Can Minneapolis talk about race?

Can we even talk about race in Minneapolis?

That’s the question to debate in the wake of Minneapolis police chief Janeé Harteau’s decision to pull out of a “listening session” last night to address concerns by people of color in the city.

“People had discussed agitators set inside the meeting, those whose goal was to get arrested, that regardless of what was said or done, they were to be disruptive and that was further confirmed by some Facebook posts about direct action,” she said.

The session was going to discuss the allegations that African-Americans are being intimidated by police in the city. That’s a worthy subject, for sure.

But is it the kind of topic that can be discussed without confrontation?

“I’m very comfortable with public protests,” City Council Member Alondra Cano told MPR News reporter Curtis Gilbert. “And I think that’s part of the work we do. It involves folks expressing their freedom of speech. I guess she just felt that the risks were a little too high, and that she couldn’t really gamble on this one.”

Nekima Levy-Pounds, a professor at the University of St. Thomas law school, moderated the forum that went on without Harteau (or mayor Betsy Hodges, it should be noted).

On her Star Tribune blog, she called Harteau’s absence “deeply disappointing.”

In order to shift things in the right direction, there are a few things that need to happen:

1) We need to hold the chief accountable for her withdrawal from the community listening session by demanding a public meeting that includes the mayor and the chief to explain the circumstances surrounding the chief’s absence;

2) We need to inquire of the mayor about the scope of her plans to ensure police accountability over and above the implementation of body cameras. Last night’s forum demonstrated the breadth and scope of the problems are much deeper than body cameras alone will be able to resolve;

3) We need a comprehensive assessment of the overall effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the Minneapolis criminal justice system that looks at who is being stopped and searched on the streets, the rate of charging of low level, nonviolent offenses such as lurking, disorderly conduct, trespassing, and obstruction of legal process, the annual costs to the city of such low level arrests, and the health-related and economic impacts on individuals and communities when subjected to such punitive treatment. (We do not need another study, but a critical examination of data already available.) The results should cause us to repeal ordinances that contribute to the problems and revamp the system, where needed;

4) We need a coordinated community response that includes capturing negative police encounters on video, making rapid reports of such encounters, challenging unlawful stops, searches, and arrests in court, and showing up at City Hall until we see the changes that are needed; and

5) We need our Caucasian brothers and sisters to stand with us in demanding police accountability. It is not equitable for communities of color to both suffer the effects of police misconduct and then to accept full ownership for addressing problems that we did not create, nor have control over. White people should be just as outraged by police abuse as people of color and resolve to work diligently to address these challenges, as a matter of human dignity.

None of those things will be accomplished without Harteau. But they probably wouldn’t have been accomplished with theater at the meeting, either.

Harteau is suggesting that those at the meeting were interested in creating an “incident” to rally around.

Maybe. Maybe not. But her reluctance to appear is certainly a signal of the disconnect between the African American community and the city’s police department and our continuing inability to talk about racial issues.