By Roey Thorpe of Portland, Oregon. Roey is an activist for social justice. She is the former executive director of Basic Rights Oregon and current executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon.
The killing of Aaron Campbell by police is its own unique tragedy: the needless, inexplicable death of a young man, grieving over the death of his brother, at the hands of the police. I say inexplicable, but the police have plenty of explanations, just take your pick: police reacting to a deadly threat, communication breakdown between officers at the scene, or a lack of necessary training to prepare police for these types of situations.
None of these explanations takes into account what for me is one of the most revealing parts of that terrible night: a young man left on the pavement to die with no one offering medical attention or help. The police say they could not come near him because he may have been armed and dangerous, despite the fact that he was fatally wounded. Picture it: a young man, distraught and sad beyond his own comprehension, laying on the ground dying while people milled around him, no one seeing him as a human being in the most desperate of situations.
When I heard this story, my mind raced back through my personal catalog of images to 2003, when Kendra James, a young pregnant woman also shot by a police officer, lay handcuffed on the pavement, left to die with no medical attention or care. At the time, I lived next door to Kendra's cousin, so the injustice and outrageousness of her death was all the more raw and close.
I feel numb and overwhelmed just picturing these two young people, shot and then left to die. And I have these questions:
- How many people will die before we stop treating these shootings as isolated incidents and start really dealing with the pattern that seems so clear and so inexcusable? As an exercise, try to transplant this situation into the West Hills or Laurelhurst, and imagine one of our city's wealthiest white residents shot and left on the ground to die. Can you imagine the police unleashing an attack dog on someone in one of those neighborhoods? Not a chance. Let's be honest here: police react differently when the neighborhood they are in is poor and Black than they do when it's not. Period.
- What happens to police officers that they can dehumanize a wounded, dying person to this extent? Because even if you buy the story that either of these young people was an actual threat to the police, there clearly was a point at which no one in their right mind could have believed that.
- When will we stop accepting the kneejerk defense of the police union of every officer in every situation? The union needs to take a good long look at itself and ask how its leaders can credibly say that its officers always do their best and never deserve punishment.
- How is it that killing is even an option in these situations? Why can't we seem to hire and retain officers who can have a nuanced enough understanding of a situation to not react in the most extreme way? I'm sorry to have to say it, but I have come to believe that it's because the lives of Aaron Campbell and Kendra James, and so many others who could be named, are not deemed to be as valuable as others. And that, in my mind, is the biggest tragedy of all here.
Finally, when will white Portlanders stand up and say "not in my city"? It is critical we acknowledge that whatever the other ingredients are that have gone into the makings of these tragedies, racial prejudice and profiling are high on the list. And that the truth of that doesn't mean that somehow this is an issue that is less personal for white people or that we are less responsible. We are all responsible, and we are all hurt by this. Any time our city loses a young person we all lose everything that person might have achieved in their life, every dream they might have fulfilled, every gift they would have brought to our community. And anytime that prejudice is expressed, especially through violence, our city is brought down a notch, and our whole culture here fails to rise to level that it could. By letting this happen over and over, we all own a piece of it, and I think it's time that we all refuse to allow it.
Here's what we need to do:
- Stop making excuses for the police, and stop accepting the ones they are handing us.
- Stop believing that each of these murders is an isolated incident. There's a pattern. Acknowledge it.
- Don't accept the paradigm that to be critical of the police is to be anti-police--that's like saying that opposing the war in Iraq is anti-American. We're way smarter than that.
- Refuse to let anyone tell you this is a "Black issue." It's a Portland issue, it's a human issue. Speak out. Make it an election issue, a church conversation, a community concern.
- Write a letter, join a protest, find some way to tell the mayor and the police chief and the city council that you never want to hear about another Kendra James or Aaron Campbell being killed by police in our city. Let Commissioner Dan Saltzman know that he was right in calling for the grand jury testimony to be made public, and demand that he make sure that Officer Ronald Frashour be held accountable.
I'm starting with this article. What will you do?