After ‘the point’, a question of racism remains

Photo: Neighborhoods Organizing for Change
Today’s snowstorm couldn’t have come at a better time for KSTP in the aftermath of its ill-fated decision last Thursday to run a police-union-inspired story claiming Mayor Betsy Hodges was flashing gang signs with Navell Gordon, a young man with whom she was participating in a get-out-the-vote door-knocking effort.

Attention to the story has faded somewhat through the weekend. What remains of it?

I answered the question during a segment on The Current this morning with Steve Seel and Jill Riley.

There are many more layers to the story, however, that will outlive the near universal condemnation of KSTP.

Mike Spangenburg, who writes at the Question the Premise blog, says the story raises significant questions about the way the Minneapolis Police Department looks at the non-white people of the city.

And here’s the larger point. All Jay Kolls, Michael Quinn, and John Delmonico think you need to know about Navell Gordon is that he’s a “convicted felon” with a black face. To them, that’s all he is. And to them, he’s scary and inherently suspect. So posing with him is poor judgment.

This is what’s so terrifying. All three of those men, two of whom are or were Minneapolis cops, seem to take it as a given that we should see Navell Gordon as a bad guy. And this is the mentality they operate under when policing our city.

Police officers are entrusted to protect and serve the communities with whom they work. And they are given state-sanctioned authority to use lethal force to uphold their charge. It’s no stretch to say that the mindsets displayed by too many law enforcement members in #pointergate are the kinds of mindsets that can lead to tragedy. When people of color are viewed with disdain, when they are seen as something to be controlled, and when they are treated with disproportionate suspicion, things go very badly. Suddenly a young man walking down the street becomes a lethal threat.

This is how Ferguson happens. When cops walk around with a gun and the state-sanctioned blessing to use it within their discretion, with the mindset that all you need to know about a black male is that he’s a “convicted felon” and, therefore, a “bad guy,” you get Michael Brown. And Vonderit Myers.

As Bryan Stevenson astutely observed on Melissa Harris-Perry, some cops view community members as people to partner with, but some cops “see the community as the enemy.” I am terrified by what #pointergate has showed us about how some members of the MPD view the community they are charged with serving.

“But this story is not about Mayor Hodges,” a news release today from Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. “It’s about Navell.”

Navell has been working as an organizer with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change for two years. This year, he was a leader in our civic engagement work, part of a team that knocked over 55,000 doors. In a year where voter turnout was down 5.5% across Minnesota, in our neighborhood in north Minneapolis, the number of voters increased by 13%–and Navell played a key role in that.

Navell is also a 22-year-old black man who has been consistently targeted for racial profiling during the course of our civic engagement work. This summer, police accosted Navell and handcuffed him right outside the office, ostensibly for spitting on the sidewalk. When NOC board members came out of the office to film the incident, the police let him go.

In September, Navell was returning from a canvass shift and stopped by Cub Foods when an officer tackled him in the parking lot, arrested him for trespassing, and threatened to shoot witnesses to the arrest—for being in a grocery store parking lot while black. When our civic and political engagement director, Wintana Melekin, arrived in Cub Foods, she was also arrested for questioning the officer.

In the face of some tense moments, our canvass team invited Mayor Hodges and Police Chief Harteau to join our doorknock efforts in solidarity. The photo was snapped while Mayor Hodges and Navell were doing voter outreach work together.

Navell can’t vote right now because he’s serving probation for a nonviolent felony. But he’s proud to get out the vote in his community and looking forward to voting in the 2016 presidential election. He’s the first to tell you he’s turned his life around, and that NOC has played a role in that.

But instead of any of this background, KSTP takes Navell’s entire life and reduces him to “convicted felon” in a leading news headline. KSTP seems miffed that we are offended by this—after all, they blurred out Navell’s face and didn’t mention NOC specifically. They say they’re just trying to question the mayor’s judgment. But this stance devalues Navell as a human, eliminates any mention of his amazing civic engagement work, and reduces him to an anonymous scary black man, deliberately playing into racial stereotypes that all young black men are criminals. Although they are merely pointing at each other, to KSTP this is a “gang sign.” This fits a long line of black people being used as political fodder in the media, slandering their names carelessly and perpetuating racial stereotypes to advance a political agenda. To question the mayor’s judgment in posing with Navell is an insult to Navell, NOC, and anyone with any sense of decency.

Lots of people have felonies on their record. Many of these people are black. That’s not because black people commit crimes at higher rates, but because they are incarcerated at higher rates, often for nonviolent crimes. For example, while white and black people are equally likely to possess marijuana, nationally black people are four times more likely to be arrested for it. In Minneapolis, that’s even higher—black people are 11.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. The ACLU released a report two weeks ago showing that black people in Minneapolis are at least seven times more likely than white people to be arrested for any given petty offense.

We’re proud to hire people with criminal backgrounds because we believe in the importance of second chances—and we know that our criminal justice system systematically targets people of color. Building power in our community has driven our civic engagement work from the beginning. That’s why we pay our canvassers a living wage of $15/hour, prioritize folks from the community, and don’t discriminate on criminal background. Challenging narratives and systems that criminalize people of color is a critical and necessary part of this work. And it gets results.

Over the weekend, the Star Tribune’s Molly Priesmeyer scored an interview with Michael Quinn, the former Minneapolis cop who appeared in the KSTP story claiming Hodges “should have known better” than to point — flashing gang symbols, he says — at Gordon.

And you heard Anthony Newby from Neighborhoods Organizing for Change [the organization Hodges was door-knocking with] on MPR this morning, who talked about there being serious problems with race in the city.

I agree with a lot of what Anthony says. We do have an issue with racism in the city of Minneapolis. Certainly the idea that blacks are being incarcerated at a greater rate than whites are is evidence of racism individually and certainly of racist policies. That has been going on for a long time. You can go back to the African American Men’s Project and see that at point in time 44 percent of the African American men in the city ages 18-30 had a criminal history. There is something really wrong with law enforcement policies and criminal justice polices that puts that many people at risk. But that’s not a recent event.

If this fiasco with the picture leads to more talks on race and the issue of race and how we are doing criminal justice within the city of Minneapolis, this will turn out to be a good thing.

But do you see how this story itself seems borne of racial policies? If this were a white man in the picture, do you think it would be an MPD issue? Would KSTP have contacted you? Would it ever be a story if it were her pointing at a white person?

No, it would still. This isn’t about the race of the gang. We’ve got white gangs within the state of Minnesota that are every bit as vicious as any black gang on the street. You don’t have to go very far looking up gangs to see that Minnesota has been the hotbed from some really racist, nasty gangs. It isn’t about that.

This is about the perception that this is gang culture communication. The mayor shouldn’t be doing that.

You said you haven’t spoken to anyone at the MPD….Could this story be totally misconstrued?

I should’t say I haven’t talked to anybody. I haven’t talked to anyone that is willing to come forward and say anything.

But when KSTP contacted you for the story, it was the first you heard of it.


KSTP reporter Jay Kolls’ only comments — aside from his Twitter comments — on the backlash came on Friday when he appeared on Joe Soucheray’s show on ESPN 1500, owned by KSTP owner Stan Hubbard.

“I just put it out there because they (the Minneapolis police union) came to me and said ‘this is preposterous,'” Kolls said.

“Why he’s not in prison, I have no idea,” Soucheray said of Gordon.

There’s another easily-obtained answer that someone in journalism didn’t bother himself with.