Thoughts on Possible Oregon Bill Allowing Victims of Racist 911 Calls to Sue

Rep. Janelle Bynum (right), one of three co-sponsors of the Oregon bill. Associated Press, 2019.

Rep. Janelle Bynum (right), one of three co-sponsors of the Oregon bill. Associated Press, 2019.

Oregon has only three Black state legislators. Recently the three of them got together and introduced a bill as a response to various high-profile incidents of white people calling the police on Black folx for simply living. The idea of the bill is to discourage white people from making calls about “suspicious” Black folx in the area and to impose consequences, including a possible small claims court lawsuit, on those who do. The bill passed through the Oregon senate with a near-unanimous vote on Monday. It is now on its way to the desk of Oregon Governor Kate Brown; she’s expected to sign the bill with no issue.

When I first read about this new Oregon bill I was like, "Hmm. OK. Good stuff.” Then I really thought about it. And I walked away with one thought:

Prepare for some "linguistics gymnastics" y'all. 

There's gonna be a whole lot of judges and lawyers in Oregon "interpreting" what is "frivolous" and racist. And it will likely be 90/10 in favor of "not frivolous" and "not racist".

Look, I understand WHY a bill like this needs to exist. I understand where State Rep. Janelle Bynum (D), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, was coming from in pushing for and drafting this legislation. While Bynum was knocking on doors canvassing for reelection last July, a white woman called the cops because she thought Bynum looked suspicious. Bynum was literally this woman's state representative, was not behaving in a suspicious manner at all, and this white woman still thought, "What is this Black doing in my neighborhood?! Oh they must be up to no good!" This racist mess happened to Bynum around the same time that the proliferation of Becky's and Donna's feeling distressed by melanin started calling into 911 and their local police precincts in droves to report folx barbecuing while Black, sleeping on a dorm couch in the dorm they reside in while Black, entering into your own apartment building while Black, waiting to have a coffee klatch with a colleague at Starbucks while Black, and overall just existing in white America while Black. So I understand why. I just have a very low bar for this bill actually making it understood that there are repercussions for being white and racist in Oregon and calling the cops on folx just trying to live. 

I don't know if this will deter some white folx from calling the police and blaming this legislation for why they didn't call the police if something happens that involves a BIPOC committing a crime. We cannot be sure if legislation of this nature in a state like Oregon will actually do anything other than make BIPOC feel more like their fears and realities aren't heard or considered. 

And that is just another permutation of business as usual, isn't it?

Evidently legislators in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently voted on a proposed “bias crime reporting prohibition” measure in May that would make it a criminal misdemeanor to racially profile Blacks and other racial minorities by calling the police so I suppose this kind of legislation is gaining steam across the country. And maybe it will put more focus on how often these kinds of calls and interactions are taking place in the United States. But keep in mind that all of this legislation, all of the discussion, all of the campaigning for these bills and laws are being proposed by BIPOC legislators and representatives. Black legislators and representatives, to be exact. BIPOC, Black folx, BIPOC cis women and feminine-identifying persons, and almost always Black cis women and feminine-identifying persons: they find themselves handling the heavy lifting in these matters. The only reason this Oregon bill and even the proposal in Grand Rapids exist are because BIPOC legislators are the ones tired of dealing with this nonsense and are using their privilege and power to try to facilitate change. But even with the amount of work these BIPOC legislators on the city and state level are doing to make their cities and states better places and to create consequences for hate another thing stands out for me in all of this:

The Oregon bill and Grand Rapids measure? Both were only near-unanimous votes.

We’re talking about legislation that focuses on mitigating hate and discrimination and all we can get is a “near-unanimous”?

This is why your local elections are important y’all. Because even when we presume that our lawmakers have some level of understanding about how hate crimes, discrimination, and racial profiling hurt communities and impact the lives of Black and Brown folx we neglect to remember that the understanding isn’t there. It’s never been that important to white U.S. American citizens because, for the most part, all U.S. Americans operate within a system where oppressive states and attitudes are engrained and prevalent. White U.S. Americans who are tasked to represent their district, state, city, town, or even the well-being of the nation have spent their whole lives being conditioned to participate in, explain away, and/or “be OK” with racism, hate, and discrimination in some capacity. Unless they actively and regularly acknowledge white power and privilege in a government structure that was created to benefit their needs the needs of others are never prioritized or addressed. In short? Too many lawmakers who are responsible for our safety will likely always question the legitimacy of all of the aforementioned. And we all know that our legal system as a whole is structured the exact same way.

I want these pieces of legislation to work. But my gut tells me BBQ Becky and her like-minded pals might unintentionally have a new tool to use in their oppression of others.