When Jo Ann Hardesty knocks on doors, she dresses like she’s going to church.
She would rather people confuse her with a Jehovah's Witness than as someone who wants to cause harm, the former lawmaker and current Portland City Council candidate said.
State Rep. Diego Hernandez also considers his attire before canvassing: nice tennis shoes, bright colors, no hoodie, no hat.
“I’m a grown male, a brown male, roaming the streets. So I’m hyper aware of … what the consequences could be,” Hernandez said.
On Wednesday, Rep. Janelle Bynum, an African-American woman who represents Clackamas in the state Legislature and is running for re-election, was knocking on doors to meet constituents when someone called the police on her. The caller thought the lawmaker was casing the neighborhood.
The news captured national attention; yet another example of how people of color routinely have the cops called on them while doing day-to-day activities.
At a time when the nation is grappling with race and policing, politicians of color in Oregon say they are often faced with uncertainty while canvassing.
“This is not a surprise for most people or communities of color,” Hernandez said. “I’m saying it does happen. It just doesn’t get reported.”
Hernandez said he was out canvassing once when a woman yelled at him to leave the area and warned she was calling the cops. He left before the police arrived.
“There were other people walking around, except they were white and she didn’t target them. But maybe they lived there, maybe she knew them?” said Hernandez, who represents outer east Portland.
A young black male volunteer working for his campaign also had the cops called on him at another time.
“Even in a district like mine, folks who stereotype and have racial bias ... call the police on people who don’t think they belong in their neighborhood,” Hernandez said.
Kayse Jama, a prominent community organizer who recently ran for a seat in the state Legislature, said he constantly scans his surroundings while walking through the neighborhoods.
“It’s always in the back of my mind, whether my safety is going to be an issue or how I’ll be perceived approaching someone’s house,” Jama said.
Bynum told OPB she wasn’t ready to say the call was placed because she was black.
“I don’t know what the woman was thinking. I don’t know what her experience was five minutes before she saw or felt like she needed to report. I don’t know,” she said. “The same grace I am offering her is what I would like for people to be offered when they are in front of a judge, or in front of a jury, or when I come to do the door and I ask for your vote. I want you to assume the best in me. I don’t want you to fill in the blanks about how bad I might be.”
Two years ago, Oregon elected its most diverse freshman legislative class to the statehouse. Both Bynum and Hernandez were part of that class. For the first time, they formed a people of color caucus.
But the state has a long history of racial inequality.
“It continues that legacy today,” said Hardesty, who is also the president of Portland's NAACP chapter.
This is an opportunity, she said, to learn from one another.