The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A black lawmaker was canvassing door to door in her district. A constituent called 911.

State Reps. Teresa Alonso Leon and Janelle Bynum, right, high-five at the Oregon State Capitol in 2017. (Molly J. Smith/Statesman-Journal/AP)

State Rep. Janelle Bynum, an Oregon Democrat, was talking to constituents, typing notes on her cellphone as she knocked on doors in her district just outside Portland.

Then a sheriff’s deputy pulled up.

Bynum — who is black — said a resident in the Clackamas County neighborhood where she was canvassing had called the police on Tuesday, thinking she was “suspicious” because she was going door to door and “spending a lot of time typing on her cellphone after each house.”

“Live from the mean streets of Clackamas!!!” she wrote in a Facebook post recounting the incident, which the Root summarized in hashtag form: #CampaigningWhileBlack.

In recent months, black people have found themselves the subjects of 911 calls over mundane and innocuous activities, like napping. Or in Bynum’s case, for doing her job. Such false-alarm emergency calls over nonemergency incidents, some of which have been captured on video, have raised questions about whether people were calling the police not because of what someone was doing, but because of the person’s race.

Hence, #LivingWhileBlack and its variations, #[insert action word here]WhileBlack, were born.

The nation is embroiled in a debate about the disparate treatment of black people after several incidents of apparent “overpolicing” across the U.S. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

Bynum told The Washington Post that she was visiting about 30 homes Tuesday afternoon, and she had just finished talking to one of her last constituents. As she had been doing that day, she stepped away from the door and stood in the driveway to type notes of her last conversation in her phone. That’s when she saw the sheriff’s deputy in his patrol car.

Bynum immediately suspected he was there to talk to her.

“There was nothing else going on on the street, and he parked right across from where I was standing, so, you know, you can guess,” Bynum said, laughing. “I didn’t want to assume. He could’ve been coming by to say hello.”

The officer asked her if she was selling something, Bynum said, and she introduced herself as a state legislator.

“I was happy that I was caught in the act of doing what I am supposed to be doing and going above and beyond for my constituents,” Bynum said, but she added: “I wondered what I had done to make someone suspicious, if I had done anything at all.”

Dozens claim a Chicago detective beat them into confessions. A pattern of abuse or a pattern of lies?

In audio of the 911 call, published Thursday by the Oregonian, the woman can be heard telling a dispatcher that “we have this lady that . . . like for no good reason is walking from house to house.”

The caller described Bynum as an African American “in regular street clothes, like camo pants and a white shirt and no badge that I can see.”

“The weird thing is that she just stops at the end of the driveway, whether or not she talks to somebody,” the caller said. “So she like knocks on the door, and . . . she’ll stop at the end of the driveway and enter something into her phone. It takes a couple of minutes per house.”

She had visited seven houses so far, the caller said.

“My son said hi to her, cause he’s 3 and says hi to everybody,” she told the dispatcher. “But then she didn’t, like, come to us.”

The caller added that she didn’t recognize the woman walking through the neighborhood. “I just think it’s weird,” she said.

The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Bynum praised the sheriff’s deputy, whom she referred to as Officer Campbell in her Facebook post, for being courteous and for believing her. They spoke briefly and took a selfie that Bynum later posted on her Facebook.

Live from the mean streets of Clackamas!!! Big shout out to Officer Campbell who responded professionally to someone who…

Posted by Janelle Bynum on Tuesday, July 3, 2018

“I think with proper training, it went the way it should have,” Bynum said. “I think the sheriff’s department is really focused on trying to have respectful interactions with citizens, and I’m really committed to make sure that I don’t do anything to make the officer feel uneasy . . . Fortunately, it was two coolheaded people talking.”

In her Facebook post, Bynum said she asked the sheriff’s deputy to connect her with the 911 caller. The woman, who was not identified, had already left the neighborhood. But, Bynum wrote: “The officer called her, we talked and she did apologize.”

One Facebook commenter said the incident was “#racepalm unbelievable.” Bynum said she didn’t know if her race played a role in why the person called the police on her.

But, she said: “I can say it played a role in how I chose to respond.”

Bynum was first elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 2016 and is running for reelection this year. She represents House District 51, which covers parts of Portland and its eastern suburbs.

There have been several other similarly banal activities viewed with a suspicious lens in recent weeks.

‘You know why the lady called the police’: Black people face 911 calls for innocuous acts

For a 12-year-old black boy in Ohio, it was mowing the lawn. For an 8-year-old girl in California, it was selling water outside the apartment building where she lives. And for a pair of young black men in Philadelphia, it was sitting inside a Starbucks waiting for a person they were supposed to meet.

In May, Lolade Siyonbola said a fellow Yale University graduate student called the police on her after she dozed off in one of the school’s common rooms. Campus police later said Siyonbola “had every right” to be in that room and that the incident was “not a police matter.”

That same month, black sorority girls wearing gloves and identical T-shirts bearing their group’s insignia said they were reported to police while they were picking up trash on a Pennsylvania highway. And Memphis real estate investor Michael Hayes was prying boards off an abandoned home he had a contract to inspect when a neighbor called the police and accused him of trespassing.

Last month, a group of black people wrote to the House and Senate Judiciary committees asking for a hearing on racial profiling before the August recess, The Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reported. One of them is Darren Martin, a former Barack Obama White House staffer who said neighbors called the police as he was moving into his new Manhattan apartment in April.

“These egregious affronts on human rights, eerily reminiscent of some of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history, are the sad reality for black people in America,” the letter says. “We would request that this new hearing widen the focus from just the police, as in previous hearings, to addressing prejudice and profiling from public companies to private citizens, as well.”

On Thursday, as coverage of the 911 call swirled, Bynum was back at it — this time with a guest.

“Oregon’s Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum joined me as my canvass buddy this afternoon,” she wrote on Facebook. “The hills and heat of Happy Valley had nothing on us today!”

Beautiful day to be out canvassing in Happy Valley with a State Representative #JanelleBynum! She is a great champion for her district and Oregon and is running for re-election.

Posted by Ellen Rosenblum on Thursday, July 5, 2018

Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this article.

Read more:

A black Yale student fell asleep in her dorm’s common room. A white student called police.

A white woman called police on a black 12-year-old — for mowing grass

Add ‘performing community service while black’ to the list of things that make you suspicious