Last year Nekima Levy-Pounds told me that conditions in the Twin Cities were ripe for it to be another Ferguson. I disagreed. The people in power here control their people with a smug brand of I-know-what's-best-for-you liberalism, and the people under their boot often seem too docile to resist. A year later, I'm proven wrong.
For a weeks smoke has been rising on Minneapolis' North side, and protesters have been holding it down at the 4th precinct police station, an action spurred by the officer involved shooting of Jamar Clark. Injustices like Clark's have happened before, but this time, because of young people and their brilliant impatience with business as usual, it is exposing the longstanding problem with policing - here and in other urban communities.
While most Americans express an almost childish appreciation for law enforcement in their communities, there is a predictable difference of opinion between races. At least 72% of whites express confidence in police officers, but only 36% of blacks agree. In fact, 70% of blacks say police departments do not treat races equally, and are not accountable for misconduct.
Researchers say experience with police officers matters, and in low-income communities where much of the experience is bad, opinion is understandably low.
While suburban residents see their police officers as servants, and middle-class city dwellers often see them as the buffer between haves and have-nots in inequitable urban centers, neighborhoods like the Northside see a face of policing that is often white, angry, and medieval.
Sadly, cries of racism in poor neighborhoods go unanswered, and few believe the extent to which police departments are staffed with honest-to-God racists.
Ghosts in the machine
There is a warning tucked neatly in a 2006 report from the Federal Bureau of investigations about "ghost skins," a network of whites with extremist positions who don alternate personas so that they can infiltrate law enforcement, state government, and the military to further the cause of white power.
In Minneapolis it would be hard to believe such a problem could exist. It's liberal here. Very liberal. It would be harder to push a camel through the eye of a needle than to elect a Republican in Minneapolis. Yet, the police department is mostly made up of suburban and exurban officers who come from parts of Minnesota that aren't liberal.
The Minneapolis Police Department is famous for paying out millions of dollars to settle abuse claims (Minneapolis has paid out $14 million in settlements between 2006 and 2012), and for having racial strife internally. In 1992 black officers said they received hate mail, possibly from within their own ranks. Later, two Minneapolis City Council members, Brian Herron and Ralph Remington, reported racist harassment from Minneapolis police officers.
After years of complaints, lawsuits, and charges of racism at all levels of the department, the MPD is also known for having leadership that looks a lot like the ghost skins mentioned in the feds report.
Nobody better exemplifies that than Lt. Bob Kroll, the current president of Minneapolis' police union. A native of St. Paul's Eastside (a part of the neighboring twin city with its own history of racism), he has a long documented record of racial violence that includes complaints from residents going back to the 1990s.
In his own defense, he has said "I've been told I'm racist, and I'm violent. I'm aware of that. I've been 15 of my 18 in SWAT, and I've had more complaints than most, but I've had much higher contacts, and a much higher number of arrests.... I've been cleared almost all the time."
One charge that he didn't beat, one that he denied even against the testimony of multiple witnesses, is that he called Congressman Keith Ellison a terrorist.
That's not comforting reply for people of color. But it gets worse. Kroll has been a member of the City Heat Motorcycle Club, a biker gang that an Anti-Defamation League report called "Bigots on Bikes" said "has members who have openly displayed white supremacist symbols."
The report says:
Photographs of City Heat members taken by other club members and posted to the Internet have shown that some members of the club display a number of symbols on their clothing that have white supremacist or hateful connotations. One member sports a patch that asks “Are you here for the hanging?”—a reference to lynching. The lynching theme is corroborated by a small chain noose the individual wears next to the patch. Another City Heat member displays the most common Ku Klux Klan symbol, the so-called “Blood Drop Cross.” Several members wear “Proud to be White” patches, an item typically worn by white supremacists.
This came up in a lawsuit by black Minneapolis police officers who said Kroll "wears a motorcycle jacket with a “White Power” badge sewn onto it."
That isn't exactly what you might expect for any level of leadership in a "progressive" city, but Kroll is representative of what rank and file white police officers feel they need to defend their interests. As suburbanites working in an urban area, as whites policing other races, they need a leader who understands you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.
Apparently Kroll delivers. He has made defending cops in discipline hearings his business. If the number of sustained complaints of abuse are any indication, it's a good time to be an abusive cop in Minneapolis. A recent Star Tribune story said no cops have been disciplined after 439 complaints through the city's largely ineffective new police review system.
Kroll isn't alone. Hennepin County's sheriff, Rich Stanek, has a history not unlike Kroll's.
A 2006 City Pages article reports on an incident that occurred between Stanek and Anthony Freeman - a black motorist - in 1989:
at the vehicle. Stanek then, according to the plaintiff, smashed the driver's side window. He ordered Freeman out of the car, "collared" him, and delivered two blows to his back and neck before handcuffing him, while Freeman was facedown on the ground. Freeman's complaint went on to allege that Stanek "beat and kicked" him "with his fists, feet, and other police-issued paraphernalia." The Liberian maintained he never resisted, because he knew Stanek was a cop. Freeman—who, according to a depostion provided in the case by the late MPD officer Jerry Haaf, had not been drinking—sought $50,000; the case was settled out of court for $40,000.
That settlement was forgotten until 2004 when Stanek was up for a gig as Minnesota's Public Safety Commissioner. The hubbub derailed his appointment. A few years later he ran for Hennepin County Sheriff, this time with odd support from some progressives, including some black leaders.
That could be an example of adapting, and adopting a persona that makes racism untraceable.
Let's not assume all of the systemic racism in Minneapolis can be laid at the feet of folks like Kroll and Stanek, or law enforcement generally. Even as protestors risk their lives and bravely make demands of the system they are confronted with urges for calm from institutional progressives who support the mayor's effort to be "measured." Northside City Council member Blong Yang complained on Facebook that the protestors were unreasonable, and the city chair of the Democratic Party thanking him for standing up to the "bullies." And, members of the black old guard with ties to the mayor's office appear more interested in managing the behavior of the natives than supporting young people in the pursuit of structural changes, and justice.
If it weren't for the new energy of Black Lives Matter, new leadership at the NAACP, ground troops from Neighborhood's Organizing for Change, and the sect of organized labor that has found their diversity Jesus, there wouldn't be any smoke, any fire, any chants, any sustained action that steps out of Minnesota's addiction to process and meetings in order to get things done.
Because these groups are disturbing the peace the nation now knows we are the capital of white bullshit.
As black activists national have reminded everyone to question it if they die in police custody, we have a uniquely Minnesotan response from Tony Cornish, a state representative and Chairman of our Public Safety Prevention Committee.
If you die in this struggle, you are the one who did something wrong, not me. I was doing my job the best I could. I will regret this tragic incident ever took place, but I will not be ashamed or intimidated.
Ghost skins indeed.