Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, poised to propose legislation that would strengthen hate crime laws, is traveling the state this week to learn more about the hate-motivated incidents Oregonians actually experience.

On Monday night, a standing-room-only crowd greeted her at Unite Oregon, a nonprofit that focuses on social justice for people of color, immigrants and refugees.

Rosenblum and her Task Force on Hate Crimes listened silently to more than two hours of personal accounts, many from members of Portland’s refugee and immigrant communities.

They talked about being spit on and told to “go back to your country,” of having bottles hurled at them and being physically attacked. The youngest speaker was 13.

The task force of law enforcement officials, policymakers, advocacy groups and religious organizations has been meeting since last May. Its purpose is to make proposals to the 2019 Oregon Legislature to change the state’s hate crimes laws and ensure law enforcement has the proper tools to deal with these matters. The challenge is how to police acts that might seem hateful, but don’t necessarily rise to the level of crimes under Oregon’s criminal justice system.

In addition to the stories of physical encounters, several people spoke about being refused service at businesses and racially profiled.

Rosenblum has been Oregon’s attorney general for six years.

“I was inspired to convene the task force after I was confronted with this series of troubling statistics in late 2016 and early 2017 suggesting that hate is on the rise in our communities,” she told the crowd during her introduction.

She cited several sources including a 2016 Buzzfeed study that concluded Oregon residents reported the highest rate of hate crime per capita among all participating states. The Southern Poverty Law Center ranked Oregon No. 11 nationally for the number of hate crimes reported in the 10 days that followed the 2016 presidential  election. And the FBI says Oregon’s number of hate crimes increased over 60 percent from 2015 to 2016, with only 28 of 170 law enforcement agencies reporting.

Since 2016, Oregon has exceeded the number of hate crimes reported per capita nationally.

Rosenblum said, overall, hate and bias crimes are underreported.

One woman at Monday’s event told Rosenblum that she called police after an hate-motivated incident and was told by an operator that police had more important things to do. Another woman said she called police after her daughter had been attacked, and they never showed up.

“I hear repeatedly from community members that they feel like nothing will happen anyhow so they feel like there is no point in making the call,” Rosenblum told the audience. “And because that call isn’t made, that hate incident basically disappears from the record. We don’t know about it. It isn’t tracked.

“It isn’t investigated and no resources are made available for the community members who are impacted by the hate or the bias. This is a failing of the state of Oregon, and one that I am committed to changing.”

Rosenblum and the task force are also listening to public comment in Eugene and Medford this week.


Sharing America: A Public Radio Collaboration

Erica Morrison is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in the Northwest and Hartford, Connecticut, St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find more “Sharing America” coverage here.