City Hall gadfly’s First Amendment case reveals complexities of race in Minneapolis

Al Flowers
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Al Flowers’ complaint against two Minneapolis City Council members focused attention on race in the city.

 

Any visitor to U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery’s courtroom the afternoon of Nov. 28 could be forgiven for being a little startled. There was Jim Moore, an attorney for the city of Minneapolis, rigorously questioning Al Flowers, a longtime City Hall gadfly, on the ins and outs of the First Amendment. Flowers, who is black, sat calmly as Moore, who is not, repeatedly threw around the n-word — nearly 10 times during the half-hour cross examination.

It wasn’t pretty.

To be fair, context is everything, and Moore was defending the city in a suit brought on by Flowers, who claimed his First Amendment rights were violated by two City Council members, Don Samuels, who is also black, and Paul Ostrow, who is not.

But the trial was about more than the machinery that constitutes First Amendment law: It offered a window into the complexities of race in Minneapolis.

Some background: In May 2005, Flowers had a show on MTN, the local cable access channels that air city and community programming. During a show that aired during the spring of 2005, Flowers’ co-host Booker Hodges went on a riff over recent public comments made by Samuels. Hodges likened Samuels to a “house Negro,” a term loaded with racial and class implications that has historically referred to blacks who sold out to the white power structure. Hodges then indicated that it was time to “kill” such people, which Samuels took as a personal threat. Flowers and Hodges — at city leadership urging — were suspended from MTN.

At the heart of the case was whether Hodges’ speech was protected by the First Amendment or whether it constituted “fighting words” — that is, literally a violent threat that would not be constitutionally protected. And to get to that argument, Moore had to banter about some uncomfortable language.

The case was unusual enough — not often do you see two elected Minneapolis officials in court for First Amendment violations — but also had a racial component that’s lost on many whites: Flowers is African American, and Samuels is a Jamaican immigrant. And because of this, both men will attest, their experiences are markedly different. To top it off, the 12-member jury was “snow-white,” as council member Ralph Remington, an African American, put it.

“Interracial instances are hard enough to deal with,” noted Remington, who watched some of the trial. “The nuances of intra-racial conflict are astonishing.”

The jury found in favor of Flowers, awarding compensation of $3 — a figure that perhaps indicates some ambivalence about the case. In effect, the Hodges comments were not viewed as a threat, but as protected speech. (The city deemed Flowers responsible for the remarks because he was the show’s producer.)

Political language in an election season
The Flowers/Hodges/Samuels dispute goes back to early 2005, when Samuels was running for reelection to the City Council against Natalie Johnson Lee, who is also an African American. Because of redistricting, the two incumbents were suddenly facing each other to lead the predominantly African-American Fifth Ward on the city’s North Side.

In a forum for the community newspaper Insight News, Samuels made reference to his upbringing in Jamaica, and that some of his ancestors had benefited from growing up in the “Big House,” where the colonial owners lived, rather than with the rest of the slaves. Immediately, there was an outcry in the black community.

By the time Flowers and Hodges aired their show, “The Real State of the City,” in May 2005, animus between Samuels and Johnson Lee supporters lingered heavy in the air. During the broadcast, Hodges compared Samuels unfavorably to “house Negroes.” Hodges initially apologized for using the term and gave a history lesson on the implications of it.

Then, after a winding riff on politics and economics in the city, Hodges offered a “solution.” “We as a people, one, in Minneapolis, have to unite,” he said, encouraging black people to vote. “And we have to kill the house niggas. We gotta kill them. And that’s what we doin’ on this show, we tryin’ to kill the house nigga. And, we have to get in power.” Then later, “Please, if you see a house Negro, deal with them appropriately, call them out, do not allow these people to continue to sell us out.”

Afterward, a number of city leaders met with Pam Colby, the director of MTN, to talk about what recourse they may have. Flowers was suspended, according to court records from the trial, due in no small part to pressure from Samuels and Ostrow, who was then the council’s president.

Samuels, for his part, claimed that he felt his life was in danger and filed a complaint with the city’s civil rights department seeking some $100,000 in compensation that would come out of MTN’s funding. (That complaint has been settled, but Samuels declined to reveal the details of the settlement.) At the heart of the case was the notion that Samuels truly believed Hodges was calling for his death.

And that was Moore’s point. His questioning of Flowers, a friendly guy who runs a day care center in south Minneapolis, was at times over the top. Moore traced the origin of “house nigger” to Malcolm X. Flowers countered that the term had been in use among African Americans long before then. Moore attached Malcolm X to a “militant, violent Islam” movement, which Flowers parried was not the entire history of the civil rights leader’s life.

“Didn’t ‘house nigger’ during [Malcolm X’s] radical years,” Moore continued, “denote a person despised, a traitor, a sell-out who was to be eliminated?”

Flowers countered that he didn’t know, but that Malcolm X wasn’t on his broadcast anyway.

Flowers contended that the speech was political, and that the term “kill” was meant to imply that Samuels should be taken down politically. “Politically, he’s killing the African American community,” Flowers added. Then: “I don’t use the n-word, I’ve never used the n-word on that show.”

It was a display of restraint not shared by Moore. Moore summarized by quoting incendiary lyrics from a song by the rapper T.I. that Hodges tacked onto the end of the broadcast, a passage where a drive-by shooting is foretold. “That can’t be played at my house,” Flowers retorted. “I don’t play rap music, period.” Defense rested.

‘Makes me disgusted, to be perfectly honest’
Moore’s strategy was crafty, if unsavory: Paint Flowers as a violent militant, liken the speech from Hodges to the radical violence of Malcolm X, and prove that the two had to be stopped before Don Samuels was murdered. (To say nothing of the irony that Moore was engaging in the exact speech his client had sought to oppress.)

“It’s an all-white jury, and they’re trying Malcolm X,” Flowers said before the verdict. “I’m gonna take the rap for Malcolm X.”

But apparently the jury was not swayed by Moore’s characterizations.

“The issue is whether or not comments Hodges made could be interpreted as violent or not,” says Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association and a First Amendment expert. “In the jury’s verdict, it’s clear that they did not take Samuels’ expressed fear as credible. What Hodges said was pretty bad anyway, somewhat repugnant, but the threat wasn’t real. It was overheated political rhetoric.”

In fact, in watching the tape or reading excerpts of what Hodges said, it’s not entirely clear that he’s even speaking directly of Samuels for most of it. But to some degree, other damage has been done. The racial and class divide between Samuels and the majority of African Americans he represents in the city’s Fifth Ward isn’t likely to close any time soon, even after the jury’s verdict.

“It makes me disgusted, to be perfectly honest,” the Rev. Randy Staten of the Coalition of Black Churches said outside the courtroom. “I resent that we are continuing to have these kinds of debates, and it’s all because of council member Samuels.”

Staten went on to say that Samuels doesn’t understand the implications of his original assertions — that some blacks could benefit from living in the “Big House.” “It’s condescending and hurtful, because all of us understand that that means we as African Americans are inferior,” Staten said. “My impression is that he exhibits the qualities of what we would define as a ‘house Negro.'”

Council member Remington, while expressing respect for Samuels as a colleague, is in a unique position as the only African-American council member. “Free speech is free speech, and some of my colleagues didn’t like it,” Remington said. “But that’s because we’re not comfortable talking about race in this city.”

Remington expresses doubt that the broadcast of “The Real State of the City” would have been noticed were it not for two black men talking about racially charged politics. “You hear white people say ‘He should be shot’ or ‘We’re gonna cut their throats’ all the time and people know it’s a euphemism,” Remington said. “But people can’t see the black male clearly in political terms.”

Remington, who himself has accused members of the Minneapolis police of threatening him, said that he’s watched the tape of the show twice and doesn’t believe Hodges was literally threatening Samuels. “But I can’t get in his head,” Remington said of his council colleague. More importantly, Remington said he believes Samuels should be held accountable for instigating the chain of events.

“When he referred to the term ‘house Negro,’ he used it in a self-congratulatory sense,” Remington claimed. “By Don having set up that plantation paradigm, once that door is open, all metaphors are OK. He framed it in a caste argument, because he’s from Jamaica, a colonial society, and that’s what stings us.”

Samuels, for his part, was unrepentant that day in court. “I have been in this country longer than Booker Hodges has been alive,” he said, claiming that the tensions don’t faze him. “There are many African Americans who share my views.”

Samuels intimated no regret for how the events unfolded, or even for his past utterances and actions. “My surviving this is important to the community,” Samuels said, adding that he still welcomed debate about disparate views on race and class in the black community.

But can he lead a group of people — the many African Americans in the Fifth Ward who take exception to his comments — in an effective manner at this point?

“I understand the African American community,” he concluded confidently, “enough to understand what they mean.”

G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Tom Weyandt on 12/11/2007 - 12:38 pm.

    Perhaps the most incredible part of this saga is the fact that the taxpayers of Minneapolis are going to have to pay not only the $3, but also the attorney’s fees for the plaintiff. These fees surely will exceed $50,000, as was reported in other media. Seems like an odd way to spend tax dollars. Wouldn’t residents be better off if the money were spent on something that was at least a bit positive rather than this foolishness?

  2. Submitted by Don Jacobson on 12/11/2007 - 04:29 pm.

    Mr. Weyandt–
    I can’t tell for sure which part of the process you deem “foolish,” but I might point out that it was the City, not the plaintiff, that trampled on a citizen’s constitutional right here. When you believe your constitutional rights have been quashed, don’t you think you should have the right to defend them? And if the courts find in your favor, then who should be paying for the proceedings?

    You can hold the city (or, rather, the city council members involved) responsible for the expenses here because they interfered in a citizen’s right to free expression.

  3. Submitted by John Olson on 12/11/2007 - 09:23 pm.

    I was going to post a comment, but my attorney advised me not to do it.

Leave a Reply