Portlanders have no shortage of experience when it comes to racism, religious prejudice, and xenophobia. That was evident Monday evening, when Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum visited Portland to hear residents' stories of hate crimes and discrimination.
Rosenblum is conducting several listening sessions on hate crimes throughout the state, with the intention of using Oregonians’ input to craft legislation that she will introduce in the upcoming legislative session. Oregon has long struggled with the ability to enforce its hate crime statue, which critics say favors the suspect over the victim and lacks the appropriate level of criminal punishment. Regardless, more and more Oregonians are reporting these incidents. A November report by the FBI found that Oregon has saw a 40 percent increase in reported hate crimes in 2017.
Monday’s listening session, held at the office of Unite Oregon, drew over 100 people. Rosenblum opened the session by addressing the FBI report and explaining that while there is a lot that state officials do not know about hate crimes, “the one thing we do know is that they are consistently under-reported.” Rosenblum’s legislation will likely provide more services for victims of hate crimes, and strengthen data collection.
Dozens of people, most of them people of color, then testified about their own experiences with hate and discrimination in Oregon. One of the first people to testify was a Somali-American woman who immigrated here with her family at 5 years old. She said that because she wears typical Western clothing, she is able to blend in and does not face too much discrimination—but it is a different story for her parents.
“There are times when I feel very uncomfortable letting my mom go places, because people will spit at her and tell her to go back to her country,” she said.
Another immigrant, a man originally from Swaziland, told Rosenblum that he has lived in several countries—but that “I have never seen as many cases of racism and bigotry, specifically here in Oregon.”
He recalled that when a misunderstanding over a traffic citation landed the man in court, the judge allegedly told him: “I’m going to lock you up for as long as possible… you look really good in stripes, by the way.”
A Spanish-speaking woman told the story, through an interpreter, of being kicked out of a store in Troutdale with her daughter, because an employee assumed they might steal something.
A Muslim woman said that her supervisor at a Portland International Airport-based business said that “all Muslims should be set on fire or stoned,” and that he remained employed there after she reported him to management.
An Iraqi immigrant said that a TriMet bus driver did not allow his daughter on the bus, saying “impolite words” to her and causing her to be late for class at Portland State University.
A Black woman said that she has constantly been called the n-word by her former neighbors, and has had swastikas drawn outside her apartment. When she attempted to report these incidents to the police, she was told to go through the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, and was delayed by bureaucratic red tape.
“It was a mess, and it was complicated, and it was horrifying to me,” she said. “Our laws, and our policies, and this city are not sufficient to really address these hate crimes.”
The woman also noted that not every act of discrimination can legally be called a hate crime—something that is distressing to many people who experience something that might fall in the gray area, as many of the stories shared Monday evening did. It’s unclear whether Rosenblum’s proposed legislation would actually broaden the definition for what is considered a hate crime in Oregon.
Near the end of the two-hour session, Gregory Isaacson, a man who has been arrested in connection to far-right Patriot Prayer rallies, testified. He said that he had experienced a hate crime at the hands of Antifa for being a white man, drawing critical feedback from others in attendance. After he testified, a Unite Oregon staffer responded, asking people to “think about why you’re taking up space.”
“We’re here to hear from those directly impacted by essentially a racist system and a capitalist system,” she said. Isaacson walked out of the building.