Despite shared goals with protesters, Hodges and Ellison preferred strategy of coalition-building

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Rep. Keith Ellison speaking during Monday's press conference.

Mayor Betsy Hodges and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison summoned reporters to a North Minneapolis recreation center earlier this week to deliver a message.

The occupation in front of the North Precinct police station must end.

But while it appeared the message was aimed at Black Lives Matter and other activists who had created an occupation of the grass and street in front of the station, it was aimed at others. The point of the press conference was more likely an attempt to form a coalition of leaders, groups and residents that would support the cause but not the occupation.

Four days passed between the first public request and the early Thursday morning clearance of the encampment. The reaction from protesters was obviously harsh. The reaction from the rest of the city and the region is yet to be known and depends in part on how effective Hodges and Ellison were in changing the narrative around the occupation.

Casting a political light on that Monday press conference begins with a question: Did the politicians and community leaders really expect that people protesting the death of Jamar Clark two weeks before would simply break camp because the mayor, congressman and a selection of black community leaders asked them to? The more logical response would be to cause them to extend the encampment to show that the request was ignored. A movement based at least partly on a belief that establishment methods for resolving issues of brutality, racism and inequity are a failure wasn’t going to respond to establishment requests to back down.

Instead, the message delivered Monday, and repeated throughout the week, was aimed not at those staking out the precinct but rather the people who made up the ripples around the camp. It was aimed at those who had attended some of the protests earlier, who had rushed to Plymouth Avenue in the first days of the protest when police made their initial attempt to clear the area in front of the station and continue — on occasion — to stand physically with the core group of protesters. Ellison himself was one of those.

“When it first happened and there were some protests, I thought it was disruptive but it was healthy and it was within the context of our First Amendment tradition of citizen action and trying to redress grievances,” Ellison said. But then the negative impacts on the neighborhood became more intense, Ellison said, and he decided it should end.

The message also was aimed at those who donated food and firewood, tents and propane heaters, clothing and coffee. Protesters regularly sent out lists of what they needed, and those requests were often met.

And finally it was aimed at those who didn’t do any of those things but passively supported the occupation as an extension of the calls of Justice for Jamar. To those residents Hodges and Ellison said clearing out the camp wasn’t aimed at ending the protests but was instead a request to end the disruptions affecting other residents of the neighborhood, many of whom are elderly, many of whom are low-income, many of whom are people of color.

“The occupation at the Fourth Precinct is unsafe for everyone,” Hodges said. “It distracts from the large work of racial equity that we must do. And we stand here as a community to say that the occupation must end.”

Hodges’ description of the scene at the station — smoky street fires, barricades blocking the avenue to emergency vehicles, gun violence, false medical calls, outside agitators with intentions of violence, daily threats to burn the precinct or kill officers — could not have been intended for those who see it daily. They have their own descriptions that don’t completely sync with those of the mayor. Rather her scene-setting was meant for those who have never been there or haven’t been there recently.

“Everyone is at risk at the Fourth Precinct,” she said. She was careful not to issue an ultimatum or set a deadline. She couched her statements as a request for the occupiers to shift strategies and take her up on her pledges to continue to work on the underlying issues. To that end, she said, most of the demands that can be met have been met. The officers have been named, the investigation has been taken out of the hands of the Minneapolis Police and is being conducted by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. A separate federal investigation by the Justice Department has been requested and agreed to by the feds.

The remaining demands — especially the release of all video recordings of the shooting of Clark and the rejection of the grand jury system for potential charges against the officers — are not the city’s to deliver.

Some of the community leaders who stood with the mayor and congressman on the glistening gym floor at the Farview Recreation Center also said they endorsed the protest message but could no longer support the method. Those in other parts of the city who think by supporting the occupation that they are standing with the broader communities of color in North Minneapolis are mistaken, the speakers said.

“I want to be clear that this is not about the protest, it’s about the occupation,” said Steve Belton, interim president and CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League. “The people who began with such good intentions … are harming the people and the community that they intended to serve. Perhaps they don’t know that. Now you know.

“We are asking them to step back, to regroup and take yes for an answer,” Belton said.

The effort to build a public case for an end to the occupation continued throughout the week, culminating perhaps in an unusual — even odd — City Council committee hearing Wednesday. Nothing on the agenda touched on the death of Clark or the protests. But Public Safety and Civil Rights Committee Chair Blong Yang amended the agenda to allow residents to speak about both. Yang represents the ward were the precinct and the protests are located.

But because the posted agenda did not include that item — general public testimony on topics on the agenda is rarely permitted — the testimony was dominated by those who must have known that it would be allowed and wanted the occupation to end. Also attending, and blasting both Hodges and Police Chief Janee Harteau in his testimony, was police union head Bob Kroll. Only a pair of police accountability activists, in attendance to watch appointments to the police oversight commission and the police conduct review panel, testified in support of the occupation.

That method for limiting the testimony to North Minneapolis residents — neighbors of the police precinct — drew objections from Council Member Cam Gordon, who said he was “disturbed and confused” about the process and said he was fearful the hearing was a way to “ramp up” to a more-aggressive response to the encampment.

The week of dueling press conferences, unusual committee meetings and public protests again exposed a generational divide in the city’s African-American community. Those who stood with Hodges and Ellison tended to be older, more established. They couldn’t seem to understand protest methods that didn’t have apparent strategies or objectives.

Trahern Pollard, founder of Push for Peace, said the way to make sure Clark’s death wasn’t in vain was to register to vote, go to school, respect our teachers, “make sure we’re not walking down the street with our pants to our ankles.”

In response, Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds blasted those who stood with Hodges and Ellison.

“It really is frustrating to have the mayor of Minneapolis stand with so-called black leadership,” Levy-Pounds said, as quoted by the Star Tribune. Pastor Jamie Ali called for a boycott of the leaders who called for an end to the occupation. Ellison himself was attacked on social media, and while he engaged at first he has backed away from that interaction.

At the council meeting Wednesday, Clinton Collins Jr., Urban League board chair, made a point of rejecting claims that black community was divided.

“I support the overarching goals of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Collins said. “I want to make it clear that there is not … any big schism in the northside community.”

Black Lives Matter doesn’t see coalition building as a useful strategy. Instead, it demands to be listened to. The politicians that BLM resents, however, are skilled in that strategy. What began publicly Monday and that continued throughout the week was an attempt to change the narrative away from the occupation as a symbol of the movement to its practical and negative impacts on North Minneapolis.

And it was an attempt to create a coalition to move the issue out of the street and into City Hall, the state Capitol and the grand jury room.

Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/03/2015 - 11:41 am.

    Great timing for this piece.

    BLM had been far more effective than most in exposing the ineffectiveness of city government in dealing with the disproportionate carnage in black populations; their task is even harder as they must annoy everyone enough to actually think about the problem.

  2. Submitted by Monte Bute on 12/03/2015 - 12:03 pm.

    This is not a news article; it is an opinion column

    Please. This is not the work of a journalist. This a PR column for the Hodges, Ellison, and the past-their-expiration date Black leadership of Minneapolis.

    • Submitted by Michael Hess on 12/03/2015 - 09:06 pm.

      Analysis

      No, it’s not an opinion piece. It’s a good analysis piece, going past just reporting what happened.

      I agree with the author that the comments appeared intended to build a public consensus, to put a “fair warning” on the record so that when the inevitable happened there was recognition that days earlier the protestors had been asked to leave, told it was time to go. They also went out of their way to validate “the reason” for the protest while criticizing the tactics.

      One small irony in this is that when the Mayor and responsible city council members complained about smoke, air pollution, etc… the protestors tweeted and complained how trivial that environmental concern was compared to their cause. But when the street was cleared, the protesters suddenly went eco-conscious, criticizing the city for the waste of donated food and water bottles and such that got swept up…..

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/03/2015 - 12:47 pm.

    Wow….

    This is one of the most convoluted attempts at reshaping a narrative I’ve ever seen. The Mayor, Ellison, et al issued a statement calling for an end to the encampment… but they weren’t talking to the people who built and maintained the encampment? And then it goes down hill from there. Reading Mr. Callaghan’s account one would think there was actually nothing to “clear” this morning.

    This was a BLM encampment, they’ve never denied that fact. Plymouth Ave. was blocked. Fires were burning. Fire bombs and rocks were thrown. Shots were fired, and people were shot. Neighbors were complaining, and police resources were being taxed. None of this was going to end until BLM demands that will never be met… are met. That’s a dead end that was becoming a focal point for violence and community resentment. The fact that BLM didn’t end or modify this action voluntarily after the first fire bomb was thrown has only damaged their credibility. A dangerous situation is a dangerous situation regardless of who makes it’s dangerous.

    One should note that city leaders and authorities cut BLM more slack than any demonstrators have ever gotten in the city of MPLS. This was an illegal “encampment” blocking a major city street in front of a police station that lasted for what 20 days? There’s no comparison with any other situation. Back in the mid 80s the Anarchist Bowling League “occupied” Lake and Henn for a night to protest Reagan’s Central America regime… that was one night. Those 99% guys didn’t block any streets, they camped in a park. And in the late 90s when Earth First!er’s blocked Hiawatha Ave. they were arrested and cleared immediately. Remember the Republican National Convention, some of those guys were arrested before it even started!

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/03/2015 - 12:56 pm.

    Anyways…

    Here’s what happened, a coalition aspiring to the same goals as BLM reached out to BLM and got “no thanks” for an answer, so this morning the cops finally cleared encampment. I don’t know why it would take more than a single paragraph to explain that. The question now is whether or not BLM will continue to reject attempts at building a more sustainable coalition?

  5. Submitted by Rick Ryan on 12/03/2015 - 01:50 pm.

    occupation and escalation

    I’m relieved that the occupation of the 4th precinct property is over without further bloodshed or violence. I was afraid the situation would escalate, and further fan the flames of enmity.

    That said having lived through the Stenvig, Hofstede, Fraser, Sayles-Belton Rybak and now Hodges administrations; NO Mayor, City Council, or Police Chief has yet been able to root out the racists and the “thumpers” in the MPD. The election of Lt. Kroll to lead the Police Federation indicates to me that those factions within the department still hold the reins and are perhaps even the majority. Until the Mayor, City Council and Police Chief root out these faction in the department Jamar Clark will just be another in a long line.

    Police officers have an incredibly difficult job to do, Most people don’t want to interact with them unless and until they need help. With that said we need them, we need them to protect and serve all of the residents of Minneapolis.

    We must break down two walls of silence in our community, the Blue Wall of silence where no Police Officer ever did anything wrong, and the Black Wall of silence where nobody knows anything, nobody heard anything, nobody saw anything, and if I did I’m sure not telling the Police.

    I support the efforts of BLM and #JusticeforJamar to get the answers. Will we as a community accept the answers? Telling the truth, to everyone is the ONLY way we can heal our city. Continue to ask hard questions, continue to raise your voices in protest, continue to demand justice. Be brave, be truth-tellers, be rooted in facts, not speculation.

    I love my home town, Minneapolis, and I am saddened that hatred is tearing us apart.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/03/2015 - 02:20 pm.

      Sure, but…

      What if the answer is that Jamar was a guy who beat and terrorized women, got into a fight with cops, tried to take a gun, and ended up getting shot? Are we ready to hear THAT answer?

      • Submitted by Alfred Sullivan on 12/03/2015 - 08:28 pm.

        Great point. We really don’t know exactly what happened when Jamal was shot. But he certainly has a history that suggests he was capable of violence and trying to get an officer’s gun. Just as I don’t want to assume that happened, I don’t think others should build a gigantic protest by assuming he was “executed” until we know more. I suppose there are some that still believe Michael Jackson had his hands up when he was shot, but for objective observers that has been settled. If Eric Holder’s Justice Department didn’t bring charges against the officer, I doubt it.

  6. Submitted by Steve Mayer on 12/03/2015 - 03:34 pm.

    Where does one sign up?

    Where does one sign up for this coalition-building work?

  7. Submitted by Shaina Brassard on 12/03/2015 - 04:46 pm.

    Great reporting

    I consistently appreciate Peter Callaghan’s work to add nuance and different perspective- and often to say what others fear to say- in his articles. Since the mayor’s request to the protesters to leave happened Monday, I have been asking myself and friends, “What are they thinking? What are they expecting the protesters to do?” This is the first piece of news coverage to ask that question, and then interrogate it thoughtfully, so thank you.

    My greatest wish, other than real justice being served, is that those outside of the Black Lives Matter movement stop treating movement leaders and participants like children. Just because you don’t agree with their tactics does not mean they don’t have a right and their own reasons to employ those tactics. If you’re not providing truly meaningful, effective alternative strategies, you really have no grounds to criticize. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that what BLM and their many, diverse supporters are protesting is very real. The truly irresponsible, adolescent-like actors here are the police and white supremacists armed with bulletproof vests and guns that kill unarmed people and terrorize peaceful protesters.

  8. Submitted by craig furguson on 12/03/2015 - 07:21 pm.

    Unlike BLM

    I see a lot of people that have benefited personally from the “war on poverty” It’s time for new leadership.

  9. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/03/2015 - 09:07 pm.

    Actually

    This is what might be called “appealing to everyone” or “straddling the fence”. Note that the Mayor and Representative are actually for BOTH sides at the same time. This way, they don’t lose any votes.

  10. Submitted by Jim Million on 12/04/2015 - 08:36 am.

    Fort Apache the North Side?

    Perspectives relevant to MPD are found in the film about the Bronx Precinct House. I have wondered if BLM knew they were summoning similar images in the minds of Minneapolis officers and political leaders. I am pretty sure that leaders on all sides know now. Bulldozers…hmmm.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/04/2015 - 10:36 am.

    Here’s my thing

    I know my response to BLM is somewhat enigmatic, people who read my comments know that I’m a Lefty Lucy and generally sympathetic with any effort promote equality and justice, however I’m ambivalent when it comes to BLM, and I know I’m not alone in this regard.

    I absolutely recognize the very real issues BLM is confronting. The trends towards militarized police responses, systemic use of force, institutionalized racism, and racial disparity have been well documented for decades, and for decades activists have been trying to combat this injustice.

    My thing is I’d like to see REAL progress and we’ve seen that poorly conceived “movements” can actually turn the clock back rather than move society forward. Over the last year or so I get the feeling that some BLM members and supporters actually think that they’re doing something that no one has ever done before? Sure, sometimes you need to try something “new”, but there’s nothing “new” about these demonstrations. That’s simply an historical fact, it’s not condescension.

    I’m not going to tell BLM what to do, but no movement is successful until it reaches a requisite level of community support so alienating the community (or neighborhood) is never a good idea. No movement challenging the status quo is “entitled” to support (even from those are inclined towards support), they must earn support and establish credibility, and that’s always met with resistance and disinterest.

    And finally, no movement ever succeeds until it does the necessary intellectual work. Objectives, narratives, and tactics have to be thoughtfully developed, if you skip that step and just hit the streets with “demands”, you’re unlikely to succeed. Again, this isn’t condescending, it’s simply history and reality.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 12/04/2015 - 11:21 am.

      Truely

      Style points count in all things, including confrontations, demonstrations, reactions and blog comments (most assuredly).

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