Michelle Gross rankles some and inspires others as a force behind Communities United Against Police Brutality
When Michelle Gross speaks, you can hear her Southern roots calling softly from her past. She rounds off words: "Working" becomes "workin’" and "yelling" becomes "yellin’." Though the words have soft edges and the slightest trace of a Southern lilt, they’re propelled with a speed and intensity that quickly slashes through any lace-edged notions one might have of a fragile, demure belle.
The Bryn Mawr resident has emerged as one of the Twin Cities’ most recognizable voices opposing police brutality. Her Southern drawl may sound charming, but it is about as delightful as a chainsaw to the ears of city leaders.
In fact, Mayor R.T. Rybak, Police Chief Robert Olson and four Councilmembers (Lisa Goodman, Scott Benson, Barret Lane and Don Samuels) declined to comment or didn’t return calls on Gross or the group she helped found — Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB).
Four years ago, Gross helped form CUAPB, a group dedicated to ending cop-on-citizen violence. CUAPB issues scathing weekly newsletters and organizes rallies, marches, demonstrations, phone campaigns and anything else they think will get the attention of the media and public focused on police brutality.
"We’re not a social service agency," Gross said. "We’re a political organization. We don’t fix all your problems. We ask you to stay around and help the next people. In doing so, we build up this army of people taking this issue on."
The voice Gross said CUAPB receives about 15 to 20 calls per week from people making allegations against cops, ranging from harassment and making threats to outright beatings. More than half of the complaints are from black residents and against white cops, Gross said, although she said many complaints also come from other minorities, including Hispanics, Hmong and women.
Gross works on CUAPB "every single day," she said, serving as the group’s treasurer and secretary, working on the CUAPB Web site (www.charityadvantage. com/CUAPB/HomePage.asp) and writing and laying out the weekly newsletter.
"I’m a survivor of police brutality, and I think that you do things that you’re affected by and you care about," she said.
She said she prefers not to talk about the details of every incident of police brutality that she’s experienced, but she did say that in a downtown protest a few years ago during a Bill Clinton appearance, police, for no good reason, attacked her. "I was just standing there, holding my daughter and holding the sign, and I was doing nothing — I wasn’t agitating, I wasn’t doing anything and the cops just wailed the livin’ daylights out of me."
Though Gross is often CUAPB’s media voice and face, she’s not one of those oh-too-familiar activists who only turn out when the cameras turn on. She’s there when no cameras record a dozen protestors quietly picketing a downtown barbeque joint for alleged racism, just as she’s there when the cameras roll as a riot rocks the North Minneapolis streets.
"Injustice just rankles me. It makes me angry. I feel that racial, sexual, gender and ethnic oppressions are the ultimate injustices," she said.
That anger has propelled her into the fight for abortion rights (she’s stood nose-to-nose with Randall Terry, leader of the pro-life Operation Rescue), the struggle to win freedom for imprisoned journalist and convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal and even the successful effort to end the 37-year reign of avowed segregationist and former Selma, Ala. Mayor Joe Smitherman.
Doing what she does The roots of Michelle Gross’s subtle Southern drawl are tangled across the country. Born in Cleveland, the oldest of five kids, she was a military brat pulled by her parents from Ohio to California, Texas, Delaware and on down to the little town on the eastern coast of Florida that she considers her hometown.
That’s where the 46-year-old single mother got her start in activism. She laughed as she thought back 30-some years ago.
"My first real encounter with doing anything to change the world — figuring out that you can change the world — was when I was in junior high," she said.
"Even though it was in Florida, it gets windy there in the winter time. When I was in junior high, girls had to wear dresses in those days. And, man, I had to stand on the beach, right on the beach to catch my bus. Every day, we’d be standing out there freezing our behinds off going ‘This is ridiculous.’
"So I got together with my buddies at school and said ‘Man, I’m tired of freezing my butt off and the boys all get to wear pants. This is stupid.’ So we decided to wear pants."
She and two girlfriends wore brown pants the next day and were promptly hauled down to the nurse’s office and lectured on the impropriety of their radical act.
Gross — now a nurse, though she works as operations manager for Fairview Rehabilitation Services in St. Paul — laughed her big laugh again.
"Well, the next day, there was five of us doing it. And the next day after that, there was a whole bunch of us doing it."
Within a few days, the school had more girls in the nurse’s office than it could handle. The administration capitulated, allowing girls to wear pants.
"You know, you always used to hear that you can’t fight City Hall — and you still hear it a lot. I found out you could fight it and you could get things changed. It was a pretty powerful lesson for my age."
It’s a lesson that hasn’t dimmed with the years.
A force to be reckoned with With another big laugh, Gross said, "If
I thought I was banging my head against the wall and that nothing ever changed, then I probably wouldn’t do it after awhile. At some point, you get a bloody forehead and you move on. I don’t know. Maybe I have a warped sense of personal power or something."
Or maybe it’s not so warped.
City Councilmember Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward), said, "Michelle’s a force to be reckoned with. She’s strong, and you know what? She does her homework. Whenever I’ve asked her to validate something she’s put before me, she’s given me more than enough information. So it’s not like she comes to me and says ‘This is what’s going on’ and then dumps it in my lap.
"I think sometimes what happens is because she’s a force to be reckoned with, people have a tendency to maybe try to discredit her because they don’t want to deal with her. I don’t have a problem dealing with Michelle because she’s advocating for a group of folks that are not represented as strongly as they could be here in City Hall."
Johnson Lee said that her office fields six or seven calls a week reporting incidents of police brutality. CUAPB "presents a valuable service to the community and a group of constituents that unfortunately the city has not done a great job of representing and advocating for," she said.
City Councilmember Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) is more circumspect when discussing Gross, with whom he has discussed police-resident relations.
"One thing that I have seen again and again since coming into office is that often activists who are most effective at drawing attention to an issue or are most effective at opening doors aren’t most effective at sitting at the table, having the discussions, doing the work of it," he said.
Indirect confirmation: Councilmember Dan Niziolek (Ward 10), who oversees police as chair of the Council’s Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, said he has "not had any interactions with her or her organization."
Continued Lilligren, "There’s inflammatory-type of language and actions that will draw attention to the issue and any particular incident, but again, sitting at the table and working toward the solutions, I don’t know that it’s as effective to be inflammatory and being passionate — which she is, clearly."
The passionate Gross apparently hasn’t been able to completely convince Lilligren that most Minneapolitans are concerned about police brutality.
"Any is too much," he said of cop-on-civilian violence. "So if there is some, yeah, it’s too much. To the broader population in Minneapolis, I don’t think it’s that big of an issue."
Gross acknowledges that residents of Southwest aren’t as likely to be exposed to police brutality as folks living in North Minneapolis Jordan neighborhood, for instance. People in Southwest "get good service. [The police are] polite to them. They don’t beat ’em up."
She said what most Southwestern residents don’t see is the everyday "plain old brutality. The day-to-day sort of harassment, where cops are driving through the neighborhood and hollering things out the window at people. Rudeness. And they’re picking up people without real probable cause and detaining them and sometimes even beating them."
She said the problem with police violence is generations old; arguing whether or not it exists is like arguing whether or not Mount Everest is tall. The answer, she believes, is obvious to anyone paying attention.
"If the police were not doing what they’re doing, CUAPB wouldn’t have any reason to exist. I’d be so happy that we wouldn’t have to exist. I would be able to move on and do other kinds of work because this isn’t the only kind of political work I do or have done. I’d love to do other things, frankly. But they do what they do."
Ugly assumptions Even CUAPB’s name rankles some who think that activists around town have cried "wolf" too often. The words "police brutality" make a big, ugly assumption some are unwilling to go along with: that cops in Minneapolis sometimes pound heads — or worse — for no good reason. CUAPB makes another big, ugly assumption: that much of the police violence is due to a racist subculture within a mostly white Police Department working among an increasingly dark complected population.
(According to the 2000 Census, 18 percent of city residents are black compared to 6.1 percent of the city’s police officers, said Bill Champa of MPD’s Human Resources Department.)
Officer Ron Reier, the police department’s public information officer, said the allegation of race-related police brutality here is "an easy argument to state…It’s very, very easy, if I’m black and you’re white, or vice versa — and I don’t care if we’re yellow with pink polka dots — it’s easy to use the race card; it’s difficult to prove the race card."
Reier said "antipolice groups" in town (he didn’t name CUAPB as one) often make unfounded claims of brutality and racism against the Department. "We live in a society, unfortunately, where those allegations will always be present," he said. "Hey, that’s one of the benefits of living in a free, democratic society."
Police Chief Olson, who is in his final days in office, wasn’t available for comment for this story. Perhaps ironically, he was busy attending federal mediation hearings designed to find solutions to the tensions between MPD and minority communities.