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Nekima Levy-Pounds

Nekima Levy-Pounds is an expert on issues at the intersection of race, law, criminal justice, public education and public policy

Nekima Levy-Pounds: Ferguson and Minneapolis are closer than we think


Photo credit: Susan Montgomery, pictured is her son, Taye, who was maced by Minneapolis Police

Photo of Taye taken at the #BlackLivesMatter Mall of America Demonstration on December 20, 2014

Last night, I received some startling news that a ten year old boy was pepper sprayed by a Minneapolis police officer during a march through downtown. Please let that sink in for a moment ... a 10-year-old kid….pepper sprayed. My youngest son is 10 years old, so immediately the mother in me became upset that this could happen in a land that prides itself on being progressive and so much more liberal than other places around the country. The march that took place was organized by the Black Liberation Project, a group of mostly young people of color who have been organizing ‘Black Brunch’ throughout the Twin Cities to raise awareness of victims of police violence. The purpose of the march was to show solidarity with people in Madison, Wisconsin who were mourning the death of Tony Robinson, a young man who was shot and killed by police, and the fact that no charges were brought against the officers in question.

Maced without warning by police
As the small crowd marched through the streets of downtown Minneapolis, apparently some of the protesters attempted to block cars from driving through the crowd to prevent harm to those who were marching. Shortly thereafter, according to reports from witnesses, a police officer approached and began spraying protesters who were within the vicinity, which sadly included 10-year-old Taye. A video capturing portions of the incident was made available by Idris Nero Mahdi, who was present at the time. The video has since been viewed over 27,000 times. At 1:55, there are blood-curdling sounds of Taye screaming from being hit with pepper spray.


Minneapolis police just pepper sprayed a kid

Posted by Idris Nero Mahdi on Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Shortly after the incident, I reached out to Taye’s mom, Susan Montgomery, to hear her perspective on the incident and to find out how Taye was recovering. She stated, “I am at a loss. My son comes out to many actions. Some big, some small and everything in between. To see him marching to the beat of the drum with his people, chanting and engaging in peaceful protest to get the message about his life and other black lives matter out just to get sprayed by chemicals was truly heartbreaking. There were no warnings. No options. No aid offered. No other direction. Nothing. Taye was screaming and running but not able to see me, which was very scary for him, and made me terrified. Yet, I knew I needed to be calm for him to be able stay strong.” According to Susan, Taye continued to cry as they rode the train back home and questioned why this incident happened to him.

Another protester, Kandace Montgomery, who is one of the #MOA11 being charged by the Bloomington City Attorney for the December 20th Mall of America demonstration, had this to say, "It should ring more clear than ever that here in Minneapolis, where a ten year old black child is maced at a peaceful protest demanding, black lives matter, that in fact they don't matter. We shouldn't be attacked by police when practicing our first amendment right. What that cop did is a perfect example of why we need to end state sanctioned violence against black people in this country."

Do black lives matter in Minneapolis?
In the aftermath of the making incident, calls for accountability rang out on Facebook and Twitter. Miski Noor, a protester who was present during the march had this to say, “Yet again, the police made the decision to escalate a situation when their job is exactly the opposite of that. Instead of ensuring the safety of peaceful community members, they decided to resort to violence themselves and maced one of our children and dozens of people. It's shameful, and if [Chief] Harteau really cares about Black lives, there needs to be repercussions for police who commit unprovoked violent acts against us to silence us and harm us.”

The calls for accountability led Chief Harteau to issue a public statement about the macing incident that appeared on the Facebook page of the Minneapolis Police Department:

"I am launching a full investigation into the concerns brought forth this evening. Our investigation will include gathering surveillance video and interviewing witnesses. I understand and appreciate people's concerns and will gather the full set of facts as quickly as possible. I assure everyone this will be a thorough investigation.”

Initially, when I heard the news of Taye and other protesters being maced, I wondered how could police spray chemical weapons into a crowd of people without warning or regard for the possible harm that would be caused. And then I remembered Ferguson.
Remembering #Ferguson
It was not that long ago that I traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, during the week of Thanksgiving in 2014, as a legal observer through the National Lawyers Guild and was tear-gassed my first night in town. The officer sprayed the crowd without warning, leaving us choking, gasping for air, unable to see and in pain. That was the first of many such incidents that I witnessed while in Ferguson that have left me rattled to this day.

Somehow when we hear about protests, riots, and uprisings in places like Ferguson, Oakland, and Baltimore, we Minnesotans tend to distance ourselves from those people and places with notions that we are different and even immune from such incidents happening here. Recent articles such as the mythical ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ give the misimpression that the Twin Cities are an oasis of good health, wealth, and access to opportunity for all. What such articles fail to reveal are the stark differences in quality of life for white Minnesotans and people of color. Although we have known about the persistent racial disparities for a long time, not enough is being done soon enough to prevent the catastrophic events that happened in Ferguson and Baltimore from happening here.

Is this the Jim Crow North?
The reality is that African Americans in the Twin Cities, particularly those who live below the poverty line, feel as though they are living in the Jim Crow North, because of the oppressive laws and socio-economic conditions with which they are forced to contend. African Americans in Minneapolis and throughout the Twin Cities experience grossly disproportionate rates of arrest, disparate rates of contact with the criminal justice system, excessive force by police officers, and unequal treatment throughout the court system in comparison to their white counterparts. African Americans are also stopped by police more often for petty offenses such as lurking and spitting and they experience over-policing in their neighborhoods. A recent USA Today study showed that in 2011-12 the black arrest rate in Minneapolis was 480.3 per 1,000 residents; while the non-black rate of arrest was 73.8. The disparity in the city of Bloomington was even worse, with the black arrest rate at 831.5 per 1,000 residents; while the non-black arrest rate was 86.2. The study noted that such “staggering disparity” in arrests was larger than in Ferguson, Missouri.

We are Ferguson
Excessive contact with police, coupled with the inadequate socio-economic conditions that poor black people experience in Minneapolis, is a recipe for disaster. The cumulative effect of these experiences creates hostility between Africans Americans and members of law enforcement, making confrontation inevitable. As I have said many times before: We are already Ferguson. We just don’t know it yet. 

Letter from a Bloomington Jail (Metaphorically Speaking)

I have been reminded repeatedly over the last several months in watching the tragic events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, Ohio, and all across this country—laws without justice are meaningless. Throughout our history, we have experienced the debilitating effects of laws being written to lock us out of access to opportunity; the ability to be paid for our labor; and to criminalize our blackness.

Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

We are tired of our black boys and men, and even our women and girls, being slain at the hands of police officers, security guards, or vigilantes, with little accountability to boot. This sense of fatigue and exasperation with the status quo is reminiscent of the seeds that sparked the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and after much marching, protesting, and bloodshed, prompted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to write his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King’s prophetic letter was written in response to 8 white clergymen who implored the protesters to stop demonstrating and disrupting “business as usual.” King responded by saying, we cannot and we will not wait for justice and freedom and rights we are entitled to under the Constitution.

We are Not Satisified with the Status Quo

That same spirit of discontent with the status quo and the unequal treatment of African- Americans under the law is what has birthed the national movement known as #BlackLivesMatter. This movement resulted from young people of color deciding that they could no longer tolerate the gross injustices within our systems and the high tolerance for police abuse and misconduct happening throughout the country. Much like protesters during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, participants of #BlackLivesMatter, have stood on the front lines braving arrests, police violence, surveillance, chemical weapons, and hostility from those who are comfortable with the status quo. Yet, even in the face of such adversity, the young people have demonstrated remarkable courage to continue standing, marching, and fighting for our freedom. They are standing on the right side of history.

Here in Minnesota, young people came together under the banner of #BlackLivesMpls and began organizing events in solidarity with protesters around the country. In spite of Minnesota’s reputation as being “liberal and progressive,” our state has some of the worst racial disparities in the country across health, wealth, education, employment, infant mortality rates, home ownership, and criminal justice. And we are not immune from problems between police and communities of color, with some of our most racially diverse areas experiencing high rates of racial profiling, unjust arrests, and excessive force, with little political will to address these issues. It is a national embarrassment. Yet, rather than act with fierce urgency to reverse course; we remain in a state of “donothingness” as things grow worse for our most vulnerable populations.

Photo of Taye taken at Mall of America Demonstration 

In light of these concerns, #BlackLivesMpls organized a nonviolent, peaceful demonstration at the Mall of America (MOA) in Bloomington, one of the most visible locations in the country. On December 20, 2014, 3,000 people from all walks of life descended upon MOA to sing, chant, and to remind the world that #BlackLivesMatter. Rather than welcome the demonstrators into MOA, we were met by police in riot gear. In spite of the demonstration being peaceful, roughly two dozen people were arrested, stores were shut down by mall security and police, and exits were sealed. What started as a demonstration of Dr. King’s vision of the “beloved community,” became a reminder of what Dr. King warned could destroy our nation: The triple giants of racism, militarism, and extreme materialism. All three of those giants were present that day at MOA and they set out to crush the spirits of “the little guy.”

Political Prosecutions as Retaliation

In the aftermath of the demonstration, the Bloomington City Attorney, Sandra Johnson, spoke to the media about wanting to “make an example” out of the protest organizers, and that she would not only bring criminal charges, but would seek “reparations” for the cost of overtime police and security. To the average person, Sandra Johnson’s misuse of prosecutorial discretion to “punish” protest organizers is disturbing, to say the least. Two days ago, she decided to charge ten “leaders” of the demonstration with misdemeanor counts ranging from disorderly conduct, to trespass, to public nuisance, and she is seeking tens of thousands of dollars in “reparations.” Much to my surprise, I was one of the ten people who were charged. Not only was I charged, despite being a civil rights lawyer, I was one of two people with the most charges, eight misdemeanor counts in fact. I can’t help but think that my outspokenness on issues such as police accountability and calls for reform played a role in Ms. Johnson’s decision to bring charges against me in an attempt to publicly humiliate me, to silence my voice, and to curb my advocacy for justice. Even my home address was included in the complaint, with no regard for the safety of my children and family in making such a public disclosure. This amounts to political persecution and is a gross misuse of prosecutorial discretion and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Thankfully, these intimidation tactics will not be effective in shutting down our movement. Our voices will only grow stronger in the process.

We are in a Metaphorical Jail

Although neither of the ten of us were charged physically went to jail for our alleged “crimes”, in many ways, it feels as though we are locked in a metaphorical jail for our willingness to stand up for justice and equality. I posit, the metaphorical ‘Bloomington Jail’ to which we have been sentenced is a microcosm of the condition of confinement in which African Americans are subjected to in the state of Minnesota and in many places around the country due to barriers at the intersections of race, criminal justice, and socio-economic status. We can’t breathe because of the persistence of racial inequality and oppression. We can’t breathe because of the constant denial of our basic human rights and human dignity. We can’t breathe when we are being told to just sit back and tolerate these deplorable conditions. We must decide that it is time to break free from our metaphorical Bloomington jail cells and demand equal justice and equal treatment under the law, just as Dr. King and others did during the Civil Rights Movement.

Keep Going

I applaud the young people across the country and in Minnesota who remain steadfast in declaring that #BlackLivesMatter and who refuse to give up. I urge them to continue the fight until our change comes. And the rest of us must join them. That’s what Dr. King would have wanted and that’s how we can really honor his legacy. All else is but a shallow, anemic celebration of his life.