Several months ago, I wrote a column about police profiling in North Portland. I had recently moved into a house adjacent to N Mississippi—an area that had once been an epicenter of Portland's gang problems. In the column, I talked about how I noticed that police often slowed down as they drove by black teens—and I condemned the police, saying that such profiling only reinforced stereotypes of these teens as gangbangers.
But two weeks ago, that notion was turned on its head for me when a teenager stuck a gun in my chest and demanded my wallet. And yes, he was black.
At the time, I was leaving Amnesia Brewing, one of my regular watering holes along Mississippi. While unlocking my bike, the teenager was standing across the street. He yelled at me, "Hey, can you break a $20?"
Even though it seemed like an odd request, I called back: "Sure, what do you need, like $5s and $1s?" As soon as my wallet was out, the teen strode up and grabbed it.
"Dude," I said, somewhat—but not completely—surprised. "Fuck off," I added.
With both of us tug-of-warring over my wallet, the teen pulled his other hand from his pocket and pointed a gun two inches from my heart. It was a small, silver semiautomatic.
Before moving to Portland, I had worked as an attorney with at-risk youth—many of them convicted hardcore gangbangers from Oakland. There was a certain look those boys had: anger, fear, and detachment. But this youth, standing with a gun pointed at my heart, had none of those qualities. He just didn't look that desperate.
"Fuck you," I told him again, yanked my wallet from his hand and began to back away. I'm not exactly sure why I dared to call his bluff; it was more about principle than money. The teen stood there for several moments, with the gun still pointed at me, before taking off. The police arrived no more than 90 seconds later, but the teenager was already gone.
In the days and weeks since then, I have tried to keep at bay an urge to wonder what other black teen in a hoodie is carrying a gun. I also had the realization that I was profiled by this teen—that he probably saw me as nothing more than a white yuppie with a wallet full of cash.
The solution is not about cracking down harder on crime in North Portland; it is more about bridging these racial divides and dispelling misconceptions. And the responsibility to set up street-level programs to break down stereotypes rests directly on city hall. Where is Mayor Tom Potter's much ballyhooed "community policing"? Not once have I seen a police officer walking his or her beat through this neighborhood. Imagine how much good it might do for a police officer to simply join a pick-up basketball game.
My mini-drama is just one example of the payback that results when city hall misses opportunities to bridge the city's racial divides.