Police carrying riot sticks descended on north Minneapolis for a second straight night in August 1969, as two very different lives briefly intersected near the corner of Plymouth and Queen avenues.
Molly Ivins was a 24-year-old white Texan who covered the police beat for the Minneapolis Tribune. Bryant Page, an employee at the Minneapolis-Moline tractor plant, was a 37-year-old Army veteran and father of seven. And like many of the roughly 100 people gathered in front of the G&K Grocery and Letofsky’s Delicatessen that night to protest police brutality, Page was Black.
About 12:30 a.m., Minneapolis Deputy Police Inspector Edwin Schonnessen declared the assembly unlawful and gave the crowd two minutes to disperse. Fed up, Page spoke out.
“How can we be an unlawful assembly, for God’s sake?” Bryant shouted. “We’re moving, we’re walking, we’re obeying, we’re not assembled anywhere.”
Schonnessen hollered: “Go get that loudmouth.” Ivins wrote that two officers went over to arrest Page about 3 feet from his car. Within an hour, she reported, the clash turned ugly.
“Crowds taunting, police charging, shouting, the screams of civilians caught in the charge, riot sticks rising and coming down, the thud of kicks on a body — sensed rather than heard.
“It was all over quickly.”
Bryant was among eight arrested — five Black, three white — who were charged with unlawful assembly and failing to obey the police. Hennepin County Municipal Judge Neil Riley promptly acquitted him and four others of all charges, later lashing out at the “completely erroneous recital” of key facts put forth by police and prosecutors. Only one man was found guilty.
The street clashes that August were minor compared with the violent nights on the same Plymouth Avenue two summers before, when 600 National Guard troops had been deployed to address rioting fed by racial tension. Twenty-four people were hurt, 18 fires were set, 36 people were arrested, three were shot and property damage topped $4 million.
Ivins’ account of the 1969 police confrontations ran on the front page, along with an editor’s note saying they “were perhaps unremarkable examples of the police-minority brushes that have become frequent in American cities. … [but] have left a residue of deep bitterness.”
It was one of the seeds of distrust planted long ago that erupted six weeks ago with George Floyd’s death at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. More than 50 years later, Bryant Page’s words to Molly Ivins still resonate.
“I guess I was having a fit of bewilderment or insanity,” Page told her. “Seems like you see the police doing this all over the world and then to see it right here. There was a time when I could have ignored that thing, but something inside me snapped.”
Ivins’ stint in Minneapolis was comparatively short, 1967 to 1970, but memorable. When the 6-foot-tall reporter walked into the Tribune newsroom for the first time wearing a full-length red coat, editor Frank Premack said: “Ivins, you look like the Foshay Tower at sunset!”
Minneapolis police unhappy with her stories named their mascot pig “Molly” for her and walked it in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. “It was not intended to be flattering,” she said later.
“She was a firestorm in the newsroom,” Marilyn Hoegemeyer, one of her contemporaries, said last year when a documentary film called “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins” came to Minneapolis.
Ivins left the Twin Cities to cover the Texas Legislature in Austin, and then went to work for the New York Times. In 1981 she returned for good to Texas, where she forged a career as an outspoken champion of underdogs who “spoke truth to power in a twang,” according to writer and editor John Yewell. Her column was syndicated nationally in 350 newspapers, and she was a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.
When Ivins died of breast cancer in 2007 at 62, the New York Times said that she “cultivated the voice of a folksy populist who derided those who she thought acted too big for their britches. She was rowdy and profane, but she could filet her opponents with droll precision.”
In the Twin Cities on a book tour in 1991, Ivins said she never pretended to be objective. “There’s no way in hell I’m going to see everything the same way a 15-year-old Black dropout would,” she said.
Whether she remembered Bryant Page, we’ll never know. He died at age 58 in 1990. But his descendants are proud he spoke up in 1969.
“Although I never got the chance to meet my grandpa,” said AJ Page, a Twin Cities real estate agent, “it is very intriguing to continue to hear stories of the lasting impressions he has left on his people and the community.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.