U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison abruptly left Washington earlier this month to fly back to Minneapolis and emerged at the center of explosive confrontations between black activists and police outside the Fourth Precinct station.
In those first, uncertain days after a fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in north Minneapolis, Ellison displayed credibility among different factions of the black community, and also had stature in the mayor’s office and could help broker a sit-down meeting between Gov. Mark Dayton and the family of the shooting victim, Jamar Clark.
The unrest has elevated Ellison’s profile, but it has also become his biggest test yet as a political leader trying to negotiate a truce in the latest flare-up of long-running tensions between police and the local black community.
“People have successfully gotten the attention of political leadership,” Ellison said from the protest site, less than a mile from his home. “We just have to make sure we do not waste it, and we make sure we gather it up and turn it into some tangible benefits for the people here.”
Striking a tone that was conciliatory but also challenging, he added: “There’s absolutely no doubt that we have to get established, responsive government.”
The unrest hit uncomfortably close to home for the fifth-term Democrat just a few days after the shooting. During a particularly fraught night, his son, Jeremiah, was photographed with his hands up as police in riot gear pointed a gun toward him and other protesters. Ellison later shared the photo on his Twitter account, calling it “agonizing.” It was retweeted nearly 4,000 times.
Behind the scenes, Ellison, 52, has been navigating several constituencies, including the governor’s office, city officials, progressive allies and black activists who themselves are split over how to best accomplish their goals. Some black community members say they hope the shooting will finally get the attention of state leaders, whom they say have allowed Minnesota’s racial disparities to fester for decades.
Those connected to Ellison say his latest role is one that he has honed after years of deep involvement in divisive racial issues around Minneapolis. They say he radiates a cool confidence in person, and is enormously skilled at connecting with people in the midst of conflicts.
“People who don’t know him, especially from outside of Minneapolis, see a firebrand out in the streets, playing that one really important role he plays, rallying the community to be empowered,” former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said. “The other role that most people don’t see, that I have the benefit of, is a very savvy adviser who would never moderate his views but would bring a sophisticated understanding of how government worked.”
Matt Entenza, a DFL activist who has known Ellison since law school and from their time as state legislators, said Ellison has “been a bridge between Minneapolis northsiders and the Capitol. He’s able to do that because he’s got the credibility of someone who’s lived there for years, and has worked there. He also has credibility with the governor, as someone who is not a bomb-thrower but a bridge-builder.”
Activism stretches decades
Ellison, a Detroit native who first moved to Minnesota for law school, has been a civil rights activist in the state since the late 1980s, when he studied law at the University of Minnesota. He stayed in Minneapolis and for nearly a decade hosted a public-affairs show on KMOJ-FM, a radio station popular with the Twin Cities black community. The role, Ellison wrote in his 2014 autobiography, “helped forge my place within the community.” It was also a platform for residents to have a voice when racial incidents would spark outcry.
“Whenever a police shooting occurred, certain people in the community would speak out against the brutality,” Ellison wrote. “We would speak out whenever an incident of racial injustice occurred — from police brutality, to unfairness in government contracting, to the low graduation rate among black kids.”
As a young lawyer, Ellison first worked in private practice, handling commercial litigation. “Eventually I lost interest in representing corporations fighting other corporations over a king’s ransom,” he said.
His activism led him to run for, and win, a seat in the Legislature. He was partly motivated by the lack of black state legislators after testifying before a state legislative committee. “What struck me at the time was the absence of ethnic or gender diversity,” he wrote. “They were all white men. And I wondered if they could truly relate to the kids I was talking about.”
Ellison went on to become the first black Minnesotan elected to Congress.
State Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said that Ellison’s record on civil rights and racial equality matters have earned him respect among black activists.
“What Keith has been able to do, frankly, is establish himself as a real leader, ever since he started in law school, and also his work in the Legislature, pushing things like environmental justice,” Hayden said.
Smoothing over differences
Ellison also has had to navigate increasingly raw tensions among black activist groups — divisions that are falling largely along generational lines. The older black leaders have called for an end to the protest encampment outside the police station, but younger activists don’t want to lose the chance to draw attention to their cause and their demands for justice.
Ron Edwards, 76, a longtime local civil rights leader, and others have criticized young activists from the Minneapolis chapter of Black Lives Matter, disapproving of some of their more aggressive tactics.
“I have been out here for well in excess of 55 years,” Edwards said. “I know how difficult it is to do battle with the system.”
Edwards credited Ellison with balancing the demands of competing factions. “In the case of the congressman, he has done the best that he is able to under the circumstances he is confronted with,” Edwards said.
Dora Jones, founder of a St. Paul nonprofit, Mentoring Young Adults, said younger leaders are filling an important void.
“The younger generation of leaders who are emerging are absolutely frustrated. They’re angry. They’re upset,” Jones, 50, said. “The older leaders — somebody dropped the ball, and the young leadership, they’re not having it. They’re working hard, getting a lot of the work done that older leaders should have done.”
She expressed wider disillusionment with state political leaders, including Ellison, who she said have taken their votes for granted. She points to the decades of stubborn racial disparities that have persisted in Minnesota, and elsewhere.
“Election after election after election and we’re still getting the same,” Jones said. “They come around election time, they get our vote, and then we don’t see them anymore.”
Ellison has struck a cautious tone at times, particularly in dealing with activists. He has urged protest organizers to focus more on safety after five protesters were shot and injured last week.
Nonetheless, he has championed the demands by Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, who want any video of the Clark shooting released, as well as calls for an independent investigation. He also supported the release of the officers’ names in the shooting.
“I stood behind Black Lives Matter Minneapolis with these requests and have echoed them at every opportunity,” Ellison said in a recent statement.
As for the divisions within the black community, Ellison said they shouldn’t stand in the way of their larger aims for racial equality.
“It’s OK for a little tension,” he said. “We’re all going the same direction.”