One early Friday morning in August, City Council Member Jeremiah Ellison woke up to a phone call from north Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct inspector.
A few hours earlier, two officers had shot an armed man named Mario Philip Benjamin near the corner of N. 24th and Emerson avenues. A woman was in the hospital. Benjamin was dead.
The next call came from Mayor Jacob Frey, who wanted to know what Ellison had heard. Ellison spent the morning calling and texting to gauge how the community was reacting to another police killing on the North Side.
For Ellison, it’s a role reversal. Ellison came to city politics as an activist after the protests of Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man shot by police just down the street from where Benjamin died.
At one City Council meeting shortly after the Clark killing, packed with protesters chanting and interrupting the proceedings, Ellison came to the speaker’s lectern but turned his back to the dais. Then a 26-year-old mural artist with dreadlocks and a famous name, Ellison told the crowd that politicians would “shake your hand, kiss your baby and slit your throat at the same time.”
Two years later, he became one of them.
At 29, Ellison is the youngest member of the council. In his first 20 months in office, he believes he’s starting to make a difference. He says he’s most proud of his work helping tenants find housing after their landlord, Mahmood Khan, lost his rental license. He’s working to bolster the rights of renters, including limits on landlords’ use of background screening to deny applicants. And he pushed for a controversial measure that would have given the City Council more authority over police.
Yet since Ellison took office, Minneapolis has continued to see the police conduct that motivated his activism. Three men have been fatally shot by police. The department has been on the defensive over officers urging paramedics to sedate people with ketamine and low-level drug stings targeting young black men. This spring, the world watched as a jury found former officer Mohamed Noor guilty of murdering Justine Ruszczyk Damond. Ellison helped negotiate a record $20 million settlement for Damond’s family.
As Ellison navigates these problems from the newfound perspective of authority, he says he hasn’t wavered on the core of his criticism in 2015 — that politicians will placate angry constituents instead of addressing their problems.
“I think anybody with any sort of measure of power is susceptible of having that quality,” he said. That includes himself.
“I keep it top of mind, to not be convinced of my own innocence,” he said. “And I think that is what is going to help me not become that way.”
The education of Jeremiah Ellison
Ellison grew up in a political household. His dad, Keith, was an attorney who became the state’s first Muslim legislator, congressman and now Minnesota attorney general. His mother, Kim, was a teacher, eventually joining the Minneapolis school board.
Ellison showed more interest in being an artist than joining the family lines of work. When he was a kid, he drew so much on the walls that his parents had to cover them with poster board, Keith recalled.
At age 6, Ellison started taking classes at Juxtaposition Arts, making him the youngest in the class. He was patient in those days, wise beyond years — but showed a streak of rebellion, said DeAnna Cummings, director of Juxtaposition. “He would protest unfair teachers,” she said.Ellison dropped out of college after one year to pursue art full-time. He dabbled in comic books, but made a living teaching art and painting murals on contract.
In 2013, he followed his then-girlfriend to a protest in St. Paul advocating for a $15 minimum wage, where he ended up getting arrested alongside labor rights activists.
It was an introduction into the sort of civil disobedience that would put him on a path to City Hall.
The shooting of Jamar Clark
On Nov. 15, 2015, Ellison received a text from a friend asking him to come down to N. Plymouth and James avenues: Police had shot an unarmed man. Some neighbors witnessed it. Many were frightened.
The shooting of Jamar Clark, who would later die in the hospital, came at a moment of unrest in African-American communities across the country. Ellison had watched the viral videos of black men and boys killed by police. A few months earlier, he’d seen reports from Ferguson, Missouri, where protesters rioted in the streets after a grand jury failed to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown.
Later the morning of Clark’s shooting, Ellison went to site to talk to some neighbors who saw what happened. A day later, when demonstrators moved down to the Fourth Precinct station, Ellison brought them coffee and tamales for breakfast.
Hundreds marched to the precinct and erected tents for what turned into an occupation that would last two more weeks. On several occasions, police showed up in riot gear and pushed back against the protesters. To this day, Ellison blames them for the violence that would follow.
Ellison visited the occupation almost daily, sometimes staying all night. In these first days, his role was fetching supplies for more experienced activists.
One night, police arrived with a show of force, spraying the crowd with marking rounds, tear gas and mace. Some fought back with rocks and chunks of concrete. In the melee, Ellison saw a neighbor arguing with an officer. Ellison stepped between them.
A Star Tribune photographer snapped a picture of Ellison standing with his hands raised in front of a line of riot police, one of them pointing a marking-round gun at his face. Keith Ellison tweeted the photo and it went viral.
“Dramatic moment cop ‘aimed rifle at congressman’s son’ in Minneapolis during protest over ‘execution-style’ police shooting of unarmed black man,” read a headline in London tabloid Daily Mail. It was after this, Ellison said, that people began to talk about him running for office.
Changing a neighborhood’s story
A year later, Ellison announced his campaign for the Fifth Ward.
His social justice promise went beyond police. He wanted to change the narrative on north Minneapolis. A central part of this meant fending off the gentrification displacing people in places like Seattle and San Francisco. Through long conversations with Neeraj Mehta, a fellow North Sider who was studying at the University of Minnesota, Ellison came to a realization: In order for the North Side to benefit from development, North Siders had to own the property. That meant not just homes, but also rental properties and commercial buildings. “That’s the basic premise — is to get people owning,” Ellison said.
On Nov. 7, 2017, Ellison was elected as part of a progressive wave that reshaped the council.
Within months of Ellison taking office, protesters stormed the City Council in response to the fatal police shooting of Thurman Blevins.
“All the blood on the streets is on your hands, and you know what, you paint it on like makeup and smile,” said Sam Sanchez, member of a group called Justice 4 Jamar.
Some called out Ellison by name. He was a North Sider. He knew the truth. Why wasn’t he doing more?
In a recent interview, Sanchez said he believes Ellison, like all Minneapolis politicians, is failing the movement for police reform. “There was a photo of Jeremiah in front of the Fourth Precinct with a gun in his face,” he said. “Where is that zeal?”
Others who stood with Ellison at the Fourth Precinct Occupation say he’s making a difference so far, but even they look at him with more scrutiny.
“I think Jeremiah has overall been very responsive and lived up to the things he campaigned on,” said Wintana Melekin, a community organizer. But the second that changes, she said, “I’d be the first person to primary him.”
A defense attorney-turned-politician, Keith Ellison said he’s talked with his son extensively about the transition. “From the person who goes from activist to elected, you don’t feel any different,” he said. “But people will see you differently.”
In March, a group protested a vote on a major North Side development project called the Upper Harbor Terminal. Taking a page from Ellison’s playbook, they stood with their backs to the council as its members voted unanimously in favor of the project.
Ellison says he understands that by nature of being on the dais, some constituents view him as the opposition. The experience has also given him a newfound understanding of the inherent conflicts of being in authority.
In the aftermath of the Benjamin shooting, he knew details the public did not. But he struggled to decide what he could and should say publicly.
Ellison believes it’s incumbent on him to be “honest and vulnerable” in moments of community unrest. It’s his job, he says, to follow up with those who speak out against him — no matter how aggressive or unfair the critique.
“I want to make them feel like it is impossible to burn this bridge with me,” he said. “That means that, you cuss me out, you name call me, you yell at me — it’s fine.”
Resolution hard to achieve
A week after the Benjamin shooting, more details have emerged. Police believe Benjamin got into an argument with his girlfriend and shot her in front of her four children. When police showed up, Benjamin refused to drop the gun, according to police.
Ellison still questions whether this was the only possible outcome, comparing it to the white men who get to see their days in court after committing racist massacres, such as in El Paso this summer and in a North Carolina church in 2015. “It somehow seems impossible for someone who is black to be taken in alive, armed or unarmed, as soon as the situation gets tense,” Ellison said.
Ellison harbors his own regrets about finding a resolution for Clark’s family. Earlier this summer, while the city was negotiating a settlement, he met with several of Clark’s family members and floated ideas to support a nonprofit in Clark’s name or install a memorial. But he learned his new position limited his credibility.
“I’m a representative of the city, and the city killed their son and their brother,” he said.
The city and Clark’s family have come to a tentative $200,000 settlement. Since the announcement, activists quickly called the figure “offensive” and “racist,” juxtaposing it with the $20 million the city gave the family of Damond.
Ellison has mixed emotions: Going to court would risk an unsympathetic jury giving the family nothing. “Is this outcome better than that? Sure,” he said. “Does this outcome feel like justice? I can’t honestly say it does.”