Fascinating Political Moment in Minneapolis Might Actually Change Things

There’s a lot happening in North Minneapolis right now, and it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. Decades of work fighting the lethal brutality of the Minneapolis Police Department have come to a head with the killing of Jamar Clark five days ago. The moment reveals a coalescence of different narratives around race, state power, and geographic segregation that have emerged over the last few years, and also points to the contrast between urban and regional narratives that continue to trouble the Twin Cities.

[Jon Stewart flipping off Twin Cities' news station, KTSP, on The Daily Show.]

Mayor Hodges and #pointergate

2014’s oddest moment, the great “pointergate” scandal, forms an odd reversal to the present impasse on Plymouth Avenue. After her 2013 election in Minneapolis to an open seat, it became abundantly clear that Betsy Hodges, who ran on a platform of tackling racial inequality, was no friend to the Minneapolis Police Department. One of the mayor’s few clear powers in Minneapolis’ “weak mayor” system is the appointment of department heads, and Betsy’s choice was a reform candidate who would, it was thought, attempt to tackle the long-standing community frustrations around police brutality and unaccountability.

(For some context on this, see this nice bio-piece on septgenarian Minneapolis anti-brutality activist, Spike Moss, in Minnpost.)

[The Facebook pic that started it all.]
The Minneapolis Police Federation, who recently ousted their right-wing demagogic union head for an even more right-wing demagogic union head, fought back. When Hodges was seen campaigning with the group Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the heart of the then-fledgling Minneapolis #blacklivesmatter movement, the police union took a Facebook picture to their friends at the right-wing local TV station and planted a story about the mayor “flashing gang signs” with a young organizer named Navell Gordon.

It was ridiculous, and went viral.

That was the moment when two important things emerged about today’s local media and how they handle urban issues. First, the internet and social media can effectively undermine traditional power structures by creating generational gaps. As any cursory glance at TV news’ pharmacological advertising will tell you, there’s still a huge difference between how older and younger Minnesotans receive and share news. Young people simply bypass traditional media, especially television, in favor of a completely different kind of information network that is lightning fast, nimble, and has the potential to create politically potent echo chambers. As they were nationally mocked by the Daily Show, #pointergate revealed how out of touch KTSP, and their race-baiting reporter Jay Kollis, had become.

(One schadenfreude-laden side-note to the current protests has been the whining by KSTP TV news about not being allowed access to the #JamarClark protestors. Play a tiny violin for station owner and right-wing financier Stanley Hubbard.)

The second related consequence is that, because local news can’t do much of anything about their internet problem, they hardly care about how young diverse urban audiences perceive them. The demographic sights of local media are firmly fixed on white suburbia. That’s where the wealth remains, and as sports sections gradually take over newspapers and newscasts, particularly in the class-segregated Twin Cities, a huge racial fissure emerges over how “urban issues” are perceived. Despite the #pointergate ridicule, KSTP has carried on, even hiring a well-known investigative reporter from the Star Tribune this month. With each new ham-handed report on urban crime or a bike accident, and each new story on Lakeville hockey moms, the Twin Cities’ geographic racial divide widens. 

[The Mall of America #blacklivesmatter protest in December, 2014.]

The politics of malls and freeways 

The pernicious racial segregation of opportunity explains the cognitive dissonance of Twin Cities narratives where, even in the same year, stories radically contract each other. One one hand, you have "the miracle of Minneapolis," the nation's top city for affordable opportunity; on the other, you have Minneapolis boasting the highest employment disparity between whites and blacks. These contrasts stem from a confusion of scale between a wealthy white region and a more-diverse Minneapolis. The city itself, a bastion of both liberalism and racially concentrated poverty, is stuck in the middle trying to negotiate with a state and region that have no great patience for social justice politics. As a relatively small city dominated by suburban wealth, the power structure seems precarious. 

[Eric Dayton's "north" hats.]
(For example, see the recent failed attempts to raise the minimum wage and provide reasonable scheduling conditions for service workers, both of which hinged on narratives formed by high-end restaurateurs. Governor Mark Dayton’s sons’ exclusive locally-focused downtown restaurant and retail store, which has pioneered Minnesotan exceptionalist branding, is the perfect encapsulation of this geographic class tension. Dayton himself is, of course, the liberal heir a famously suburbanizing retail dynasty. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

That’s why, until this week, the most interesting thing #blacklivesmatter movement had done was to confront the infrastructure of Twin Cities suburbia by demonstrating at the Mall of America (MOA) and along Minneapolis’ two largest freeways.

As I wrote at the time, freeways are public spaces too:
A road like Interstate 35W might seem "natural," but history has shown that they are not, that freeway construction was a massively destructive force aimed at a particular way of urban life that many people of color relied on. Today and every day, freeways remain barriers dividing our cities poorest neighborhoods, and making streets unsafe by privileging the inherently violent technology of the automobile.

The Mall of America protest, in particular, held right before Christmas, became an ongoing media narrative struggle between the prosecutor from the retail-laden ring-road suburb of Bloomington and the Minneapolis NAACP President and #blacklivesmatter figurehead Nekima Levy-Pounds. (Charges were just dropped this month, almost a year later.)

To many people, especially internet commenters, the MOA, state fair, and freeway demonstrations were impossible to understand. “Why can’t they protest in their own neighborhood,” was the refrain. “Blocking the freeway just pisses people off,” said the suburban drivers. “Or, “I agree with you but I have to get to work. And what about the children?”

But in another sense, these demonstrations were the only way to connect the geographic dots between the problems facing Minneapolis’ segregated communities and the Twin Cities’ suburban infrastructure, a landscape that makes it effortlessly easy to ignore racial inequality. When #blacklivesmatter shuts down the freeway to Maple Grove, not only do they perform a tragically ironic bit of political ju-jitsu by occupying the very freeway that helped isolate the neighborhood in the first place, they make a particular statement about urban segregation:

“Black lives matter, even to everyone driving past on their way to the white suburbs.”

At least to me, this expansion of scale is the critical move.

[Two moments for the Minneapolis police.]

Race, place, police, and the Hodges reversal

[Click to expand.]
Because the Minneapolis police force embodies the racial and geographic inequalities of the region, they have now become the terrain of contest. With last week’s killing of Jamar Clark, lurking racial inequalities and systemic violence focused to a tragic point. It’s difficult to see how the standoff on Plymouth Avenue will play out without upsetting the city’s liberal applecart.

That incomprehensible sound you hear over Minneapolis City Hall is Mayor Hodges’ self-image exploding. Since her awkward embrace of #blacklivesmatter last year, she has transformed from a #pointergate-savvy poster child of Minneapolis reform to an effigy for decades of systemic frustration with racist structural violence. (Interestingly, she's been a pariah both times, which might have something to do with her gender.)

For Hodges, who is the literal embodiment of a marriage  between the city’s wealthy liberal Southwest and its diverse Northside poverty, it must be quite a shock. (I wonder if she wishes she still had her old Council seat in the tony enclave of the 13th Ward, far from the madding crowd.) You must assume that Hodges’ unwelcoming reception by the demonstrators at the 4th Precinct station, and Police Chief Harteau’s tone-deaf toeing of police party lines, destroy any dreams of top-down behind-the-scenes reform.

But it’s easy to get caught in the Twitter tornado and spin so fast that one is unable to see its limits. Like the #occupy encampment before it, or any number of previous North Minneapolis demonstrations led by people of color, achieving meaningful structural change is extremely difficult. As a few people have pointed out, the Near North neighborhood where the 4th precinct MPD HQ is located is the site of the 1967 race riots that shook North Minneapolis and left lasting scars on Plymouth and Penn Avenues. By key measures, particularly education, the Twin Cities are more segregated than ever, and last year’s statistics show the city’s racial opportunity gap widening.

[Unbelievable poll.]
Check out the recent poll about white Americans' sense of victimization, where "half of white Americans told researchers that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities." There is the rub that explains today's toxic political landscape. Just because everyone on your phone agrees with you, it doesn’t mean a revolution is happening.

That's why, Levy-Pounds' recent statement to the press, spoken in a soft voice while the first winter snow fell, had reasonable demands for the city: support a Federal investigation of Jamar Clark's death, release video tapes to resolve confusion about "inconsistent narratives" of the killing, provide grief counselors for witnesses, restrain the police reactions to non-violent demonstrations, and, the most difficult, reform the police department with a new Federal program.

I continue to think about the question of scale: Can Minneapolis spark the kinds of changes that our region needs to make, or will focusing on the core let the socially and racially distant suburbs off the hook? But because the Minneapolis Police Department so closely embodies the region’s white exurban divide, it’s a great place to start. With a larger movement, resolving the disconnect that exists on either side of the police fence will create dangerous sparks, but it’s the future. And it’s long overdue.

[Conversations amidst the standoff at the 4th Precinct.]


Check out this KARE 11 video of three Minneapolis #blacklivesmatter leaders describing their approach and tactics. I'm struck by their comments about the freeways and the car drivers, and their smart approach to handling the media.


I mis-ID's the previous image of the mall protest, which is actually from a #blacklivesmatter protest at a mall in Tennessee, not Minnesota.


Bryce said...

Thanks, great post.

Anonymous said...

Great post, truly. FYI it's "far from the madding crowd", not "maddening".

Doug T said...

So on point and cutting through decades and decades of accumulated white suburban bubble bullshit. Great work, Bill.

Doug T said...

So on point and cutting through decades and decades of accumulated white suburban bubble bullshit. Great work, Bill.

AJ said...

Outside of some spelling errors, good read.

Anonymous said...

Newspapers used to be able to reach everyone with good 2 sides on issues. Very hard to break out of your groups bubble into another groups bubble with out an unbiased bridge.

Taylor said...

[unbelievable poll]

Anonymous said...

I'm not 100% certain the MoA photo is actually from MN; it looks like it might be from Tennessee. Still gets the point across about the national response to BLM, though.

Unknown said...

It is the MOA. In Minnesota. I use to work there.

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this insight in this article. Well done.

One tidbit though... I was thinking how I had not seen that photo of the woman walking through the protestors before. It should have been photo of the year in the local media. So I google'd it. It looks like it is by John Partipilo and was taken for The Tennessean for a similar protest in Tennessee last Dec. Full photoset here: http://www.tennessean.com/picture-gallery/news/local/2014/12/20/activists-protest-at-green-hills-mall/20714609/ Such a symbolic photo...

Anonymous said...

Good, comprehensive, insightful writing.
However - is this imagery necessary?: "That incomprehensible sound you hear over Minneapolis City Hall is Mayor Hodges’ head exploding. I find this a troubling, casual form of violence against women not central to the story.

Bill Lindeke said...

Great point. Fixed.

Anonymous said...

Incredibly short-sided and filled with holes.

"Decades of work fighting the lethal brutality of the Minneapolis Police Department" A little over-stated, no?

Also, if and when we find out that this women beater (look up the pictures of his girlfriend and why the paramedics/police got called) was actually going for the officer's gun will there be a collective apology from the community about the over-reaction? My assumption is no.

If we're really looking to make changes why don't we start focusing on the actual problems plaguing the community. It's not all "The White Man" keeping North down, some of these issues are self-inflicted. Does racism exist? Of course. Is it the sole (or even a top 5) reason this is happening? Doubtful. Addressing Family, Education, Community, Self-Accountability, and Mental Health would have far more lasting and substantial effects than saying it's "someone else's fault"

Take a page out of the playbook of the Japanese and Jewish communities (two groups that have both, very recently, been victims of systematic oppression). They rebuilt their communities by focusing on the above mentioned things and not by screaming about injustice from others.

And yes, I posted this anonymously because I'm not really interested in hearing a response fueled by emotion. If you'd like to have an intellectual and reasonable conversation feel free to post your email under this, I'd be happy to sit down and have a reasonable cup of coffee. Seriously, I like speaking to people who have differing opinions than I do, turns out we both usually end up learning something from each other :)

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