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‘What Will It Take?’: Michelle Gross on police violence in Minneapolis

Michelle Gross has been a police accountability activist for 40 years, but she’s never seen the kind of intensity that exploded around the death of George Floyd.

Michelle Gross
Michelle Gross has been a police accountability activist for 40 years, but she’s never seen the kind of intensity that exploded around the death of George Floyd.
Courtesy of Michelle Gross

Like so many people, Michelle Gross hasn’t had a lot of sleep since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department on May 25. But unlike so many frustrated citizens and protesters hoping for change, as founder of the nonprofit group Communities United Against Police Brutality, Gross has spent her sleepless nights hard at work on a 19-page document — “What Will It Take To End Police Violence?/Recommendations for Reform” [PDF] — that she finished Thursday morning in her south Minneapolis home as mourners gathered across town at the Floyd memorial service at North Central University in downtown Minneapolis.

“I’ve gotten about 10 hours sleep all week,” said Gross, as she printed out the document to distribute widely this weekend — not that she’s optimistic that it will have much impact on the Floyd case. Even though officers Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and Alexander Kueng have been charged with murder (Chauvin) and aiding and abetting murder, Gross worries that a familiar system failure will prevail.

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“I’m glad that these four police officers got charged, but it took entirely too long to do it,” said Gross in a phone interview Thursday. “They’ve kind of put it out there that [Hennepin County Attorney Mike] Freeman and [Minnesota Attorney General Keith] Ellison need time to build their case, and that’s really nonsensical. Because this isn’t how they do it with anybody else, with regular folk. If you came to a scene and you were a police officer and you saw a guy standing there with a gun and a guy was lying on the floor, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh, we need to get the autopsy results. We need to check this or that and we’ll get back to you.’ They would arrest the guy on the scene.

“Arrests are based on probable cause. The bystander video was completely probable cause for arresting all four of those officers. And then they would levy whatever they think the appropriate charges are initially, and these guys would have arraignments and a probable cause hearing, and the judge would set a bail and these guys would make bail or not. So when I hear them [dragging their feet], I don’t have a lot of faith in what they’re trying to do. I don’t, I don’t have faith. I really truly do not.”

A new level of intensity

Gross has been a police accountability activist for 40 years, but she’s never seen the kind of intensity that exploded around the death of George Floyd.

“The burning down of the police precinct was so symbolic for a lot of these kids, because they were so angry because, once again, cops caught on film, engaging in this grotesque conduct, are allowed to just kind of go to Florida or collude on their stories together or whatever,” she said. “And they don’t have consequences, other than having to apply for unemployment, and I really think that they thought that they could keep a lid on it. But it didn’t happen that way.”

Now the whole world knows about the Minneapolis Police Department, and Gross and her crew of volunteers and board members are more galvanized than ever.

“We’re really, really busy,” she said. “What kept me up all last night is this document for police reform, because all these people are coming up with all this goofy stuff that isn’t going to change anything. We can’t let the politicians define this stuff because, frankly, they don’t study it and they don’t know it. A lot of it for them is sort of like their gut reactions, and we don’t have time for just gut reactions anymore. The things that are going to work are real, evidence-based things. Our organization is very particular about doing things that are evidence-based.”

When it comes to the MPD, the damning facts and figures are all there, from racial profiling to a disparity between white and black/brown traffic stops, arrests, violence, and all the rest that has put Minneapolis on the map for all the wrong reasons.

Gross: “When I started doing this stuff 32 years ago, white people would look at me like I just sort of had an eyeball in the middle of my forehead, like, ‘Yeah, we know that this is true, but what the hell are you gonna do about it? There’s nothing you can do.’ So I always said, ‘We’ve got to keep going.’

“Then Ferguson happened, and these things keep coming up, and then this happened. I don’t know the entire history of the world, but in 32 years of doing this work, I have never seen people so pissed-off that they burned down a police precinct. I was like, whoa. This is orders of magnitude different. It really is.

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‘There were George Floyds before George Floyd’

“But it’s not just ‘cops suck.’ People are getting that there are broader systemic reasons that allow this to go on. It’s not just about this one person or this one case, even though as egregious as it is and outrageous as it is. I love that so many people are getting it — that there were George Floyds before George Floyd, and they don’t want any more George Floyds to happen in the future. I mean, I’ve worked on cases that are nearly identical to George Floyd’s case; people just didn’t know their names, and they didn’t march in the streets. But people are getting it, in a bigger and more profound way.”

One crucial aspect to come along this decade is that justice and accountability have a modern-day ally — the cellphone video.

“The George Floyd case is yet another case that hinges on the bystander video, and it shows us that we really need to be promoting and making sure people know that they need to videotape these incidents. This is essential,” said Gross. “If there’s no videotape by a bystander, police control 100 percent, every drop, of that information. And they dispense it in a way that’s useful to them, and is generally very unusable to the community.

“An example of this is when this incident first occurred, and, I guess, the police leadership board wasn’t aware that there was a video out there. I’ll never forget [Minneapolis Police spokesman] John Elder standing out there going, ‘We had an encounter with this man who was involved in forgery.’ It wasn’t forgery. He had a [counterfeit] $20 bill in his pocket; I might have 20 $20 bills in my wallet right now; the $20 is the most counterfeited bill in the country. There’s millions in circulation. The guy worked at a restaurant, he might have gotten it as a tip — we don’t know. And then John Elder is like, ‘And then he had a medical emergency.’ Right. You must not be looking at the same video I’m looking at, buddy. I’m not calling that a medical emergency, I’m calling that a murder.”

Roots in New Orleans

The roots of Communities United Against Police Brutality go back to New Orleans, where Gross lived until 2000, and gained traction when she moved to Minneapolis the same year.

“In New Orleans, we had a series of African-American men who died from being hog-tied by the police department in Jefferson Parish,” she said. “And when I got up here, one of the things that was going on is that there was this national day of protest against police brutality that started on October 22.

We had a huge action on October 22 of 2000. And there was a lot going on with the police here that year, and a ton of people showed up at the Hennepin County Government Center, and a man named Charles ‘Abuka’ Sanders spoke, and Abuka was a guy who was really well known to the community because he was active on the spoken-word scene and he also did a lot of stuff for people in his neighborhood, so a lot of people really love this guy, and he was a personal care attendant for people that were terminally ill.

“He went out the evening of October 31st, and he was taking care of one of his terminally ill patients. He gets off work early in the morning, and he’s driving home to break his wife so she can take the kids to school, and when he gets to the alleyway, police accused him of driving erratically, and they shot him 37 times in his car. He was unarmed.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible case. So the community just immediately erupted and there was this call for an emergency meeting for justice for Abuka Sanders. So we met, and we started doing the things you always do — rallies and protests and sit-ins at City Hall. And then along the way, I’m thinking, ‘Wait, this is the wrong way to organize this stuff. We’re waiting until something bad happens. This is reactive, not proactive.’

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“So I started talking to some friends of mine, and I said, ‘You know, we can form a group that lives all the time, that works on this issue 24/7, 365, and that takes on the day-to-day issues, not just these larger issues.’ Because when we just only take on the larger issues we make no progress. It’s my contention that the climate that’s created is from the day-to-day issues that allow those larger issues to occur. So some of us met that Saturday at 1:30 at Hosmer Library in Minneapolis in December 2000. We named the group that day, and we’ve basically been meeting at 1:30 at Hosmer every Saturday since.”

Gross has been keeping tabs on the police for most of her life. What does she hope for this historic tipping point?

‘We need accountability … the problem ain’t relationships’

“We need accountability, and this department — and, frankly, there are others in the state as well—has utterly resisted accountability. They like to talk about police-community relationships? Well, the problem ain’t relationships. It’s not how well we get along with each other, it’s that you’re not willing to own your conduct.

“This incident is a perfect example. Derek Chauvin is sitting there, he’s got his knee ground into Mr. Floyd’s neck. People are screaming, ‘He is dying, please get off of him, his nose is bleeding,’ and he’s digging his knee in deeper, knowing he’s being videotaped, and he’s got a smug look on his face. He’s practically smiling, knowing that he is being videotaped. So that shows that they have long had a culture of impunity, where they truly did not believe that they would ever be held accountable for this stuff.

“This is completely emblematic of what we’ve seen about this department historically, and currently. Lack of accountability, lack of willingness to hold officers to certain standards. This has been true of this outfit from Day One. And so, you know, we keep hammering away trying to get changes, and sometimes we get a little bit here and there and we keep working on it. We get small little victories with cases, and that keeps us going with the big stuff.”

Police accountability is the main goal, and it’s not only concerned citizens who support the group’s work.

“We work with a number of officers that like and appreciate what we do,” said Gross. “People don’t remember this, but there were two Crystal police officers who were fired for whistleblowing [on the Crystal police department]. They basically said, ‘Hey, why are we not investigating this incident with a Latino family that had their house brutalized and [burglarized], because the person that was involved in it was a cop?’ The police department refused to investigate it, and the two of them came under instant attack, and it was our position that if officers can come under attack for doing the right thing, then nobody’s going to want to do the right thing. We spent three years defending those officers.”

Minnesota Nice culture: on the ropes

Despite her current reservations about the powers-that-be to do the right thing, Gross maintains that real change is nigh, and that the culture of Minnesota Nice that has undoubtedly contributed to protecting police from being held accountable is on the ropes.

“[Minnesota Nice] is crumbling,” she said. “I don’t see a lot of silence now. We’ve organized three large marches [in the last two weeks], and these are huge throngs of people, and people I’ve never seen out before. It’s quite amazing to me. They’re just not willing to be silent anymore; and it’s plenty of white folk.

“A lot of the politicians now are saying, ‘OK, good, everything’s calmed down now. We can get back to normal.’

“We need to not get back to normal. There will be no normal. This is a new normal. They need to be prepared for that. Legislators and these people are going ahead talking about solutions without checking with the community, or working with people who have knowledge of these things. They’re acting like they’re going to be able to put the genie back in the bottle, but this genie is not going back in the bottle.”