A young man stopped newly elected state Rep. John Thompson during a rally for justice for George Floyd recently, saying: "They're not treating you well in some of these hearings."
Thompson chuckled. He had made a name for himself several years ago as a racial justice activist who disrupted legislative hearings to call for change. He didn't expect widespread popularity now that he was on the other side of the table — certainly not, he said, as a Black man still fighting for equality for Minnesota's African Americans.
"I'm going to continue to be unapologetic about racism," Thompson replied.
The St. Paul freshman's fight against systemic racism and police brutality in Minnesota is now unfolding against a backdrop of former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin's murder trial in the killing of Floyd. Thompson wants to use the legislative system to prevent another death in police custody, figuring that he can make more of a difference in the halls of the Capitol than as a protester who was initially moved to action by the police killing of his friend Philando Castile in 2016.
Large portraits of Castile and Floyd, both Black men, sit behind Thompson's desk in his legislative office. A picture of Jamar Clark, another Black man killed by police in 2015, hangs on the wall. Across the room is an image of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who Thompson likes to note was not beloved in his day, either.
Thompson held up bills that he sponsored to end qualified immunity for police officers and mandating that authorities release body camera footage within 48 hours to family members of a person killed by police. He recounted critical messages from the law enforcement community, including one from a former officer asking if he was trying to make their jobs hard when they already had a hard enough time protecting citizens.
"Why do you keep making my job hard?" Thompson said he wanted to reply. "All I want to be is be a Black man in this state."
The centerpiece of his legislative agenda to address systemic racism is the Philando Castile Omnibus Bill, which calls for $457 million in state appropriations toward African American organizations for business training, housing stability, violence prevention, community centers, health services and other areas.
It would direct the state to implement a contract procurement program that emphasizes the use of African American owned businesses, not just minority-owned enterprises.
Thompson recalled Floyd's fate as he spoke about the proposal in a House committee hearing in March, noting that Floyd had migrated here from Texas for more economic opportunity and was arrested after a store clerk reported that he used a fake bill. What creates an atmosphere, Thompson asked, "where a brother has to have [a counterfeit] bill in their pockets?"
"Here's an opportunity," he continued, "to not be on the menu but at the table. ... It's been a long, hard road but I'm being the change that I want to see in my community and presenting before this body something that my community desperately needs."
Some of his Republican colleagues voiced skepticism about the proposal.
"I don't see this bill as helpful — I see it as divisive," state Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said at the hearing. "I'm going to read the definition of racism that the dictionary comes up with: 'prejudice, discrimination or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group.' So we are directing money to people based on the color of their skin ... we are awarding people jobs based on the color of their skin. That means people who don't have that particular skin color outlined in the bill don't qualify."
Drazkowski, who is white, concluded: "This bill is a racist bill."
The panel approved the measure, which still needs approval from a range of other committees in order to pass the full House and has little chance in the GOP-controlled Senate. But the exchange offered a window into the challenges that Thompson faces in winning over broader support for his agenda in a politically divided Legislature where views about race and police accountability can vary widely.
Thompson voiced frustration at how people could object to him seeking funding for a struggling demographic that has historically lacked investment, especially when plenty of others, from Iron Rangers to farmers, seek money for their communities. Yet he faces even more difficulties winning allies after sparking controversy during a protest outside the Hugo home of Bob Kroll — then president of the Minneapolis police union — three months after Floyd's death.
Addressing a neighbor who appeared to back law enforcement, Thompson unleashed a profanity-laced speech in which he mentioned the riots that followed Floyd's death and threatened to burn down Hugo.
The DFL publicly condemned his actions and Thompson apologized; he now says he regrets going to the rally. Amid the fallout, Thompson said he received dozens of death threats and was forced to change his cellphone number. GOP lawmakers also rebuked Thompson, with Drazkowski posting on Facebook, "Meet a Black Lives Matter racist ... He should be in jail by now, awaiting a judge, but he's not."
In the lead-up to his Nov. 3 election victory, Thompson attended several community meetings on rising gun violence and forced himself to listen, without grabbing the mic. He saw this as a natural progression from his street activism. If he wanted to make lasting change, he said, he needed to be at the table where legislative decisions are made.
"This is what the other side of the bullhorn looks like," Thompson repeatedly said while running for office.
The father of four left his job as a machinist for the city's school district after he won election. Months after his January swearing-in, Thompson, 49, still marvels over seeing his name on a plaque listing state lawmakers on the way to his office. Every day he wakes up and says in disbelief, "I'm a damn legislator!"
With his new platform, Thompson has less reason to attend the protests during the Chauvin trial, and noted that he hasn't been to as many "because I can't ingest this [pain of police violence] in my body too much longer."
But Thompson did stop by a rally outside the courthouse the day before opening statements, warmly greeting allies. Among them was anti-police brutality activist Toshira Garraway, who described Thompson as a strong person who "gets bashed a lot for standing up for what he believes. ... His delivery may not be pleasing to a lot of people but it's just a Black man that's hurting and trying to express himself."
Soren Stevenson, the young man who remarked on Thompson's legislative hearings, was blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet fired by Minneapolis police while he was protesting Floyd's death last spring. He's followed Thompson's work with interest.
"He's been getting a lot of flak and disrespect, honestly, from individuals who are refusing to recognize the issues of racism in Minnesota," Stevenson said. "But he's got a thick skin."
Thompson is vowing not to change who he is just because he's in political office now, saying, "If you want me to stop being out here, then stop giving me a reason to be out here."
As passionately as he speaks about making Minnesota a safer and fairer place for Black people, Thompson has been somewhat reluctant to fully tune in to the trial. It's too traumatic. Still, in his office last week he intently watched the testimony of Darnella Frazier, the bystander whose phone video of Floyd under Chauvin's knee went viral.
When she stopped speaking, Thompson said he nearly cried. He added that he already was preparing himself for the possibility of the jury acquitting Chauvin. Thompson pointed out the photo on his wall that showed him, Castile's mother, Valerie, and others outside the Ramsey County courthouse after a jury decided in 2017 that policeman Jeronimo Yanez was not guilty of murder for shooting Castile during a traffic stop.
"I've been here before," Thompson said.
Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.