† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Undercurrents of #Pointergate ~ White Supremacist Policing and Racialized Voter Disenfranchisement
by nancy a heitzeg
Unless you have been in a media blackout, then surely the news of #Pointergate has come your way. It began with this inflammatory story last Thursday night on KSTP news. The provocative headline read: “Mpls. Mayor Flashes Gang Sign with Convicted Felon; Law Enforcement Outraged.”
Old White Men Stoke Racialized Fears on KSTP TV
The photo of Mayor Betsy Hodges and Navell Gordon was taken at a get- out-the- vote event with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (more on NOC later). Once everyone realized this was real and not some ludicrous Onion-esque parody, the reaction from Minneapolis residents was immediate; the hashtag #pointergate was created and trending within the hour. Since then the story has gone national with coverage that is focused on the blatant racism including the equation of the pointing with “gang signs”, and the smearing of Gordon as a “twice convicted felon.” The KSTP story was a textbook example of the racist conflation of Blackness with both criminality and gangs that pervades media and public perceptions. (For the best discussion of this dimension of these aspects of the story, please see the response from Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) Chair Ken Martin, Professor Nekima Levy -Pounds, “Dear White People: Mayor Betsy Hodges is Not in a Gang” and Melissa Pestroyrry-Harris’ interview with both Navell Gordon and Anthony Newby, Executive Director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.)
Questions also emerged with regard to the timing of the piece. The following day, the City of Minneapolis was about to introduce a pilot program that required Minneapolis Police to wear body cameras. This requirement has long been part of Mayor Hodges’ platform and one source of conflict between the Mayor and the police union over growing community demands for accountability. The other98 blog offers a timeline of the evolving tensions and a closer look into the events preceding the body cam announcement:
Battle of the Open Letters
… late September of 2014. Councilwoman Hodges was now Mayor Hodges, and as such was facing higher expectations from the community. On September 26, a coalition of local professors, religious leaders, community groups and others penned “An Open Letter to Mayor Betsy Hodges,” which was later published in the Star Tribune, a local paper. The letter laid out serious concerns about the conduct of the Minneapolis Police Department, particularly residents’ frustration with the behavior of Chief Harteau, who had abruptly dropped out of a listening session intended to address these very concerns. The letter urges Mayor Hodges to break her “silence” on the growing tension and start working to regain public trust of both the police department and local government.
Mayor Hodges responded on October 8 with an Open Letter of her own, emphasizing her commitment to “eliminating gaps based in race and place, growing inclusively, and running the city well for everyone.” The letter goes on to lay out, in exhaustive detail, the plans and goals Hodges had for improving relations between police and the community at large. Early in the letter, this passage appears:
Hundreds of police officers serve respectfully and collaboratively every day to keep people safe and make neighborhoods across our city stronger. But not all do: some officers abuse the trust that is afforded to them, and take advantage of their roles to do harm rather than prevent it. Minneapolis has, and has had, officers like that. These officers do not represent a majority of the department, but their behavior disrupts community trust for all officers in the community… This is why it is so important to check bad behavior and end it, once and for all.
Well. Minneapolis Police were pissed, to put it lightly. In the third and final entry of the Battle of Open Letters, the President of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, John Delmonico, wrote a blistering reply to the Mayor, calling her words “repeated and personal slaps in the face to every member of the Minneapolis Police Department.” He accused her of painting all officers with the same unfair brush, and expressed anger that all of her plans for improving community relations involved changes in the department (Delmonico did not offer alternative plans, nor clarify as to what it would look like to reform the community rather than the police).
Certainly the KSTP story was a distraction from (and perhaps retaliation for) the announcement of the new body camera requirement. What has not yet been fully explicated in the #pointergate story, however, is a deeper discussion of the role of race in policing, including a new Minnesota ACLU Report on racial disparities in low level arrests, and the targeting of efforts to enfranchise Black voters.
Racial Profiling and Low-Level Arrests
Despite Minnesota’s reputation as a progressive state, some of the nation’s deepest racial gulfs are revealed in our educational and legal systems. Perhaps even more damning than the Mayor’s open letter and body cam requirement was a report from The Minnesota ACLU released on October 28. This report verified yet again, using the Minneapolis Police Department’s own data, that Blacks appeared to be targeted for low-level arrests. These practices persist in lieu of an official name such as ‘stop and frisk’ or or ‘broken windows” yet the net effect is the same. The data revealed “that between 2004 and 2012, an African American individual was, on average::
- 11.5 times more likely to be arrested than a white individual for marijuana possession;
- 8.86 times more likely to be arrested than a white individual for disorderly conduct;
- 7.54 times more likely to be arrested than a white individual for vagrancy; and
- 16.39 times more likely to be arrested than a white juvenile for curfew/loitering”
As ACLU’s open letter to the Mayor and the MPD Chief Janeé Harteau noted, Minnesota has the third highest racial gap in marijuana arrests in the nation. arresting Blacks at a rate nearly 8 times greater than that of whites. The racial disparity nationally is approaching 4 times. In light of this, the Minneapolis numbers are particularly stunning, and the ACLU called on both the Chief and the Mayor to continue efforts to remedy police practices that produce such disparate results. To her credit, Chief Harteau responded to the ACLU via video noting efforts already underway to address the racial gaps in arrests.
MPD Chief Janeé Harteau Responds to ACLU Data
One of the functions of #pointergate and the MPD charges against the Mayor may well be to distract from this damning data. It is certainly no accident that MPD’s attempts to smear the Mayor invoked fear-based appeals to criminalizing archetypes of Blackness, but also to “gangs”. “Gang” is a red-flag word that stops rational thought and stymies debate. It is the domestic equivalent of ‘terrorists,” a term used to evoke dire racialized imagery, danger and threat to public safety, and questioning of the common sense. loyalty and in fact, criminality of anyone who doubts its’ application, relevance or meaning. All these implications are evidenced in the KSTP story, even as described “non-gang” members are painted as guilty by association with an alleged “sign.”
It is easy to overlook the fact that the War on Drugs has also been a War on Gangs. Gangs have always always always been understood to be racial /ethnic minorities and/or immigrants. Increasingly there is fear of “transnational gangs.” From the earliest literature on Italian and Irish street gangs to more recent fears of Black, Latino and Asian gangs, “gang” has been one of those ostensibly “race-neutral” markers for race and a major feature in the ongoing efforts to link race and “crime.”
In the midst of the War on Drugs and media fixations on youthful violence, nearly all states began to specify offenses related to gang activity. All 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC) have enacted some form of legislation relating to gangs. 42 states and DC have legislation that defines “gang.” Most states and cities that have gang-legislation use a penalty-enhancement approach, meaning that the offense is defined as legally more serious and subject to harsher sentences if it is deemed to be committed for the benefit of a gang. This includes Minnesota whose gang legislation is characteristically obtuse:
Minnesota § 609.229. Crime Committed for Benefit of a Gang
Subdivision 1. Definition
As used in this section, “criminal gang” means any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, that:
(1) has, as one of its primary activities, the commission of one or more of the offenses listed in section 609.11, subdivision 9;
(2) has a common name or common identifying sign or symbol; and
(3) includes members who individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal activity.
This legal definition of what constitute a gang is vague and subject to police interpretation. Typically state statues do define gangs as groups of 3 or more people who share a name common symbols and a pattern of criminal activity. This could be the KKK or Wall Street or any old typical fraternity, but of course it is not. Much of the meaning of “gang” is deeply connected to racial imagery and stereotyping, so the interpretation of gang statues rest more on the race, class, gender and age of the person in question than the letter of the law. Analyses of police gang databases indicate that this is indeed the case. Youth of color are vastly over-represented in these databases, which are often complied via simple street interrogations and observations rather arrest data. As Jordan Blair Woods observes:
Cultural stereotypes not only shape how the general public views crime, but may also influence the perceptions and behaviors of police officers and prosecutors. Gang stereotypes within the police and prosecutorial realms can have especially damaging consequences for racial minorities. The harmful process begins at the level of law enforcement, where racially slanted gang stereotypes can shape how police departments perceive and report crimes. Gang stereotypes may drive some officers to categorize crimes committed by groups of racial minorities as gang crimes, even if the suspects have no ties to gangs or gang members.
Low level offenses, such as those documented in the MN ACLU Report, are major indicators of law enforcement proclivity for both racial profiling and pretextual stops. To the extent that these stops can be “justified” under the auspices of cracking down on gangs, this offers police political cover. If there is a silver lining to #pointergate, it may well be that the racist dynamics of the legal definition and public perception of gang signs was both widely exposed and ridiculed.
Voter Suppression and Efforts to Re-enfranchise Felons
One of the under-explored aspects of #pointergate is the issue of voter suppression and targeted harassment of organizations that are trying to increase voter turn-out in communities of color. The photo that became the focal point of police “concern” and the KSTP smear was taken at a GOTV event hosted by Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. Yes that is MPD Chief Harteau on the left, along with NOC civic and political engagement director Wintana Melekin, Mayor Betsy Hodges and field organizer Navell Gordon.
This is not the first time that NOC organizers have been targeted in what became highly publicized incidents. In September , Gordon was collecting signatures for a petition to restore felons’ voting rights outside Cub Foods, when both he and later Melekin were arrested for “trespassing.” A month later, Former City Council member and newly elected school board candidate Don Samuels called police to investigate a hotdog giveaway at the NOC offices. The officer who arrived at the scene expressed concerns as to whether the hotdogs were being distributed for money or in an attempt to “elicit votes.” And there’s more, including MPD surveillance of Gordon’s Facebook page. From the NOC website:
“At NOC, our members are continuously harassed by the MPD, and I’ve often witnessed the police abusing their power to harass black people,” said Wintana. “Now it’s personal. We can’t let MPD intimidate or harass us anymore, especially when they’re threatening our voting rights.”..Last month, a young African-American woman was arrested at a Ferguson solidarity vigil outside the 4th precinct police station, ostensibly for jaywalking. The charges were later dropped. Navell was nearly arrested earlier this year outside the NOC office, allegedly for spitting in public, but the MPD backed off when other NOC members came out to film the interaction. Last year, MPD identified another NOC canvasser as a “suspicious person” while canvassing, arrested him, and held him in jail for a whole weekend. After public pressure, the charges were ultimately dropped.We will not tolerate this atmosphere of intimidation and harassment. We deserve to feel safe in our communities, especially from the uniformed officers who receive our tax dollars to protect and serve us. It’s time for the Minneapolis Police Department to start being accountable to our community. NOC will not stand for our staff, or anyone in our community, being abused by the police.
Of the 22 states with new restrictions, 18 passed entirely through GOP-controlled bodies, and Mississippi’s photo ID law passed by a voter referendum. Two of the remaining three states — Illinois and Rhode Island — passed much less severe restrictions. According to a recent study from the University of Massachusetts Boston, restrictions were more likely to pass “as the proportion of Republicans in the legislature increased or when a Republican governor was elected.”
Race was also a significant factor. Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, 7 have new restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, 9 passed laws making it harder to vote. And nearly two-thirds of states — or 9 out of 15 — previously covered in whole or in part by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because of a history of race discrimination in voting have new restrictions since the 2010 election. Social science studies bear this out. According to the University of Massachusetts Boston study, states with higher minority turnout were more likely to pass restrictive voting laws. A University of California study suggests that legislative support for voter ID laws was motivated by racial bias.
Ironically, Minnesota was one of a handful of states which (under full DFL control) expanded voting rights. Still, conservative forces (and police are by definition a conservative force) and GOP everywhere, even when in the minority are invested in voter suppression. NOC knocked on 55.000 doors, took 17,000 voter pledges, and increased Northside voter turnout by 13% despite statewide participation declines. Perhaps even more threatening was their involvement in seeking petitions in support of proposed state legislation that would restore voting rights to felons who were on probation or completing their sentences under community supervision. Nationally and in Minnesota, felony disenfranchisement remains a major barrier to voting with a disproportionate impact on Blacks.
Map of State Criminal Disfranchisement Laws, ACLU
And now we are back to where we started: a blatant attempt to criminalize voting via the conflation of GOTV efforts in communities of color with “convicted felons” and gangs, a’ la Acorn. Supported and enforced by a police department using the very racial profiling tactics they are trying to hide from public scrutiny.
#Ferguson is #Everywhere but All Politics are Local
We have been saying #Ferguson/#Everywhere and in the sense that white supremacist police state violence is foundational to and pervasive throughout the U.S.A., this is true. But one of the lessons of #pointergate is this: it is simultaneously true that all politics are local, that the political territory as well as the specific opportunities for applying pressure towards change will be colored by that climate.
And No, Minneapolis is not Missouri. Our Democrats are not watered down Clinton-esque Blue Dogs, and our color-blind Minnesota Niceness tends to shame rather embrace the most overt egregious forms of racism. We have a Mayor and a Police Chief who are not hiding any Darren Wilsons for 90+ days but rather, whatever our potential points of difference on the systemic nature of the troubles, are willing to engage the community in some degree of dialogue towards change. All these factors shape the opportunity for activism.
So, in Minneapolis, the Coalition for Critical Change and others will continue to push for transparency and accountability, seeking additional data on low-level arrests in the community and in the schools, an end to racial profiling and excessive use of force, legal change and ultimately, transformative justice . Always mindful of the national context/connections, grounded in our own political terrain.
Wherever you are – find your people and do the same.