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World & Nation

A black lawmaker was campaigning door to door in her district. A constituent called 911

This Tuesday, July 3, 2018 selfie photo provided by Oregon state Rep. Janelle Bynum, shows her posin
Oregon state Rep. Janelle Bynum, poses with a Clackamas County Sheriff’s officer after he stopped her in Clackamas, Ore. on Tuesday.
(Janelle Bynum / Associated Press)
Washington Post

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, an Oregon Democrat, was talking to constituents, typing notes on her cellphone as she knocked on doors in her district just outside Portland.

Then a sheriff’s deputy pulled up.

Bynum — who is black — said a resident in the Clackamas County neighborhood where she was canvassing had called the police on Tuesday, thinking she was “suspicious” because she was going door to door and “spending a lot of time typing on her cellphone after each house.”

“Live from the mean streets of Clackamas!!!” she wrote in a Facebook post recounting the incident, which the Root summarized in hashtag form: #CampaigningWhileBlack.

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In recent months, black people have found themselves the subjects of 911 calls over mundane and innocuous activities, like napping. Or in Bynum’s case, for doing her job.

Such false-alarm emergency calls over nonemergency incidents, some of which have been captured on video, have raised questions about whether people were calling the police not because of what someone was doing, but because of the person’s race.

Hence, #LivingWhileBlack and its variations, #[insert action word here]WhileBlack, were born.

The Washington Post was not able to reach Bynum on Thursday. But she told the Oregonian that she had just finished speaking with someone at one of the 30 homes she visited Tuesday afternoon and was typing notes about her conversations on her phone when she saw the sheriff’s deputy in his patrol car.

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The officer asked whether she was selling something, and Bynum introduced herself as a state legislator.

“It was just bizarre,” she told the Oregonian. “It boils down to people not knowing their neighbors and people having a sense of fear in their neighborhoods, which is kind of my job to help eradicate. But at the end of the day, it’s important for people to feel like they can talk to each other to help minimize misunderstandings.”

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. Bynum said in her Facebook post that the deputy, whom she referred to as Officer Campbell, “responded professionally.”

The two took a selfie, and Bynum posted the picture on Facebook.

In her interview with the Oregonian, Bynum said she told the deputy that calling 911 over nonemergency incidents takes officers away from more urgent matters.

And, she said, it also “can be dangerous for people like me.”

In her Facebook post, Bynum said she asked the sheriff’s deputy to connect her with the 911 caller. The woman, who was not identified, had already left the neighborhood. But, Bynum wrote: “The officer called her, we talked and she did apologize.”

Bynum was first elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 2016 and is running for reelection this year. She represents House District 51, which covers parts of Portland and its eastern suburbs.

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There have been several other similarly banal activities viewed with a suspicious lens in recent weeks.

For a 12-year-old black boy in Ohio, it was mowing the lawn. For an 8-year-old girl in California, it was selling water outside the apartment building where she lives. And for a pair of young black men in Philadelphia, it was sitting inside a Starbucks waiting for a person they were supposed to meet.

In May, Lolade Siyonbola said a fellow Yale University graduate student called the police on her after she dozed off in one of the school’s common rooms. Campus police later said Siyonbola “had every right” to be in that room and that the incident was “not a police matter.”

That same month, black sorority girls wearing gloves and identical T-shirts bearing their group’s insignia said they were reported to police while they were picking up trash on a Pennsylvania highway. And Memphis real estate investor Michael Hayes was prying boards off an abandoned home he had a contract to inspect when a neighbor called the police and accused him of trespassing.

Last month, a group of black people wrote to the House and Senate Judiciary committees asking for a hearing on racial profiling before the August recess, the Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reported. One of them is Darren Martin, a former Obama White House staffer who said neighbors called the police as he was moving into his new Manhattan apartment in April.

“These egregious affronts on human rights, eerily reminiscent of some of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history, are the sad reality for black people in America,” the letter says. “We would request that this new hearing widen the focus from just the police, as in previous hearings, to addressing prejudice and profiling from public companies to private citizens, as well.”


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