When Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson cast the lone vote in June against a repeal of two laws criticized for their disproportionate use in the arrests of minorities, the response was quick.
There were murmurs and grumbling in the packed council chambers. On Twitter and Facebook, the chatter was louder. Some people posted that it was time to unseat the long-serving council leader, who was first elected nearly two decades ago. “I will spend almost all my political energy getting her out of her seat,” one observer posted.
Others, angry over Johnson’s descriptions of crime problems in her north Minneapolis ward, were offended by Johnson’s comments. “I feel sick listening to City Council Prez Johnson right now,” tweeted Minneapolis NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds, “veiled racial references … it’s too much!!”
But from her seat on the council dais — and in conversation weeks later — Johnson didn’t back down. As she has for years, on issues ranging from the city budget to parking regulations, the council president appeared undeterred by criticism. With growing interest in and pressure about police-community relations and racial disparities in her ward, some critics have questioned if she fully represents the interests of people in an increasingly diverse part of the city. Johnson, however, maintains that she knows what her community needs and advocates for it at City Hall.
In her council office, when asked about the vote on the lurking and spitting laws, Johnson pulled out a map dotted with marks where the city’s high-tech gunfire detection system picked up the sound of shots. More than 70 of the shots were in north Minneapolis, and 27 in the rest of the city.
“Who’s concerned about the people who are living with this activity?” she asked. “I am. That’s my main concern. All this other stuff for me is chatter when my constituents are feeling the brunt of really heavy criminal activity.”
Rooted in North Side
Johnson is quick to note that north Minneapolis has been her lifelong home. She’s represented the Fourth Ward since 1997 and served as council president since 2006, but her family’s connection to the council seat stretches further. Before Johnson’s election, the seat was held by her mother, Alice Rainville, for more than two decades. Before Rainville, there was Johnson’s cousin, John Derus.
By the end of Johnson’s current term, the Fourth Ward seat will have been in the family for 46 years.
Johnson, who worked as a nurse before getting into politics, has won over a long parade of council members and community leaders with her calm, decisive attitude toward council matters big and small. Minneapolis’ system of government divides power more evenly between the mayor and council than some other cities, so the council president ranks at or near the top of the power list at City Hall.
“She takes very strong stances and sometimes they are not what everyone wants to hear,” said Roberta Englund, executive director of the Folwell Neighborhood Association. “She generally does not apologize for what she believes is ethical and correct, and that’s something I respect her for.”
On a generally like-minded council made up of 12 DFL members and one Green Party member, Johnson is one of the most frequent voices for fiscal restraint. While she often votes alongside her colleagues on progressive issues, she also questions spending on issues others champion. In last year’s heated budget debates, Johnson argued that spending on public safety should be prioritized, even if it meant cuts to funding for bike lanes or new equity programs.
Todd Klingel, president & CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, backed Johnson’s vote on the lurking and spitting ordinances. The two laws were targeted by groups that said police used them as tools to arrest minorities. Minneapolis police statistics show that of the nearly 400 people arrested for lurking — defined as lying in wait with intent to commit a crime — between 2009 and 2014, 59 percent were black, while 24 percent were white.
Johnson argued that police are fighting a major battle against crime in her ward and others, and need to be able to make arrests to prevent crime.
Klingel said Johnson has been an advocate for business. But he said he saw her vote on lurking as a community, rather than business issue.
“I think the key is for people to realize it’s not being antagonistic for its own sake,” he said of Johnson’s position. “It’s trying to make sure these things are thought through.”
Others see it differently. Levy-Pounds, with the NAACP, took particular issue with Johnson’s explanation for her vote. At one point, the council president discussed the amount of crime in ward, noting that residents deal with regular vehicle break-ins. She said many of her constituents note that CDs are often left behind in the burglarized car, “because the music tastes are different.”
The remarks sparked a backlash in the council chambers and on Twitter, where Levy-Pounds and others said Johnson was essentially suggesting black people were responsible for the crime problems.
Statistics compiled after a 2012 city redistricting show that less than half the residents in Johnson’s ward are white. About a third are black, 11 percent are Asian and 7 percent Hispanic.
Without naming Levy-Pounds, Johnson also called out comments made by the NAACP leader, who had suggested that Minneapolis could end up like Ferguson, Mo., if police-community tensions are not resolved. Johnson said the comparison was unfair and that advocates should tone down their rhetoric.
‘Time for new leadership’
Levy-Pounds said she and others hope Johnson will join other council members who have aligned themselves with advocates calling for change in the police department. If not, she said, she expects the council president will face challenges in the next election.
“It is definitely time for a new leadership in light of the calls for justice and equity in the city of Minneapolis,” Levy-Pounds said. “We’re tired of the status quo and we’re ready for people to step up to the plate who are going to be a force for social change and social justice.”
Both Johnson and Levy-Pounds said they have no plans to meet with each other. Both said they were open to listening, but believed such a meeting would likely be unproductive.
Johnson said she is interested in finding ways for the police department to improve the way it interacts with residents. She’s supportive of more training and education and said the council should back the police chief in disciplining officers who don’t treat people fairly.
She’ll likely face the topic soon. Levy-Pounds and members of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change have called for a review of other laws they say unfairly target minorities. Anthony Newby, NOC’s executive director, said his group is pushing the city to collect data from police stops, in addition to arrests, so officials can assess how police spend their time.
And with or without Johnson on board, Newby said the 12-1 vote on lurking and spitting shows the council is moving in a clear direction on issues of race and policing.
“I think what we saw with the last vote is what we interpreted as a real desire on the part of the council to add another level of transparency to our current policing environment,” he said.
Johnson said she intends to stay on the council as long as she can. She said she wants to be an advocate for people in her ward who, like her, work hard and speak their minds.
“I want to explain I’m not an ogre,” she said. “I come from that community. I’ve lived there darn near my whole life. I know the challenges, but I know we have really good people and I want to make sure that community stays viable and vibrant.”