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Forced resignation in racial profiling case draws criticism

Rep. Diego Hernandez is condemning the state's decision to force Erious Johnson Jr. to resign as part of agreement to settle his lawsuit.

COURTESY PHOTO - Erious Johnson Jr., former civil rights director for the Oregon Department of JusticeA Portland lawmaker has publicly condemned the state's decision to force the resignation of the Department of Justice's only black attorney, Erious Johnson Jr.

"He was the only black attorney, and they racially profiled him, and then forced him out," Rep. Diego Hernandez wrote in a Facebook post earlier this week. "That's not the Oregon I want to live in."

The forced resignation was part of an agreement to settle a federal discrimination case that Johnson filed last year. He sued the state for violation of his civil rights after coworkers targeted and tracked his social media activity because he had used a Black Lives Matter hashtag. They later deemed him a threat to law enforcement because they misinterpreted the meaning of a logo and lyrics from hip-hop group Public Enemy that Johnson had posted on Twitter.

The state paid Johnson $205,000 to settle the case but required him to resign his position as DOJ's civil rights director as a condition of the settlement. He left his position as DOJ's civil rights director Oct. 13.

Hernandez said his criticism was directed at the state Department of Administrative Services, which required the resignation, and not at Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. The attorney general did not ask for Johnson to resign and was informed of the forced resignation after DAS and Johnson had signed the settlement, said her spokeswoman, Kristina Edmunson.

Hernandez noted that Rosenblum had fired the DOJ agent who had profiled Johnson but was forced to reinstate the agent by the order of a state arbitrator.

Matt Shelby, spokesman for DAS, said settlements are made in the best business interest of the state. Yet, Hernandez and others say the move reflects badly on the state and reinforces the state's long history of racism.

Diana Pei Wu, former executive director of Portland Jobs with Justice, reacted to the news with hashtags: #OregonSoWhite and #WhyAreThereSoFewBlackPeople in Oregon.

"This makes me so sad," Monique Smiley, communications manager for the Welcome Home Coalition, wrote on Facebook. "I listened to (Johnson) speak several times, and he inspired so many students of color in leadership positions."

Beth Creighton, a civil rights lawyer who represented Johnson in his case against the state, said DOJ tried to push the incident of racial profiling under the rug.

"It is not dealing with the hard work of institutional racism and the underlying problems that cause it," Creighton said. "Oregon has a race problem. It has since the constitutional prohibition on black people working and living in state of Oregon" in 1857.

The constitutional provision followed years of discrimination against blacks before Oregon became a state, according to a recent report by the Washington Post highlighting the state's racial exclusion laws.