The video from this Nekima Levy-Pounds interview contains sounds and facial expressions not normally seen when the Minneapolis NAACP president is on local newscasts.
There is laughter from the civil rights attorney. There are smiles!
Naturally, not all my questions brought a twinkle to the eyes of the former University of St. Thomas Law School professor. But somehow, we managed not to see eye-to-eye without an iota of unpleasantness in this interview. It was, in a way, a battle of wits between one brilliant attorney and an unarmed MEdia opponent. She obliterated my perception of life in Minnesota, which she calls “the Jim Crow North,” and raised my consciousness about so-called black-on-black crime when we met at Sammy’s Avenue Eatery on W. Broadway.
“This is kind of like ‘Cheers’ for the black community,” said the mother of three biological and two adopted children ranging in age from 11 to 20 years. “I love this place; black-owned, right in the heart of the North Side.”
Sammy’s seems to have become her de-facto office, as she plans her future now that she is no longer at St. Thomas and not running for re-election as Minneapolis NAACP president.
“Everything was haywire in terms of timing. I was full time at the law school and running the NAACP,” she said. “I went straight from undergrad to law school before getting into academia in my 20s. I left St. Thomas after 13 years on the faculty. I have been running, running, running. [With] everything that has been going on in civil rights, let me take a moment, breathe and recalibrate. It was right before my 40th birthday I decided to leave because I had been there since I was 27. It’s time. I’m so happy. It’s a load off my shoulders. I taught the Community Justice Project, a civil rights legal clinic. My class was labor-intensive. My students had to put in 220 hours each, and I had to supervise that.”
Now Levy-Pounds can concentrate on a rigorous national speaking schedule. She has not decided whether to hang out a shingle, but said, “I’m still a civil rights attorney. I could, if I want, pursue that. But right now, I’m happy to just have a moment to breathe.” She recently did some of that breathing in Jamaica and on a lake in northern Minnesota, where her family went fishing.
Q: Lovable Will Smith succinctly explained to CBS “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert what’s going on these days in the USA: “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” Despite what Smith said, we’re always going to have racism in this world, correct?
A: Yes, I believe so. It’s been going on for centuries, and it’s not going to change any time soon. But it’s important in our lifetime to give people the opportunity to change. Sometimes that means confronting them with information, educating and exposing them to new ways of thinking and challenging the status quo. Giving them examples of people of color in leadership who are empowered to speak their truth. I think that’s what’s currently happening in the state of Minnesota and across the country, actually.
Q: What attracted you to Minnesota?
A: [Big laughter] That’s a great question. I was recruited by the University of St. Thomas Law School to start teaching. That was in 2003. I was told it’s a great place to live, a great place to raise your children. Our distressed communities aren’t so distressed. So that was my mentality initially. It took me about two years of reading the local African-American papers and getting out into the community where I saw that there were actually tremendous disparities and I wanted to do something about it. So I shifted my focus. As a law professor, I started out running a family law clinic at St. Thomas. Then, in 2005, I approached the dean about launching a civil rights legal clinic, after meeting with elders in the community and hearing firsthand about issue of police-community relations, educational disparities, poverty. I wanted to use the resources at the law school to begin to address these issues. That’s when I became much more involved in the Twin Cities community.
Q: There are some people who don’t believe you have white friends.
A: What? That’s just shocking. Of course, I have friends of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. At many of our demonstrations and protests the crowd at times is overwhelmingly white. Additionally, I went off to boarding school in New England when I was 14. North Andover, Mass. That institution was very white. So I had that experience throughout high school. It definitely shaped my perspective. It helped me understand a lot about white privilege and how this country has been structured. It fueled my activism and advocacy at a young age. Of course, I attended predominantly white institutions of higher learning. I went to the University of Southern California and the University of Illinois. I worked at the University of St. Thomas for 13 years, and I was the only black female on the faculty for the majority of those years.
Q: Do you have friends in the MPD?
A: Yes. I am actually pretty good friends with an assistant chief of police. He is the first person I call or text to ask, “What’s happening? Is there something we need to be concerned about?” He’s the one who called me on the morning Jamar Clark was killed. He called me about 4 o’clock in the morning to let me know there had been an officer-involved shooting. The majority of officers on the police force I don’t know. I’ve just seen them at protests [she smiled] but they do know who I am [laughter].
Q: You mention Jamar Clark. I could not have fallen on a sword for Clark because there are too many bad facts, as far as I’m concerned. Why were you so willing to do that?
A: Well, No. 1, I didn’t see the facts [of the Jamar Clark case] as bad as people might have thought they were. I’m a civil rights attorney. I realize there are two sides to every story. I also realize the voices of black witnesses have been historically discounted. For example, black people couldn’t serve on juries for a long time. In the hours after Jamar Clark was killed, several of us from the Minneapolis NAACP went to the site of his death and started talking to witnesses and interviewing people, and we were appalled by what we heard. The stories we heard were in stark contradiction to what the Minneapolis Police Department had been putting out in the paper about what happened … I believe part of what happened was a coverup, especially after connecting with RayAnn Hayes, her side of the story, that she was never Jamar’s girlfriend. That Jamar was just trying to help her. Seeing her fear in coming forward fueled my activism and desire to make sure the truth was told and Jamar Clark and his family receive some semblance of justice.
Q: So you don’t think it was true that police were called there because he was roughing up this woman?
A: No. Listen to the 911 call. There was never mention of a domestic violence incident. She was calm, cool and collected and said, I hurt my ankle and need an ambulance. So I believe what happened was the ambulance came and he was trying to get in the ambulance to see her.
Q: In the video it did look like Jamar Clark was being aggressive.
A: Well, it depends on whom you ask. My point is if you’re an unarmed person and you are being aggressive, there are ways to calm down and de-escalate a situation. That should not be a death sentence. We don’t have the death penalty in Minnesota. And how many white people have we seen pull guns on the police, be physically aggressive with police and still end up alive and apprehended at the end of such an encounter? So that for me is problematic. It should not be a shoot-first-ask-questions-last situation, and that’s what I felt happened. I felt that was unacceptable and a manifestation of the fact that we militarized police forces running around and lot of time they are poorly trained. I don’t like the hypocrisy I see in the system. I don’t like the double standards that are applied to African-American victims, the fact they are demonized when they are killed as if they are to blame for their own deaths.
Q: You do know that victims and onlookers sometimes get the details wrong?
A: And so do police officers and other personnel on the scene.
Q: I might’ve been more up in arms about the Jamar Clark shooting if the investigation determined he was handcuffed when shot.
A: I believe he was handcuffed. Part of that is the number of witnesses who said he was. The 10-year-old witness ...
Q: … But in the investigation by Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman found ...
A: … They said there were no abrasions. What they don’t tell you is how many people are handcuffed where you don’t see hand abrasions or contusions on their wrists. That doesn’t mean that there were no handcuffs. We know that there were handcuffs at the scene. We know that they are trained to handcuff people. A 10-year-old witness recorded a video on YouTube, where he said he saw the police place handcuffs on Jamar, and after they killed him they took the handcuffs off. Beyond that, whose DNA if any was actually on the handcuffs? There are a lot of unanswered questions.
Q: You’ve got me rethinking Jamar Clark today ... You know Rosa Parks wasn’t the first black woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery?
A: Claudette Colvin.
Q: They didn’t go with Colvin because she was considered too dark and she had a child out of wedlock.
A: I think she was pregnant at the time.
Q: Mrs. Parks was also considered prettier.
A: And had a little more clout because of her connection to the NAACP, at the time.
Q: I was told at one of the Jamar Clark marches from north Minneapolis to downtown that you didn’t actually walk. Is that true?
A: I don’t remember participating in that particular march. I don’t participate in all of the marches. The vast majority of the marches, I’m walking with the people. Sometimes I’m at the back, watching and making sure that everything is OK. I believe in walking and marching with the people. That’s vitally important to me.
Q: That was meant to be a playful question.
A: Oh. [She lightened up some.] I was like, “Me?” “What?” That caught me off guard. I would never ask anyone to do something I wasn’t willing to do. So ... [She laughed.]
Q: Black-on-black crime. What is your assessment?
A: Well, No. 1, I don’t call community violence black-on-black crime. I think there’s a racialization of the issue that [has an] impact on communities of color without a true connection to the larger systemic problems that create community violence. For example: If black-on-black crime was a real phenomenon, we would see more middle-class and wealthy blacks killing each other. But the reality is the socio-economic issues, lack of economic opportunities play a role in what happens. Beyond that, if a black person kills another black person, you best believe that they are GOING TO JAIL and prison, probably, for a very long time. … Beyond that, when white people kill white people, we don’t call it white-on-white crime, we just call it crime. So why are people acting as if there’s a pathology in the black community that leads to violence? The overwhelming majority of people in north Minneapolis are nonviolent, peaceful people. They take the conduct of a small number of people and they try to attribute it to an entire community, which is completely unfair.
Q: How are the Philando Castile protesters going to handle it if the special prosecutor decides, “No charges?”
A: I don’t know. I honestly don’t think there will be a great deal of surprise by an officer not being charged. A recent Star Tribune article said that 148 people have been killed by police in Minnesota since 2009. And not single officer has been indicted. That is business as usual in our state. People will be upset but not surprised by such an outcome.
More from this interview will be shared in an upcoming Q&A.