“Say his name” “George Floyd” chants
Mike Griffin: Minnesota nice shouldn’t just be for if you’re white, Minnesota nice should be for every single person that lives in the state.
Solveig Rennan: Welcome to Under-Told: Verbatim. I’m Solveig Rennan for the Under-Told Stories Project. Normally we report from all over the world for PBS NewsHour. We talk to experts and people making a difference in their countries and communities. We revisit under-told stories to share extended interviews we’ve done with changemakers… but this episode is different–starting with its location. Our team actually lives in St. Paul and Minneapolis…which, on a fateful day in late May, became the epicenter of a protest movement that’s swept the world since-The death of George Floyd. We’ve been on the frontlines of this story for the PBS NewsHour. Alongside NewsHour producers Mike Fritz and Sam Lane, we produced an in-depth piece on inequality in the Twin Cities, how ‘Minnesota Nice’ only applies if you’re white. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the full story at undertoldstories.org. In this episode, we have a chance to expand conversations our correspondent, Fred de Sam Lazaro, had with community members after police killed Floyd and protestors burned the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct…
Brittany Lewis: I fear if this is not taken seriously.
Fred de Sam Lazaro Even now?
Brittany Lewis Even now I’m not gonna lie to you. I’m worried because right now people are. We’re still in the the feelings of protest and rage, but there’s still a trial. They’re still we’re like there’s a long road.
Brittany Lewis here, yeah, so we’re on intersection of west Broadway and Emerson at the US Bank parking lot.
Solveig Rennan: Five days after Floyd was killed, we started our interviews with Brittany Lewis at a food and supplies distribution in North Minneapolis, a predominantly Black neighborhood.
Brittany Lewis: Ashley Henderson actually organized this effort and got a lot of a lot of nonprofits and other folks that come together and provide resources for families in need. A lot of our stores are shut down there’s little access to diapers, totally paper, food, fresh food. This is just community coming together and supporting each other. This is the part of what’s happening in the world and the protests and you usually don’t get to see. I think most of the news coverage is showing burning buildings, burning cars, looting, etc, which we now know, which community could have told you it wasn’t being led by community but outside interests. But this is what community is doing. Those that are of and from community are worried about its citizens. And this is an example of what that looks like.
Solveig Rennan: Lewis is a scholar at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs—she was recently named a Bush Foundation Fellow.
Brittany Lewis: You know, North Minneapolis is like a lot of disinvested urban areas across the country. You know, era of white flight, many folks left this area because black folks were moving in, was deindustrialization, where jobs are leaving the cities you left black and brown folks behind. It’s also a disinvested part of the city, where there’s a lack of business development. There’s a lot of interest in growing that. But again, that’s from histories of neglecting that reality. Historically, a food desert, a place where the schools are not performing well compared to their peer schools and other more affluent neighborhoods. However, it’s a resilient community. And I also want to be really clear about that. This community gave rise to the van whites(?). A lot of powerful electeds live here, Bobby Joe champion, myself, other political leaders come out of this place. People believe deeply in this community. I would argue this is a community has been over policed. I’m a member of the legal rights center board. And now Attorney General Ellison, who was then an activist lawyer helped grow that organization alongside other community members fighting against police brutality. This community has a rich history and showing up and doing things itself.
Fred: But what do the people that we see here today for all the community trying to repair do when their voices seem to be drowned out? By what seems like a chaotic scene that’s out of control to a national television audience?
Brittany Lewis: I think there’s multiple approaches that folks take. First and foremost, healing is so important. And healing often doesn’t require us to be in any conversation with any other community but ourselves sometimes. Sometimes having community support and someone that actually understands what you’re going through is a step that needs to be taken. But there’s also tangible policy and practice steps that needs to be taken, and there are community leader supporting community and understanding what those steps are when we’re talking about police or policing, the reality is to get to the criminal justice system, you have to have an interaction with an officer. I mean, that is just the reality. And our policing practices need to be reformed. I sit on the Minnesota Task Force on police involved shooting. I’m on the youth justice Council. And we’re really being intentional about the policy shifts that need to take place. If what happened here in Minneapolis isn’t indication enough that it needs to be taken seriously. I don’t know what else you’re gonna have to see. And what you’re seeing on the streets as folks show up in protest, is they’re kind of outward illustration of what trauma and rage look like. And those are natural feelings. That should never be undermined. Because I’d argue that rage can be funneled into positive places and spaces protesting is a positive act. It’s about active community coming together being clear. About what you want being clear about a loss of humanity and making sure you are heard. Historically, I’d argue there are many things across this nation or globe that would never have changed without protests. And I will defend everyone’s right to participate in that.
Fred:I want to come back to to the to the question of the voices you know, that want to channel protest for political effect, you know, like Mayor Bottoms talked about last night from Atlanta. Those voices seem to be drowned out by a lot of people who seem to have, you know, other intentions.
Brittany Lewis: We don’t control if the media chooses to just show burning buildings or not. We don’t control whether or not outside white supremacist groups choose to fly into the Twin Cities or drive in and burn up buildings. In many ways. We don’t control that. And I argue we’re not even focusing our energy on controlling that. I think we know politically, what’s been happening in Twin Cities. We are speaking out. We know how power works in the Twin Cities. We’re organizing, we’re being intentional. And we’re utilizing our people power to make that happen. I think that there are these efforts that you get to see on a screen. And there’s the efforts you never get to see because you’re not in the room. We’re in those rooms. But we need community to continue to show up, speak out, be unapologetic about their pain. Because we need to hear those voices and stories the nation needs to hear it. our elected officials needs to hear it. Our county attorney needs to hear our mayor’s need to hear our city council’s needs to hear it until it’s so ingrained in their minds that every time they go into a board meeting or a council room, that they know we’re coming. That’s the work. And then we need folks like myself and others with technical expertise and otherwise to help support that work in those policymaking spaces, that there have to have multiple Kind of the levers of engagement. Right, the grassroots matter. The boardrooms matter, the, you know, the session floor matters. And make sure that we show up in those spaces and be really clear about what we’re asking for is important.
Solveig Rennan: We left North Minneapolis and headed south to Lake Street. Standing across the street from the abandoned Third Precinct, outside the ash and rubble of a torched Auto Zone, we spoke to Mike Griffin, a political organizer in Minneapolis and other cities across the U.S.
Mike Griffin: Here’s what I know. I know. The Minneapolis third precinct is in some people, a symbol of public safety and a lot of people as a symbol of white supremacy, of police oppression and government violence. Right and in That building right was where a lot of the effort of Black Lives Matter was focused two nights ago this week and the other fires, I don’t know who sets these fires. Um, so today we’re putting a lot of band aids on the protests meaning We got a curfew bandaid would have been seven or eight. We have a National Guard that’s in I guess they’re gonna station that was on blocks across Minneapolis. These are band aids. These are not real solutions. We need the leadership of this city. The leadership of the state to really lean in on what are the structural problems that are making this community so angry. What are the structural problems that we can do that they can do as leaders to make Black Lives actually matter and black lives more respected and a Minnesota nice that we always talk about actually come to fruition? I want that to be the next step. How do we actually move this movement and get this going that we can actually change this for the Minnesota nice if you’re white to Minnesota nice if you everyone
Fred: Is there anything unique about Minneapolis I guess is the question. Or different than from those other cities that have larger African American populations or larger person of color populations?
Mike Griffin: there’s a lot of similar black struggles in cities around the nation. That’s why you’re finding today and tonight that there’s similar protests happening around this country because have to in order for us to have a majority of be able to get a majority we’ve got a pull white allies and pulling white allies sometimes Oh yeah, it’s just it’s just a different it’s just a different concept of like, we just need white allies to be bought in on affordable housing. We need white allies to be bought in on a fair schedule. We need white allies to be bought in on policing accountability. We need more white allies to be bought in on that in order to actually win on the ballot box. So we have a very diverse Minneapolis City Council. In order for us to get a majority of votes in that Council. We got to have a lot of white allies and that’s a little bit different than like only Working with black folks. What’s up? It’s a relatively wealthy city for white people. And this is what I’m trying to tell you. It’s like it’s it’s it’s the the gaps between white folks and people of color in Minneapolis and in Minnesota are one of the worst in the entire nation. So it seems to the world. It seems to the world that Minneapolis is this this progressive bastion and everybody’s doing well. You’re doing well if you’re white, Minnesota, nice if you’re white. And what we need to do is have more investments, more job training programs and more police accountability for folks who look like me in this city.
Solveig Rennan: Being Black in this city was all it took to trigger another ugly encounter, another viral video from Minneapolis just one day after George Floyd’s killing. It was posted by a group of young Black entrepreneurs… Abdi Hassan and Zak Ahmed are two members of a marketing start up called Team Top Figure—they were racially profiled in their Minneapolis office building’s gym by Tom Austin, their fellow tenant. Here’s Abdi:
Abdi Hassan: we worked out like at nighttime every day, you know, and, like, around like, seven o’clock ish. This happened like 750. And so we pretty much me, my four colleagues were working out before me. And they see this individual there. And he started kind of giving them weird looks earlier and then I guess I came in last and when I came in, it’s kind of like, what was what set him off for something. That’s when he asked like, are you guys supposed to be in here? You guys belong here. And we’re like, yeah, We have an office here, you know, and then he was like, okay, like what office you know who the office with because apparently there’s other people who tenant here other than wework. And then we said, yeah, we have office here and we’re like, that’s we don’t have to like explain ourselves to you. And then he was like I need I need to see everybody’s key card demanded to see all of our key cards. And as tenants, you can’t ask another tenant, let me see your key card right now. So we refuse to refuse to. And that’s when he actually pulled out his camera and started taking pictures of us. So he could send it to the building manager, you know, and I think if it wasn’t for him taking pictures, we would have never thought to pull out our phone and start recording you know, so as soon as you started taking pictures is when our phones came out and started recording and that’s when things like took a bad left and he said those things on camera, which you know, and yeah, it wasn’t goo
Yeah, so we sat on it for a couple of hours, you know about I think it was about two hours, we sat on just thinking like, what should we do, you know, just trying to rush the table, brush the situation under the table and move on. But we really seen like, how big this is, and like what’s going on in America right now. And the threat of you know, I’m gonna call 911 for black person, if you say that to a black person in America now is essentially, to a certain extent a death threat with everything that’s going on, you know. So once we seen the magnitude of the situation, we really had to bring light to the situation, you know, we were taking it lightly at first because it just happened to us and we didn’t know how to act. You know, we’re just thinking like, oh, wow, what’s going on? But then once we sat and we really like, talked about it and seen what actually happened to us and how we got racially profiled. It’s actually a serious situation. We really have to share and bring light to it.
Solveig Rennan: Almost eighty thousand retweets and one hundred seventy two thousand likes later, the building’s owner ended Austin’s lease.
Zak Ahmed 20:44 I wouldn’t say it’s too bad but there is some, you know, racism that you face. on a day to day we just as a black person you just learned to deal with those things. And not you don’t make a big deal out of them. But I think for the most part We try to stay in our community. And that helps a lot because, you know, most of my friends are, you know, Somali or black, so I wouldn’t have to deal with a lot of racism or anything like that.
Solveig Rennan: Minneapolis may be diverse, but the legacy of housing policies like racial covenants and redlining have kept it mostly segregated–and marked with a long history of tense, often violent police encounters, especially in non-white neighborhoods
Fred de Sam Lazaro 0:05 So, you have this MPD 150 report that I trust was pre pre George Floyd. And then this happened. How did that resonate with you in the context of that report?r
Tony Williams 0:20 Well, when we wrote the MPD 150 report, in many ways, it was in response to the killings of Mr. Clark and Philando Castille. And while we were in the process of putting it out, Justine Damond was killed. So I think it speaks to the cyclical nature of police brutality in Minneapolis.
Solveig Rennan: Tony Williams is an organizer with MPD 150 – a group pushing past police reform and towards what they say is abolition
Tony Williams: So I think for those of us who have been following this history and the culture of policing here in Minneapolis, it’s a watershed moment in terms of the community that’s protesting right now is no longer saying that we think reforms are going to fix the underlying problems here but that we actually need to move towards abolishing the police and a police free future.
Fred: You have legal and political challenges that are formidable. First of all, talk about those specifically, as they play out, as you try and bring about reform and changes. And then we’ll get to why you think something even more sweeping has a chance?
Tony Williams: So there are many ways in which police reform has been stymied by the political climate that we live in. Right. And a big part of that is that the police themselves in the police union has immense political power. Like I said, they have successfully pushed back on reform measures at the state legislature and lobbying the city council. They contribute to work stoppages, whenever possible in order to try and create a perception that crime is worse than it actually is. And they outright lie to the media a lot of the time about the issues that they’re encountering and about how bad they are. So we see and that’s in addition to their extremely strong contract, which are A lot of the time will reinstate officers that are fired for particularly egregious acts of brutality. So if you have an incident of police brutality, for example, against you if the police brutalize you, first, you have to make a report, which most of the time you have to make to the police. So you have to hope that whoever’s on the opposite end of that report is going to listen to you and is going to record it, which studies have shown doesn’t happen a lot of the time, right? And then it has to make its way to several oversight bodies that don’t have a particular interest in holding those officers accountable and couldn’t even if they do because they have very stringent legal restrictions placed on them. And then it goes to the chief to make a disciplinary decision, and he can decide whether or not to make that decision himself. And then even if the chief decides that those officers in question need to be fired for that incident, and it goes to Union arbitration, and many times those officers are reinstated afterwards. So that’s one small example of the ways in which police are sort of iured from any real political reforms. And instead, what we think is possible, is moving towards an abolition of the police department. And the reason for that is because it’s actually municipalities that have the budgeting order over police departments, the municipality and the City Council controls the purse strings, without really any legal restrictions on how they can spend their money as a municipality. So there’s nothing stopping them from saying, we actually want to transfer this money over into more vital community supported functions into saying for mental health crises, we actually don’t want to have police handle those and we want to have a new agency that we create or existing agencies that are modified to handle those calls.
Fred de Sam Lazaro And what do you think, speaking again, in the political context, gives you any idea that this is, is feasible? I mean, you’ve talked about a technical approach, which is to say municipalities control their budgets. Do you think that that translates into political practicality, I mean, You think the police union with all its power, as you say it has, is going to roll over and disappear?
Tony Williams : Absolutely not. But I think what we’re seeing in Minneapolis right now, this uprising is a sign that the political will is there by the residents of this city.
Fred de Sam Lazaro : to eliminate the police department.
Tony Williams Yeah, to move towards abolishing the police department. What we’re seeing from calls from protesters on the ground, in addition to prosecution of the officers is no longer a conversation about reforms. I was a part of the protests at the fourth precinct after Jamal Clark was killed. I was a part of the protests at the governor’s mansion after Philando Castille was killed. The conversations that are having happening on the ground are completely different now than they were before. And I think people have realized that no matter what surface level reforms are proposed, that they don’t work and that if we want to live in a Minneapolis where police brutality is a thing of the past, that we have to completely radically reexamine how we look at public safety in the city.
Solveig Rennan: That idea—of rexamining public safety—is gaining considerable steam. Calls to defund, dismantle, or abolish police appear in street art, on social media and from elected officials—a veto proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council has committed to “ending the Minneapolis Police Department.” Learn what that might look like in our story about defunding the police at undertoldstories dot org. Our interviews with Brittany Lewis, Mike Griffin, Adbi Hassan, Zak Ahmed and Tony Williams were originally featured in our story called “Minnesota Nice if you’re white”, which aired on PBS NewsHour on June first, 2020. To check out the full story, go to undertoldstories-dot-org. This episode was hosted, produced and edited by me, Solveig Rennan. The interview was conducted by our director Fred de Sam Lazaro with associate producer Simeon Lancaster and PBS NewsHour producers Mike Fritz and Sam Lane. You can find every Under-Told: Verbatim episode, virtual reality 360 experiences and our entire library of Under-Told news reports from around the world at undertoldstories-dot-org.
Under-Told: Verbatim is brought to you by the Under-Told Stories Project based at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. As always, thanks for your support.
Inequality in the Twin Cities
Our team actually lives in St. Paul and Minneapolis…which, on a fateful day in late May, became the epicenter of a protest movement that’s swept the world since: the death of George Floyd. We’ve been on the frontlines of this story for the PBS NewsHour. Alongside NewsHour producers Mike Fritz and Sam Lane, we produced an in-depth piece on inequality in the Twin Cities, how ‘Minnesota Nice’ only applies if you’re white. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the full story at undertoldstories.org. In this episode, we have a chance to expand conversations our correspondent, Fred de Sam Lazaro, had with community members after police killed Floyd and protestors burned the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct.