The most prominent Somali immigrant in Portland says he was left wondering if he had been accused of being a terrorist after a security guard at City Hall searched through his bag on Friday.
Kayse Jama, the director of Unite Oregon and a candidate for the Oregon Senate, says the security guard made an alarming remark when Jama handed over his bag for a routine search.
As he peeked into the bag, Jama says the guard asked if he had "any bazookas or bombs," according to a Facebook post Jama wrote Friday evening.
The racially charged question lit up social media after Jama posted about the alleged interaction. Many people said the comment was racist.
"I am certain the guard asked this question in jest—and, indeed, many community members have experienced similar comments—[but] for me it was not funny," Jama said in a statement responding to questions sent by WW. "I still don't find it funny."
In his Facebook post, Jama noted that his Somali heritage is not hard to identify—he speaks with an accent—and wondered if the guard had noticed and made the comment because he is an immigrant.
People on social media were quick to lob criticisms at City Hall's security guard, calling the comment racist and anti-immigrant. But others thought the guard was likely trying to make a poorly thought-out joke.
Jama says he no longer believes he was singled out for his ethnicity.
"It is evident that this is not just something that happens to people of color or immigrants and refugees," Jama said.
Jama is not a new face in City Hall. He's been engaged in local politics for some time as the director of Unite Oregon, a nonprofit that works to organize people of color, immigrants and refugees around political issues. Now, he's running to unseat Sen. Rod Monroe (D-East Portland) in the state Senate.
He updated his Facebook post after hearing feedback from the comment section, saying that he did not want to see the security guard lose his job.
A spokesman for Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was not immediately available for comment this weekend.
Jama tells WW that he now believes the remark wasn't targeting him, but it signals that city employees lack training in how to deal with people from different backgrounds.
He adds that he doesn't think the guard should be disciplined.
"This is not about him, or me," Jama adds. "I go to City Hall all the time and I am very comfortable there. I want to ensure all our community members feel welcome in City Hall and in every public building—and to receive the same treatment no matter who they are."
Update Jan. 22, 4:15 pm: The mayor met with Jama to discuss the incident on Monday.
"Mayor Wheeler spoke to Kayse Jama personally about this unfortunate incident," Michael Cox, a spokesman for the mayor, said in a statement. "The mayor has directed the Bureau of Internal Business Services (which oversees the contract with G4S) to ensure security personnel in City Hall receive additional training in cultural competence so this doesn't happen again."