Alejandro Queral has only been in Portland a year, but he's managed to get right in the middle of some of the hottest political issues (at least as seen by some on the local left): government surveillance, police violence and most recently, racial profiling.
Queral, 34, is the executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center
(NWCRC). He came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 15 and became a citizen in 2000. He's lived in 12 different states and, before he added Oregon to that list, he was in Washington, D.C., working for the Sierra Club and attending law school.
Queral recently joined Police Chief Rosie Sizer and NWCRC board president Jo Ann Bowman on a racial profiling committee, an oversight body that will review police policies and hold open meetings to discuss how best to eradicate racial profiling in arrests, traffic stops and other police activities.
He's a pretty busy guy, but Queral took some time out of his schedule to sit down with Hot Action over a raspberry smoothie to talk about wire-taps, paranoia and the touchy issue of race.
WW: Does the NWCRC have the same sort of broad definition of free speech as the ACLU, which will defend neo-Nazis who want to hold a demonstration as well as anti-war protesters who want to march in the street?
Alejandro Queral: I think what the ACLU does is fantastic. I think there's absolute value in the approach they take, which is: freedom of speech is freedom of speech, regardless of your point of view. They have filled that niche. The NWCRC is a project of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). Our approach is really focused more on supporting the progressive community. We have progressive, lefty, liberals—whatever you want to call them. So, we do have an ideological bent, unlike the ACLU, which kind of tries to stay above the fray. I don't think the center would ever represent white supremacists because they had some problem with the cops while protesting. That's just not something that we would feel comfortable with.
WW: What kind of action is the NWCRC taking to combat warrantless wiretaps?
We haven't taken any legal action yet, but what we have done is we have approached more than 20 activist groups in Portland and Eugene and Salem and filed requests under Oregon's open records act asking for any information related to activities by these groups. We have also filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the FBI, Department of Defense, a number of federal agencies that we know have been, in one way or another, conducting investigations of anti-war groups. Those are, I think, the groups that are being monitored most closely.
And so, we're beginning to get some responses back from the federal agencies. We actually also requested all sorts of information about training policies with respect to surveillance from all law enforcement agencies in Oregon. And we've gotten some responses and we'll be looking at this information as we get it. Obviously, what we're looking for here is any evidence that the federal government or state agencies have done surveillance on groups.
WW: Do you find that doing this kind of work makes you more paranoid than the average citizen?
I don't think it makes me more paranoid. I don't think that I'm being followed or I'm under intense scrutiny. I wouldn't be surprised if our phones are wire-tapped, for example. It wouldn't surprise me, but that's different from being paranoid. But the rest of the community is. There's a lot of concern. I don't necessarily think that it's paranoia. If you're expressing certain political points of view, you increase your chances of getting the attention of the government. That's the reality of it.
WW: I want to ask you about the recently formed racial profiling committee. Do you think better work will be done now that police union president Robert King is on board?
Well, I think it gives us a chance to really talk about the issues honestly and openly, because if you don't have the stakeholders at the table, those views, those issues, those concerns that they may have may come later or may be a source of criticism to the racial profiling committee and really stall the ability to make some progress.
WW: Obviously, we've come a long way from a time when it was actually illegal for African-Americans to live in Oregon, but are we still one of the more racist states?
The racial profiling issue is forcing Portland, at least, to talk about race and talk about race relations. And I have noticed that it's an incredibly uncomfortable topic for Portlanders to talk about. It's not surprising because you have that history, because you have a very, very, very small community of color. And so, my guess is there are a lot of race-related concerns and whether that's racism or not, I don't know. I think Oregon has some significant race issues to deal with in part because it's not something that communities outside of Portland really have to deal with. And any time there's no exposure, any time there's no interaction, any time there's no understanding, you're going to have actions that may be deemed racist. Yeah, I think Oregon has a huge problem.
WW: Do you find yourself to be a victim of racial profiling of any kind?
My only experience [here] was this man in downtown asked me if I was a terrorist. I think the person was not well, mentally. He was like, “Are you a terrorist? Are you a terrorist? Why are you guys from the Middle East attacking us?” And I just turned around and said, “Don't give me that,” and just looked at him straight in the eye, and he stopped. That's about it.JULIE SABATIER
Check out Hot Action, WWire's weekly post about activists, demonstrations and other hot political action in and around Portland every week.
UPCOMING HOT ACTION EVENTS:
Friday, January 26
Critical Mass Ride
It's the last Friday and that means it's time to join the pedaling pack that is critical mass. Show those cars who's boss: ride, represent and obey traffic laws. Don't forget to bring your lights. Meet on North Park Blocks at NW Park near Burnside at 5:30pm. Free.
Saturday, January 27
Reading: Fifty Awesome Ways Kids Can Help Animals
Want to make an activist out of your kid (or someone else's)? Then, you won't want to miss this event with Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing 2:00pm. Free.
Tuesday, January 30
Racial Profiling Committee Meeting
This is the first meeting of Portland's newly formed racial profiling committee. Hear what the committee has to say about the issues and raise some of your own. Emmanuel Temple, 1032 N Sumner St. 3-5pm. Free and open to the public.