Former PSU professor says surviving hate crimes cost her her job
This story contains offensive language
Crystallee Crain has spent her entire adult life trying to create a transformative experience for students and chip away at racism's roots in America, through higher education.
After moving to Portland, she found herself a victim of a culture she was hired to help combat.
Crain started working at Portland State University in 2018 as an assistant professor in the school's Child and Youth Family Studies program. She came with a robust background in higher education and social work. Even before earning a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, she already had years of teaching under her belt. She started working as a professor at just 22.
When she relocated from Oakland, Calif., to Portland she coordinated internships for PSU students and taught classes on activism for social change. Crain, now 37, found herself in a city far less diverse than Oakland or her hometown of Detroit.
While at PSU, she talked about racism frequently and asked her students to unpack structural oppression and social injustice. For some students, Crain's classes pushed their boundaries.
"A lot of it was just them having to deal with and reflecting on whiteness, their proximity to whiteness, and the resistance to the core of a lot it, but most students were on board," Crain said. "For some, I was their first Black teacher."
While she worked to expand students' horizons in the classroom, she gained recognition in her community. About four months into her tenure at PSU in 2018, Crain joined the city's Human Rights Commission. It seemed she was settling into Portland nicely, until the unthinkable happened.
After leaving a friend's birthday celebration in August 2018, Crain said she was targeted and stalked by a group of men in the early hours as she attempted to call for a ride home.
A police report Crain filed on Aug. 10, 2018, indicates she was waiting for a Lyft on a residential street in Southeast Portland, after she and a group left the Starday Tavern near Southeast Foster Road.
"My friends had already gotten their rides and I was the last one," Crain stated in the report. "I heard someone call out my name. They said, 'Crystallee.' I did not recognize their voice or expect someone to recognize me as I'm newer to town. I looked up from my phone and saw (five) white men walking fast then running toward me.
"There were five dudes, all dressed the same, in tank tops, khaki shorts and socks," she recalled of the early morning two years ago. "They chased me, called me 'Dr. N----r bitch.'"
She ran and hid in nearby residential yards to evade them.
"I know people saw me running and screaming but no one helped me," she reported.
Roughly 90 minutes after hiding in bushes, she called for a Lyft home.
"The attack felt personal, and like they somehow knew where I was and just waited until I was alone for a few minutes," Crain recounted in the report.
The 2018 police report classified the incident as criminal intimidation. Police closed the case in February 2019, citing a lack of tangible leads to investigate.
Crain believes she was "doxxed," a term for the practice of targeting someone and obtaining or releasing personally identifiable information, typically with malicious intent. It wasn't the first time she'd been targeted. Crain, who has published numerous works confronting racism and white supremacy in the past, said someone once called her grandparents' house years earlier, claiming to have found her passport. It was a phony attempt to get her current address.
"I don't get mail at my house anymore. I have a P.O. box and that's just the way I have to live now," she said.
After the attack, Crain informed the university where she worked about her concerns for her safety. Initially, she said a few colleagues at PSU worked to provide a layer of anonymity for Crain. The college's Child, Youth & Family Studies department and School of Social Work agreed to remove her name from the door at the campus and scrub her name from its website.
"People didn't know what the hell was going on," Crain said, noting she feared not only for her own safety, but that of her students.
But the 2018 incident wouldn't be the last.
Nearly a year later, on June 29, 2019, Crain was cornered and assaulted in an alleyway near a pizzeria on Northeast Alberta Street while waiting for an order she had just placed.
This time, a group of about three men came up from behind her, yelling the same racial slur she heard during the 2018 attack. They pushed her to the ground, leaving her bloody and bruised. When she hit the pavement, she suffered a broken lip and a chipped tooth, as well as cuts, bruises and gashes. She later required stitches and dental work on her teeth.
Crain was interviewed by a Portland Police officer the night of the attack. She told the officer she didn't see the assailants, but remembered their "white calves" surrounding her.
After the attack, she hid under nearby cars until calling for a Lyft to a nearby hospital.
Crain told police the first two Lyft drivers refused service because she was bleeding. She recalled one driver asked, "what's wrong with you?" before driving away.
The third driver to arrive, Ishmael Littleton, picked her up and took her to a hospital. Before dropping her off, Littleton gave Crain his cell phone number.
"I let her know that if she needed me, reach out," Littleton recalled of the 2019 incident when contacted by phone recently. He said upon arrival, he could see Crain was visibly injured. "Her head was bleeding, her hand was kind of scraped. She had some bruises and knots," Littleton said. "She was pretty distraught in the car."
Later that evening, PPB Officer Jena Lemke interviewed Crain at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. Lemke noted Crain was holding her mouth with gauze and still hysterical during the interview. Lemke took note of Crain's injuries and reviewed the sequence of events using Google maps and Crain's Lyft ride history location. The harassment incident the year prior also was mentioned.
"Based on these statements, it appears that this crime was motivated by bias/prejudice based on the suspect's perception of Crain's race/color," Officer Lemke wrote, classifying the call as an aggravated assault.
But despite Lemke's assessment, the report listed no gang activity or bias crime.
Police went back to review video from nearby security cameras around where the attack occurred, but suspects were never identified and no arrests were made.
Harassment on the rise
What happened to Crain isn't unique. In a report published in April 2020 by Portland United Against Hate, the organization catalogued 329 hate incidents from July 2018 to March 31, 2020.
Debra Kolodny, executive director of the group, called PUAH, said the numbers don't reflect the full scope of bias crimes in Portland.
"The number of people who reported to PUAH in the last three quarters of this year is probably at least 10 times the number reported to the police," Kolodny said.
The organization's report notes the FBI recorded only 15 incidents of hate-motivated crimes in Oregon during 2018. Kolodny said her organization has reached out to the Portland City Council with its data and is expanding outreach to county and state agencies and lawmakers, in hopes of impacting future policy making decisions.
Other Black Oregonians also have recently spoken out about their experiences being targeted and harassed.
Southwest Portlander Kevin Rhea was among a group of panelists at a recent neighborhood talk on the Black experience in Portland. Rhea recounted at least two separate incidents of being run off the road while cycling and having racial slurs yelled at him.
Since June, Portland Police have investigated at least two separate instances of nooses being found at public spaces in Portland — including one at a PSU construction site. Others have shared handwritten death threats they've received.
PSU and professor part ways
Crain said, after surviving two hate crimes, she feared for her life. The trauma followed her to work, where she said colleagues struggled to grasp the extent of what she'd endured. She felt singled out and, at one point after the 2019 attack, she said she was cornered by a colleague just minutes before a class. The colleague pressed her with questions and asserted Crain was the victim of domestic violence.
"She told me I was making my students unsafe," Crain said.
After fighting off two attacks on the street, she soon found herself fighting for her job at PSU. Crain said prior to the fall 2019 semester, she requested to teach her courses online, allowing her to work remotely. She noted she had been under contract with the university to develop an online curriculum and understood her upcoming courses would be offered to students remotely.
But the university changed course. Just weeks before the start of the upcoming term, Crain was notified she needed to teach her courses in-person on campus. She said there was no trauma-informed approach to the process. She found herself entangled in a messy battle with the university's human resources department. She received assistance from her employment union, but it wasn't enough to allow her to return to teaching at PSU.
Crain credited Ben Anderson-Nathe, program director of her department, as an ally who initially helped foster protective measures for her. Anderson-Nathe declined an interview when contacted and deferred comment to the university's HR department.
Crain said she later was pushed into taking leave for the winter term. Afterward, she was notified the university declined to renew her teaching contract.
A few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Oregon and the entire campus moved to a remote teaching and learning format, despite denying Crain the same opportunity just months prior.
"I asked for support from leadership and I asked (through the HR accommodation process) to work remotely so I could continue to share my talent with the PSU community. I was harshly denied," Crain wrote in a June 29 letter to PSU.
The university declined to comment on Crain's claims or complaints, citing it as a confidential personnel matter.
Crain's letter to PSU leadership advised them of the sequence of events that led to her exit and the need for an improved employment culture at Oregon's most urban university.
"I am also hoping that what happened to me can be a learning moment for the leadership of Portland State University, on how to work with survivors of hate violence," Crain stated.
She has since relocated and was recently offered a job with a California university training groups on equity, diversity and inclusion. Essentially, she's now tasked with teaching other professionals how to avoid the behavior she said she was subjected to while at PSU.
Crain said she's not angry, but disappointed by her experience as an employee of PSU, which prides itself on equity and has recently made statements affirming its commitment to racial justice.
She points to a larger issue at play in the city.
"Portland is bleeding Black," Crain said. "I saw other folks of color move to Portland and eventually leave because they didn't feel at home there."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.