Racial Justice

The Oregon DOJ Trains Agents on How to Break the Law

by Mat dos Santos, Legal Director

Mat dos Santos photoApril 13, 2016 - After about five months of waiting, the Oregon Department of Justice (“DOJ”) released its internal human resources investigation conducted by the special assistant attorney general looking into the surveillance of people on Twitter using #BlackLivesMatter. The report is damning. It paints an abysmal picture of rampant misinformation beginning with agents and analysts and running all the way up to the deputy attorney general, and shows how one mistake in judgment can lead to dangerous consequences for the public. 

If you’ve already read the report and exhibits, you know that the special assistant attorney general calls for changes in the DOJ's hiring to reflect a more diverse work force, as well as additional training on the laws DOJ agents broke when they collected information about the public’s political views. But you may have missed a critical piece of information that is buried near the very end of the over 150 pages of exhibits. DOJ’s very own training on this issue is fundamentally flawed. DOJ is teaching its agents how to break the law. 

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DOJ's Bubble of Bias

by David Rogers, Executive Director

public enemy logoApril 13, 2016 - The special assistant attorney general finally released the long awaited report on Oregon Department of Justice’s surveillance of people using the Black Lives Matter hashtag among others. The report and the 162 page appendix is disturbing and reveals a range of deeply troubling issues about the Criminal Justice Division of DOJ, so much so, that we decided we needed to tackle it in separate posts.

I want to take a moment to explore what we learned about the implications of law enforcement’s echo chamber of prejudice and shallow cultural knowledge.

You may have already seen the media delight in the fact that DOJ analysts mistook Public Enemy’s logo as a sign of an imminent threat to law enforcement. (Public Enemy was a hip hop group popular in the late 80s and 90s whose music infused commentary about the political and social experience of Black Americans. “Fear of a Black Planet” still stands as one of my top ten hip hop albums of all time.)

As the DOJ was illegally examining the Twitter feed of one their own employees snared in the DOJ’s electronic surveillance of people who used the Black Lives Matter hashtag in Salem, the agent saw the Public Enemy logo with words from one of their live albums: “Consider Yourselves Warned!!!” Apparently, this image stood out along with a range of other satirical, political cartoons, and images even though these images are easily found on social media sites belonging to hundreds of thousands of reasonably politicized People of Color. The next thing that happened was a threat assessment report was written and went all the way to the desk of Oregon’s attorney general. Wait! What?

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Internal DOJ Report Leaves Us with More Questions than Answers on the Surveillance of Black Lives Matter in Oregon

by David Rogers

David Rogers photoYesterday a report on the surveillance of Black Lives Matter in Oregon was released by the Oregon Department of Justice (DOJ). The report confirmed what we learned back in November: that an agent who works for the Criminal Division of DOJ was testing a surveillance program, called Digital Stakeout, by searching various key words, including #BlackLivesMatter. The agent then mistook posts from DOJ’s own director of civil rights, including a post of a Public Enemy logo and political cartoons, as a threat to law enforcement and wrote a memo that was passed all the way up the chain of command to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum before it was, finally, rejected as dangerous, racial profiling. The attorney general hired an outside attorney to conduct an independent investigation of the matter to determine if policies or laws were violated.

After reading through the report and looking through the exhibits, we are left with more questions than answers. I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or to cry at the lack of awareness that was revealed of both the law and of what might constitute a threat. This is not only shameful, but also dangerous. Given the power that they wield, I am dismayed at the state of the Criminal Justice Division and afraid for the Oregonians that are supposed to be protected by them. Self-reinforced bias, against protesters, black people, and who knows who else, has left the agency ill-equipped to do their job.

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Indigenous Peoples’ Day Must Be More Than Symbolic

By Legal Director Mat dos Santos

Today I’m especially proud to live in Portland, which is celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the first time. On Wednesday, October 8, 2015, through a unanimous vote by the city council, Portland abandoned Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Portland joins a handful of U.S. cities to make this change. While symbolic, this is an important shift in policy away from erasing Native tradition to celebrating it.

Native Americans throughout the U.S. routinely find themselves faced with an impossible choice: celebrate Native traditions in Native spaces or let Native traditions die while participating in majority culture. This forced choice is a legacy of genocide and ongoing social depredation perpetuated against indigenous people.

Today, this cultural annihilation is continued through innocuous institutional rules and regulations that may seem harmless, but which have a disparate impact on Native people and traditions. These rules and regulations discriminate against Native people because the needs of Natives were not considered in the policy making process. An example of such a rule can be found in Oregon’s institutions of higher education; not a single one allows Native students to practice traditional smudging rituals in their living spaces.

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Why I Signed the Letter

Opposing Discrimination and Xenophobia

By Executive Director David Rogers

As presidential candidates spread fear-mongering rhetoric about immigrant communities, a local city councilor in Springfield, Oregon, recently opposed the appointment of a minister to a police advisory committee stating that the committee didn’t need “another minority element.” The minister is Pacific Islander.

We need a very different climate and discourse for addressing issues of race and cultural differences in our country and state. Oregon could be facing several ballot measures in 2016 steeped in anti-immigrant sentiment while offering policies that would harm all Oregonians.

The Asian and Pacific American Association of Oregon (APANO) just published an open letter to Oregonians to address recent hateful and discriminatory comments from political leaders nationally and here at home. It made perfect sense to have the ACLU of Oregon be among the original signers of this letter.

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Clatskanie Police Chief Engaged in Racist Mockery

With encouragement from the ACLU of Oregon, two Clatskanie police officers filed a formal complaint against their chief of police Marvin Hoover.

The complaint described a routine debriefing in June 2015, in which the Hoover referred to African Americans as animals and began acting like a monkey. Later, in the same conversation, Hoover again interrupted the debriefing by singing “Dixie” while acting as if he were punching an imaginary person. In August, with an investigation underway as a result of the officers’ complaint, the Clatskanie city council agreed to allow the chief to retire immediately and to pay him the equivalent of four months salary. Read the original news article.

By Executive Director David Rogers

The racist comments and actions attributed to Clatskanie Police Chief Marvin Hoover are appalling in their mockery and display of intolerance for black people. It is shocking that a chief of police would show such contempt and disrespect for people the police are supposed to protect and serve.

Chief Hoover’s actions erode the public’s trust that police will treat all individuals fairly and respectfully. Trust in police around the country has already been badly damaged by highly visible acts of targeted violence toward people of color and Chief Hoover’s actions add to the widening chasm between the police and the communities they serve.

We commend Clatskanie Police officer Alex Stone and K-9 Officer Zack Gibson for stepping forward with their complaints of the chief’s actions. Their actions took courage and are exactly what we need from police who witness hateful behavior from colleagues.

As tensions between police and communities intensify, members of the public desperately want to believe that there are good cops who can be trusted. Too often we are left to wonder how bad cops can operate unnoticed. Surely, fellow officers see indications of problem behaviors but too often turn a blind eye so as to not break the “blue wall of silence.”

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Democracy, Prosecutors and Criminal Justice Reform

By Executive Director David Rogers

There are some serious problems we need to tackle in our criminal justice system, like dramatic prison growth and spending in the U.S. We are dumping billions of dollars into locking people up while ignoring the strategies best designed to create safe and healthy communities. Meanwhile, the racial disparity in sentencing and incarceration rates is one of the biggest drivers of inequality for communities of color in the country.

As Oregon’s legislative session just ended, I am pleased to see meaningful progress being made on criminal justice reform. The ACLU of Oregon was active in passing legislation to tackle racial profiling, reducing employment barriers for people with conviction histories, and helping to increase police accountability. This progress was the result of democracy in action: thousands of our members and allies reaching out to their legislators to advocate for smarter justice.

But there is an element of our democratic process that is seriously malnourished and it has a direct relationship to our ability shift criminal justice policies in the right direction. I’m talking about the election of District Attorneys.

Here in Oregon, our chief prosecutors in each county are elected by a vote of the people. Yet the public doesn’t normally engage District Attorneys as elected leaders who need to be held accountable to the values we hold about what a fair, unbiased, and smart criminal justice system looks like. This dynamic needs to change.

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Criminalization of Marijuana Comes to an End in Oregon

By Executive Director David Rogers

On July 1, 2015, the possession and use of marijuana by adults over 21 years of age becomes legal in Oregon. With the passage of Measure 91 last November, the voters of Oregon sent a clear message that it is time to end the criminalization of marijuana.

Oregon has been at the forefront of marijuana reform in America. In 1973, Oregon was the first state to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana; was one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana in 1998 and will now become one of the first states to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana for adult use. And the ACLU of Oregon was influential in bringing about each of these reforms because the War on Marijuana has been a dismal and costly failure.

The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system and wastes billions of taxpayers’ dollars nationwide. We are at a tipping point in regard to public recognition that the war on drugs is a failed strategy.

Today, we were pleased to join with Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, New Approach Oregon executive director Anthony Johnson, and parent advocate Leah Maurer, to discuss how Oregon is helping to lead the country in developing smarter and more just drug policies. And, legalization of marijuana in Oregon is, in fact, about justice.

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Strong Mandate for Marijuana Reform Means Decriminalization Should Start Now

By Legislative Director Becky Straus

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Eugene Register Guard

Oregonians spoke loud and clear this election when they approved with over 55% of the vote Measure 91 to legalize, tax and regulate recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over. Higher tallies posted in Lane County and up and down the coast, and reached up to 71% support for the measure in Multnomah County.

We should interpret these numbers as a strong mandate: the War on Marijuana has failed and Oregonians reject prohibition. It is time for a new approach that focuses on eliminating the black market and the racial disparity in marijuana enforcement, on regulating the industry and on raising revenue for priorities like education, drug treatment and public safety.

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A Summer of Racial Tension and a Spotlight on Police Use of Force

By Executive Director David Fidanque

The death of Michael Brown followed by weeks of demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, has highlighted that race still divides us as a nation – especially in the way our criminal laws are enforced.

For most white Americans, sitting safely in their homes watching the events in Ferguson unfold like a reality TV show, the drama was a stark reminder that each of our communities could be just one incident away from lighting a powder keg of racial tension and fear that is just under the surface.

For people of color, many of whom experience every day the disparate impact of the way that police officers are deployed and do their jobs, the death of yet another unarmed African American young man has intensified the resolve to eliminate racial profiling and other discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system.

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