Campaigning While Black: Janelle Bynum Speaks Out on Police Violence and Being a Better Neighbor

State Rep. Janelle Bynum was campaigning in a neighborhood in her district when a resident called the police on her—because she thought Bynum, a black woman, was “spending a lot of time at homes and appearing to be casing the neighborhood while on her phone.”

After a Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy approached Bynum, the lawmaker, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 2016, explained that she was entering notes on her phone from conversations with constituents to keep “account of what my community cares about.” She was carrying only a pen, her cell phone and campaign flyers.

Bynum went public, telling her story to supporters, who launched the hashtag #CampaigningWhileBlack in response. In an interview with The Oregonian, she explained that she wanted members of her district to have a chance “to talk with one another to iron out differences or concerns, especially as a way to eliminate police intervention.” She called the whole experience “bizarre”—but her platform also allows her to use it as an opportunity to highlight the discrimination that black folks, and women of color in particular, face in their own communities. “It boils down to people not knowing their neighbors and people having a sense of fear in their neighborhoods,” Bynum observed, “which is kind of my job to help eradicate.”

In a Facebook post, Bynum highlighted the positive interaction she had with the deputy in her own situation—thankfully, this was a rare instance in which a police officer engaged in civil, even friendly, discussion with a black person about the situation. That isn’t always the case. “When people do things like this,” Bynum noted, “it can be dangerous for people like me.”

911 calls are part of a larger culture of criminalizing black bodies: a white woman recently called the police on an 8-year-old black girl for selling water, and neighbors reported a 12-year-old black boy to law enforcement for mowing the wrong lawn. These situations have dangerous and harmful consequences for black folks; women like Rekia Boyd have been wrongfully killed by police in response to such calls.

The constituent who called the police about Bynum’s canvassing later apologized to her on the phone—but in her post, Bynum noted that it would have been beneficial for the caller to talk to her or reach out to a neighbor before involving law enforcement. Using the hashtag #LetsBeBetterNeighbors, she called for people to support and trust one another—and declared her intention to continue coming up to their front steps.

“I hope everyone gets a good look at my face,” she wrote, “because I’m coming to your door.”

Carmiya Baskin is an editorial intern at Ms. and a third-year Feminist Studies major at UC Santa Barbara. Her work has appeared in The Bottom Line, a student-run newspaper at UCSB, and EqualTalk, a feminist blog she co-founded through a women empowerment and teen leadership organization, Girls Give Back. She is passionate about all things related to intersectional feminism, Harry Potter and Disney, and she enjoys eating peanut butter right out of the jar while binge-watching The Office.

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