Minorities in Minneapolis: Underprivileged and Over-Policed

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Around 1000 in downtown Minneapolis for Million March Minnesota, a rally and protest against deaths of people of color at the hands of police on December 13, 2014. Above, protesters shut down Hennepin Avenue downtown after a rally at Government Plaza. 

Minneapolis often shines brightly when in the national spotlight. It’s a “miracle” city that’s managed to weather the economic downturn better than any place in the country. Unemployment is low. Education levels are high. It’s the healthiest city in the country. It’s perceived as a bastion of progressivism; an active city with plenty of opportunity.

However true this narrative is, it’s a white façade.

“From the outside, the experience of communities of color in Minneapolis—across nearly every facet of life—is hidden behind the widespread prosperity of white residents,” a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union states.

The ACLU report shows the unvarnished reality of institutionalized discrimination by the Minneapolis Police Department against the city’s minority communities. It’s a damning indictment of racialized policing. Both black people and Native Americans are nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for minor offenses—trespassing, lurking, consuming alcohol in public, disorderly conduct. The majority of these arrests take place in poor, minority neighborhoods—enforced in some areas, and ignored in others.

One vivid example described in the report was the arrest of Minneapolis teenager Hazma Jeylani. Soon after leaving a local gym, he and a few of his friends were pulled over and quickly ordered out of the car. Jeylani, who is Somali, was handcuffed and threatened by the officer.

“Plain and simple, if you fuck with me,” says [the police officer] on the video, “I’m going to break your legs before you get the chance to run.” “Can you tell me why I’m being arrested?” asks Jeylani. “Because I feel like arresting you,” replies [the officer].

According to police, the rationale for the March 18, 2015, stop and detention was suspicion that the four young Black teenagers had stolen the car.7 But Jeylani rejects this: “The driver had license and insurance, and that was his car.” Complicating matters more, police said the stolen car they were after was a blue Honda Civic. The teenagers, however, were driving a blue Toyota Camry.8 But Jeylani believes he knows the real reason for his stop. He and his friends, all four of whom are of Somali descent, were driving while Black. 

The report is just the latest example of racial inequities in Minneapolis—and activists are trying to force them into the city’s consciousness, despite troubling attempts to quiet their dissent.


“We’ve become the New South,” Minneapolis community organizer Anthony Newby told ACLU. “We've become the new premiere example of how to systematically oppress people of color. And again, it's done through our legal system, and so low-level offenses, as an example, are just one of the many, many ways that Minnesota has perfected the art of suppressing and subjugating people of color."

Minneapolis is 64 percent white and 20 percent black. Native Americans make up just 2 percent of the population, but the city has one of the largest urban Native communities in the country.

Arrests for minor offenses, even if they don’t lead to convictions can wreak havoc on people’s lives. An arrest “can end up taking somebody who just got a job at Taco Bell and have him fired because they missed work because they were in jail for driving after a suspension case,” District Court Judge Kevin Burke of Hennepin County, which contains Minneapolis, explains in the report.

From there, it can often escalate very quickly. “Because they missed [work], they’re now behind in their child support. Because they’re behind in their child support, the county attorney’s office will try to hold them in contempt, to hassle them to get them to pay child support. It’s really a very ineffective way of dealing with human behavior,” Burke says.

Racial disparities in Minneapolis—and Minnesota in general—are not limited to oppressive policing tactics. Educational achievement, homeownership, unemployment, income, and wealth gaps are vast as well.

In the 36,000-student system of Minneapolis Public Schools, less than 25 percent of black students passed state reading tests in 2014; more than 75 percent of white students passed. High school graduation disparities between white and minority students are the worst in the nation.

While Minnesota consistently has one of the highest homeownership rates in the country at 72.5 percent, it skews along racial lines. There’s roughly a 40 percent gap between white homeowners and homeowners of color. Comparing two different neighborhoods in Minneapolis shows the stark difference. According to Minnesota Public Radio, in the affluent and predominately white area of Southwest Minneapolis, 78 percent of residents own their own home. In the poor and largely minority section of North Minneapolis, the homeownership rate is just 44 percent.

Minneapolis is unique though in that these inequities are often pushed to the margins of its national image—a disruption to a familiar narrative of progressive utopia.

Catalyzed by the Ferguson protests, local activists in the Twin Cities have banded together and formed one of the most visible and active chapters within the national Black Lives Matter movement. Members of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis organized a protest in December 2014 at the Mall of America, on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The overzealous police response was reminiscent of the scenes on the streets of Ferguson, though juxtaposed with an upscale mall backdrop.

Thousands of peaceful protesters filled the mall’s central rotunda, and were promptly surrounded by police in riot gear. Eleven of the protest’s organizers were arrested and eventually charged by the City of Bloomington (where MOA is located) with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and aiding and abetting trespass.

In March, protesters crowded outside the courthouse, where the defendants all pleaded not guilty, and as of today verdicts have yet to be returned. “We’re here because black lives matter, and they’re trying to prosecute them for saying that too loud,” a protester shouted.

In addition to apparent collusion between the city and the mall in their efforts to trump up charges against the organizers, there was a disturbing online surveillance effort in which MOA security personnel used fake social media accounts to monitor the online presence of Black Lives Matters Minneapolis.

Throughout the very public prosecution, the group has remained active in the city—holding marches in solidarity with victims of police violence across the country like Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray.

Nekima Levy-Pounds is the recently elected president for NAACP’s Minneapolis chapter and one of 11 Black Lives Matter activists who is being prosecuted for the Mall of America protest. She recently told Al-Jazeera America, “We are in a danger zone right now. If you look at the big picture, African-Americans and Native Americans in Minneapolis experience oppression in every key indicator of quality of life. When you couple that with police brutality, it leads to uprisings like we see across the country. I hope things don’t rise to the level of uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore. But we’re not far from that.”

Prior to the release of the report, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and other activist groups were already advocating for the city to repeal lurking and spitting ordinances, arguing that they unfairly target minorities. “I think these laws are really just the new Jim Crow,” Wintana Melekin said at a city council meeting in May. Melekin is an organizer with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), a Minneapolis social justice group.

Police and business owners say that these enforcement measures are an effective way to prevent more serious crimes, especially in the downtown area. But activists are adamant that they are regressive tactics that are contrary to promises of racial reform made by the city’s progressive leaders.

Mayor Betsy Hodges, for instance, ran her successful campaign in 2013 on a platform calling for the elimination of the crippling racial disparities in Minneapolis. In response to the ACLU report, Hodges said in a statement: “I am committed to closing every harmful gap—safety, health, education, income, housing, and employment—where outcomes are worse for people of color than white people. This data is another reminder of the work that we have in front of us, the work that I am committed to doing. It comes at a fortuitous time as we are focused on criminal justice reform, particularly when it comes to youth. The more information we have, the better.”

The department has already introduced implicit bias training, as well as a pilot program for body cams. But the ACLU report offers up solutions of its own for restoring a community-policing focus to the Minneapolis Police department. Among the proposals are ensuring that officers are not incentivized to make more stops or low-level arrests, and that they are punished for unnecessary force; establishing a civilian review board with real power; expanding pre-arrest diversion opportunities to keep the young and homeless out of the criminal justice system; emphasizing de-escalation and encouraging officers to avoid force whenever possible.

Activists like Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and NOC, as well as allies like the ACLU will be important in maintaining pressure on city officials to enact meaningful reform.  “These problems are 100 percent solvable if we're willing to do the heavy lifting that it'll take,” Levy-Pounds says.

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