About two years ago, the Oregon Department of Justice announced that the head of its civil rights division, an African-American man named Erious Johnson, had been caught up in digital surveillance by the department itself because he used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and tweeted the well-known logo of the rap group Public Enemy.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum publicly apologized to Johnson and fired the investigator who collected his social media postings. But an arbitrator later reinstated that investigator, saying his firing was against the law.
Johnson sued the state of Oregon for racial profiling. Last week, he settled the lawsuit against his former employer.
Johnson waited nearly six months before filing a lawsuit against the DOJ. He explained on “Think Out Loud” that he waited because he hoped that someone would address what had happened to him. But no support came — not from his colleagues, nor from outside groups like his union or the Oregon State Bar.
“A statute was violated. Somebody had to address it,” he said. Left without other options, he addressed it himself.
“I was looking for accountability and transparency,” said Johnson of his choice to sue.
Per the terms of the settlement, he got about $200,000, but had to step down from his position. In settling the lawsuit, the state admitted no wrongdoing.
Despite this, Johnson believes the case illuminated something to the public: what he sees as systemic racism playing out in the state of Oregon. Johnson hopes his experience will help future cases gain support.
“The accountability is on us. It’s on the public. It’s on society … are we going to sit and let this happen in the future? Are we going to call them on the carpet for it?” Johnson said.
After the settlement, Johnson found himself out of a job. The settlement also forbids him from seeking employment with the state of Oregon for five years. But Johnson said he accepted those terms because he’s not interested in working for the state after the way the settlement was handled.
“If no one’s going to stand up for me, I can’t work for or with people that aren’t going to show the same loyalty I gave them,” he said.
Johnson believes a similar violation is bound to happen again. He thinks his removal was the state’s way of sending a message to someone willing to challenge the status quo.
“They’ll be, I’m sure, a little more careful about who they give the job to next time,” he suggested.
Moving forward, Johnson said he will continue to pursue the mission he set forth when he graduated law school.
“I wanted to help people and I wanted to make the world a better place — you know, 15 years later I still believe that,” he said.
To hear more from the “Think Out Loud” conversation with Erious Johnson, including a story about hip-hop’s influence on Johnson’s work, click “listen” on the player at the top of the page.