Lisa Clemons: you’ll hear a lot of cops say, not all of them say a lot, but you will hear some cops say I don’t racially profile. And I’ll say yeah you do. We all do. We all do. // our racial profiling // has a huge impact on the relationship building between blue and black.
Solveig Rennan: Welcome to Under-Told: Verbatim. I’m Solveig Rennan for the Under-Told Stories Project.We report from all over the world for PBS NewsHour. We’ve talked to experts and people making a difference in their communities. In this podcast we’re revisiting those under-told stories to share extended interviews we’ve done with changemakers around the world. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re having conversations a little closer to home, especially since May 25, 2020, the day George Floyd was killed in the custody of Minneapolis police, setting off days of unrest across the country.
Lisa Clemons: How you doing, my friend… we’re going to get a turkey and ham
Solveig Rennan: It’s time to grocery shop—but Lisa Clemons isn’t here to fill her own fridge.
Lisa Clemons: “Here, I’ll carry it for you… she thinks she got muscle…… can you cook? Give em ham, Turkey. And just our love.
Solveig Rennan: It was almost Thanksgiving when we followed Clemons through a Cub Foods in North Minneapolis. She was there to pick out a turkey with Convana Sims— a mother who would have one less place setting at her table this year. Her 16 year old son Demetrius Dobbins–and two even younger friends–died in an October 2020 car crash when police pursued the vehicle they had carjacked
Convona Sims: I wanted my son, I wanted him to see more than I seen growing up. I wanted him, I wanted him to succeed// And once you lose them ain’t no getting them back.
Lisa Clemons: We found her in tragedy, which is sadly where we find a lot of people: in tragedy. But when we find them in tragedy, we don’t want to lose that relationship. We want to ask you, what more do you need? What more can we do?
Solveig Rennan: Watching out for people like Sims is all in a day’s work for Clemons, who is 57, the mother of three biological and two adopted children. She’s a former Minneapolis police officer who founded a non-profit called Mother’s Love, a brigade of people in bright pink t-shirts trying to bring back the metaphorical village they say it takes to raise a child. Clemons dreamed of being a cop since she was young– but left the department 20 years ago for a broader advocacy… Our correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro spent a cold November day with her as Clemons and her team passed out Covid kits of masks and toiletries, purchased hams or turkeys and organized an upcoming Christmas toy drive.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: So Lisa, tell us a little bit about your career switch, what made you go from being a police officer, to founding a mother’s love.
Lisa Clemons: And now in all honesty, I got sick of putting in young people in the back of a squad car. And I always said that when I got sick of going into homes, and I didn’t see the things that you need to make sure that your kids are successful, and a lot of those homes like books and crayons, and, you know, pencils in an area that’s just designated for that kid to feel like they own some part of that house. And it wasn’t always that people just weren’t doing it, it was I think they were never taught to do it, or weren’t conscious that that was needed. So I knew, I used to take young people down to juvenile detention or young people to me, young people, to Hennepin County Jails. And they would say to me, Oh, stop preaching to me, and just take me to jail. And we will laugh. And I just knew that once I was done with that career, that I wanted to do something to reach young people, reach families, and instill some different values that they may not have been taught. I came from poverty, but values and having a moral compass and education, it was a big deal for my mom. And it helped her kids be well rounded. We made some mistakes in life, too. But we fell back on what she taught us.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What was and what perhaps continues to be the biggest challenge for you, and trying to move the needle in building the village that we talked about earlier.
Lisa Clemons: I think the biggest challenge is them not understanding the black mother and the black woman. And the fact that often times upwards of 70% of the time, we are single mothers in the home. That does not mean that the Father is not in a kid’s life in some way. But the every day that our kids see is us and single mothers. And I think that that conversation is never had on a national level. We’re more shamed for being a single mom than we are embraced for being a single mom trying to make it happen for our kids. So every mistake we may make is magnified, every good thing we may do receives no attention. So I’m trying to be a voice to say, here we are. We’re right here. We may ask you for help. And we may not ask you for help. But that doesn’t mean we’re not here. So I want to be that catalyst that gives mothers and daughters a voice.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Is there a stigma attached to being a single mom in this community?
Lisa Clemons: Absolutely. Absolutely. Because I think they often forget, if you look at programs, if you look at a lot of the boots on the ground organizations, right now, I’m the only black woman who actually has a boots on the ground organization in the community. But if you look at it, and you listen to city address, state address, you listen to President speak, all they talk about is the black man, the black boy, I’m very proud to hear that. But what they forget is oftentimes we as black mothers are not only raising black daughters, we’re raising black sons, as single parents. So they tend to forget that when they’re talking about the plight of America. They tend to forget that those black boys who are being killed in our streets, who are being killed by the police in our streets formed by us. They came from us, and oftentimes they have been raised by just us. I want to make sure that America understands that the black mother is hasn’t gone anywhere and we’re not going anywhere.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What’s the consequences of not acknowledging that the role of the black mother,
Lisa Clemons: Not getting us the help, we need the resources, we need the trauma care we need. Oftentimes, in any black man, I’ll tell you, what do you think the greatest holiday the biggest holiday is Mother’s Day? Why do you think our athletes say thank you, Mom, I love you, mom. Because we have always been there. There’s fathers that hold it down by themselves too, Bravo to them. But the majority of the single parent homes are operated by mothers, oftentimes, as black mothers, especially, we won’t ask you for help. A lot of it is we try to do what we can do. A lot of it is embarrassment and shame. A lot of it is we don’t want to be judged. And a lot of people don’t understand that.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What resources do black mothers need, that they don’t have, as they tried to raise their children, especially their boys.
Lisa Clemons: We need mentors in the family, we need the fathers in the family. And a lot of times, it’s not the father’s fault that they’re not in the family. A lot of times it’s our fault as mothers that because we’re angry at dad. So we blocked dad out at times. I mean, that’s just true. And Father, or fathers just move on to another relationship, and forget that these kids came first. So a lot of fathers divorce the family, a lot of mothers get angry that a relationship didn’t work. So you push the father out of the family. What a mother’s love is trying to say is, while you’re helping this father be a part of his family, whether he’s absent or not, you have to be able to help this mother be stronger in that household. So what are our kids see they emulate. So if I don’t ever get up and go to work, and I don’t get up and go to school, and you don’t make that a priority in my house, then there’s a recipe for failure for our kids. I talked to one mom and she said, Well, actually more moms and they all tend to say the same thing. We’re just waiting on that phone call,
Fred de Sam Lazaro: waiting on
Lisa Clemons: That first phone call. And when I first heard that I said, What phone call. They said either the police call them and say they’ve arrested my kid, or the medical examiner column, say, my child is dead. And I’ll never forget how that made my heart feel like it collapsed in my chest. We’re waiting on those kind of calls. I want you to tell you wait on the call that your kid called and said, I’m getting married today, I’m getting married mom or I graduated Mom, I got my degree Mom, I’m waiting on us to celebrate, pass a high school diploma kind of GED. I’m waiting on us to celebrate, my kid got a job. I don’t care if it’s a police officer, doctor or lawyer, my kid got a job. those simple pleasures that a lot of people take for granted that we don’t always see the community.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: I want to get us back to the here and now in Minneapolis. Can you talk a little bit about when you said that you tired of taking kids to juvenile detention and to jail? How difficult is it for young black males or any black males? You know, George Floyd wasn’t particularly young, in this city talk a little bit about systemic racism as it plays out, especially from the perspective of someone who’s been a cop.
Lisa Clemons: you’ll hear a lot of cops say, not all of them say a lot, but you will hear some cops say I don’t racially profile. And I’ll say yeah you do. We all do. We all do. I don’t care whether you’re wearing a uniform or not, I don’t care if you’re a black cop, Hispanic cop or white cup. We all racial profile. And I think the community needs to understand that so do they. But I think for us having power as law enforcement, people, our racial profiling has a huge impact on the African American community especially, and a huge impact on the relationship building between blue and black. And it’s historic. And as if we can’t own that we do it, I might see some young black people riding down the street, in a car. I’ve done that before. As a police officer, I can own that. And say where’d you get that car, I might my spin around and get behind them and say where’d you get that from? Because in my life, ain’t no young black people driving no new car like that. So I brought my bias to that call. And that’s what happens in law enforcement. But because we can’t own that, we can’t change that. And that’s where you hear the defund the police abolish the police. I don’t subscribe to that, because there’s so many good cops. There’s so many cops that went into it for the right reason. But you do get jaded in that job, you do get jaded. That’s why relationships matter. Building relationships and keeping yourself grounded in the black community. Cops have to build those relationships.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Now you’re talking about having more cops on the beat, community patrols, community officers, that kind of thing.
Lisa Clemons: Yes, that’s why I think beat officers are extremely important. The worst thing Minneapolis can do, and I say this to the City Council, the worst thing you can do is have cops just be 911 responses. Because that means you’re going to see people at their worst every day in your career. You are not going to have time to build relationships, to let them see I may be wearing blue like they have on this badge. But I’m human. I can have kids who are in school just like you. I got kids who are failing or struggling just like you do. I got kids who are addicts, just like you do. Those things are not just in the black community that’s in the blue community as well. You don’t hear about it. Put us in the blue community as what? Because it’s human nature.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: So what do you think of the debate that has since May 25, about the role of the Minneapolis police department, the way it’s being debated today, and six months since May 25. You know, where do things stand in terms of public safety as far as you’re concerned?
Lisa Clemons: I think that the city council in their statements in Powderhorn Park, to abolish and dismantle, I think they have set our lives in danger. By doing that, I think that the fact that they don’t want to work with it refused to work with our existing chief. I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never seen that before. But the fact that they resist it that resist either working with him to make these changes, you ask a black chief, to change 150 years of a culture in one term, that’s not gonna happen. It’s not gonna happen. What’s going to help him is attrition. Those cops who can retire who are still set in those mindset leaving, have having him be able to hire the staff that the officers that he wants, like through the cadet program, like through the CSL program, because you get more people of color through those two programs. allowing this chief to to be the chief is the only thing that’s going to make things better in the Minneapolis police department.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What have you seen this summer? What have you seen since May 25, that’s substantially different.
Lisa Clemons: We’re still suffering the violence. But South Minneapolis is starting to see what North Minneapolis has suffered for decades. And so if God had one thing that he did in this, this horrible murder of George Floyd, this pandemic, this crazy City Council in Minneapolis, if there’s one thing that he did was he brought people together, not just black people, not just white people, he brought people together. And everybody’s starting to have a voice. When before when if you went to the city council meetings, the city council members would bring in these special interest groups only when they were talking about the police budget, to shut everything down. Now it was with a lot more people in the community are able to be heard because they couldn’t go to the city council meetings because they were working, or they felt intimidated. So now they’re able to actually say, what they feel or what they believe or what they want as citizens of Minneapolis. That’s the beautiful thing to me.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: It made reference to the violence. How bad is it? And you know, you have a unique perspective as somebody who has been a cop, and who lives you know, who’s very familiar with goings on, especially in the north side. How bad has it been since May 25?
Lisa Clemons: I think it’s worse than it ever has been because it’s impacted everybody, even if you go to our homeless shelter, needing shelter in the parks, when when park board decided to let’s just open all the parks. Great idea. I think it came from their heart. But there was no plan. And Minneapolis is notorious for not having a plan. So in opening the parts like that you brought the violence to the parks in all the communities. So now you have communities who haven’t suffered through this gun violence, these rapes, these carjackings, you brought them in to suffer the same fate that one community endured for so long.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Talk about carjackings. I mean, that seems to me to be something relatively new. We didn’t hear about these very much in recent years until this year.
Lisa Clemons: Auto thefts have always happened. But you didn’t see it on this level where it’s turning into shooting people committing homicides or young people running from the police and being ejected from a speeding car. You didn’t see it on this level. It’s just almost like COVID affected our brain. And the decision of the city council affected our brain. And I just it was happening, but just not on this level.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: You were involved with the the moms of these young men who were, you know, who are killed and who are involved in a carjacking. How do you deal with a situation like that?
Lisa Clemons: I think it’s the hardest thing that we do. Oftentime we’re traumatized people, offering trauma care to people. So when I’m out helping a family, I have to put how I’m feeling about that trauma. Push that down to deal with this fam. And it does get hard. And you do go home and you wear this pain on your sleeve. Because all you think about is what can I do? What can I do to make this pain a little bit easier for this family. And you think that time after time after time, so if I can give them some baby diapers, some formula, if I can give them my time to just let them vent, and let them just tell me what they’re going through. If I can give them some turkey or ham, if I can give them some Christmas gifts, anything that’ll make them smile for that one moment, I’m going to give them that if I can get them to some resources, if I can get their kids some jobs, if I can rget them, whatever it is, that a mother’s love can get families. That’s what we’ll do.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: How do you you know, how does a mother deal with what must be stigma in her heart for fear of you know, how society will perceive her as somehow having failed this child.
Lisa Clemons: I can’t worry about how society receives a mother who lost her child, I have to worry about how that mother’s feeling about the loss of her child. We’re not saying their kids didn’t commit a crime. And I and I send my love and respect to the elderly woman that they beat up to take her car, I sent my love to her and her family. But I think even she would understand that these three kids are dead. They’re dead. They stole her car, they assaulted her. But she would never have wished death on them. So I can’t worry about how society feel about the crime they committed. I can only give my love and respect to the family who suffered the carjacking. And I can only give my love to the family who lost their three kids in that.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Does it complicate matters for the mom, which is more sort of where I was going with this question to be able to move on from it because she obviously or in many cases would feel like she herself has failed your child in some way. Do you encounter that and how do you treat that kind of situation yourself as you offer help to these to these women
Lisa Clemons: We encounter it all the time these mothers beat themselves up. For her, the mom you met today. Her son was the 16 year old in the car. He got a job. He worked at Walmart. She took him to lunch, I’m sorry, dinner that day at the store. It’s a regular day for her. My kid just put in a good hard day’s work. And then later that night into the morning her son is dead. So I think for her she’s a hard working mom. Her kid is a hard working kid. But some choices he made in his young life took his life away.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What switch was flipped That would take a child you know who is at the start of a promising life as his first job to commit a crime, like a carjacking
Lisa Clemons: I think trying to be belong I think a lot is just trying to belong. If my friends are doing this, I don’t want them to think I’m a wuss, you know, so trying to belong?
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Peer pressure in other words
Lisa Clemons: Yep. And and having nothing to do. I’m trying to go to kids, and bring them into a at-risk center and give the families all the resources they need in one space and educate those young kids historical knowledge, African American history, get them job training, I’m trying to take us in that direction. So when I hear the city talk about a getting rid of the police, and I’m thinking you have nothing in place to address the ills of society in Minneapolis.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What is the role, the police department in dealing with some of these societal issues, because part of the drive to defund the police is the feeling that they are being put into situations that they’re just not capable of dealing with not trained to deal with mental health situations, for example. I mean, do you do support that kind of a shift so that, you know, cops are sent to things that they’re trained to do best, not to deal with mental health situations? Talk a little bit about how you would like to see the police department ideally structured? Were you to have the magic wand.
Lisa Clemons: So when I worked in child abuse, we had Child Protection embedded in the unit with us. So we work together as partners, when we went out on calls. And we could say, Yeah, no, I don’t think that’s a case that you should be asking me to remove the kid. So we’ve worked as partners. So I think for the mental health piece, I think to tell the community that we don’t want the police to respond to mental health issues is is just a blatant lie. Because that’s not going to happen. Even if you have social workers and mental health experts responding to mental health issues, there’s going to be times that they’re going to need the police. So I say to the city council, what is the policies of mental health workers and social workers, when you’re saying that they’re going to be the ones responding to their calls, because their policy may say, if it’s a dangerous situation, we will not respond unless the scene is made safe. It is no different than the fire department. They will not even when we have the arsons and looting, a fire department will not respond to certain fires without a police escort. So to keep trying to sell the community that these these experts are going to respond by themselves to these dangerous situations. It’s just not true. I’ll say this again, if the situation is not safe, that mental health worker, even if they’re sitting in a car with a police officer, are going to be left at a distance until the scene is safe for them to go in and calm that person. But what I don’t like about the media, is the fact that you don’t ever talk about how many mental health calls police departments respond to every year. The only focus you have is the ones that went bad. And those are the ones that we should care about. We need to make sure that we’re being honest when we talk to society let me be honest about that. So I’m all for partnerships 100%. I don’t care what the area is, partnerships. And that’s what we do when we deal with the police. And we’re doing something for Christmas we include them in that if we’re handing out food or food security, like we did here in Cub (?), and then moved over to the church. We do that with the police. They both pick up and bring truckloads of food to donate as well. We don’t always feel like we have to advertise that we work in a partnership with the police, but everybody in the community knows. Because our our focus is not the police. Our focus is getting the people what they need to survive and to be safe in their homes. That’s our focus
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Finally, as you look ahead, you know, there’s going to be a trial for the four officers, are you concerned for what might ensue out of it?
Lisa Clemons: I’m extremely concerned, because people tend to think that our young people don’t watch the news or read the paper or listen to the radio. And our young people know that we’re so focused on law enforcement and getting rid of law enforcement, and we’re losing our kids losing sight of our kids, and what they’re experiencing. So I think that I don’t want to focus on law enforcement. I’m going to say what I have to say about it, I think they’re selling people of blank deal, deal of good. But I do think law enforcement has to change. They have to change with the times, they got to own the damage. Or we, because I still consider myself paying back society even though I think I was a great cop, but I think that law enforcement has to own some of this problem and and get out their feelings. I can say just one thing when I knew I wanted to be a cop, was because three white male cops came to my door. I don’t know if I ever told you that. When I was in Chicago, seven years old, my mom went to court to try to get child support from our stepfather. he opted to go to jail than to pay for some child support. in the courtroom that day, unbeknownst to us, were some Chicago police officers. My mom left there crying. She came home. Totally sad. sat down in the dark. And I mean, you just don’t forget these things, sat down in the dark. And here’s us six kids watching our mom crying in the dark, thinking we don’t see that she’s crying and in the dark. And then we get a knock on the door. My mom said, who is it? Chicago police. My mind and I remember it to this day was what does she do in court? And are they going to take my mom to jail? So she opened the door and there they were with this big box for dinner for us. They had a Christmas dinner for us. It was at Christmas like almost Christmas Eve, but it was Christmas Eve. They knocked on our door. They had this big box with everything you need it for Christmas dinner, turkey and ham, everything and a Christmas gift for each one of her kids. I’ll never forget my mom breaking down, thanking them. And she set out to start making this dinner for us. Because she had called her mom and her mom you know they were poor too, so they couldn’t help her. And I’ll never forget is the reason I love the smell of onions and cream peppers being sauteed on the stove. Because she was making it and she let me smell it. And to this day, that is the greatest smell for me. But these three people, I told my mom, I’m gonna be a policeman when I grow up. She said you can’t be a policeman because you’re a girl. And she remembers the same thing I remember I said it under my breath, I’m going to be a policeman. And my mom said, I laughed under my breath that you said, I’m gonna be a policeman. She said, with your nasty attitude, right? So later I moved here. And my brother got beat up by the Minneapolis police department. And they just, I thought were crap. What I saw them do to my brother impacted me the same way the cops in Chicago. These cops made me not want to be a cop. Then I had another incident and I thought Jesus I hate these people. And I ended up just deciding I’m gonna go to school for this because I worked at 7/11 and the cops used to hang out there. And I had my two year old kid and I went back to school to be a police, a police officer and I’ve never regretted that decision.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: You know, whatever you say about good cops. The Minneapolis Police Department appears to have a terrible reputation in in communities of color. Is it deserved?
Lisa Clemons 43:20
I think some cops deserve it. I don’t think the Minneapolis police department as a whole deserves it. So putting all cops under an umbrella is what I think is wrong. But I think there’s enough cops there should not be wearing a uniform that impacts all the good that cops do in the Minneapolis police department
Solveig Rennan: Our interview with Lisa Clemons was originally featured in our story called Minneapolis Six Months After George Floyd, which aired on PBS NewsHour on November 25, 2020. To check out the full story, go to undertoldstories-dot-org. This episode was hosted and edited by me, Solveig Rennan, and produced by Simeon Lancaster. The interview was conducted by our director Fred de Sam Lazaro. 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.
Bringing back the “village”
Lisa Clemons is a former Minneapolis police officer who founded a non-profit called A Mother’s Love—a brigade of people in bright pink t-shirts trying to bring back the metaphorical village they say it takes to raise a child. Clemons dreamed of being a cop since she was young, but left the department 20 years ago for a broader advocacy. Our correspondent, Fred de Sam Lazaro, spent a cold November day with her as Clemons and her team passed out COVID kits of masks and toiletries, purchased hams or turkeys and organized an upcoming Christmas toy drive.