Two police officers gave north Minneapolis a Christmas tree covered in garbage.
In return, the community gave the Fourth Precinct a tree covered in lights.
Neighbors gathered on the precinct lawn along Plymouth Avenue N. on a frigid Friday night. They came from the cities and the suburbs, bearing donations of twinkle lights and ornaments for the new tree.
There was music and hot cocoa and heaping trays of Christmas cookies. Officers, including Minneapolis’ police chief, grabbed shovels and cleared space for everyone, piling the snow around the Christmas tree base to hold it steady.
People crowded in to add their decorations to the tree: Nativity scenes, crocheted snowflakes, Popsicle-stick sleds and paper ornaments with north Minneapolis’ ZIP code — 55412 — sparkling in glitter. They wrapped the precinct sign in a quilt stitched by local artists.
Blessing Caldwell, a first-grader at Lucy Laney Community School, got a boost to the top of the tree to place the star.
They came “to show our community what we really represent, which is love, community, joy, Christmas,” said Chauntyll Allen. “To really give a proper representation of Christmas for the North Side.”
The two officers who covered the precinct Christmas tree in malt liquor cans, junk food wrappers, a pack of Newports, garbage from a fried chicken joint and police tape have been suspended. Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo told the gathering that he too was hurt and appalled by the racist display.
“I will not defend the indefensible,” he said. “It set us back.”
It was a setback, but the cocoa and cookies and Christmas carols outside the precinct Friday night were some measure of just how far the city has come since the winter of 2015, when protesters camped out in the cold for weeks after Jamar Clark was shot and killed just blocks from the precinct. That Christmas, civil rights activists like Nekima Levy Armstrong hung their Christmas decorations on the chain-link fence that was keeping them out.
“I would like them to know we are a valuable community,” she said. “We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Cleaning up the Christmas tree was a start, but community activists say it’s time to clean house at the Fourth Precinct. In an open letter, they’re asking for a community advisory board, better training about bias, and a thorough housecleaning to clear out officers with histories of excessive force, domestic violence or harassment.
Among the decorations fluttering on the Christmas tree are a set of sergeant’s stripes from a Minneapolis police uniform.
Lisa Clemons earned the chevrons during her days on the force, when she was stationed in the Fourth Precinct. She hung them on the tree Friday night in a gesture of hope and grief.
“It’s sad to see this,” she said, standing outside the precinct she joined in 1987, in the heart of the neighborhood where she was born and raised.
Some have tried to pass the garbage tree display off as a prank. But Clemons has heard from her former colleagues inside the precinct, including “a lot of white guys” who were disgusted by the display, and read its message of disdain for the community loud and clear. “What does that say to your community? It’s not a joke.”
The new tree will be up, the neighborhood hopes, for the rest of the holidays. You could add a decoration of your own to the display if you were so inclined.
If you pay a visit to the precinct tree, at 1925 Plymouth Av. N., just be aware that this tree has a name.
Her name is Princess.
Tycell Holliday Jr., 4, named her as he bounced around the branches, hanging dozens of candy canes at knee height. He’s one of the thousands of north Minneapolis residents the Fourth Precinct is here to protect and serve. His grandmother, Lavonne Jones, bundled him up on the cold night so he could help out — because that’s what the North Side does.
“We pull together in hard times,” Jones said, “and we come together in good times.”