A few weeks ago in this space I wrote a column about my 19-year-old son Henry, who was roughed-up and detained by the cops for taking a walk in his own neighborhood.
The same day, Mayor Betsy Hodges published an even-handed and wise open letter to the citizens of Minneapolis about her concerns about the police force, which was followed by a predictably defensive open letter to Hodges from police union president John Delmonico, which was followed by Minnpost’s Peter Callaghan’s hilarious essay on Minneapolis’s passive-aggressive obsession with open letters, which was followed by #pointergate, a tipping point moment that exposed the institutional racism at work in the Minneapolis Police Department and the joke that is KSTP’s story for all the world to guffaw at.
Couple all that with a turbulent autumn that has saw five former officers sue the department for ageism, a complaint against Chief Harteau’s penchant for expensive travel, the police force firing itself from the task of escorting NFL teams to games because the last one resulted in an accident between escorting cop car and team bus, and you’ve got an under-fire police force of historical proportions: I’ve lived in this city most of my 55 years, and the last two months is the most scrutiny I’ve ever seen the police come under, and for good reason.
“It almost makes me want to move there, the way people reacted to it,” said MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry about #pointergate, and for sure the Twitterverse’s righting of the racist wrong in the court of public opinion was the silver lining to the stupidity. I’d like to say the cumulative effect of it all feels like a demanding, diverse, and well-connected community’s stand against the prevailing police and military state, and a pre-emptive strike against the next Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown, but I’m not sure we are or ever will be that smart as a society.
Acknowledging that cops have a dangerous, thankless, and stressful job, the reaction to my column and Henry’s courage for telling his story was heartening. I learned that it wasn’t just happening to poor people on the North Side, or to rich people in Edina, or to my son and his friends, or to me and my friends, it was happening to everyone, for no good reason. Comments poured into my Facebook page, reporting that, “it’s not an isolated incident,” “it’s not safe out there with all these police running around,” “power corrupts,” “you should always be happy to see the cops but sadly that’s not the case,” and “it’s really time to start standing up to these thugs; we have our First and Fourth Amendment rights,” and more.
I heard about groups of kids detained and ticketed for loitering a half-block from their home in broad daylight. I heard from a marathon-running grandmother who was out for a morning run and stopped by the cops, handcuffed, and put up against the hood of a cop car, even when she’d explained who she was and that she was standing in front of her house on 48th and Aldrich. I heard from bicyclists who claim bicycle-annoyed cop cars routinely cut them off in traffic, hoping to get a rise. I heard about a mom who, while dropping her kid off at school, was accosted by a cop for “being in the wrong lane” and for “copping an attitude” after he was told politely that she, in fact, was in the right lane.
Hopefully, and here’s hoping most cops take seriously the words of Delmonico, whose open letter claimed, “We often preach that in every citizen contact we should treat all folks — whether victim, witness or suspect — the way we would want our loved ones to be treated.” Until that new utopia arrives, the cops are accountable for stories like this, from a neighbor who wishes to remain anonymous:
“I am a lifelong Lynnhurst resident with two Colombian children (adopted). My son, now 25, is an Eagle Scout, and by that I mean not so much the accomplishment as his personality. He’s probably the straightest person I’ve ever met. Very much a rule follower, never been in trouble, never hit anyone, probably never sassed a teacher. He is married, owns a home in South Minneapolis, and manages a store.
“He also isn’t much for sharing feelings and negative experiences, so it was only recently that we were talking about police actions. He told me that he had been stopped 10–15 times by police, two or three times of which he thought were legitimate. Handcuffed three times, never arrested, always released. Twice the police had duct tape covering their name badges. Two or three illegal car searches. Never an apology. Sometimes the interactions were civil, usually not so much. Once an officer pulled out a gun, showing my son’s wife ‘we have guns and the power.’ Usually the interactions ended with something like ‘we didn’t find anything this time, but we’re watching you,’ or, more likely, just ‘get out of here.’ Twice he was detained right in the alley behind our house, encounters that were embarrassing to him as neighbors were watching.
“For a number of years I ran a teen program at a Latin American culture camp. I often brought (good) cops in to talk to the kids. They gave good advice, but what struck me most was when the officers would ask a group of 30–40 Latino boys ages 13–18 how many had been stopped by police or followed by security guards in circumstances they considered unfair. Every hand was raised every time. My daughter and other girls experience this, but not nearly as often.
“My son, like yours, has apparently decided that the best way to get through these encounters is total cooperation — no questions, no smart-ass comments, not even ‘can I have your badge number?’ They know that their primary goal has to be survival and that these situations could turn far worse. So my total rule-follower son has one opinion seemingly in contrast with everything else in his life: He hates and distrusts cops. Surely this is an obvious result of this police behavior. Every boy of color has these stories, and I’m not sure why it has to be this way in Minneapolis.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at [email protected]