(June 8, 2020) — Keith Ellison came of age as an activist fighting police brutality. Now, as the attorney general of Minnesota, he’s prosecuting what may be the most important police brutality case in modern history: the case against the four Minneapolis police officers accused of murdering George Floyd, an unarmed black man.
As a University of Minnesota law student in the late 1980s, Ellison became a leader in a series of protests after police killed two elderly black residents in a botched drug raid. As Mother Jones has written, those officers escaped accountability, which led Ellison to create the Coalition for Police Accountability and build a career in politics that eventually made him the first Muslim member of Congress and now the top prosecutor in Minnesota.
Ellison spoke about the protests, prosecutions and police power with host Al Letson for this week’s episode, just as he was making the decision to bring more serious charges against Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, and to charge the three other officers present who didn’t stop him.
Al Letson: When I see these uprisings happening across the country, the feeling that I get is that a lot of the people that are marching in the street have the exact same feeling of that we’re just tired. We’re tired of having this conversation. We had it when Eric Garner died. We had it when Philando Castile died. And at this point, like, we’re just so over it and that anger is just exploding. What do you say to those people who are just tired and over it?
Keith Ellison: You know, if you try to ask somebody for patience who’s been extremely patient, they might have some choice words for you, right? I just say to those folks, you know, we’ve never seen meaningful social change without people getting in the street, raising their voices. I say be safe. Remember COVID. I say, you know, be peaceful. But by all means, exercise your First Amendment right, because if we don’t have that, it’s extremely difficult to get policymakers to implement the changes that could bring about a better set of circumstances for us. So that’s what I tell them. And, you know, I mean, I don’t ask for patience. Imagine it’s 400 years of people being denied it in so many cases where there was no accountability. I mean, it just compounds, you know, that level of disappointment and expectation of an unjust outcome.
AL: Why is it so hard to convict a police officer when we have videotape showing exactly what happened?
KE: Let’s just run the numbers. Walter Scott, from what it looked like, he was executed, running from the police, shot multiple times. Hung jury. Rodney King, the first Simi Valley jury. Not guilty. Philando Castile. Not guilty. So to your question, why? I think multiple reasons. One is that jurors have a tendency to resolve doubts in favor of the police. The truth is that under the law, an officer has no more credibility as a witness than any other witness. But given our culture and our training and our upbringing, they are accorded with a certain degree of credibility. And so there’s a factor.
AL: Are police unions too powerful?
KE: In Minneapolis, I’d say yes. I’m not an authority on all of them, but personally, I think that when it comes to pay, pension, working conditions, that there should be strong police unions, strong unions – period. But when it comes to misconduct and discipline, when it comes to mistreatment of persons in custody, or I think that the officers should have due process in the hands of the City Council or mayor.
AL: I have a feeling that for you specifically, this is going to be a really hard, uphill battle, because if we go back to 2007, Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, called you a terrorist.
AL: And this is the same man accused of wearing a white power badge on his jacket.
AL: So I’m just curious how you’re going to be able to work with people who label you a terrorist, to move the whole conversation into a better place?
KE: Well, for your listeners, if I could give a little context: He was teaching a police officer training class. There was nobody in the room except police officers. And he said the people of Minneapolis are really dumb. We’re at war with the terrorists, but they just elected one of them. And then one officer says, “Wait a minute, are you talking about Congressman Ellison?” And he said, “Well, we did just elect him.” And so she showed courage, moral courage. And she would not let it go. And she pressed that complaint. He ended up having to apologize or whatever. But then later, he told me he didn’t really say it. But I’m like, whatever, man.
WHAT WE’RE READING
One of the many things that’s been on my mind has been whether the police will be able to terrorize protesters without any accountability. This story provides an early hint:
“City leaders defended officers in Philadelphia who unloaded tear gas on protesters who were pinned up against a highway embankment. There’s been no punishment for the New York Police Department officers who rammed their SUV into a crowd of protesters, the officer who tore the mask off a protester to pepper spray him, or another officer who shoved a female protester to the ground. The result, according to protesters and city leaders, is a troubling moment where police officers are acting with impunity on the streets of America.”
– Andrew Donohue, managing editor
“One officer kicked a handcuffed suspect in the face, leaving his jaw in pieces. Officers beat and pistol-whipped a suspect in a parking lot on suspicion of low-level drug charges. Others harassed residents of a south Minneapolis housing project as they headed to work, and allowed prostitution suspects to touch their genitals for several minutes before arresting them in vice stings. These and more substantiated incidents, detailed in court records and police reports, help explain a saying often used by fellow cops to describe the style of policing practiced in the Third: There’s the way that the Minneapolis Police Department does things, and then there’s the way they do it ‘in Threes.’ ”
“More than 70,000 people work as law enforcement or corrections officers in Florida, and the data show that only a small fraction are ever disciplined for using excessive force. But they also reveal that officers who use unnecessary force are often spared the worst consequences.”
– Matt Thompson, editor in chief
“The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) spent tens of thousands of dollars on the masks they had planned to send all over the country. The first four boxes, each containing 500 masks, were mailed from Oakland, California, and were destined for Washington, St. Louis, New York City and Minneapolis. … But the items never left the state. The U.S. Postal Service tracking numbers for the packages indicate they were ‘Seized by Law Enforcement’ and urge the mailer to ‘contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for further information.’ ”
— Melissa Lewis, data reporter
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