Years of dialogue about police and criminal justice reforms in Minneapolis had improved the relationship between the African American community and law enforcement, activists say — before the police killing this week of George Floyd, a handcuffed Black man who died after a white officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes as he pleaded for air.
Floyd’s death and footage of the officer pressing a knee into his neck for several minutes have unleashed protests and violent clashes with law enforcement — exposing simmering frustration and the fact that there’s much work still ahead, several advocates and leaders told The Associated Press.
“Progress and change can ebb and flow,” said Jeremiah Ellison, who won a City Council seat after participating in past protests against police killings of African Americans in Minnesota.
The four nights of unrest this week — including the torching of a police station that officers abandoned — “proved to me that we’ve regressed to the point of 2015,” Ellison said, referring to the year that also saw protests after the death of Jamar Clark, a Black man killed by police.
Minneapolis — a city of nearly 430,000 that is 60 per cent white, 19 per cent Black and 9 per cent Hispanic — has a long history of economic and educational disparities that have marginalized Black residents for decades, despite its reputation for progressive values. It is one of the most segregated cities in the country for its size, and schools suffer from stubborn achievement gaps.
The city appointed its first Black chief of police nearly three years ago, after slow progress toward making the department more inclusive. Earlier this year, a statewide task force made up of activists, people representing victims of police brutality, and law enforcement leaders released recommendations for policing reforms.
That task force was formed in the wake of several high-profile fatal shootings of Black men by police in the Minneapolis area. Those included Clark, who was killed during a struggle with two white Minneapolis officers, and Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by a Hispanic suburban police officer during a traffic stop in 2016.
While Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights lawyer and former president of the Minneapolis NAACP, acknowledges that progress, she said that many old habits are still entrenched.
“The system itself has not changed,” Armstrong said. “The culture within the Minneapolis Police Department has not changed.”
The city’s police department of more than 800 officers is still predominantly white, she said. The department did not respond to a request for up-to-date figures, but the Star Tribune reported in 2014 that the force, including cadets in field training, was 78.9 per cent white, 9.2 per cent Black, 5.2 per cent Asian, 4.1 per cent Hispanic and 2.5 per cent American Indian.
Some leaders, including former Mayor R.T. Rybak and state Sen. Jeff Hayden, have blamed the city’s police union in recent days for fostering a culture that protects brutal officers and resists efforts at reform. The union’s president, Lt. Bob Kroll, did not return a call seeking comment.
The eruption of anger in Minneapolis reflects frustration over these realities, despite some progress, said Teqen Zéa-Aida, a longtime activist in the city.