Monday, February 15, 2010

Community shares grief, anger and fear following another life lost in an interaction with police

“If you're shocked, you're not living in America.”

“There are two different Portlands. There is a disparity in treatment many white people don't understand.”

“The stinking sore of racism has been exposed. The band-aid has been pulled off, the disease needs to be treated.”

“This is a fight for life. This is a fight for the life of my children.”

“If you can talk about it (righting the wrong), you have to BE about it.”

The above were just some of the sentiments expressed at Grief, anger and fear: Black lives lost in interactions with police, Portland's own an event put on by Restorative Listening Project on Gentrification, an organization which sponsors dialogues focusing on the “stories and experiences of Portland's Black community and seeks to address historic and continuing harm and disparity.”

The monthly community dialogue—this time focusing on the issue of police brutality—was attended by approximately sixty Portland residents from a variety of backgrounds and of different ages, ranging from young people to veteran activists.

At the forefront of everyone's mind was the recent fatal shooting by a white Portland police officer of Aaron Campbell, an unarmed 25-year-old African-American man. The police officer was acquitted by the grand jury, however Campbell's family has asked the Oregon chapter of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network to conduct an independent investigation into the shooting death. The case has gotten some national attention with Rev. Jesse Jackson coming to Portland to speak and protest the police shooting on February 16.

On February 15, the experiences of a number of the members of the Portland-area African-American community and their allies resounded throughout the room. Among them were stories of loved ones lost to police brutality. Emotions as well as ideas about strategies and accounts of past actions taken to affect change were shared.

Campbell's grandmother spoke about the stress and grief she has been experiencing since her grandson's death on January 29th. She said: “I keep asking myself why. Why did they have to shoot him down like a dog? He was unarmed.”

Several mothers spoke of the fear they live with; the fear of their black sons getting murdered by the police; a fear which prevents them so often from being able to sleep at night. This very fear was echoed this week in a column by Lisa McCall, an assistant principal in the Portland Public Schools, in Oregon's most widely circulated newspaper, The Oregonian. In the column, McCall writes:

“The tragic death of Aaron Campbell has brought home some of the worst fears the mother of a young black man could have. . . History is against us, against our sons, against our best efforts to protect them. Even in 2010, far from the injustices of the past, we are reminded that our fears are very real. . . .We are reminded that the system has failed to protect us. . . I do wish that police in Portland and around the country would think twice about their own contribution to the fear they see in a black woman's eyes when she instinctively pulls her son close to her while simply walking past a white officer on the street. . . Those good officers owe all those worried black mothers a little respect for that fear, and some public assurance they will try to never let something like this happen in Portland again."

Campbell's uncle and cousin were present at the dialogue as well, both of them upset, grieving, and trying to work with the family to help them heal while also being active in rallying for change in the areas of police conduct and accountability.

There have been exhaustive studies done to show empirically that people of color, especially African-American men, are many times more likely to be searched, accused of a crime, arrested, charged, even killed by the police than any other demographic. Portland is no exception to the disastrous trend of racial profiling and police brutality disproportionately affecting the Black community.


From the American Civil Liberties Union's website:

“The practice of racial profiling by members of law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels remains a widespread and pervasive problem throughout the United States, impacting the lives of millions of people in African American, Asian, Latino, South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities.

Data and anecdotal information from across the country reveal that racial minorities continue to be unfairly victimized when authorities investigate, stop, frisk, or search individuals based upon subjective identity-based characteristics rather than identifiable evidence of illegal activity. Victims continue to be racially or ethnically profiled while they work, drive, shop, pray, travel, and stand on the street.”

As ACLU states, the problem is that "many racial profiling victims walk away with traffic tickets, but too often for others the outcome of racial profiling is death."

The ACLU report continues: "It is significant to note that research confirms the existence of bias in decisions to shoot. A series of University of California/University of Chicago studies recreated the experience of a police officer confronted with a potentially dangerous suspect, and found that:

- participants fired on an armed target more quickly when the target was African American than when White, and decided not to shoot an unarmed target more quickly when the target was White than when African American;
- participants failed to shoot an armed target more often when that target was White than when the target was African American. If the target was unarmed, participants mistakenly shot the target more often when African American than when White;
- shooting bias was greater among participants who held a strong cultural stereotype of African Americans as aggressive, violent and dangerous, and among participants who reported more contact with African Americans."

At the event, the ways proposed in which citizens can advocate for change included: continue community dialogue with the aim of finding solutions and healing; push for policy change on every level: city, county, state, etc; demand police accountability; work with young men to provide safe release of anger and frustration; create a support network for fathers and sons to connect emotionally and to become more involved in the community; and empower young people to get more involved in their communities (e.g. patroling the streets) with the idea of eliminating the "need" for a police presence in the neighborhood.

As many of the event participants stressed, police brutality is not just a black or white issue; it's a matter of being one family and community. And in acknowledging our interconnectedness lies the imperative to look out for one another and to jointly keep the "powers that be" in check.

For those wanting to show support to the grieving family and those interested in engaging in community activism surrounding the issue of police brutality, there will be a rally at Pioneer Square this Friday, February 19th at 3:00 pm.

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