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Until Justice Rolls Down

Portland Urban League addresses police accountability and fight for black lives

Nkenge Harmon Johnson

Representatives and supporters of the Urban League of Portland rally to empower communities and change lives. (Photo from Urban League of Portland website)

Beloved Community,

Our hearts are broken again. We are angry and we are tired. Like all of you, we are sickened seeing Black people around our nation murdered with impunity at the hands of public employees and vicious racists.

We have seen these brutal killings happen in our own state, when unarmed Black Portlanders Kendra James, Aaron Campbell, and Quanice Hayes were killed by police. We have seen Portland and West Linn police, along with the Multnomah County District Attorney harass, arrest and maliciously prosecute a Black man, Michael Fesser, in retaliation for reporting racist treatment at his job. We have not seen justice for those whose civil rights were denied at the hands of law enforcement agencies here in our community. Despite being under federal oversight for more than a decade because of its history of unwarranted violence, 85% of Black Portlanders say they have seen no change in the way that the community is policed.

There are no words that will make what our community is experiencing easier. Injustice is hard. It is vicious. Injustice is deadly. We are overwhelmed by the injustice of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and David McAtee. We are gutted by the images of their deaths. We are saddened to be reminded that even the self-described allies of the Black community are quick to weaponize the state against us when we call on them to change their harmful behaviors. We are angry that Trayvon Martin wasn't the last kid minding his business in his own neighborhood to be hunted and shot dead by a racist neighbor. We are heartbroken that yet another Black woman was shot dead in her home by police who had no legal right to be there. We are nearly numb that nothing has changed since Eric Garner whispered his last words; "I can't breathe." This pain is centuries deep as are the state’s wrongs against Black people.

These murders illuminate a harsh reality that the system that is the cornerstone of our democracy, the ideal of justice that is so central to the country that we built, isn’t here for us. The system, built with tax dollars, is broken under the weight of its racist ideals, and reform is not happening quickly enough; not in Portland, not in Oregon, not in America.

It has been 29 years since a typical act of violence by the Los Angeles police department against a Black man, Rodney King, was caught on home video and captured national attention. We have time and again experienced the same shock at the crime, hope when perpetrators are arrested, and anguish when they are acquitted and restored to their positions in law enforcement, in a seemingly endless cycle; if the killers are charged at all. We experience the same nausea as the dead are smeared and maligned by wicked attempts to justify their murders.

We who believe in justice tamp down our anger at the same tired excuses of fear and misunderstanding uttered by the powers that be. We squint to see the progress on the arc toward justice. What is justice when a third of Americans killed by strangers each year are killed by police? What is justice when Black young men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers? There is no outcry from lawmakers, philanthropic leaders, academia, or corporate chiefs until we take to the streets- yet again- simply to be heard and air our grievance with the civil society and government that we pay for and are told we can trust.

Can there be justice for all when Black, Indigenous and other people of color are bearing the health and economic brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic? Is it equitable when Black patients experience poorer health care even when accounting for income? Is there inclusion when Black business owners are most likely to shut out of the federal recovery assistance funding across the U.S.? Is justice near when Black children are indicted 13 times more often than white youth in Oregon? Is there an end to injustice looming in a city where Black families are priced out of every neighborhood in Portland?

The Urban League team understands that hope can feel elusive when the effects of racism pummel us on so many fronts at once. Without justice, how can we know peace? Our organization is one rooted in hope for justice, and each day we act on that hope. We fight to make our dreams of justice real. We have fought for seventy-five years and our victories outnumber the losses. Still, we know the importance of grief. We are grieving with you all. We offer solidarity to Oregonians who choose to protest outside, and the same to those who choose to stay at home. We cherish the support of our members, and are bolstered by your ongoing commitment to build justice. We continue to reject violence in all its forms, and do not condone destruction. Our response to the latest wave of injustice is to keep working, keep fighting, and keep holding government and corporate leaders accountable as we agitate for change.

To our community, members, and supporters, please know that with your support we are pressing leaders to explain how local government was able to mobilize a swift and expensive response to the uprising, but unable to provide masks and hand sanitizer for vulnerable populations just a few weeks prior. We will press to understand why our local government is quickly identifying and prosecuting alleged looters and unable to release comprehensive demographic data on the impact of COVID-19 in our state, or provide adequate testing for essential workers and vulnerable community members. We demand to know why public dollars presently being paid to police officers to engage protestors, were not used to revamp the police bureau to create the public safety system that residents deserve. The Urban League seeks to understand where the priorities of our elected- and appointed leader lie, when they fiercely decry the ‘violence’ of shattered windows and missing luxury goods after being long silent about the daily threats to Black lives.

We know that many of you are tired. Some are exhausted beyond measure. We too feel weary. We are with you. We are working even through our anger, pain, and disappoint. We will not stop. We won’t parse our words for the comfort of those who claim to be on our side. We will insist upon better and more for our community, and for all of Oregon. We have survived in this state when it was against the law to for African Americans to live here. We do not give up. The Urban League pledges to keep fighting until we no longer need to insist that Black lives matter.

For justice, on behalf of the Urban League of Portland and its dedicated staff.

Nkenge Harmon Johnson is executive director of the Urban League of Portland.

Nkenge Harmon Johnson



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