As hundreds of protesters streamed into downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday night, a defiant show of disgust after a white man allegedly shot five black protesters outside the Fourth Precinct station, one of the demonstration’s leaders reminded the crowd of the obvious: “The world is watching us.”
The shooting by police of Jamar Clark, and the demonstrators, have indeed brought the state the kind of recognition that we don’t want, the kind that visited Chicago last week and Ferguson, Mo., almost exactly a year before.
Until the protests that shut down the neighborhood, and at times parts of downtown, the rest of the world has known Minnesota as the place so frequently listed on those “best of” indexes and magazine stories.
Best place to live. Best place to raise a family. Most affordable cities.
What they likely learned over the past week, however, is that Minnesota is also a place where some white racists feel confident enough to come “locked and loaded” to a demonstration about race for “a little reverse cultural enriching.”
The New York Times’ John Eligon, who has written about the political impact of Black Lives Matter, had a Minneapolis dateline, as did the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, a national reporter who covers justice, race and politics.
In short, the world was learning, perhaps for the first time, that progressive Minnesota is a great place to be white, but not such a great place to be black.
We’ve known it for a while, as local leaders have struggled with how to combat some of our state’s more shocking statistics for black residents. The education achievement gap, for example, is considered one of the worst in America. The disparity between the median household incomes of white and black residents is drastic, and even though Minnesota has one of lowest unemployment rates in the nation, blacks are nearly four times more likely to be unemployed.
One index, 24/7 Wall St., called the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area “one of the worst cities for black Americans.” WalletHub analyzed census indicators such as household income, homeownership and educational attainment and ranked Minnesota as “the worst state for financial inequality.”
It was against this backdrop that the death of Jamar Clark and the historic tensions between police and residents in north Minneapolis played out on the international stage.
The fragility of that relationship for me was encapsulated in the 12 hours surrounding Clark’s shooting. On the warm Saturday afternoon before the incident, Fourth Precinct Inspector Mike Friestleben stood in the bleachers at TCF Bank Stadium among hundreds of people there to support North High School’s bid for a state championship. Friestleben, who is white and grew up in the neighborhood, cheered and high-fived people around him. North High’s school resource officer and member of the MPD, Charles Adams, was on the field coaching the team.
By the next morning, Friestleben was the target of angry protesters yelling at police through bullhorns. Overnight, the trust the precinct’s officers had worked to develop had exploded. Friestleben spent the next day walking through the crowd, hugging friends and pleading for calm.
Ron Edwards, an activist who has lived on the North Side since 1947, said he was “saddened” to see Friestleben get attacked. “He’s worked very hard to develop a relationship with the community,” Edwards said. “This is a guy who works, he’s out there every day and has relationships at the upper end and the lower end of the neighborhood.”
Part of the problem, Edwards said, is that many who became involved in the protests, particularly in the vandalism and bottle and rock throwing, were not people who know Friestleben or any of the officers personally.
“There are some people who feed on turmoil and have no solutions,” said Edwards. “There is fragmentation of the black community, and there is no central strategy” to the protests. There are also many competing agendas among the demonstrators, Edwards said.
Add to that a long history of abuse or neglect of residents by police that has created a notion of the police precinct as a garrison, and of the area as a garrison state, Edwards said. “I’ve seen the struggle over the years to develop a culture where people can level with each other and trust each other,” he said. “But now we are in 2015 and nothing has changed.”
Almost from the start, the family of Clark has asked protesters to stop the encampment outside the north Minneapolis police station. But many protesters have ignored those requests, giving a clear indication that this is bigger than any one person. Those protesters, the vast majority of them appearing to be under 30 years old, also exposed a generational gap. They ignored advice to disband by the Urban League’s Steve Belton, considered one of the old guard of the black community, and by U.S. Rep Keith Ellison.
Scott Dahlquist was an officer in the precinct from 1988 to 2013 and said the history is hard to bury.
“The tension ebbed and flowed over the years that I worked there, but it was always there in the background; those of us who worked there just came to see it as part of the landscape,” Dahlquist said. “I like to think I tried my best to be a decent and honorable officer, but dealing with the impact of so much history felt like swimming upstream against an overwhelming current. I saw programs come and go, but two constants were the unrelenting demand of 911 calls for service, and constantly [being] caught between a community which wanted to be safe, and yet not be ‘hassled’ by the police.”
“People want heroes and villains,” Dahlquist said. “But real life is just too messy and violent.”