Trials and Error

How Is This Man Not a Gang Member?

Jeremy Christian was a known white supremacist with a criminal record. The Portland police still didn’t have him in its gang database.

A convicted felon, Jeremy Christian.
Jeremy Christian, accused of fatally stabbing two men who tried to stop him from harassing a pair of women who appeared to be Muslim, shouts during an appearance in Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, Oregon, on May 30.

Beth Nakamura/Reuters

“I just stabbed a bunch of motherfuckers in their neck. … I can die in prison a happy man,” Jeremy Christian said just moments after allegedly killing two men and injuring another who stood up to his violent spewing of racial and religious epithets. Christian was an active white supremacist with a criminal background, a proclivity for degrading people of color, and a history of threatening law enforcement. A month before the fatal stabbings in Portland, Oregon, he’d tried to stir up a fight at a free speech rally in the city’s Montavilla neighborhood. He’d showed up with a baseball bat to intimidate protesters, yelled Nazi slogans and made the hate group’s infamous salute, called black demonstrators “niggers,” and threatened to shoot officers if they came for his weapons. Long before that, he was convicted of kidnapping and armed robbery.

A vocal anti-Semite who spewed hateful rhetoric about Judaism online and encouraged hostility toward protesters, Christian fit the Portland Police Bureau’s description of a gang member to a T. The PPB’s definition of a gang is a group of three or more people who “[u]se a gang name, common identifying sign or symbol, or acknowledge an identifiable leadership” and “[h]ave a high rate of interaction among themselves to the exclusion of other persons or gangs.” A gang affiliate is someone who “conspires to commit, or commits a crime” on behalf of the group or against someone for their “race, color, religion, sexual preference, [or] national origin.” He or she also “displays knowledge of the gang’s history, leadership, activities or rituals in a context that clearly indicates affiliation with the gang,” and “uses a hand sign or language which, due to content or context, clearly indicates affiliation with the gang.” Christian was clearly familiar with and embraced the history and rituals of Nazism, and intended to threaten or hurt people of color during the free speech rally in April.

For years, the PPB has used a database to identify and surveil people who check off these boxes—people who “pose a great threat to the safety of police and citizens who encounter them.” The database supposedly makes officers safer, since they’re notified if someone they’ve stopped is on the gang list and potentially dangerous. The database is also reportedly used to solve gang-related shootings. But according to a PPB statement issued on Saturday, Christian had not been “flagged as a criminal gang member.” Why wasn’t this known white supremacist, who was a clear danger to civilians and law enforcement, included in the database? Because he is white.

Gang-tracking produces inaccurate information, leads to racial profiling, and can result in large-scale civil liberties violations. There is no way to know that Christian’s presence in the PPB database would have or could have prevented the deaths of two people. But the Portland murders, and Christian’s absence from the gang database, illustrate that while white supremacy is lethal and thriving, law enforcement is more interested in criminalizing people of color than tackling a life-threatening trend.

While Portland is considered the whitest big city in America, the gang database doesn’t reflect that reality. According to Carli Brosseau of the Oregonian, only 18 percent of people included on the list are white. While less than 8 percent of the city’s population is black, 64 percent of people in the Portland gang database are black, and 16 percent is made up of other racial and ethnic groups. Pre-existing arrests and convictions aren’t prerequisites to be added to the PPB’s list. Most people are included because of how they look, dress, or conduct themselves—a comically low bar that opens the door for rampant harassment.

The Oregonian’s Brosseau wrote about a 32-year-old youth basketball coach who’s never been convicted of a crime in the state but is constantly asked to show his gang tattoos. His only known affiliation with a gang is that his brother and father joined one; as far as the cops are concerned, he’s guilty by association. A man in his 40s who admits to being in a gang more than two decades ago was surrounded by 12 officers and searched during a traffic stop because his name was listed. “This is what we go through, on the daily,” he told the Oregonian. Another person on the list, a man who argued that he’d turned his life around, wrote the PPB, “I have a family I love and I need a chance to redeem myself. I already spent time in jail, and have a felony mark on my record. I don’t want to spend more years having a difficult time getting my life completely on track.”

Although the number of gang-related homicides is actually dropping in Portland and other U.S. cities, the Southern Poverty Law Center did report a dramatic spike in the number of hate groups in 2016, with the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and racist skinheads leading the charge. Police haven’t tried to brand these groups as gangs or terrorist organizations, though, even as they continue to trap people of color in the criminal justice system, treating them as though they’re inherently violent and dangerous. While Attorney General Jeff Sessions has yet to denounce violence committed by white supremacists, he has used the perceived threat of MS-13 gang violence to uproot undocumented immigrants from the country. In Portland, the fact that Christian wasn’t subjected to anything resembling the vetting received by so-called gang members shows how subjective and racially biased these terms—and policing in general—really are.