertise but later gained fame as a transgender pioneer. The two carried on a romantic relationship, eventually gaining Shoemaker’s knowledge and consent. By 1969 the judge retired and in 1971, Dr. Ellsworth moved into his and Billie’s home.
Years later Ellsworth recounted how this dynamic unfolded: “Shoemaker took me into his office privately. He explained his wife loved me and as a wilful individual, would certainly leave him if forbidden to see me… He feared solitude and proposed a solution. I could reside in his house and we would all make the best of things.”
Over the next several years Dr. Ellsworth and Billie took care of the former judge as his health declined. It’s unclear how their relationship avoided scandal, as in times past, even Shoemaker family Thanksgiving plans made the papers. This shift was simply mentioned without comment, as seen in a 1973 article where Dr. Ellsworth and Billie were photographed grinning widely as they pedaled together down a country road. A reporter noted the pair “ride their old bicycles together on Sauvie Island most weekends.”
In 1974 all three took a road trip through Montana, stopping in Glasgow where local media honored Shoemaker’s return with some fanfare. He toured the town, pointing out changes in scenery and reminiscing about the old days. Then on April 30, 1977, Ray Shoemaker went for an afternoon walk around their neighborhood and immediately suffered a fatal heart attack upon returning home. One of the last Free Thinkers would never again infuriate Portland’s police department or dispense courtroom mercy to those in need. A man who told the newspapers upon retirement: “I’ve always felt a just judge has to have a kind and understanding heart.”
In retrospect, it’s worth examining how he got away with everything. After all, Shoemaker was a former Colorado miner whose fellow workers were machine-gunned by private militias and the US military some few hundred miles away during the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. He was a leftist who made powerful enemies among law enforcement during the “Red Scare” when many other careers were destroyed over hints of so-called “Un-American activities.” The answer draws largely from deep reservoirs of goodwill he spent decades cultivating and deep roots in respectable civic groups.
Shoemaker was a devoted member of many fraternal organizations, particularly those with patriotic appeal, from various Masonic groups to the Elks and Eagles. He regularly performed community services, such as visiting high school classrooms to explain the criminal justice system and participating in free legal forums. Simply declaring police officers should operate by the same accountability standards as everyone else and running for election as a “sympathetic, just, [and] understanding” candidate won him great popularity.
Despite his wife’s lover, Dr. Ellsworth, being the subject of various FBI investigations from 1950 until at least 1978, a Freedom of Information Act request indicated no such file existed on Shoemaker. It’s difficult imagining no attempt occurred, given his high profile controversies. In the case of Ellsworth, agents extensively questioned her friends, colleagues and neighbors for information about potentially subversive political views. Though a notable academic figure, Dr. Ellsworth counted on few friends in high places, spoke with a thick French accent, and struck many people as odd, even if her transgender status remained unknown.
By contrast, the judge boasted numerous influential allies, besides serving as a longtime American Legion commander. If suspicious officials ever visited his Montavilla Post #163 to pose insinuating questions, they likely found an unreceptive, if not hostile audience. Shoemaker also avoided making systemic criticisms. Even many of his most incendiary comments were phrased in calculated ways. It’s important to recognize that as an American who came of age when consequences for unpopular political speech might be prison or worse, he recognized limits and carefully avoided crossing them.
This may seem like naked self interest…after all, Shoemaker lived a long life, surrounded by comfort in his later years and the companionship of an unorthodox love triangle. Yet at least for those who experienced justice in his court, this judge made a difference, one that still resonates whenever Portlanders stand up for police accountability and insist all citizens be treated equally under the law.
All citations, references and quotes not from Ray Shoemaker’s personal papers or my own book Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth are from the The Portland Journal,The Oregonian and The Star newspapers.
Q: Why should I care about the Russian invasion when countries do this all the time? Maybe it sucks for Ukraine but that’s their problem.
A: This is the largest scale war between major European nations since WWII. Conflicts on that continent have spiraled into global catastrophes multiple times so the amount of media attention may seem unfair compared to current events in Yemen, South Sudan or Nigeria where conflicts historically remain more local.
Q: Isn’t this just a typical case of Westerners just feeling sorry whenever bad things happen to white people?
A: Yes. We absolutely see racism reflected in many parts of the conflict. It’s heartbreaking that refugees from Syria or other conflict zones have so often been turned away or refused assistance but when Slavic communities who fit the modern Western criteria of whiteness are routed, they receive welcome. That isn’t right, yet doesn’t lessen the significance of this event.
Q: I heard the Ukrainians military is full of Nazis? Shouldn’t we always side against fascism?
A: If you look hard enough at any conflict, you’ll find something to dislike. George Orwell might have refused to fight Franco in Spain because the anti-fascist forces included communist authoritarians, but joined anyway. The mostly white American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald returned home to perpetuate more decades of state sanctioned terror against communities of color at home. That’s important to recognize, but not use as an excuse. There have been white nationalist elements in Ukrainian militias, just like among Russian forces and the US military also.
Q: How can you back US militarism? Isn’t this against everything you’ve ever stood for?
A: The US military sided with various Kurdish forces against Daesh (ISIS) and I still supported their resistance struggles. The world isn’t black and white.
Q: Aren’t people who suddenly care about Ukraine infuriating? If I see another damn blue and yellow virtue signal from someone who never cared about world events before, my head will seriously explode.
A: Yes. Me too.
Q: What about all the anti-Russians crap I’m seeing?
A: It’s one thing to boycott Russian products and wield economic pressure but awful if that translates into bigotry against immigrant communities. Consider patronizing your local Slavic grocery store to show support.
Q: Isn’t this whole thing just corrupt elites distracting us from how the 1% are still in charge and the middle class is disintegrating?
A: Yes, but pretty much everything distracts from that. I oppose the invasion of Ukraine for the same reasons I spent years choking on tear gas while fighting against every US war since Afghanistan and every president from Clinton to Trump. Putin and the oligarchs represent a murderous regime and should be opposed just as surely as the Czars. There’s ample reason he was a favorite of Trump’s along with other fascist autocrats like Bolsonaro and Duterte. I stand against them and any other authoritarians at home and abroad.
A: The only thing more hypocritical is American anti-gun liberals and Democrats applauding them for defending their communities with AK-47s!
Q: Sanctions and economic pressure will hurt ordinary Russians! Isn’t harming civilian populations for political ends wrong?
A: I would have 100% supported international sanctions against the United States to halt our immoral wars that in twenty years likely caused over a million dead and destabilized entire regions of the globe. Unfortunately there wasn’t international will to bring that about. Sometimes ordinary people pay a heavy price for the choices their leaders make. I can feel badly for the Russian people but also recognize it sometimes requires dreadful acts to stop worse dreadful acts.
Q: Don’t you see that this is all a vile scheme by NATO member states to encircle Russia and keep the country unfairly contained?
A: Understand that Russian containment existed long before NATO. Queen Victoria would have gleefully sent arms to an independent Ukraine in furtherance of her own empire. It’s only unfair assuming someone takes the position that nations have an unlimited right to dominate. Putin openly intends reestablishing the old time Russian empire which exercised brutal rule over countless subject peoples. I oppose that just as I have always opposed American interventions installing fascist governments across the globe.
Q: Russia lost around 3 million people in WWI and another 27 million during WWII. Don’t you understand that after such devastation, Russia needs a demilitarized buffer zone protecting it from Western armies? What would America do if that was your situation?
A: If the US had undergone anything so culturally traumatic in the 20th century, say, by invasion through the north, virtually every American you hear currently praising Ukrainian resistance would support turning Canada into a defanged vassal state run by a puppet in Ottawa. I simply don’t accept that as an excuse. Just because national trauma isn’t equitably distributed doesn’t mean Ukraine should be put under the thumb of Putin’s oligarchs while outsiders weep for the sacrifice their grandparents’ generation made.
Since 2004 I’ve written about gun politics and conducted defensive small arms training among threatened communities. This background provided much perspective on the escalation following Donald Trump’s election which energized domestic fascist movements and set loose waves of assaults against immigrants, minorities and others along the left political spectrum. Everyone knows how this newly respectable xenophobia amplified right wing violence. Mass shootings, vehicle attacks and death threats against groups organizing to protect themselves.
Previously, most conservatives I encountered appreciated my efforts expanding gun culture outside it’s unfairly stereotyped niche of Republicans, rednecks and hillbillies. Now even mentioning that I do such work often draws comments that I should be killed. It’s a real shift. Over recent years protecting groups marching against state sanctioned terror, I’ve lost count of the times big trucks adorned with American flags and Trump banners revved their engines and raced toward pedestrians, only swerving away at the last minute.
The many victims at Charlottesville, El Paso, Charleston, Pittsburgh and the Portland MAX attack, to name only a few, were less fortunate. I know others beaten by fascists or severely injured from crowd control munitions during anti-Trump or Black Lives Matter protests, but always returned home safe myself. Most people close to me also came away relatively unharmed.
That grace period ended last weekend when a Portland man opened fire on activists peacefully demanding police accountability in a local park. He murdered a sixty year old disabled woman and wounded four others, several critically. One of the survivors is a dear friend of mine. She is likely only alive today because a nearby security volunteer shot back and disabled the man before his rampage continued.
Details are still emerging about this individual, but some things are clear. He was a fan of right wing figures and groups, from Alex Jones and Andy Ngo to the Proud Boys, plus idolized Kyle Rittenhouse, another armed man who went out looking to fight anti-fascists. His own longtime roommate has since spoken out, describing a trajectory of increased racism and misogyny that made her fearful, stating she believed the person who shot him “saved my life.”
Most who nurture imagined grievances, like the presidential election being stolen or Covid vaccines containing microchips, or that organized pedophiles are responsible for their woes, don’t engage in physical violence, yet still enable a toxic conspiracy culture. It took purely insidious motivation to convince someone that a sixty year old walking with a cane presented some threat requiring gunfire to solve.
I have much more to say about that, but at least there is one concrete thing we can do. The survivors here in Portland need financial assistance and if anyone can spare some dollars, I’ve verified that their GoFundMe account is active and going directly to help those affected. Thanks to everyone who can pitch in and help.
I’ve written before about the old time radio program Dr. Sixgun, which stands out as remarkable amidst the Western genre for its compassionate depiction of typically disparaged groups, such as immigrants and Indians. Instead of sanitized history, the story lines unflinchingly portray cruelty by American settlers and the human cost of colonization is on full display.
Because Dr. Sixgun presents such a contrary narrative among stereotypical Westerns and doesn’t shirk from social issues, it wasn’t surprising that the episode No Guns Ordinance touched on gun control. This one began with Dr. Grey Matson, the famed Dr. Sixgun himself, entering a town called Rail End. He became surprised upon discovering open carry was recently banned by order of the local sheriff, Marshall Anders. Despite his proficient reputation with a revolver, Dr. Matson remained a thoughtful physician who frequently treated shooting victims. He checked his six-gun without argument and then sought out Anders, curious to learn more about this experiment.
The marshall explained: “I can tell ya, if I had my choice, once I get hold of a crazy drunk on the way to the pokey on a Saturday night, I’d just as soon I was the only one totin’ a gun.” He elaborated as having been inspired by the iconic lawman Wyatt Earp. With this reference, Dr. Sixgun writers knew their history. Back in the day, even such classic frontier locations as Deadwood and Dodge City were known for strict gun control ordinances. In fact, Wyatt Earp’s famous shootout at the O.K. Coral involved his opponents violating firearms regulations in Tombstone, Arizona.
It’s no exaggeration that modern Arizona gun control laws are far more permissive than during Dr. Sixgun’s era. For example, I personally possess an out-of-state permit issued by Arizona which lets me carry concealed firearms there, plus several other states, despite my residence in Oregon. Highlighting this is important, as so much right-wing propaganda builds upon skewed pictures of the past, falsely mythologizing the Old West as a place where Americans lived more freely and that some slow decline in liberty has progressed since then. It’s all complete lies, of course. Frontier times were far more restrictive on individual lives than any conservative today would admit tolerating.
As the story continued, Marshall Anders boasted his policy had successfully reduced murders and Dr. Matson left the town feeling quite inspired, remarking: “That ordinance, that must be the answer . . . . .take the guns away and they won’t be so quick to fight…. I get awful tired of probing for bullets and sewing up wounds. I got more important things to do.”
Dr. Matson subsequently attempted persuading others that gun control could work yet only met with derision from others in the territory. Ranchers and bartenders and even his own local sheriff showed complete disinterest or open contempt for such a scheme, several calling it “against nature.” Faced with overwhelming opposition, he finally gave up promoting the idea. Some time later, Matson’s travels led him back to Rail End where he turned over his revolver to a new sheriff named Marshall Benson. It soon became apparent things were not well, despite surface tranquility. Sinister armed men lurked about, closely monitoring conversations between citizens and keeping tabs on everyone. Each wore an official lawman’s badge
It turned out months before, Benson and a gang of corrupt deputies had pushed Marshall Anders out of power and began running the place as their own personal fiefdom. With everyone else disarmed, no one could oppose them. Whereas most episodes of Dr. Sixgun resolve conflicts, this one concluded on a tragic note. Fearing for his life, Dr. Matson fled the town which remained in the grip of unaccountable cops, maintained through fear, and of course, a firearms monopoly.
Appropriately, the first scene Dr. Matson encountered after leaving Rail End, with its chilling calm, was a boisterous crowd of drunken cowboys waving revolvers and firing off shots willy-nilly. He regretfully acknowledged this as a preferable trade off against the police state tyranny so recently experienced. Wrap up narration dismally recounted that Rail End residents eventually placed hope in electing a new sheriff, though Benson’s leading opponent was murdered before this could take place.
It sounds reasonable at first, yet Matson’s observation presents a false choice. Banning firearms simply isn’t required for an oppressive government to exist, as examples from the Colfax Massacre to Black Wall Street demonstrate. In more recent times, Black citizens of Ferguson, Missouri were no less armed than other Americans, yet knew shooting back against police terror, as their ancestors sometimes had, would be futile. Just as it’s foolish to imagine eliminating firearms automatically creates peace, the reverse is also true. Well armed societies are often rampant with injustice. Gun control might be one factor in maintaining systems of tyranny, but not necessarily constitute the main ingredient.
Old time militias enforcing government sanctioned gun control? That’s certainly an image contrary to the one cultivated by many 2nd Amendment supporters. But while some harken back to a selective version of America’s past, in her recent book The Second, historian Carol Anderson carefully examines what purpose that amendment actually signified in practice. It’s a far cry from what modern day patriotic propaganda would have people believe.
Anderson’s work parallels one of the most exciting genres in American historical scholarship, which has seen increasing numbers of academics researching Black resistance movements that mobilized against post-Civil War Reconstruction and Jim Crow era persecution. While most white-washed histories of the Civil Rights struggle spin redemptive tales about noble suffering and non-violent tactics winning victories toward greater social equality, these new explorations grasp gut level human realities, often less appealing than earlier sanitized versions.
In just one sensational example, the historian Akinyele Umoja looked at a Mississippi region where KKK influence waned in the early 1960s, allowing establishment of successful voter registration drives. Yet digging deeper, he discovered this power vacuum only developed after Black militia members successfully repelled invading nightriders, before posting the decapitated head of one fallen Klansman on a bridge as warning. This act so horrified nearby white militants that they simply gave up control of the area. (1)
Anderson wrestles with issues no less intense, but from a different angle. She begins scrutinizing how gun control affected Black populations in the Americas under various colonial powers. During British rule, each of the original thirteen colonies enacted stringent laws forbidding enslaved population’s arms, plus highly regulating their ownership by any free people of color. (2) But even these small privileges were curtailed once the War of Independence began. North Carolina offered rewards to those who successfully confiscated guns from Black communities and other states clamped down harder as well. (3) No wonder they were fearful. Martha Washington was perhaps the first to use the phrase “contagion of liberty” (4) describing the terror herself and others whose wealth originated in human bondage felt after realizing so much lofty talk about Liberty, Inalienable Rights, and All Men Being Created Equal might spark similar aspirations among African-Americans, free or enslaved.
Indeed, many people of color were thrilled hearing these values so openly praised, yet in most states, militia membership and firearms had long been exclusively for whites only. Only after US forces suffered repeated defeats did several states begin recruiting Black men, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Then, when British forces began moving against South Carolina, US military officers begged state officials to let Black soldiers serve and bolster the ranks of exhausted militias. Incredibly, this American legislature deliberated and finally decided they preferred surrender to the British than allow non-whites arms. (5)
Still, some free Black militias had existed for decades who trained with their own rifles and earned exceptionally brave reputations. This was not under United States law however, but allowed by Spanish and French colonial administrations, especially in Louisiana. As soon as these areas fell under American annexation, the 2nd Amendment provided no protection and gun control laws enforced by white militias disarmed these populations as well. (6) It actually became an embarrassing point during the War of 1812 after British regular soldiers smashed through ineffective militia forces and captured the US capitol. Their next target was New Orleans, where the governor of Louisiana recognized state militia troops were greatly insufficient. Faced with dire circumstances, he offered rifles to Black militia veterans and begged for help. Six-hundred volunteered and joined with a multi-racial force that contributed one of America’s few military victories in the entire war. General Andrew Jackson (of all people) even commended them for special valor. Yet instead of medals, these courageous men were afterward awarded heavy labor details in swamps and the Black militias forcibly disbanded once more. (7)
Anderson’s study exposes a familiar repetition marching forward. While it’s not uncommon for modern pro-2nd Amendment advocates to reference what became known as Black Codes, when denouncing firearms regulations as racist, more rarely do they acknowledge the enforcement role militias played. In the case of Georgia, white men were required to own guns, but specifically in legal reference to the militia’s need for self protection while searching the homes of Black families for weapons. (8) Moving deeper into the nineteenth-century, numerous other states passed strict laws, from Virginia, where free Black people found with firearms received thirty-nine lashes, to Florida, where white militias could search the homes of Black families for arms whenever they pleased, and the more lenient North Carolina, which allowed free Black people to apply for yearly permits before owning anything from shotguns to knives. (9)
The list of draconian gun control measures considered legal under the 2nd Amendment, even long after slavery was abolished, stretches on. Time and again, it provided no protection for Black communities who defended themselves against organized violent attacks, from the Colfax Massacre of 1873, to the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, and the destruction of Black Wall Street in 1921. Courts and judges routinely dismissed the Constitution, Bill of Rights and 2nd Amendment included, as legal grounds for non-whites to enjoy their full human existence as Americans.
This should be a sharp wake up call to anyone still viewing the 2nd Amendment as some wise, holy governance handed down through time. It’s own authors supported the most invasive firearms confiscations in US history. Like the title of my weblog has long declared, the 2nd Amendment must be occupied and reformed… into a tool for seizing gun culture back from what the founders originally intended. Simply another way for maintaining white supremacy and upper class dominion. Liberty may be a contagion… and Martha Washington meant that as an insult- but we can still take pride spreading it far and wide.
Akinyele Omowale Umoja. We Will Shoot Back. New York University Press, New York. 2013. 58-9.
Carol Anderson. The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. Bloomsbury Publishing, New York. 2021. 18.