Janelle Bynum is a State Representative for Oregon's House District 51, which includes parts of East Portland. She is an engineer and a restaurant owner who cares about small businesses, funding public schools, and helping lower maternal mortality rates among Black women. She loves cooking with Old Bay, watching Black-ish and Murder She Wrote, and "anything on C-SPAN." In 2016, she was endorsed by President Barack Obama.
But all of that didn't matter to one of her constituents, who called the police while the lawmaker was going door-to-door campaigning in Clackamas, one of the communities she represents, according to The Oregonian. Bynum is running for reelection this November.
The neighbor told a sheriff's deputy that Bynum was spending too long in each home and appeared to be "casing the neighborhood" because she was doing a lot of typing on her phone after visiting people's houses. Bynum said that she makes a habit of taking detailed notes on her constituents, and that in her years of campaigning she has knocked on over 70,000 doors — and this is the first time there has been a problem.
When the deputy pulled up to her, he asked if she was selling something. She introduced herself, saying she's a state legislator and is out canvassing. The deputy told Bynum that a woman had made the 911 call, but did not say her race. Bynum asked to meet the woman in person, but he said she was unavailable. They did speak on the phone, and the woman apologized, though she wouldn't say where she lived.
"Of course I was in disbelief at first," Bynum told Refinery29. "But I was happy that I was doing something good when it happened... I'm a little bit annoyed because that interaction was going to cost me time in talking to other people. I also have four children and time away from them is...time away from them."
Bynum told The Oregonian she explained to the deputy that "when people do things like this, it can be dangerous for people like me," addressing all the times Black people have been killed or victimized by police. She said he was courteous and told her he hoped he didn't make her feel that way. She took a selfie with him and posted it on Facebook, captioning it: "Big shoutout to Officer Campbell, who responded professionally to someone who said that I was going door-to-door and spending a lot of time typing on my cell phone after each house — a.k.a. canvassing and keeping account of what my community cares about!"
This is the latest in a string of recent racial-profiling incidents that have gone viral on social media. From #PoolPatrolPaula, who assaulted a Black teen at a neighborhood pool, to #PermitPatty, who called the police because a Black girl was selling water (Yep, Twitter is good at making up nicknames.), it's been a summer of white people calling the police on Black people for doing everyday things. Of course, this didn't start recently — it's a deep-seated issue in American society — but social media is making these cases more visible than ever. Case in point: thousands of people posting the hashtag #CampaigningWhileBlack to call attention to Bynum's experience.
Bynum handled the aggression with grace. And it's obvious from some of the comments on her Facebook post that people haven't learned anything. Some called her divisive, saying she was creating a story out of nothing and that the neighbor was just trying to keep the community safe. "You do understand how this could easily be construed as someone casing the neighborhood and texting out which homes are empty, right?" one commenter wrote.
We call BS on that. For one thing, this kind of selective neighborhood watch never seems to affect white people. For another, while the officer was courteous in this case, this really could have ended up being dangerous for Bynum. Finally, there are a thousand things you can do instead of calling police on your fellow citizens. Maybe try actually talking to them, so that police have more time to respond to urgent calls.
She told us that she's received mostly positive messages since the incident. "I think some people were happy I chose to channel the conversation in a positive way, some were happy that I was knocking on doors and that I was trying to do the best for people in my community, and others were happy to see an African-American woman in an elected position changing the conversation," she said.
In another recent Facebook post, Bynum talked about her commitment to getting to know her constituents while out canvassing. "It's gotten to the point that my canvassing buddies laugh at how as soon as I see the house, I can tell you all about the family, my last conversation with them, and the interesting details of their lives. I mean, like we just talked yesterday and we're old friends. I try to keep pretty good notes, but I can remember the big Gravenstein apple trees in their yards, the ice-cold Coke they offered me on a hot day, what they do for a living, and even the ones who hobbled to the door on crutches."
So there's the reason she spent "too long" at each house. Sounds really suspicious.