The past few weeks have been especially challenging for African-Americans in the Twin Cities. In mid-June, we woke up to news that the Minneapolis Police Department and Hennepin Healthcare may have conspired to administer the potent sedative and date rape drug ketamine to unwitting patients (who disproportionately are African-American). More recently, two MPD police officers shot and killed Thurman Blevins, a 31-year-old black man, as he was fleeing from them.
The through-line between these separate incidents is compounded and racialized trauma that affects the victims, of course, but also family members, witnesses, neighbors and the entire community, especially African-Americans.
The black community still is reeling and healing from the police killings of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. These most recent events are familiar but unwelcome assaults on the collective sense of peace and well-being for African-Americans in the greater metropolitan area.
Community trauma is perpetuated by the report of cops possibly influencing paramedics to administer ketamine to agitated and sometimes restrained patients without their consent; by the revelation that Hennepin Healthcare has for more than 10 years conducted a clandestine study of the uses and effects of ketamine on its patients who are largely poor and people of color without their prior permission and sometimes over their objection; and by Blevins being shot down by two officers as he ran away from them.
But trauma also is catalyzed by dismissive and offensive communications from public officials in the wake of such events.
MPD and Hennepin Healthcare officials initially attacked the validity of the news report that police officers regularly instructed EMTs to administer ketamine, saying the study upon which the news report was based was not yet finalized. Hennepin Healthcare defended its use of ketamine and emphasized the small number of alleged incidents of improper ketamine use vs. the substantial number of ketamine doses administered overall by their EMTs. Only later, after extensive news reporting, did Hennepin Healthcare acknowledge its extensive ketamine research program.
Within a few days, both organizations shifted their principal narrative to emphasize that any abuse of ketamine administration was unacceptable, but by then their dismissive comments were understood to mean that black lives really don’t matter — or that they only matter in the face of embarrassing news coverage.
Official statements in the immediate aftermath of the Blevins shooting also have contributed to the trauma zeitgeist. The mayor and police department each issued early communiqués that were short on detail about the shooting but careful to point out that Blevins was armed and a handgun was found close to his body. That detail undoubtedly was inserted to imply the shooting was justified.
African-Americans are suspicious of this selective sharing of information, knowing there is a history of law enforcement planting evidence on black suspects, that an armed white person more often than not can survive an encounter with police, but armed blacks rarely live through such encounters, and that even a fleeing suspect is entitled to the presumption of innocence.
A more egregious example is the coded commentary of Lt. Bob Kroll, who heads the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation. In a news conference, Kroll called the two officers who killed Blevins heroes, a veiled message to police officers and the white community that Blevins was a threat to their safety and deserved to die. The officers were heroic for eliminating the threat.
Several offenses issued from Kroll’s dog whistle. First, nobody deserves to die. The loss of any life is a tragedy. Sometimes, taking a life is necessary to save others. But necessary is different from deserving. Second, it took no time for Kroll and the federation to come to the defense of Officers Justin Schmidt and Ryan Kelly, the two white police officers who killed Blevins. Kroll and the federation have been silent, however, ever since Officer Mohamed Noor, a Somali man, shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk Damond, a white woman, in July 2017, and they have yet to come to his defense.
Third, to praise the cops as heroic for taking a life before investigators have completed their work and while Blevins’ family is yet waiting to bury him is disrespectful and haughty. It doesn’t take a dog’s ears to hear bellowing conceit and disdain.
Fortunately, the African-American community is blessed with healers who are attentive to acute and chronic trauma and adept at treating it. A complex ecosystem of cultural healers, trauma specialists, medical personnel, violence prevention specialists, public agencies, churches and nonprofit organizations have all leaned in during this time to keep their doors open, arms outstretched and services available and accessible. Their actions, above and beyond the call of duty, are heroic.
Still, the cumulative effect of chronic trauma is debilitating to families, neighborhoods, communities and the ecosystems that support them. The community craves respite, even as it is vigilant for the next traumatic assault.
Steven L. Belton is president and CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League.