Wescom News Service

Immigrants, Muslims, people of color, top law enforcement officers and state officials packed into a room to discuss the sharp rise of hate crime in Oregon with the goal of strengthening the state’s lax laws against it.

For all its imagery as a bastion of liberalism, Oregon has a dark history of racism and xenophobia, and today serious attacks and threats often make headlines.

The gathering Monday night in Portland was the first of three planned this week by a task force created by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum.

Hate crimes increased by 40 percent in Oregon from 2016 to 2017, according to FBI statistics.

“It is appalling that hate-motivated crimes are on the increase in Oregon,” Rosenblum said in a statement. “This reality requires us to act.”

More than 100 people attended the “listening session” at Unite Oregon, said Seemab Hussaini, an organizer with the intercultural organization.

Rosenblum’s spokeswoman, Kristina Edmunson, said she heard Muslims, Latinos, transgender people and others speak powerfully in the standing-room-only crowd.

One man, an immigrant from Africa, described people shouting racist slurs at him while he was walking down the street in Portland, Hussaini said.

Hussaini, whose group is part of the hate crimes task force, marveled at how it has brought law enforcement and immigrants, people of color and others together. Among those attending Monday’s session were the police chief of Salem and a sheriff, Hussaini said.

“To be on a task force with law enforcement officials, to maintain our identity, to correct the record and speak frankly and clearly to these powers, gives us keen insights and allows us to have an exchange with law enforcement that is usually absent,” Hussaini said.

The turnout showed there’s “overwhelming support” for the effort to strengthen the state’s hate-crime laws, Hussaini said.

Currently, the crime of intimidation in the first degree, a felony, applies only if two or more people harm another person because of “that person’s race, color, religion, sexual orientation, disability or national origin,” or if they cause another person to fear imminent serious injury.

But if person motivated by prejudice acts alone, it’s only intimidation in the second degree — a misdemeanor. It’s also a misdemeanor if a person tampers with property or makes threats because of prejudice.

A glaring example, Hussaini said, is the case of -Jeremy Christian, who allegedly stabbed three people — killing two of them — aboard a light-rail train in Portland in May 2017. The victims had tried to intervene as Christian spewed anti-Muslim threats at two black teenage girls.

Yet it was not classified as a hate crime, Hussaini noted. Christian’s trial on charges including aggravated murder is pending.

The task force is seeking to help craft legislation that would go before lawmakers during the 2019 session. It would also address data collection.

The other listening sessions were scheduled for Tuesday in Eugene and today (Jan. 9) in Medford.