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Racist Incident Disrupts OHSU Union Meeting

A meeting was disrupted by someone who played a video of a stabbing while yelling racist epithets and then joined a subsequent meeting and swore at the union while playing a racist song.
Oregon Health & Science University Marquam Hill campus in Portland. | OHSU
February 1, 2021

A Zoom meeting of Oregon Health & Science University employees who belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 328 was disrupted last Friday by a racist and violent incident that has shaken the union.

About 10 minutes into the publicly accessible meeting, an unidentified individual took control of the display and played a grainy video showing someone being stabbed in a backyard while yelling the “n” epithet, said Matt Hilton, an OHSU employee and president of AFSCME Local 328.

Hilton, who was facilitating the meeting, quickly shut it down.

“This is the most upsetting thing in local 328’s history,” Hilton told The Lund Report.

This is not the first racist incident in a Zoom session with OHSU employees. Last April, an OHSU employee posted a noose during an online meeting. It’s also not the first alarm about racism. Last September, Blacks at the institution called the administration an “enabler of racism,” prompting promises of change.

Neither was it the first attack against the union. In 2019, two OHSU employees used alias accounts on Twitter to try to undermine the union during bargaining. Dr. Danny Jacobs, OHSU’s president issued a public apology in response.

This time, Hilton said OHSU had nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, the union reported it to a public safety official at OHSU who told the union he could do nothing because no crime had been committed, Hilton said.

Hilton informed its members at OHSU -- about 7,000 -- about the incident last Friday just hours after it occurred, saying the union was sorry.

"This is very upsetting and something we never wanted to occur, and our union wishes to apologize to those of you who were subjected to it," the email said.

OHSU responded to the incident in a statement on Tuesday: “OHSU is appalled to learn that employees participating in an AFSCME membership meeting via Zoom were subjected to violent, racist imagery and speech by an unknown individual. We regret the distress this has caused and encourage members affected by this incident to use the wellness resources available to support the OHSU community.”

The meeting, which had about 20 attendees, was organized by the union to drum up interest in a bargaining team that will be elected by union members this summer. The three people on the panel were discussing their experiences when one person took control and started playing the video. Hilton said he first thought someone was mistakenly playing a video of their dog in the backyard. But then he saw pentagrams -- which he interpreted as satanic symbols -- and as the video played he realized it was showing a stabbing scene as someone yelled racist epithets. He scrambled to close the session, not noting much about the person. 

“There’s no question that it was completely intended to be as offensive as possible,” Hilton said

He restarted the meeting, using the same link, and blocked everyone’s video controls but the person hopped back on with another name and started swearing at the union, saying “F… your bargaining" while playing a racist song, Hilton said.

The union filed a report with OHSU’s public safety unit ,which said there was no law prohibiting that kind of action, Hilton said. The unit declined to file a police report. The union has also filed a report with the FBI.

Hilton said there’s clearly no link between OHSU’s administration, which critics suspected was complicit in the previous Twitter attack, and this one. The union advertised the meeting on its webpage, making the Zoom link public. Hilton said the union wants to make it as easy as possible for members, who include refugees and immigrants, to attend these meetings.

The union intends to switch to another format.

Last year, as Zoom became the substitute office meeting site for people working from home, many reports surfaced of “Zoom bombers.” Often, the intruders display pornography.

Hilton said he was surprised to learn from OHSU's public safety officer that showing a violent video was not a crime.

“The officer was very apologetic but said that it didn’t warrant doing an official police report,” Hilton said. “What happened in their opinion is not a crime.”

Hilton said that AFSCME will be looking into Oregon’s statutes and try to get them changed.

In the meantime, he said the incident was a warning to others planning Zoom meetings. He advised keeping links secret.

“We never in a million years imagined someone would try something like this,” Hilton said.

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.