Black Lives Matter Report: Tweet Quoting Public Enemy Prompted DOJ Investigation

By John Sepulvado (OPB)
Portland, Oregon April 11, 2016 11 p.m.

A quick internet search this past September may have saved the Oregon Department of Justice from accusations of institutional racism, major embarrassment and an $88,000 investigation.


Those search terms: "Public Enemy" and "consider yourself warned."

The search would've shown "consider yourself warned" was a term used by Public Enemy — a political rap group popular in the 1980s and early '90s — to start the album, "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," one of the most critically acclaimed albums in recording history.

Instead, when a DOJ investigator found this tweet Sept. 30 on Erious Johnson Jr.'s Twitter feed, he determined it was a threat.

The report shows the employee was concerned that Johnson, who heads the Oregon Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, "constituted a potential threat to police."

According to the DOJ report, the investigator was also concerned about a tweet on Johnson’s feed showing a picture of the rap group NWA choking a police officer.

"Once [name redacted] conducted the search, the lack of a diverse or alternative point of view regarding the import of the search results contributed to the belief," the report reads.

That portrait hangs at The Know, a Northeast Portland bar that serves as a punk venue.

The investigator, whose name is redacted in a report released by the DOJ, was looking at Johnson's Twitter feed as part of an investigation into social media accounts using the "Black Lives Matter" hashtag, as well as the term "F--- the police."

The unnamed investigator used a new tool at the DOJ to conduct the search, Digital Stakeout. It allows investigators to browse social media for specific terms within a defined geographic area.

Carolyn Walker of the Portland law firm Stoel Rives prepared the DOJ report at the request of Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who wanted "an independent and critical" look at why investigators in her agency were looking at Oregonians who used the "Black Lives Matter" hashtag.

Ultimately, after a five-month investigation, Walker determined that "intelligence unit employees have not received adequate cultural competency training, or training on anti-racial profiling, hidden or implicit bias, and/or diversity training."


A ‘Deficient’ Investigation  

The DOJ conducted the investigation after the Urban League of Portland, Oregon ACLU and Oregon AFL-CIO sent a letter to Rosenblum raising concerns about potential racial profiling.

Related: Oregon DOJ Employee Gathered Info On #BlackLivesMatter Tweeters

“It is improper, and potentially unlawful, for the Oregon Department of Justice to conduct surveillance and investigations on an Oregonian merely for expressing a viewpoint, or for being a part of a social movement,” Urban League President and CEO Nkenge Harmon Johnson wrote Nov. 10.

Harmon Johnson alerted the AFL-CIO and the ACLU to the search. She is married to Erious Johnson Jr., and was concerned that if her husband was being targeted by the DOJ, then other social media users were also targeted in these “threat assessments.”

Initially, the groups believed the DOJ would include them in updates on the investigation, as well as to help craft policies to prevent this type of profiling, but Harmon Johnson has since described the investigation as "deficient."

Harmon Johnson said the coalition has been shut out of the process. She acknowledged the Urban League received a copy of the report Monday, but said a review would be necessary before she could comment more fully.

Investigators Need 'Leadership'

The report commissioned by the DOJ suggests that two employees potentially broke state laws with their searches, but ultimately acted on their own volition. The report shows these employees did not just focus on the hashtag Black Lives Matter.

According to the report, the terms "black bloc," "KKK," "Neo-Nazi," "white pride," and "Umpqua shooting" were among the more than 30 terms searched, along with "Black Lives Matter."

The employee who searched Johnson's tweets told Walker that Johnson's social media "makes it appear that law enforcement hate everything that Martin Luther King stood for" and his posts were "making all white people appear to be racist."

Tweets that are clearly comments on pop culture and gentrification were also construed as active threats against law enforcement, including that Public Enemy tweet.

When the investigator brought his misguided findings to a coworker, he was encouraged by the coworker to notify his supervisor. The report moved up the chain of command until it reached Rosenblum Oct. 13.

By Nov. 12, Special Agent In Charge Steve McIntosh sent an email to all DOJ employees, directing them to stop using social media monitoring tools and not to delete any saved searches on their computers.

The employee that searched Johnson's Twitter stated in a Dec. 18 interview with Walker that he was never told to stop using Digital Stakeout, and continued to do so until he was put on administrative leave. However, the employee stated in a follow up March 9 interview that he had stopped using the tool, even before he was directed to cease use.

"[Name redacted] did not explain his earlier contradictory statements," Walker wrote in her report.

Walker concluded that the department needs a better understanding of what it can, and cannot, do.

"The Intelligence Unit as a whole would benefit from clear and consistent leadership and direction regarding the relevant statutes and regulations to their daily activities," Walker wrote in the report.

Rosenblum did immediately issue an official statement on Walker's report.