Black Lives Matter / Travis Wise

November 10, 2015; Willamette Week

When does nonprofit political activism spark scrutiny and investigation from state government authorities? According to an article by Nigel Jaquiss in the Willamette Week, the trigger for the Oregon Department of Justice in one instance seems to have been the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nkenge Harmon Johnson, the head of the Urban League in Portland, Oregon, has accused the Oregon Department of Justice of “racially profiling” people who have taken to social media to note their interest or support in the Black Lives Matter movement. Even more intriguing, one of the people she claims was profiled happens to be her husband, Erious Johnson, who actually works for the Department of Justice heading up its civil rights enforcement unit.

In a letter to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum cosigned by representatives of the AFL-CIO, an AFSCME local, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Asian Pacific Americans Network of Oregon, and the Center for Intercultural Organizing, Harmon Johnson charged that the DOJ’s Criminal Justice Division had been using “threat assessment” software to look at people who had used the Black Lives Matter hashtag. Harmon Johnson’s husband was called to meet with the AG because his name had shown up on the threat assessment software using the BLM hashtag.

“It is improper, and potentially unlawful, for the Oregon Department of Justice to conduct surveillance and investigations on an Oregonian merely for expressing a viewpoint, or for being a part of a social movement,” Harmon Johnson and her colleagues wrote. “We are concerned that such unwarranted investigations are racially motivated, and create a chilling effect on social justice advocates, political activists and others who wish to engage in discourse about the issues of our time.”

According to Jacquiss, Rosenblum responded and confirmed the monitoring of Oregonians on social media using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. She said that the investigations had been launched by one employee in the Criminal Justice Division on a “trial basis,” but was outraged by the revelation that one of her own senior attorneys had been profiled. The employee in question has since been placed on administrative leave as an outside law firm investigates the division’s digital information scrutiny practices.

Had someone of the Oregon-specific significance of Erious Johnson not been caught in the dragnet of #BlackLivesMatter tweeters, would Rosenblum have been quite so outraged? Would the public have even known about the threat assessment review of people expressing interest in the Black Lives Matter movement? Expect that the ACLU of Oregon will probably be issuing public records requests to find out how extensive the DOJ search for potential BLM supporter had actually been.

Americans have turned strongly against racial profiling in recent years. Will Americans feel equally strong about political profiling, and will nonprofits that engage in political activism discover that they too have been profiled as “threats”?—Rick Cohen