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First step in building community trust and justice: Acknowledge past harms

People of color in north Minneapolis are hurting. They’re angry. They don’t trust police. Our church’s meeting with police felt like a good start toward reconciliation.

I wonder where my fellow citizens who are black will find any sense of hope or justice in this process.
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi

I had a sad and empty feeling in my heart after hearing Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman explain his legal reasoning for not charging Minneapolis police officers involved in the shooting death of Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man.

Tom Fiebiger

As an attorney, I understood the need to make your best argument to justify such a decision. But as a person of white privilege in a Minneapolis broken by continued systemic racism, I wonder where my fellow citizens who are black will find any sense of hope or justice in this process.

The decision presented by Freeman was geared to be the best legal argument he could muster for not prosecuting these officers, not the factual recitation of what actually happened that night and that many black citizens needed to hear.

Dramatic, troubling video

The video presented by Freeman was not particularly helpful to the case he was attempting to make. But the dramatic and troubling video that was shown had one officer making a dramatic takedown of Jamar Clark, who from the video did not appear to be resisting and still had his hands in his pockets.

Freeman intentionally described how the technique used by the officer to take down Clark was learned when the officer worked in San Diego. But this is Minneapolis. My understanding of Minneapolis police protocol is that you do not physically grab someone with a choke hold and throw them to the ground when they are not physically resisting. That appears to be what happened, but it was not explained that way.

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Clark made some bad choices. But so did trained white officers carrying lethal weapons and who signed on voluntarily — to protect and serve.

Before you look to criticize Black Lives Matter (BLM) or post a comment on social media questioning what “these people” are trying to accomplish, please reflect on the Minneapolis that white citizens experience and the very different Minneapolis black citizens experience.

The Minneapolis police department has acted in inappropriate and discriminatory ways over the years, resulting in our city paying out millions of dollars to settle claims of police brutality. It is my understanding that no officers have been charged in police involved shootings since 2000.

Curious response to peaceful occupation

A curious initial response to the 4th precinct peaceful occupation was our City Council hurriedly trying to pass an amendment to the budget to spend over $600,000 to essentially fortify the 4th precinct — and protect the police. Only after community outrage making it clear police were not the ones needing protection was the proposed amendment taken off the table. But the amendment action by the council demonstrates a troublesome lack of understanding of the broken trust between the police and citizens of color. Where nuance and sensitivity were needed, they were missing.

Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s video in advance of Freeman’s charging decision was inflammatory and did nothing to foster trust between black citizens and police.

We continue to find huge economic disparities between white and black citizens in Minneapolis. We have a city where our school district is failing our children of color. We would never stand for that if we were failing our white children and grandchildren. Our school board is struggling to even figure out how to hire a new superintendent.

Healthy, ambitious goals

A group from our church in north Minneapolis recently met with police department leaders as part of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Minneapolis is one of only a handful of cities selected to participate in this initiative. The plan has many healthy and ambitious goals, and the implementation process began last fall. One of the parts of the initiative on “Reconciliation and Truth-Telling Process” specifically provides, “The National Initiative team will develop the component parts of a reconciliation and truth-telling process tailored specifically to the MPD and marginalized communities of Minneapolis, including an acknowledgement of historical harms, narrative sharing, and a commitment to reform … .”

People of color in north Minneapolis are hurting. They’re angry. They don’t trust police. Our meeting with police felt like a good start. We were grateful for all who showed up and engaged in dialogue.

Perhaps at this difficult time it might be helpful and healing for Chief Harteau to begin the reconciliation process with an “acknowledgement of historical harms.” That seems to me to likely be a critical first step in any truly authentic “initiative.”

Tom Fiebiger lives in Minneapolis and is a recovering civil rights lawyer and politician, having spent 25 years representing workers in North Dakota and Minnesota that were discriminated against. He also served a term in the North Dakota Senate.

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