Once again, the FBI has been called on to answer questions surrounding the death of a black man at the hands of police. This time the request comes from Minneapolis, where an officer has been charged with murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd on an early summer evening at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South.
No investigation is necessary to confirm that Floyd’s death follows an all-too-familiar pattern that grows out of racist policing practices found in every American community. But while Floyd’s death draws comparisons to Michael Brown and Eric Garner, it is important to remember that this killing happened in Minneapolis, a city with its own particular history of racism.
As the Mapping Prejudice Project shows, Minneapolis has a deep history of structural racism. Structural racism, not the individual actions of “rogue” officers, perpetuates police brutality against unarmed citizens.
The Minneapolis Police Department has served as a bulwark of the racism that suffuses the city it is sworn to serve. George Floyd is the latest in a long line of victims.
In the ’60s, AIM and the Soul Force
In 1968, police brutality against Native Americans in Minneapolis sparked the American Indian Movement, which launched community patrols to provide protection from local law enforcement officers. African-Americans protected themselves in similar ways, establishing the Soul Force.
In the 1980s, police attacks on gay men prompted protests against the department’s vice squad.
This resistance grew as violence continued. In 2015, it was invigorated by the police shooting of Jamar Clark. In 2017, a diverse coalition of community members came together to issue a 150-year “performance review” of the department that called for a “police-free” city.
For decades, reformers hoped that diversifying the gender and racial makeup of the force would bring real change. The current chief — Medaria Arrandondo — is the first African-American to hold the job. He is intimately acquainted with the toxic racism within the department, having filed a civil rights complaint as a lieutenant in 2007.
Influence of the Police Officers Federation
Yet a more diverse rank-and-file has failed to transform the Minneapolis Police Department. New leadership has not been able to dilute the influence of the Police Officers Federation. In 1972, the Federation negotiated its first contract with the city even as its former president served as mayor. Charles Stenvig won election in 1969 after vowing to “take the handcuffs off the police” in the wake of the uprising on Plymouth Avenue. In 1971, voters re-elected Stenvig by an overwhelming margin — rejecting the effort to address the racial divide led by his opponent, African-American civil rights leader W. Harry Davis.
Stenvig helped to embed the Federation within the police department and city politics. In the years since, the union won significant victories for its rank-and-file members. But it has done little to help the department shed its reputation for racism. The current union president is part of a motorcycle club whose members have been accused of displaying white supremacist symbols. That same officer courted controversy in October 2019 when he appeared on stage at the Target Center with President Donald Trump, who condemned immigration policies that brought “large numbers of refugees to your state from Somalia.”
Despite decades of police incidents that resulted in the deaths of people of color, this week’s actions by the police chief and mayor represent the first time in modern history that Minneapolis police officers were fired within hours of unjustly murdering a citizen.
Expect an intense struggle
The speedy termination and investigation represent a long-fought-for victory. This is the outcome desired by at least three generations of community organizers and reformers. What next? An intense struggle between the police union, on the one hand, and the mayor and the police chief and community organizers and citizen leaders, on the other.
This struggle will stretch well beyond 2021, when the mayor faces re-election. It will define this so-called liberal city’s future and provide the city a reckoning with a profoundly racist past and present. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Is Minneapolis prepared to confront its history of white supremacy? Are we prepared to dismantle — not just acknowledge — structural racism in our institutions? Will justice, long-denied, finally prevail?
Michael J. Lansing is an associate professor of history at Augsburg University. Kirsten Delegard and Kevin Ehrman-Solberg are two of the co-founders of the Mapping Prejudice Project at the University of Minnesota Libraries.
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