How I Met Lew Frederick: Oregon State Senator, Civil Rights Leader
A few words about my long-time friend, Oregon State Senator Lew Frederick, a leading light in our Legislature’s People of Color Caucus. Lew and I first met over the phone when he was the spokesperson for the Portland Public Schools and I was a young reporter covering Rogue Valley schools. Lew was always quick, capable and informative, qualities anyone working on a deadline appreciates, though we occasionally found time to linger in deeper conversations about life, justice and minorities’ experiences in Oregon.
Lew inquired about my Medford experience. I’d encountered no serious difficulties since arriving in June 1987 from Duke University to take a job at the Mail Tribune. Although when searching for an apartment upon our arrival in 1987, more than one landlord asked, “Enriquez, is that a Mexican name?” Actually, I was a Cuban child refugee when I arrived in the United States early in 1961, but it hardly seemed relevant.
We took an apartment in Phoenix prior to buying our home of 32 years in Medford. I confided my father had come away with a very different impression in the ’60s while performing audits for a Portland accounting firm. Medford was then the only town he would not overnight in. Which was incredible, considering how early he had to rise to make the five hour drive, get the job done, and then arrive home late! But never said why.
Lew then shared that he’d had experiences of his own. He’d been an actor for what was then called the Oregon Shakespearean Festival in the 1970s. It was a great experience. He still speaks with an actor’s trained voice. And twice, while walking in downtown Medford in the middle of the day, a police officer had pulled alongside and warned him not to remain in town after dark. Acting casually under color of law, this rogue officer had violated his civil rights.
That anecdote and others led me to probe the history of our region and state, discovering that our Constitution still carried a founding statement declaring Oregon a free state, but banning entry to free blacks. Eventually this grew into a series of stories about race relations in southern Oregon, featuring Lew’s and others’ experiences, and a few years after, those hateful words were expunged from our Constitution. We remained friends, and when Lew first ran for office to represent Northeast Portland, we supported him, and reached out to old friends there to do the same.
The mistake would be to suppose such experiences were either a regional or bygone problem. Obviously not. There is no region of our state or nation that has not been marred by systemic racism. The words may be expunged, but full equality under the law has been a long time coming. Even as an elder statesman, Lew has been stopped while walking in his own neighborhood of many years, by an officer inquiring, “Are you lost?” The presumption being that Irvington was no place for a black man?
Lew’s esteemed colleague, Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, out knocking doors 2018 during the day in the district that she covers––a basic task of any (pre-Covid) campaign––was reported to police by one of her own constituents. The caller feared she was “casing the neighborhood.”
Grave injustices like the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have riveted the nation’s attention and galvanized social justice campaigns like seldom before. But it is important also to recognize that these instances arise not only from structural barriers to equality––which Legislatures can work to address––but from the fear and suspicion within people’s hearts are part of the lived daily experience of black Americans everywhere. That must change––and all freedom loving people everywhere must work to change it.
––Make the Oregon Attorney General responsible for investigating injuries and deaths when officers deploy force—and prosecuting them as appropriate.
––Begin strengthening Oregon's standard for police use of force.
I fully support unions and the basic human right to bargain collectively. However, no one is above the law. Chiefs must be able to enforce discipline of officer’s misconduct. When officers break the law, we cannot rely upon in-house investigations. That hasn’t worked. Please let Gov. Kate Brown know you support these reforms.