The March 23 Star Tribune editorial “Banish bias, but keep downtown livable” was pedantic and insidious. My criticism is harsh. But the editorial’s prose was misleading, the facts provided in support don’t wash and the editorial winked at egregious tactics.
A close reading of the editorial’s thesis simply takes a thinking person’s breath. Language is a system to convey ideas, and words have meanings. Professional opinion writers ought to be held to a high standard of precision and clarity. Closely read the editorial’s first paragraph:
“If African-Americans are disproportionately arrested for so-called livability offenses, as they apparently are, then that might be good reason for Minneapolis authorities to re-examine enforcement procedures for … lurking … and similar minor misdeeds. But it’s not reason enough to scale back the livability laws themselves, especially in light of last week’s flash mob violence that disrupted the city’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration.”
Cleaned of clutter, the paragraph is stark:
If Minneapolis police target blacks for pretext arrests, and they do, city officials ought to stop this unconstitutional practice of the police power. But for now let’s pretend that the issue isn’t critical, because a party is at hand.
The editorial responded to a proposal by two City Council members to eliminate an ordinance that prohibits “lurking.” To justify repeal, these Minneapolis officials present long-standing, overwhelmingly disproportionate arrest statistics — over a six-year span, three-fifths of those arrested for lurking were black, while nearly 70 percent of all lurking complainants were white.
The Star Tribune first buttressed that statistical argument by pointing out that, after arrest, “police rarely charge anyone with lurking,” a fact that “adds fuel” to the pretext claim. But the newspaper then veered to an odd counterpoint: “These arrest proportions are troubling, but shouldn’t surprise anyone considering the notorious income and educational disparities that separate blacks and whites in Minneapolis.”
In other words, the fact that Minneapolis targets blacks for pretext arrests is perfectly consistent with the city’s lousy record on other race issues. The Star Tribune then speciously warned, “Still, it’s a big leap to assume discrimination.”
The editorial purported a legitimate motive by reminding us that the state and the city are just now investing in an “important” downtown transformation, including a “new emphasis” on “residential spaces” and “downtown parks.” Any relevance that new condos and a big green space might have to pretext arrest disparity is neither explained nor apparent. But Downtown Council President Steve Cramer was quick with his assurance that “[t]his is not about sanitizing downtown; we love the urban vibe that we have.” The Star Tribune winks with him, and proffers a $40 million face-lift as a fair price to assuage the rampant abuse of police power in Minneapolis.
Parse also the editorial’s premise: “It is not ‘crime’ that deters confidence on downtown streets, but rather the perception that something uncivil may happen — aggressive panhandling or loud cursing or other disorderly or threatening behavior that violates the middling sensibilities of most people, no matter their race or income.”
That lyrical nonsense is frightening when translated: No real street crime problem exists, but black kids, the poor and the homeless sure scare us decent folks. Ye, gods!
A thinking person who forges on to the editorial’s conclusion finally reads: “In the grand scheme of things, these small crimes seem trivial. In fact, their cumulative effect spells the difference between an attractive, appealing city and one you’d rather avoid.”
The import is inescapable: If we will only whitewash a pervasive, grand scheme of police power abuse with a trivial downtown makeover, then all misguided and all-too-skittish Minneapolitans can breathe easy.
The founders and I are instead appalled.
Timothy Vincent, of Elk River, is an independent education consultant.