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Is Minneapolis prepared to dismantle — not just acknowledge — structural racism?

George Floyd memorial
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
A memorial to George Floyd near where he died on May 25.

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.

Michael J. Lansing
Michael J. Lansing
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

Kirsten Delegard
Kirsten Delegard
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.” 

Kevin Ehrman-Solberg
Kevin Ehrman-Solberg
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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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/01/2020 - 09:45 am.

    Bob Kroll. As long as Kroll heads the police union, there will be no progress. I keep hearing that most cops are good and are horrified by what happened to George Floyd. If that is true, the good cops need to remove Kroll.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 06/01/2020 - 11:55 am.

      I agree Kroll needs to step down. This article did a good job of reviewing the infamous legacy of Stenvig; however it glosses over the present city challenges and opportunities missed. Again it’s more of the blame a few and then try to tie it to the structure. Yes some progress was made, but the mayor and council have oversight of MPD; Arrandondo has to answer to them. They also have oversight of their policies and training. While the union is strong and some of this is also on the legislature and federal courts, we need more focusing on specifics at the local level.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/01/2020 - 12:29 pm.

        For whatever reason, local politicians can’t seem to control the police unions.

        In St. Paul, officer Brett Palkowitch kicked a man (a black man, if that wasn’t obvious) on the ground who was being bitten by a police dog. It was the wrong guy and the city paid 2 million dollars to compensate for his injuries.

        The chief fired him, but an arbitrator gave him his job back. Then he was charged with federal civil rights violations and convicted.

        To recap: an officer severely injured a helpless innocent man, cost St. Paul $2 million dollars, was later convicted of a felony BUT could not be fired.

        Have you seen the letter Kroll sent that got leaked and is being circulated? He thinks he’s immune to local leadership. He’s talking to Gazelka about circumventing the governor. He’s blaming Floyd for his own death.

    • Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 06/01/2020 - 01:52 pm.

      Kroll was elected and reelected, by wide margins. If he steps down, why would we expect the memebrship to elect a different kind of president?

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/01/2020 - 02:26 pm.

        Fair point and I don’t know the answer. Again, I keep hearing that most cops are good. If that is true, they need to stop voting for bad cops to lead them.

        John Delmonico was a pretty terrible guy. But Kroll is worse by a couple orders of magnitude.

  2. Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 06/01/2020 - 03:01 pm.

    For purposes of comparison, here is an equally insightful column using history to explain protests in another River City. Check it out.

  3. Submitted by Ed Felien on 06/01/2020 - 06:49 pm.

    We don’t need more blather. We need specific and concrete proposals to dismantle the structural racism in the MPD. We need residency requirements for the police. The MPD must be subject to the Mpls Civil Rights Commission like everyone else in Mpls. Officers must be treated like every other suspect in a homicide–separated and not given 72 to make a statement. And we need a public accounting of whether Schwarze and Ringgenberg followed police protocol in killing Jamar Clark and whether Durand and Lucas Peterson lied in their police report regarding the murder of Terrance Franklin. We don’t need more whining b.s.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/01/2020 - 10:20 pm.

    ” Is Minneapolis prepared to confront its history of white supremacy?”

    Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.

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