† 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.