Representing while Black in Minneapolis

Ralph Remington
Ralph Remington. Photo by Aminda Villa

I am a former Minneapolis City Council member. I am the first and only African American ever to be elected from Ward 10. When I served, the ward was 80% white. Serving on the council was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I felt the need to run because, in addition to founding Pillsbury House Theatre, I wanted to help leave some positive policy impact on the city that I loved. I naively thought that I’d be joining forces with others who felt the same way. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

I started my term in January 2006. On the morning of my inauguration, I got up before dawn, put on my suit and tie and headed out to my car. Someone had let the air out of my tires overnight, telling me they weren’t too pleased I was about to take office.

After I filled my tires up with air, I went to City Hall. I was headed toward a highly white, isolating environment for any person of color, particularly a Black man.

When I pulled into the parking space I’d been assigned, a garage attendant ran out and yelled at me for parking in a council member’s parking space. I told him that I was a council member. Even then he didn’t believe me and commenced to calling the authorities because I walked away and headed to my office. I wish that I could say that this was the last time that a City Hall parking attendant didn’t believe that it was my space. This happened several more times my first year. It was unfathomable to them that there would be a new Black man in City Hall.

This wasn’t the first time that I had faced this kind of discrimination while trying to represent the people who elected me. During my campaign, I was told by a white couple that I must be running in the wrong ward. When I knocked on doors, many people wouldn’t answer if they saw me; however, if my wife, Mary, who is white, rang the same bell, they would answer the door. And even when they’d come to the door, they would direct their attention and their questions to my wife. This kept occurring until we devised a plan where she would focus her attention towards me until they would be forced to look at me.

Similar things happened once I took office. Many white people who had appointments would focus their attention on my white policy aide — not looking at me even though they were asking for my assistance.

I say all of this to set the stage for how white supremacy works.

A reality of my time in Minneapolis was a constant friction with the police force.

Once, while driving back to work from lunch, I was pulled over and grilled about whether I was selling drugs out of my car.

Another time, when I called in an act of domestic violence I overheard in a neighbor’s apartment, the two white women cops responding didn’t believe I had called for help. They physically apprehended me, insisted on entering my attic apartment and only left when they heard a bang coming from downstairs. They told the beater to take a walk around the block to cool off. Then they left. They let the criminal go and tried to apprehend the Good Samaritan.

I’ve experienced other incidents, too numerous to count, of being followed by Minneapolis police officers at night, who often turned off their headlights and rode on my bumper for blocks in an effort to intimidate.

Courtesy of white supremacy, Black folks come into contact with the police disproportionately. Even though Ward 10 was overwhelmingly white, in addition to my ward responsibilities, I considered myself an at-large council member for the Black community.

We constantly had to settle cases where police had abused Black and brown citizens. Nine times out of 10 we’d throw a few thousand dollars at people, who had never seen that much money in their lives, and the cases would go away. I was sick over this. We were complicit in enabling the police to continue their criminality. I would voice these concerns openly, while some of my colleagues would take deep breaths, murmur and suck their teeth because of being forced to endure their Black colleague’s anguish.

However, my eyes were really opened when the council treated our own Black police officers as poorly as we treated Black and brown citizens who had been abused by white police. This happened with the case brought forward by the five Black officers suing the city for racial discrimination. Police Chief Tim Dolan, a named defendant, was allowed to debate council members in closed session, thereby generating a chilling effect on our ability to settle their suit and institute massive police reforms. If Council President Barb Johnson didn’t like a particular line of questioning or argument, she would shut it down.

I was the lone vote against Dolan when he was appointed. When the position opened up, I had pressed Mayor RT Rybak to hold an open community selection process and to mandate the new police chief live in Minneapolis. Both requests were rejected; I was swatted down as if those were all preposterous ideas and Dolan was selected after a perfunctory bureaucratic process. RT said to me: “What’s the point in having a community process when I know that I’m hiring Tim Dolan at the end of the day anyway?” I told him that the people expect transparency. RT later reappointed Dolan as police chief after a string of complaints over racial discrimination in his department that demoralized the Black community.

My council allies and I tried to get police reforms instituted and we were largely unsuccessful because we didn’t have the backing that was needed up the political chain to take on the Federation. There is a severe psychic toll to be paid by every conscious Black leader swimming in an ocean of unassailable whiteness.

Some of those white folks in Minneapolis political leadership, like Mayor Rybak, went on to bright and shining careers and now, all of a sudden, are woke in regard to the policing of Black people. RT acts as if he didn’t know, while I was shouting it from the rooftops all along. RT manages to sort of take responsibility while also puffing himself up with humblebrags. So forgive me, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, if I find these mea culpas opportunistic and disingenuous.

We as a body should have been better. The people deserved better. The politicians chose to uphold white supremacy instead of choosing to fight it. And that, as we have seen, can have deadly consequences.

Ralph Remington served as Minneapolis’ Ward 10 City Council member from 2006 to 2010.