Even as protests in Charlotte and elsewhere have continued to put police reform in the national spotlight, locally, the civil rights movement finds itself at a key juncture.
Two of the most prominent players of the last 18 months are passing the baton, and they have very different perspectives on what the movement’s accomplished — and where it should go from here.
Rashad Turner, the former head of Black Lives Matter St. Paul, stepped down at the beginning of last month. Meanwhile, Nekima Levy-Pounds, the president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, has decided to not seek re-election and will endorse another candidate at the next board meeting later this month.
Both played leadership roles at crucial juncture for the larger push for racial justice and criminal-justice reform in the Twin Cities — the period following the killing of Jamar Clark in late 2015 through the Philando Castile protests this summer.
Levy-Pounds, with a broad reach on social media and rhetorical skills honed in the classroom and in the pulpit, has been one of the most recognizable and consistently quoted local civil rights leaders. She was a constant presence in Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct shutdown protests after the Clark shooting and was at the Governor’s Residence in St. Paul in the early hours of the morning after St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Philando Castile in Falcon Heights.
Turner embraced a more rabble-rousing persona. He garnered media attention with a protest at the gates of the State Fair last year and a plan, later abandoned, to disrupt the Twin Cities Marathon.
While they have differences in approach and style, Turner and Levy-Pounds have been been collaborators and friends since they both attended a 2015 retreat marking the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. They stood together as police cracked down on the Governor’s Residence occupation, and were part of a line of demonstrators that faced off with riot police on Summit Avenue on the afternoon of July 24.
Yet they step away from center stage with very different perspectives on what they, and the movement they’ve been apart of, have accomplished.
‘If we’re not changing statutes, we’re not doing much’
For his part, Turner decided to step down after the BLM national network called for a moratorium on charter schools this summer.
Turner, who identifies himself as part of the education reform movement and sees charter schools as providing an important option for many families of color, had clashed with the St. Paul school district last year, after Theodore Olson, then a special-education teacher, wrote what many saw as racially insensitive Facebook posts on a page for supporters of the district’s teachers union. Olson ended up leaving the district, but the episode further shaped Turner’s views toward the teachers unions, and he was angered when some activists joined with the unions to protest against police brutality in July, in the aftermath of the Castile shooting. “To me, that blows my mind,” he said.
Yet Turner’s broader critique is that there has been too much focus on what he calls the “dog and pony show” of protests, and not enough on changing laws.
“I feel like the movement has been hijacked and really doesn’t have a focus on changing policy,” said Turner, who recently received a master’s degree in education leadership from St. Mary’s University. “We’ve seen policies changed. Ferguson being the one spot where there was tangible results garnered from the work they did down there. But here in Minnesota, I’ve been a person that always keeps saying we have to focus on changing law.
“How do you measure a successful protest? How I would measure that is changing policy or laws, which we have done very minimal. Here in Black Lives Matter St. Paul, we were able to change a few of the departmental policies, or a few of the school district’s policies, but in my opinion, those are baby steps. If we’re not changing statutes that are allowing these killings to take place, we’re not doing much.”
When asked who has been an ally in the state Legislature, Turner — who unsuccessfully challenged three-term incumbent Rep. Rena Moran in the House District 65A primary earlier this year — responded by saying he “hasn’t met one.”
When asked what policy he would make a priority of changing, Turner cited Minnesota’s use of deadly force statute, which lays out the conditions under which officers in the state can kill civilians. Turner think it’s too broad, particularly the section that says an officer can kill a suspect who has committed a felony if the officer “believes that the person will cause death or great bodily harm if the person’s apprehension is delayed.”
“There is so much discrepancy and leniency where it really puts chiefs of police in a position where they can’t really control their departments,” Turner says.
Creating a climate for change
Like Turner, Levy-Pounds is a supporter of charter schools. She acknowledges that some have not been up to standard, but said that they can, if properly administered, provide parents with a valuable choice — one she took for her children. “I have sent my children to predominantly black charter schools so that they can learn about their culture, heritage and have a sense of pride and awareness that will help them navigate mainstream white society, and having that choice was important,” she says.
But Levy-Pounds takes a longer view when it comes to the efficacy and evolution of the movement, and believes it has made real progress both locally and nationally. “We have seen some changes. They have been incremental, smaller changes that what we would hope to see, but there have been changes.”
She points to moves by the Minneapolis City Council to remove ordinances against lurking and spitting, crimes that disproportionately affected people of color; an analysis by the ACLU found that African-Americans and Native Americans were nine times more likely to face arrest for such low-level crimes.
Levy-Pounds thinks that there are similar ordinances on the books that need to be addressed. “The more time they spend addressing petty, low-level ordinances, the less time they spend addressing major crimes within the city,” she said. “And it gives rise to this notion that we need more police officers, as opposed to redistributing the resources we currently have.”
And though she says there is a lot of work to be done when it comes to the state Legislature, she points with optimism to DFL primary victories of House candidates Fue Lee and Ilhan Omar, who she hopes will be more friendly to the ideas behind Black Lives Matter.
On the local level, she has renewed calls for an area force to look at criminal-justice reform across the board. “We need to look comprehensively about how we handle policing and criminal justice and public safety,” she says. “Although we claim that we don’t subscribe to a broken-windows theory of policing, the way the Minneapolis Police Department functions is as though they do subscribe to broken windows.”
In a broader sense, she thinks the protests over the last two years have created a climate for change. “There is a lot of momentum around ending police violence that hasn’t been there before.”
New groups emerge
Such differing views are nothing new within social movements, of course, and the exact role of policy agendas in the modern civil rights movement has long been a source of debate.
In August, a coalition of groups called The National Movement for Black Lives, the umbrella group for Black Lives Matter, released a detailed policy platform, part of which was the call for a moratorium on charter schools. Yet Black Lives Matter was never meant to be solely focused on policy, and protests are about more than changing laws, as Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors explained on the Minneapolis-based radio show “On Being” in February. “I believe that this work of Black Lives Matter is actually healing work; it’s not just about policy,” Cullors told host Krista Tippett. “It’s why, I think, some people get so confused by us. They’re like, ‘Where’s the policy?’ I’m like, ‘You can’t policy your racism away.’ We no longer have Jim Crow laws, but we still have Jim Crow hate.”
Levy-Pounds points to the civil rights area of the 1950s and ’60s, when there were six different activist organizations, with six different leaders, known as the “Big Six,” who had to coordinate to pull off the landmark civil rights march on Washington, D.C. in 1963. “They did their best to put up a united front, but most of the time, they had differences of opinion in terms of strategy, outcomes they were seeking,” she said. “In any movement you’re going to have different fractions. You’re going to have agreements and disagreements … that’s going to happen. But at the end of the day, we have to continue fighting for the liberation of African-Americans and other repressed people.”
Both Turner and Levy-Pounds said they will continue to be involved and advise movement leaders whenever they can. And while Turner is admittedly frustrated, he’s also been encouraged by the emergence of new youth lead activist groups, like AR-14 or the Black Coalition. “I think they will take the torch, if you will, and keep it moving. I’ll be there to help them out or talk to them, but now they’re behind the wheel,” he says.
Levy-Pounds agreed, saying she felt “blessed to see the emergence of so many groups” over the last year. “It’s getting hard to keep track of who is holding what demonstration, when and where, because there are so many people who are actively engaged in this fight. That’s a good thing,” she said.