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Bill protects right to exist while black

When State Rep. Janelle Bynum was canvassing her district last summer, knocking on constituents’ doors as she campaigned for reelection, a woman called 911 because she was concerned that Bynum, who is black, was “casing” the neighborhood.

Would the woman have made the same call if Bynum were white? Maybe. But the incident was similar to multiple incidents around the country in which African Americans have had the police called on them for engaging in ordinary activities, like napping or barbecuing. In December, for example, a security guard called police on a black man from Kent, Washington, who was making a phone call in a Portland hotel lobby.

Bynum introduced a bill in the Legislature to allow people targeted by these calls to sue the callers in small-claims court for up to $250 in damages. The measure passed the Senate on Monday, and now returns to the House for a technical change before heading to the governor’s desk.

House Bill 3216 doesn’t make these false reports a crime, and the burden of proof is not easy to meet: A plaintiff would have to prove that the caller had racist intent and summoned police to purposely discriminate or damage a person’s reputation. That’s a high bar.

Bynum says the bill is meant to “shine a spotlight on an issue African Americans have known for far too long.” That issue is one that white Americans have trouble understanding, because it simply does not affect them in the same way. She said she hopes the bill will prompt community conversations about making people feel welcome and about the dangers of malicious 911 calls.

The measure is more symbolic than punitive. It serves to remind white people that people of color have the right to exist in public just as they do, to go about their business without fear of being approached by police because someone felt threatened.

As Sen. Lew Frederick, one of three African American legislators and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, put it, “I don’t think some of my colleagues understand how fearful it can be ... I’ve said very simply when a police officer stops me, I wonder if I’m going to live the rest of the day.

“It’s a very direct, clear fear,” Frederick said. “Hard to get that across to my colleagues who don’t have that kind of fear.”

Enough of his colleagues got the message that the bill passed the Senate 48-1. The House, which passed the bill earlier, should sign off on the technical change and the governor should sign the bill into law.