Tension over the shooting of Jamar Clark by a Minneapolis police officer spilled over into a meeting of the 13-member city council Friday, spurred by a brief protest by longtime anti-police-brutality activists.
Although nothing directly related to Clark’s shooting — or to the community’s response to it — was on the council’s agenda, the Friday morning incident revealed an ongoing dispute that has been waged throughout the week via press conferences and social media: a disagreement between council members who believe they should be directly involved in protests and those who think such participation is premature, even inappropriate.
Staged by three members of Communities United Against Police Brutality, Friday morning’s protest got underway just as the council’s regular business meeting was beginning. That’s when Communities United’s Michelle Gross approached the podium and began speaking to the council about what she thinks is a lack of police accountability. “We’re amending your agenda,” Gross said.
Council members and city staff seemed prepared for the protest, however. Council President Barbara Johnson immediately told Gross there was no public testimony taken at regular meetings, read the rule and asked security guards, who were there in greater numbers than usual, to remove Gross. Two other protesters took to the podium in sequence and were also removed.
“This is just another sign that the city is not ready to listen and not ready to take action on pressing matters,” said Dave Bickling as he was being removed. The three were not arrested or cited.
Between the protester comments, Council Member Lisa Bender tried to intervene in Johnson’s order to remove the protesters, moving to suspend the rule against public testimony. The motion was seconded by Council Member Alondra Cano but failed on a voice vote. The move constituted a public challenge to Johnson, and came just a day after Johnson had called out Bender and other council members for taking part in demonstrations at the 4th precinct police station.
“It is not helpful when council members criticize the tactical decisions that are made by our chief of police,” Johnson said at a Thursday press conference with Mayor Betsy Hodges and Police Chief Janee Harteau, called to talk about the previous evening, when police cleared demonstrators from the entrance to the 4th precinct. That move triggered even broader protests and tense confrontations between police and protesters.
Johnson, who along with Council Member Blong Yang represents the parts of the city covered by the 4th precinct, called the presence of council members at the protests “very awkward.”
“I just think people need to act responsibly about their duties are and understand this is a very troubling challenge for a community that Council Member Yang and I represent,” Johnson said. “This is our 4th precinct. Our citizens and residents depend on this precinct.”
Yang said the city has responded to most of the demands made by protesters: an independent investigation and the release of the names of the two officers involved in the shooting. But the video of the incident isn’t the city’s to release, he said. It is now possessed by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is doing the initial investigation.
Johnson mentioned no names but at least three council members took part in demonstrations: Bender, Cano and Cam Gordon. Their appearances gave support to demands made by Black Lives Matter and other groups, including a demand to immediately release all video that might capture the shooting.
Bender and Cano were both critical of the police use of chemical irritants and devices Wednesday night that might have been paintball-type guns but looked very real to demonstrators:
It has been really awkward for me to have to stand between my city’s police department with weapons drawn and a crowd of peaceful protesters— Lisa Bender (@lisabendermpls) November 20, 2015
Gordon said Friday he wasn’t bothered by criticism of his presence at the demonstration, calling it part of the job. “We can be supportive,” he said. “We can encourage positive people to come out there and be part of the solution.”
Friday’s protest at the meeting pointed out what some view as a gap in council rules. Unlike some other local governments, Minneapolis’ council does not provide any opportunity for residents to speak on general topics. Testimony is taken at committee meetings, but only on the matters before that committee. Its rules can be suspended to allow the public to address the council — something it did Wednesday for testimony on the city budget — but that procedure is rarely followed.
Both the Minneapolis Board of Education and the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board have public forums during its regular meetings that allow residents to speak on any topic. Gordon was asked by a reporter after Friday’s meeting why residents shouldn’t have expected the council to discuss the killing of Clark. Gordon said that the every-other-week regular meeting is mostly to approve the work of the committees. But he said he would support a change to council rules to provide for a public forum.
“But I’m just one vote,” Gordon said.
Twelve of the 13 members are DFL party members. Gordon is affiliated with the Green Party and on many issues is more liberal than many of the DFL members. That doesn’t mean the council is monolithic. Several votes during last year’s budget adoption, for example — including one to reduce to size of the tax levy — were 7-6, with Johnson prevailing thanks to the support of Council Members Yang, Kevin Reich, Abdi Warsame, Lisa Goodman, Jacob Frey and Linea Palmisano. Voting against the tax cut — and some resulting cuts to the budget proposal — were Elizabeth Glidden, Gordon, Bender, Cano, John Quincy and Andrew Johnson.
The only mention of the Sunday shooting came from Glidden, the council’s vice president, who referenced the incident during the approval of a historic designation for the headquarters of the city’s black-owned newspaper, the Spokesman-Recorder.
“It is no secret that Minnesota and Minneapolis are the subject to international news right now in a way that we wish we were not but we are,” Glidden said. The Spokesman-Recorder, she said, has been in the middle of covering that news for the community.