In Eugene last month, an interracial couple awoke one Saturday to find a noose lying atop their trash can. In Portland last year, someone hung a noose at a downtown construction site. Months later, another was found at a public park in Southwest Portland.
As the nation grapples with racial inequities that have extended to virtually every area of life, the overt racism and violence instantly communicated by the noose continue to show up around the state. Now Oregon lawmakers are hoping to create real consequences for people caught sending that message.
Senate Bill 398 would create a new crime in Oregon: intimidation by display of a noose. As currently written, the bill would make it a class A misdemeanor to place a noose in public or private property without permission, with the intent of causing intimidation or fear of harm. The crime could be punished by nearly a year in jail, and up to $6,250 in fines.
“We wish this bill was not necessary,” state Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, a chief sponsor of the bill, said in a hearing Tuesday. “It may seem irrelevant to you, but it is not. This is a fear tactic that has been used for centuries here in America.”
According to the City of Portland, six states and the District of Columbia currently have laws on the books criminalizing the display of a noose. At least one is far stricter than Oregon’s proposal: It’s a felony to display a noose as a threat in New York, punishable by up to four years in prison.
SB 398 appears to face little or no opposition, in a year when racial equity is one of the key focal points for lawmakers. Testimony on Tuesday was all supportive with cities, institutions, and experts on hate crimes backing the move.
“Not only is the display of a noose harmful, sickening and offensive, it is corrosive to the fabric of our community,” said Derick Du Vivier, senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Oregon Health and Science University. “The noose symbolizes a lack of tolerance for all who are different.”
OHSU has seen four instances of someone hanging or displaying a noose at the university in the past four years, Du Vivier said.
Kelly Cutler, a professor at Portland State University, told of the profound chilling effect that a noose found on a construction site at the university last year had on staff and faculty.
“It was shocking and terrorizing for our community,” Cutler said. “It became obvious of the impact on my colleagues who were not only afraid to go to our new building but were afraid to attend PSU in general. This is all with the understanding that no one visually saw the noose itself.”
Randy Blazak, chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime noted that “this particular bill won’t stop nooses from being hung —or all of them at least — but it will send a very clear message.”
The legal wrinkles of SB 398 are still being smoothed. Witnesses from the Oregon Department of Justice and the ACLU of Oregon noted that the bill doesn’t actually define “intimidation” which could leave it open to constitutional challenges. Legislative attorneys have suggested the bill should be narrowly tailored enough to survive claims it violates the state and federal protections on free speech, since displaying a noose is likely to generate a fear of imminent harm.