Jay Danielson. Screenshot from YouTube
Desiree had been seeing Aaron “Jay” Danielson for about a month when he sent her a text on the afternoon of Aug. 29.
“On my way to film the rally,” Danielson wrote.
Danielson and Desiree had known each other for about a year but only recently started dating.
“Happy filming. Be safe,” Desiree responded before lying down for a nap.
It was the last conversation they would ever have.
Later that night, a Facebook livestream captured grainy video around 8:30, showing the moment Michael Forest Reinoehl — who once proudly declared on social media that he is “100% Antifa” — shoots and kills Danielson in downtown Portland just after a caravan of demonstrators showing support for President Donald Trump left the area.
Pop! Pop! The shots ring out, and Danielson takes a few steps, wobbles, and falls hard to the pavement in the middle of the street. The shooter flees in the opposite direction and turns the corner out of frame.
Six days later, I’m on the back patio of a bar in southwest Portland where Danielson was a regular. His friends have gathered to celebrate his life and to set the record straight with the reporter they’ve heard has been snooping around for a couple days.
“It was the most shocking thing I can probably imagine,” Desiree says about learning of her boyfriend’s death on Facebook. “But at the same time it wasn’t because every single night that he went down there, he would send me videos of what he saw. It looked like a nightmare to me, but he kept going down there.”
Cider Mill Restaurant & Lounge is Garrett Anderson’s favorite local watering hole. Anderson is a Marine combat veteran who fought in the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq and the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. After serving one enlistment as a grunt, he proudly exited the Corps as an OG terminal lance corporal (he even has the tattoo to prove it), eventually settling in Portland where he works days in a tile warehouse to support his family and writes novels and produces documentaries in his spare time. Anderson is also a friend and the person who encouraged me to come to the bar and meet Danielson’s friends.
“This bar is my happy place,” Anderson tells me. “I don’t think I’ve ever found a place where I’ve connected so deeply to other people. I love the scene because it’s got a diverse range of perspectives. You can have real conversations because people come from all walks of life, and they’re just really open to hearing people’s stories. And sure, you meet people who side with the right or whatever, but you can have an open fucking political conversation that is nonjudgmental, and nobody walks away saying, like, ‘I hope you die.’”
At this point, it’s probably important to note that Anderson, who is white, leans pretty far left. In July, when video emerged of federal agents in unmarked vehicles snatching protesters off Portland’s streets, Anderson made a “Gestapo out of PDX now!” sign, strapped it over himself, and headed downtown.
Anderson is my entry point to Danielson’s circle at Cider Mill. And it is a literal circle. Over the three days I spent talking to Danielson’s friends, they all spoke of the circular, stone fire pit on the bar’s fenced-in back patio as an almost sacred place — a place for community, diversity of thought, and respect. Around that pit, I spoke to at least a dozen people who knew Danielson as a regular. All of them told me he regularly attended rallies and protests in Portland, primarily to document events and stand up for freedom of speech. He was affiliated with a conservative group called Patriot Prayer.
“Jay supported Patriot Prayer because Patriot Prayer represents supporting the police,” Danielson’s friend Sarah tells me. “But Jay was nonviolent. He went downtown to film what was going on in case anything crazy happened. He literally rode side-by-side with the caravan of Trump people because he knew those people were going to be targeted and potentially be hurt. But he was not a Trump supporter at all. His views aligned more with the conservative side, yes, but he does not agree with Trump whatsoever.”
The person who seems the most torn up over Danielson’s death is Jason Wiley, a soft-spoken Black man from Shreveport, Louisiana, who tells me he met Jay at the bar about five years ago. Under the bill of his Oregon Ducks hat, Wiley’s eyes make clear he’s still dealing with a lot of grief around the loss of his friend.
“What hurts me most is, I warned him all the time about the troubles of going down there,” Wiley says. “He kept on asking me all the time to go down there and see what’s actually going on, and I told him a million times, ‘I’m not going down there, dude,’ because I was afraid I might get shot. He was going down there because he believed America needed to see what was going on, and I was always telling him, ‘You need to be careful, man.’ I feel like I could have said something more to him to keep him from going down there.”
Wiley’s partner, Jamie, reaches over and puts a comforting hand on his back, a pained look of empathy on her face. Jamie is a former social worker from North Dakota and politically liberal. She says that while she and Danielson disagreed on a lot politically, he always valued and practiced civil discourse.
“He was a truth seeker, and he frequented the protests in Portland because he wanted to show the truth,” Jamie says. “He was never the kind of person who would disrespect or outright dismiss someone else’s beliefs. But Jay wanted you to challenge your own beliefs, and he would ask a lot of questions to get you to do that. He was very much about the Constitution and making sure that everybody has their rights to free speech or to own guns or whatever. He was about freedom, and he didn’t want the chaos that’s going on downtown. He was down there filming because he believed mainstream media didn’t show the full picture, especially the small factions that are not being peaceful and that are being instigators and creating problems downtown.”
Wiley says he believes the violence downtown is “an absolute detriment” to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I’m really mentally fatigued over the whole thing, man,” he tells me. “The way they portrayed Jay when this first all happened was fucking heartbreaking — calling him a white supremacist and everything like that, like a Nazi and fascist. This dude didn’t have a problem with Black people whatsoever. That’s one thing I want to clear up. They misportrayed him as a person, and I’m upset about that.”
As new information emerged in the news the day I spoke to Wiley, a Seattle man posted more misinformation on Facebook:
“The nazi who got killed in portland was armed with a 9mm Glock 17 tucked in his waist band and had four fully loaded magazines, a collapsible baton and bear spray in his hands. He and a buddy seem to have been following Reinoehl when he ducked in a garage to avoid them then came out behind them. I suppose it is possible that the nazi and his buddy were just innocently walking along the street armed to the teeth with weapons after spending the day terrorizing and harassing the people of portland. Maybe they just happened to be behind Reinoehl, he recognized them and went paranoid and killed them …”
The arrest warrant for second-degree murder that police issued for Reinoehl’s arrest tells a different story.
In an interview with Vice news, Reinoehl admitted to shooting Danielson, saying he “had no choice.”
“Had I not acted, I’m confident that my friend and, I’m sure, I would have been killed […] I could have sat there and watched them kill a friend of mine of color. But I wasn’t going to do that,” Reinoehl says in the interview.
When I ask the group about Reinoehl’s claims, Jordan, another of Danielson’s friends, says video of the incident shows enough distance between Danielson and others to dispute Reinoehl’s claim that Danielson was threatening people with a knife.
“I’ve seen altercations happen at this bar and others where Jay’s helped the bar owners escort people out, and Jay never pulled a knife then or bothered to be violent. He’s very calm.”
Two days before Jordan told me this, I spoke to a female bartender who said Danielson “was a helper” when contentious situations would arise in the bar.
“I’ll remember him for his kindness and his generosity,” the bartender told me. “A lot of our regulars are people of color, and there was never any point of contention with Jay. He was a kind person — always the first to open the door for me when my hands were full. He was well-liked here.”
A man with curly, brown locks named Trevor tells me it was hard for him to watch Reinoehl’s Vice interview.
“You’re watching the guy who killed one of your good friends just sit there and say your friend was trying to kill this person of color. Like, that’s never anything Jay would do. Not even for a second. I didn’t even question in my head like, ‘Maybe there was something going on.’ Like, no. There is no way. And at the end of the day, it was a wrong amount of force to be used in a situation like that anyway. There were plenty of other ways to handle that situation.”
On Sept. 3, Reinoehl was shot by police near Olympia, Washington, as officers tried to arrest him.
“The fugitive task force located Reinoehl in Olympia and attempted to peacefully arrest him,” said Jurgen R. Soekhoe, a US Marshals spokesman, in a statement. “Initial reports indicate the suspect produced a firearm, threatening the lives of law enforcement officers. Task force members responded to the threat and struck the suspect who was pronounced dead at the scene.”
Jamie says Reinoehl was a coward, but she’s disappointed he wasn’t apprehended alive.
“I didn’t want it to end this way,” she says. “I wanted him to be served actual justice. I wanted the truth to come out about what actually happened.”
Trevor tells me that he recently lost a friend to suicide, and while he’s angry and disgusted by Reinoehl’s actions, he agrees with Jamie.
“I wish they could have apprehended him and brought him to justice rather than have somebody else be killed,” he says. “We’ve had thousands of people die this year from COVID and other things related to mental health because times are so hard right now. It’s hard not working and being stuck inside. Things aren’t open. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. You’re worried about everything. And maybe that drives some people to go downtown in search of a purpose. I mean, I think there are problems with the police force. I think there are problems with our government and a lot of different things. But it doesn’t mean that my friend Jay should be shot in the fucking streets because he was associating with people that others didn’t agree with.”
Rightist and leftist groups baiting each other toward violent clashes downtown is a favorite pastime in Rose City. I’ve covered the protests for years, and both sides strategically demonize each other. Leftists frequently label anyone who shows up to protest alongside the political right as Nazis, fascists, or white supremacists. Simply put, a lot of the people who get labeled fascists or Nazis are far from it.
After Danielson was killed, a group of black-clad protesters was caught on video cheering his death after a young, Black woman yells into a megaphone, “I am not sad that a fucking fascist died tonight!”
I’ve seen the young lady in the video at protests downtown on several occasions. She is always very angry, and the megaphone — her voice and platform — fuels her. She seems to feed off the hate she projects, and I can’t help but wonder what kind of trauma she’s carrying — what could warp a young soul so thoroughly? I have to remind myself that hate begets hate as I refocus my thoughts toward pity — an emotion I have a hard time imagining the woman capable of.
“At the end of the day, it’s just sad,” Trevor says. “It’s just so nasty in the media. People are pitted against each other — throwing things at each other. It’s disgusting.”
A rainbow-haired, young lady named Cheyenne chimes in.
“It’s extremely frustrating having to defend our friend against all these allegations — against what the media is accusing him of and saying he was a part of. It’s extremely frustrating that this is even a problem.”
Cheyenne says she and Danielson were good friends for more than a year.
“I moved here from Georgia, and he was just one of those really welcoming people who was super friendly and awesome,” she says. “He was a good friend and really intelligent and unbiased. We had lots of good conversations. He knew everything from politics to the stars, so we could talk about anything and everything. It’s really heartbreaking.”
She pauses and stares at the ground for a moment. Then she takes a deep breath and says, “It’s his birthday today. He would have been 40 today.”
Wiley told me he and Danielson used to close down Cider Mill together and then head outside to take turns riding Danielson’s electric skateboard up and down the street, seeing who could go fastest.
“I’m not big on politics or religion at all,” Wiley says with a Louisiana drawl. “But me and him, dude, we could sit around and talk about anything, man. You know, he was just ultimately a great guy. That’s the type of dude he was, you know? He didn’t care about race, creed, color, or anything like that, dude. He was just — he just wanted to have fun.”
Wiley says he and Danielson had made plans to go disc golfing together this week.
“I don’t have any more tears to shed because it hurts so fucking bad,” he says, choking up. “I don’t know how to wake up in the morning. It’s like walking around in a dream at this point.”
Dressed in a yellow summer dress, Desiree, who describes herself as a hippie who generally avoids politics, keeps to herself most of the night, often staring off introspectively. Her mind is clearly somewhere else. She’s one of the last people I talk to around the circle, and when she finally opens up, she tells me that in the first few days after Jay was killed, she couldn’t talk to anyone, especially not any reporters. But now, she wants me to know. She wants to trust me enough to tell Jay’s story — to tell the world he wasn’t the monster so many people cruelly painted him as.
“When I found out he was killed, I was shaking,” she tells me. “I was so dismayed. I couldn’t believe it because he was such a light-hearted energy. And when I found out he died, all I could think was, Why him? Of all people, why did Jay have to die? He had such a beautiful, beautiful heart and energy.”
As the night winds down on Jay Danielson’s 40th birthday, those who love and miss him raise glasses and tell stories about their friend. As I listen, I want to understand. I want to know Jay Danielson and who he really was. I want to help these people around the circle find some peace around their friend’s memory.
That’s when Desiree mentions the video — a beautiful video.
“Have you watched the video of Jay and the bird yet?” she asks as she pulls out her phone and begins queuing it up for me.
Desiree is not the first to mention the one-minute clip of a smiling Jay Danielson — handsome and full of “light-hearted energy” amidst a snowy mountain landscape and backdrop of evergreens. He holds a crust of bread up and scans the area around him, looking for the white bird with gray wings that floats up from behind and circles around in front of Jay before landing and perching on his knuckles. As the bird casually takes his fill of bread, Jay watches with a full heart, still as the snow-covered boulders behind him.
When the bird flies away, there’s about 20 seconds of Jay beaming blissfully. Then he holds up some more bread, circling his hand gently above his head behind him. The bird soars up from the horizon and lands briefly on a tree branch before gliding down and landing peacefully on Jay’s hand again.
Watching the clip, I’m filled with an inexplicable feeling, like a palpable gravity in my sternum. I look up with wide eyes and meet Desiree’s gaze.
“That’s who Jay was,” she says.
And I believe her.
Ethan E. Rocke is a contributor and former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine, a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He is a veteran of the US Army and Marine Corps. His work has been published in Maxim Magazine, American Legion Magazine, and many others. He is co-author of The Last Punisher: A SEAL Team THREE Sniper’s True Account of the Battle of Ramadi.