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

The message delivered at a press conference on 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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.