A View from the Ground: Twin Cities Activism, Before and After

Are the Twin Cities liberal? Yes. But we are a radical and activist hotbed as well.

Minneapolis: Lake Street and 10th Ave at the Global Market.

Text and Photos By Sue Ann Martinson  / Original to Scheerpost
July 18, 2020

Author’s note: Recently I listened to the podcast on Scheerpost with “Mobolaji Olambiwonnu: “The Price of Ignoring the Ferguson Uprising.”  Overall it is excellent, as is Scheerpost.com. However, the characterization of Minneapolis as a bastion of white liberalism in that conversation was stereotypical and lacked nuance. As a local activist, this is my view of our communities of Minneapolis and St. Paul political situation, particularly regarding policing and racism.

Are the Twin Cities liberal? Yes. But we are a radical and activist hotbed as well, from Catholic activists and other religious groups to Freedom Road Socialists and so much more. And, basically, we work in tandem and often in coalition. These groups are mostly white but have ties to groups of people of color and refugee groups, especially building those connections in the last 5 to 10 years and even longer.

There are some of us who have been working for years to get rid of the head of the Minneapolis Police Federation union, Bob Kroll. Years ago, Women Against Military Madness and others succeeded in getting citizens on the police review board. That did not last. It was undone.  More recently an organization called Citizens United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB) has worked endlessly on these issues and has prepared lists of strategies for change.

Sign in the Longfellow neighborhood in a quiet
residential area about 10 blocks south
of Lake Street.

Chris Hedges gets closer to the problem when he talks about the Philadelphia police union being a hate group and how in New York state the police union give $7 million to political campaigns, including for money for public prosecutors. CUAPB has called press conferences and has led protests at the mayor’s office and the governor’s office and the capitol in St. Paul, and they are ignored by city and state officials. But they are not ignored worldwide  because they are getting inquiries from around the world ever since May 26th.

The Minneapolis Police Federation union exhibits extreme cult-like behavior. First, new officers are inculcated and turned into extreme racists, and they are ostracized if they do not take part. So, thinking of breaking their influence and power requires thinking in terms of breaking a cult.

Before condemning Minneapolis (and St. Paul) as a being only white liberal as the mainstream corporate media portrays us, a stereotype perpetuated in the podcast with talk about the “nice policeman who gets your cat out of a tree” as being how we characterize ourselves, remember Minneapolis is the 5th Congressional District and we elected Ilhan Omar as our representative. And before that we elected Keith Ellison who, after a number of years in Washington D.C., is now Minnesota’s attorney general. Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul, is black. Minneapolis also had a black woman mayor for a number of years not long ago. This does not exempt us from being white liberals, but it does put a somewhat different slant on who we are.

Minnesota, particularly the Twin Cities, is actually fairly diverse, including large Hispanic populations in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. Also represented in significant numbers are Vietnamese, who were the first recent refugee group to settle in the Twin Cities, Hmong who have settled in St. Paul, Palestinians in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, and even the largest Somali population outside of Somalia. African Americans live in north Minneapolis, for the most part.

Native Americans live in south Minneapolis, but also in the suburbs, where we have the Mendota Mdewakanton Sioux, an unrecognized tribe by the federal government but nonetheless a tribe (and one I have worked with on issues). Many states where the native people were either driven out and/or assimilated, do not understand about racism against native people. A friend of mine who came from farther east when she arrived here wrote a poem, “The N*****s in Minnesota are Indians,” she was so struck at the racism, And it is arguably as deep and violent and institutionalized as prejudice against blacks. Minneapolis is also the birthplace of the American Indian Movement.

We have layers upon layers. Mayor Frey and the ex-Mayor Rybak are of the white liberal ilk you talk about. Frey showed his lack of leadership around George Floyd, and we are still protesting vehemently, if nonviolently, about his so-called reform where he ignores CUAPB and the incredible work they do. So in that case, the mainstream corporate media are correct. White male liberals. He never should have been elected mayor, but he got all the (corporate) money and hype and people bought into his campaign in a Democratic city.

The Minneapolis City Council is pursuing a different path, from calling for defunding the police to listening to voices that are calling for community policing.

We struggle, like other cities, but to paint all Twin Citians, and particularly Minneapolitans, with one brush is a mistake. We have been protesting on the streets for years: Philandro Castile, Jamar, Marcus, Janine, and so many more. And after the huge crowds were gone, Justice for Jamar and others never stopped protesting, even if ignored by the mainstream media. We also have a Minnesota branch of CAIR ( Council on American-Islamic Relations) that is very active and has been part of press conferences and actions as well.

    Seward Coop, Franklin Avenue.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor who also served a term as the head of the Minneapolis NAACP and ran for mayor, tells the story of serving on the Minneapolis Foundation board, which Frey crony Rybak (a former Minneapolis mayor) heads, who are supposed to be acting as change agent in the city after George. She was actually VP for awhile. But she discovered that the so-called “reform” they were supposed to enact in previous years was just hype and was no reform at all, just reinforcing the status quo. Now she joins the protestors, speaking at rallies and actions.

In the podcast, the people of Minneapolis were characterized as a bunch of lily-white liberals with no soul. I have trouble with that. And by the way, I live just off Lake St. and Chicago, where buildings were burned and destroyed in my neighborhood. The Family Dollar store one-half block away was burned, and I had to evacuate through an underground garage filled with smoke. About ten stores where I shopped were destroyed along Lake St. They did not attack and destroy buildings where people live.

Chicago Ave and Lake Street, a block from author’s home.

It was a traumatic time, like living in a war zone, a small slice of what people in countries the U.S. bombs experience daily. At the same time neighborhoods pulled together, people provided (and still provide) food and other supplies for those who need them. Churches near Lake St. provided triage for protesters. People cleaned the streets with shovels and brooms.

The protests are continuing: 38th and Chicago where George was murdered (and let’s not use the euphuism, “killed”) is still blocked off and a place for people to gather to remember, mourn, and gather strength. Even as I write this, people locally are participating in a national Mother’s March to Stop Police Violence to the capitol in St. Paul called by Take A Knee Nation. Before George and COVID19, there were weekly protests at the local ICE office and against military madness and endless war, on the Lake St./Marshall Avenue bridge, which spans the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as many actions, marches and demonstrations for peace and justice and against war. These protests continue, often in new forms like car caravans and with groups practicing social distancing, and many webinars have taken the place of programs where people used to gather in person.

38th St. and Chicago Ave. Part of the memorial on the corner where George Floyd was murdered.

Mobolaji Olambiwonnu is correct when he says that most white people do not understand what it is like to be black in America. We do not have to live it. Intellectually we might understand. Emotionally it is still not exactly real to us. Recently, at a demonstration I attended, I heard members of the families of the men and women murdered by police brutality speak. A young black woman spoke passionately about a husband, a father, and their loss. A young Somali woman talked about her brother, a student at the University of Minnesota, and what his death meant to her. The voice that touched me most was the young mother who spoke about the death of her autistic daughter. She started out strong, but broke down halfway through her talk. These voices need to be heard.

And yes, something has changed since Minneapolis. I see it in the press particularly; what topics are being discussed, how they are handled. In Minneapolis, of course, we are having conversations about what happened and what it means. It seems that much of the rest of the country is, as well; in fact, the entire world, as evidenced by the inquiries being received by CUAPB.

After Ferguson, Angela Davis wrote about two important and related concepts in her book Freedom Is A Constant StruggleFerguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement: first, the need to find richer and more critical vocabularies to discuss racism and second, the concept and practice of intersectionality. Our historically obsolete language traps and blocks us from understanding the constructs of racism and prevents us from moving forward.

As an example of intersectionality, she uses Ferguson, where Palestinian flags appeared on the streets, calling attention to police brutality and occupation in both places. But such intersectionality needs to take place in every activist issue from homophobia to militarism. Intersectionality requires a new way of looking at the connections between cause and effect of what may appear to be independent constructs that are really interlinked and to include those connections and concepts in analyses, not only in our academic institutions but also in our many forms of activism from churches, to activist organizations, to the streets.

The example she uses in this case is “black on black” violence, which may appear to be independent from the social dislocation of blacks in this country with the shutting down of much manufacturing where they worked,  but is in fact part of the same construct. With militarism, the constructs are many and complex, but essentially what was once the war “over there” is now the war at home as well and is recognized as such at least by antiwar activists who see how one feeds the other.

Neighbors and Veterans for Peace 27 gather at 35th Ave and 29th St., a few blocks from the Third Precinct police station that was burned. Singer/songwriter Larry Long sang a song he composed for George. The names of victims of police brutality are written in the peace sign, but are not visible in the photo.

I am not proud that the murder of George Floyd happened in the city where I was born and have lived most of my life. But I am proud of our response, our activism as thousands took to the streets, most remaining nonviolent, and the determination of many of us not to give up. Not to settle (again) for the status quo.

There was looting. There was burning. And there was also an outflow of love. On the still boarded-up buildings there is art, colorful, beautiful art by citizen artists everywhere I go. There are pictures of George’s face stenciled on boarded up windows and burned out buildings and graffiti basically saying “Justice for George” everywhere. I live with these constant reminders and will for some time. Lest we forget.

Sue Ann Martinson

Sue Ann Martinson is the editor of the blog Rise Up Times. She is a member of Women Against Military Madness and an associate member of Veterans for Peace 27 Twin Cities.

Copyright 2020 by Sue Ann Martinson


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