Earlier this month at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, we saw a very public case that exposed the way people of color must navigate life in our nation so differently than those of us who are white. Portland has finally begun to address our own painful history of systemic racism, but that history continues to have an impact on people of color in our community. In March, a young Latina leader, Ana del Rocio, was arrested by Tri Met officials in an incident that stemmed from a questionable citation over a mistake that many of us have made. At the worse, Ms. del Rocio should have received a citation. Instead, she spent several hours in jail over confusion about her surname.
Not long ago, I was rushing to catch a train with my young son in tow, cursing myself for not having planned better. If we had stopped to purchase tickets, we would have missed the train, so I made the choice to board without a ticket, confident that I would either not be questioned or I would have been able to come up with an explanation to avoid a citation. On our ride into downtown, a TriMet officer boarded and we exchanged greetings. When we arrived at the Old Town Chinatown stop, we exited the train and purchased a ticket. I’m not proud of skirting the law, but I had the luxury of doing this because I am white, and I was confident that my race would protect me.
Instances where I’ve been given the benefit of the doubt have played out often in my life. Years ago, when I lived in Colorado and marijuana was illegal, I stepped outside of a concert to smoke a joint with a friend. A police officer walked up to us, told us not to be so stupid, and to go back into the show. If I was a person of color, I’m certain I would have gone to jail. I would also then have a record, and a different trajectory in life. Sadly, I can give other examples of being given the benefit of the doubt by law enforcement. As a result, my past indiscretions have not limited my future achievements. That’s not the case for so many people of color.
Back to my own failure to pay my fare on TriMet. If I had been cited, or cited and jailed, the difficulties that the citation brought could have easily multiplied. This appears to be playing out in Ms. del Rocio’s case. Curiously, the original charge against del Rocio — for theft of services — was dropped. The charge of providing false information to an officer, a charge fully based upon a misunderstanding of Ms. del Rocio’s name (it’s common among members of Latinx communities to use a common name other than their birth name), is still pending.
Two things are clear. First, this is a civil rights issue and it needs to be recognized as such. Second, this type of situation undoubtedly plays itself out countless times on a daily basis in our community and beyond. It changes the way people of color are able engage in civic life and the opportunities they have for the future. We only happen to hear about these injustices if the impacted person happens to have a public profile (Meek Mill anyone?).
I’m fortunate because I am white. But I’m unfortunate because I live in a community and a country where nearly half of my fellow citizens don’t share the same rights as I do. TriMet’s decision to publish their version of the events is a troubling one, particularly for an agency that took a laudable step earlier in the year to decriminalize fare evasion. Rather than continue with their ill-advised case against Ms. del Rocio, TriMet must use this event as a way to better serve all riders and become a leader in a conversation around the way people of color are treated in our community.