Racial Profiling: Fruit from a Poison Tree

Community fabric won’t repair itself

Rep. Lew Frederick | 12/17/2014, 3:38 p.m.
As events have unfolded over the past weeks, I’ve struggled to put together the right words, because on some level ...
Rep. Lew Frederick

As events have unfolded over the past weeks, I’ve struggled to put together the right words, because on some level my emotions are indescribable. I want to yell, loud, over and over. Then I am just sad. And then I realize that I want fervently not to inflame or incite. Then it starts all over again. I know too well that it’s safer to be quiet while such emotions rage. But being quiet would be wrong.

Every person of color in America knows profiling. That is the context here. We know it. It is a reality that we walk out the door into every day, the first thought at the beginning of any encounter with law enforcement: “Am I going to die today?” It’s a reality that becomes a special terror when we become parents, and our children go out into the same reality.

No matter what happened on that street in Ferguson, or that sidewalk on Staten Island, if you tell me that it wasn’t the fruit of the poison tree of profiling, I’m going to have to ask you to prove it. That might have been sorted out in trials, with the evidence for all to see. But that door was closed, those opportunities lost.

How many times must this happen? Every time profiling is studied, it is confirmed, and people like me think, “Well I could have told you that.” And yet, every case follows the same predictable trajectory, as if it doesn’t matter that the story has been repeated countless times.

“Protect and Serve.” I yearn for a world in which we can all believe it, a world in which the tools of law enforcement are the tools of peacekeeping, and a world in which all of us can look to the uniform and badge for protection. I have to believe it’s possible. But it’s not our world now. It’s not our country now. Folks, it’s not our city now. What are we going to do about it?

And “we” doesn’t just mean people of color. It doesn’t just mean civic leaders. It doesn’t just mean the Portland Police Bureau. It doesn’t just mean white people either. It means all people of conscience. We need each other, now and always.

Our pain and our grief at a time like this may not be the same pain and grief, but every person of conscience feels it. There are police officers of conscience. They are victims, too. The fact is that when the fabric of our American community is torn or frayed, we are all in danger, and no arsenal or fortification will protect us when the danger comes from within.

Abiding and obvious respect for all human lives must be a fundamental qualification for the job of police officer. The mere suspicion that the tools of law enforcement are perceived or deployed as instruments of domination rather than peacekeeping and protection frays that fabric. Nothing about these grand jury processes quelled that suspicion; in fact these failures just magnify all the failures that have come before. Every additional case makes it harder to evaluate the next as anything but another confirmation of systemic oppression.

The fabric of our community will not repair itself. We either weave trust and respect or we rip them apart. There is no neutral position.

I have to believe we are better than this. I believe that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I’m frustrated with how long the arch is, and along with our President, I believe that, “It bends because each of us in our own way puts our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice….” These conditions did not fall out of the sky. They are the result of decisions made by human beings. And human beings, people of conscience, can decide to change them. The question isn’t, “Can it be done?” The question is, “Are we up to it?”

Rep. Lew Frederick represents north and northeast Portland in the Oregon Legislature.