Archive | Through Their Eyes

‘How about: Building a better department?’

Posted on 02 October 2020 by Tesha Christensen

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

Andrew Johnson

In one of the paragraphs that follow, Ward 12 council member Andrew Johnson speaks to the power of language. When asked about the monumental changes facing the Minneapolis Police Department, he suggests the word “build” as a verb for moving forward. Toward that end, how can we build a better understanding of some of the people working for change in the city of Minneapolis? Perhaps by better understanding who they are.
Do you think there is a word that better describes the restructuring of the MPD than disband, defund, abolish, or dismantle?
I don’t like those words or use them myself. I think they worry a lot of people and give the wrong impression. “Defund” implies taking away and suggests a reduction in service. But the goal is to improve service and get better results (including less crime and greater safety for all residents), so that will likely mean more investment in ways that improve public safety.
How about: build a better department. That’s really what we’re after. One that gets great results and rightfully earns the public’s trust. And just to be clear: Yes, we will continue to need officers as part of our public safety system.
Can you describe what you think “transformational change in policing” means?
From a management standpoint, it means top to bottom (systemic) changes in culture and process to achieve significantly better performance.
Are there any public safety models for cities of comparable size that could work in Minneapolis?
There are lots of successful approaches from other cities and even other sectors that we can learn from. Deploying violence intervention workers to stop street conflicts from escalating. Dispatching mental health professionals for non-violent mental health calls (and as co-responders with officers for calls that might become violent). Dispatching civilian staff for non-violent civil infraction enforcement and report-taking. Utilizing bait vehicles and other items to more effectively catch professional theft rings. Creating a “quality assurance” team that regularly reviews body cam footage for each officer and helps coach them. Mandatory annual check-ins with a psychologist, as well as after critical incidents. More utilization of data and technology, and better communication with the public. Job training and placement for at-risk residents. Restoring investments in after-school programs. There are more to mention than you have space for in [this] column! We were already working to implement some of these, and over the next year will evaluate and integrate more into the “re-imagining public safety” planning effort.
How can Minneapolis residents look forward to engaging in the year-long process of community engagement that lies ahead?
It’s frustrating that the formal citywide engagement process hasn’t launched yet. But I also get that it’s a massive undertaking to put that kind of infrastructure in place to reach 430,000+ residents and engage in a meaningful way. For instance, not everyone has a computer, so how do we best reach them, especially in a pandemic? And how do we make sure feedback influences the direction we go and helps with building plans for improving our public safety system? This effort should center the most impacted residents. And there needs to be a balance between taking time for conversations and making decisions so we can move forward with improvements. It’s a tall order and our experienced City staff are hard at work on it. We expect the engagement process to kick-off this fall.

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‘This time, things feel different’

Posted on 02 October 2020 by Tesha Christensen

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
When Ward 12 resident Kate Stevens was growing up in a small town outside Sioux City, Iowa, she was, by her own description, “a naughty teenager.” She got herself into some trouble, and had one appearance in court. It was a brief foray into the criminal justice system, but it set her on something of a path. When her probation officer asked, “What do you want to do with your life?” She answered, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll get your job.”
Instead of becoming a probation officer, Stevens became a lawyer. She worked for several years as a public defender in Sioux City, Iowa, where she represented children in juvenile delinquency / child welfare cases. She began to notice a chronic pattern of disparate treatment between children whose families had financial resources and those who didn’t. The poorer families typically were also black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). She saw how these disparities impacted every aspect of their lives.
Remembering her own experiences as a teenager, Stevens said, “My family was white, middle class, and intact at the time. That meant I had options, while kids from different family situations did not.”
Stevens and her husband moved to the Twin Cities in 2016. She took a job with Hennepin County, working to resolve custody cases in the best interests of the children involved. She applied for a seat on the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights (MCCR), but wasn’t chosen. When she applied again in 2019, she was.
She said, “I’m determined to educate myself, and to collaborate with community members and leaders who are eager to create real change. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with county employees about racial disparities. Now I want to do something to address those disparities in our community. Joining the MCCR meant taking a step in that direction.”
Currently, MCCR is focusing on police brutality and racism within the Minneapolis Police Department, the impact of COVID-19 on BIPOC, and equity/inclusion within city contracts and workforce initiatives. The commission is grappling with, and trying to better understand, what they call the “pain points” in this community.
Anyone can file a complaint with the MCCR if they feel they have been discriminated against. To learn more, visit www2.minneapolismn.gov/civilrights/.
Stevens said, “I’m hearing from a lot of people that this time, things feel different. There is finally a growing understanding of how systemic racism works.”
She continued, “I can remember clearly when my own awareness kicked in. I was working in Sioux City, and had a caseload of kids being held in detention longer than they should have been. Why? Because some had a single parent who worked second or third shift at night, or maybe their family couldn’t afford a fancy electronic monitoring system. These outcomes were unfair, and they are deeply entrenched in the way our society works.”
MCCR implements the city’s civil rights policies through public information and education. The primary objective of the commission is to promote and protect the civil rights of the people of Minneapolis. There are currently 19 commissioners who represent wards across the city. Commission meetings are held on the third Monday of each month, and are open to the public. Kate Stevens can be reached at kathryn.stevens@minneapolismn.gov.

Ways to get involved with the work of the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights
MCCR currently has 19 commissioners, but there are 21 seats. There are two current vacancies and several terms expiring in December 2020. Terms typically last three years. Adults from varied backgrounds are encouraged to apply. The public can call into virtual monthly meetings, as well as listen and give comments. Learn what the commission is doing, and consider getting involved with their initiatives.

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‘It feels like the world is watching us’

Posted on 02 October 2020 by Tesha Christensen

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

Abigail Cerra, Ward 12 representative on the Police Conduct Oversight Committee, said, “We have got to figure out this criminal justice system. We can no longer look away.” (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

Abigail Cerra lives in the Ward 12, and has served as a Commissioner on the Minneapolis Police Conduct Oversight Commission (PCOC) since last January. On Sept. 19, it was announced that all PCOC meetings were cancelled until the new year – leaving the city without police oversight.
The Minneapolis PCOC is dedicated to restructuring, re-prioritizing, and reforming public safety. Commission members have a variety of responsibilities including shaping police policy, auditing cases, engaging the community in discussions of police procedure, and facilitating cultural awareness training for the Minneapolis Police Department.
While there is a stated minimum of seven commissioners on the committee, there were currently only four serving. And one of those four just resigned. The city responded by suspending the work of the PCOC until the vacant seats can be filled.
This, while the stakes have never been higher.
Cerra said, “Sometimes it feels like the whole world is watching us. Real change will only happen when the community knows what is really and truly happening with the police and city administration. I see my role on the commission as helping to bring problems within the Minneapolis Police Department to light. We can no longer look away.”
Despite the enormity of the problems facing the city of Minneapolis, Cerra feels hopeful. She said, “The PCOC has been meeting monthly, right about dinner time and the time parents are putting their children to bed. Yet, people were signing on to our meetings and staying until the end. I saw a level of community engagement since the Uprising that wasn’t there before.”
Cerra said, “The police aren’t the whole problem; this systemic nature of this crisis involves the entire court system. It goes well beyond the police to include prosecutors and judges. We have to start by improving our police department though. If you can’t get involved for whatever reason, at least don’t be a roadblock to others trying to move this forward.
“As for me, I am all in for criminal justice reform. I’m going to flex as hard as I can right now, while people are still paying attention.”
Before going to law school, Cerra worked as a social worker at a group home for adolescent girls in Chicago. The girls who lived there were wards of the state, and she saw first-hand how difficult the court system made their lives.
Now a parent herself, Cerra has two daughters under three at home. Her husband is a fire fighter for the city of Minneapolis. She currently works as in-house counsel and pro bono coordinator for Wells Fargo Bank. She has previously served as a Hennepin County public defender, and a staff attorney in the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.
Cerra finds value in the PCOC because it gives community members a chance to participate in police oversight. She welcomes comments, questions, and ideas at cerra.pcoc@gmail.com.
She said, “We need community members from varied backgrounds to apply for the vacant commissioner positions. Applicants must live in Minneapolis, and not be employed by the Minneapolis Police Department. To apply, visit: http://www2.minneapolismn.gov/boards/openings/wcmsp-225474.
Once the commission resumes, the public is welcome to attend meetings remotely on the second Tuesday of each month.

Abigail Cerra

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‘It feels like everybody is on edge’

Posted on 29 July 2020 by Tesha Christensen

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

“I keep wondering if my block is safe,” said lifelong Longfellow resident Troy Houle. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

Troy Houle is a lifelong Longfellow resident. His parents still live in the house he grew up in. He lives just a few blocks from them, as does his sister.
Troy has been a Minneapolis Park Board employee for more than 25 years. He said, “They call me a ‘senior man in the system’ now.” He has worked a second job at East Lake Liquors for more than 20 years, and knows this neighborhood like the back of his hand.
Troy said, “My family and friends are all from right here. A lot of the buildings that burned down, they’re what our neighborhood is about. They were part of our history. It feels like we’re starting over.”
Adjusting the brim of his fishing hat, Troy continued, “I’ve always been a strong minded person. Normally, I’m really confident about being out in the neighborhood but little things scare me now. We’re coming up on the Fourth of July and the firecrackers are really hard to listen to. I keep wondering if my block is safe, my daughter, my neighborhood, my neighbors?”
Liquor stores were hit hard in the unrest following George Floyd’s murder. Troy said, “With Minnehaha Liquors and Chi-Lake Liquors closed down, we have a lot of new customers at East Lake Liquor. I used to know most of the people who came in to the store. People are coming from outside the neighborhood now, and it feels like everybody is on edge.”
Troy credits the owners of Star Auto (and their friends and neighbors) with saving several businesses on E. Lake St. from looting and arson. He said, “There were 30-40 people every night of the curfew protecting Star Auto, ACE Hardware, the Longfellow Market, and East Lake Liquors. We have a lot to thank them for.”
Echoing what many people in the neighborhood are feeling, Troy said, “The experience has made me more vigilant, more aware of my surroundings. I check in on my parents 3-4 times a week now. Our neighbors have gotten a lot closer. It’s like that saying, ‘If you see something, say something.’ Everybody’s talking more, because we know how quickly things can change.”

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‘Reverend, you can lean on me’

Posted on 29 July 2020 by Tesha Christensen

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

When Lake St. burned, Father Joe Gillespie gathered each night with others at the Church of St. Albert the Great in Longfellow. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

Father Joe Gillespie’s first pastoral ministry was at Cook County Hospital in 1968. He moved from Minneapolis to Chicago, and started his new job with energy and enthusiasm. Then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, followed by violent anti-Vietnam War protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention. Chicago suddenly turned into a war zone.
When Lake Street burned in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, Father Joe said, “Those memories of Chicago came pouring back.” He felt a sense of post-traumatic stress and abandonment, saying, “We had no police, fire department, or mail service; even the paper boy couldn’t come here.”
But Father Joe knew he had to stick around. Despite invitations from nephews in Plymouth and church administrators in St. Paul to take shelter with them, Father Joe didn’t go looking for a way out. The Church of St. Albert the Great in Longfellow is his home.
Instead, he gathered with neighbors and parishioners on the church grounds each night. Together they watched the Walgreen’s drugstore at the end of the block go up in pentecostal flames. Three dozen residents from Volunteers of America slept on the basement floor of the church during the curfew, fearing that their Lake St. residence would burn to the ground.
Father Joe walked up and down Lake St. every day during the week of unrest. Usually he walked alone, remembering places his family had frequented when he was a kid growing up in the neighborhood. His eyes welled with tears outside the ruins of the Town Talk Diner, where he had gone many times with his father. He could almost see himself and his three siblings sitting high up on stools, dangling their legs and sharing a single pancake.
Father Joe attended the Ecumenical Clergy March on June 2 with hundreds of other faith leaders, and walked the neighborhood streets once more. When the march ended at the George Floyd Memorial site, everyone was asked to kneel in silence. Father Joe dropped to one knee, but found he couldn’t stand up again unassisted. An African American woman nearby said, “Reverend, you can lean on me,” and helped him to his feet. That’s the way he sees it now. This is a time to lean in, lean on, and help each other stand strong.
The Church of St. Albert the Great recently reopened for services on Pentecost (the seventh Sunday after Easter) at half capacity. Father Joe explained, “Historically the early Christians had to celebrate in secret, just a few at a time. They celebrated in the catacombs so they wouldn’t be seen. They celebrated during the plagues. They just kept going. I guess you could say that we’re right on target.”

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‘We just want our lives back’

Posted on 29 July 2020 by Tesha Christensen

With three college degrees, Bunni ended up broke and homeless last December. She hopes to get permanent housing in September. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
Bunni (last name withheld on request) has lived in Minneapolis since 2007. She moved here for college, and ended up with three degrees in art, business, and law enforcement.
Last December, she also ended up broke and homeless. There was nowhere for her to live, so she parked her van across from Powderhorn Park with her dog and called it home. From December to March, it was cold but quiet.
In the aftermath of the uprising, Powderhorn Park began to fill up fast. Eventually a group of Native American women decided to leave the park for safety reasons. They moved to a new encampment in the Longfellow neighborhood just for women, and she went with them. Bunni was formerly married to a Native American man. Of his community she said, “Once you’re welcomed in, you’re part of the family. We stick together in the native community. We share our last. We give until it hurts.”
There have been major problems in the start-up phase of the Longfellow encampment. Four ill-intentioned men, who self-identified as protectors of the women, were evicted by a coalition of encampment residents and Native American leaders on July 13. Almost 100 people descended on the encampment that night and literally shouted the four men out.
In the eight days since the encampment began, the residents find themselves starting over again – supposedly with a coalition of women leaders this time.
One of the greatest indignities about being homeless is the sheer visibility of it. Anyone passing by can see who lives there, and many stop to take pictures. Bunni said, “Not all homeless people are bad people, probably most of us aren’t. We just want our lives back. We’ve all had jobs, and lost them. We’ve all had homes, and lost them. Many of us have had children, and lost them.”
On the day of this interview, Bunni had just secured affordable, permanent housing which, unfortunately, wouldn’t become available until September. She said, “In addition to a roof over my head, I’m hoping for safety, recovery, and healing. I could really use your prayers.”

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‘This is it. We’ve had enough.’

Posted on 27 June 2020 by Tesha Christensen

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

Kayleen Kabba, a student at South High School. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

Kayleen Kabba will be going into 10th grade at South High School in the fall; if there is school, that is. She said, “The ‘not knowing’ about that feels big. There is a lot of ‘not knowing’ in my life right now.”
Like people of all ages, Kayleen is struggling to understand what’s going on around her. She said, “Some of my friends think the riots were fueled by the pandemic – that people were going crazy from being cooped up so long. The questions can start to spin around in your head. Why was tear gas used by police on peaceful protestors? Who are these people from out of state causing violence in our community? What is the media talking about? What is real?”
One thing is certain, as far as she’s concerned. Kayleen is glad that South High will no longer have police officers on-site. Minneapolis Public Schools has officially suspended their contract with the Minneapolis Police Department in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.
Kayleen had an exchange with a police officer last winter, the likes of which she thinks is pretty common. She explained, “My mom dropped me off late at school one morning. I was coming from a doctor’s appointment. When I checked in at the office, the attendance lady said, ‘There are only a couple minutes left of your first class; you can go stand at the door of your second class.’ So I started walking that direction.
“There was a group of 4-5 white kids in front of me in the hall. The school police officer smiled at them as they walked by, but he made me stop. He listened to my explanation, he checked my pass, and he said, ‘Don’t let me catch you out in the hallway again.’ He was not smiling. At the time it didn’t really register, but I felt the difference in the way he treated me was odd.
“We have to have some form of public safety in the schools and on the streets, but the priority should be de-escalation. So much of the time, authority figures don’t take the time to hear more than one side of the story. I really hope change is coming soon. I hope my generation will be the one to say, “This is IT. We’ve had enough.”

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‘It looked like just another killing of a black man in America’

Posted on 27 June 2020 by Tesha Christensen

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

Dre Vann

Dre Vann started coming to Brackett Park in the Longfellow neighborhood when his gym closed in March. He and his friends use the Depression-Era concrete picnic tables as workout benches. They lift free weights, heavy ones, with enviable strength and discipline.
When he saw the video of George Floyd’s murder, Dre hardly even felt it register. He said, “It looked like just another killing of a black man in America. It was a head shaker, but as a black person you’ve got to have that pick up and keep going mentality.”
By Tuesday night, Dre’s anger had grown. He said, “I’ve never done any crimes. I’ve served in the military. Still, I can’t get lost in the wrong neighborhood or walk into most restaurants in the Twin Cities without heads turning and people talking. I am scared every day of my life.”
Dre describes himself as having grown a very thick skin in his 26 years, to keep from getting bruised too bad. He didn’t participate in the protests because he doesn’t feel systemic racism is going to change in this country. He believes the color of his skin is an act of protest he has to live out every single day.
About the protests, Dre said, “I hate to admit it, but I’m glad people burned some things down. If someone’s been bullying you your whole life, it’s not like you’re going to take their lunch money. You’ve got to do something to really get their attention.”
If the world is paying attention right now, Dre questions how long it will last. While he is not convinced that allies will continue to stand up for this cause, Dre said, “I’m glad that people are starting to come out of their comfortable boxes, and entering into the discomfort of talking about really hard things.”

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‘We continue to pray that people get along’

Posted on 27 June 2020 by Tesha Christensen

By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN

Senem Yumshuk prays every morning on the lawn in front of Holy Trinity Church. At the base of an oak, she prays for her children. At the base of an elm, she prays for children everywhere. She moves to another oak and prays for her mother. There are many trees. There are many prayers. Sitting on her heels with her back against each tree trunk, Senem feels the presence of Allah – the God of her Muslim faith.
Early in the morning, it is peaceful out on the lawn. Lines haven’t formed yet on 31st St., where hundreds will soon gather to receive food donations. There are just a few cars out.
Senem will return to Turkey next week, leaving her teenage sons and her mother who have lived in this neighborhood for 10 years. She will miss them. She will miss the trees, but there is always someplace to pray. Senem has been unable to get a green card, so she works in Turkey as a nurse eight months of the year and has extended visits here when she can. “This visit,” she said, “has been too crazy.”
When the neighborhood outside her mother’s window began to burn on May 26, the two Turkish women prayed together through the night. They held each other as they watched the news reports roll in. They wept for George Floyd. Senem said, “We believe that every son is our son, and every daughter is our daughter too. Why does it have to be so hard?”
The Turkish news media sent a crew to South Minneapolis to cover the riots. Senem said, “Even in my country, almost 6,000 miles away, they are saying the name of George Floyd. I believe he is very happy right now, because of all the good that will come from what has happened. We continue to cry for him, and to pray that people everywhere can learn to get along.”

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‘Southside Strong:’ T-shirts donated to Lake Street business owners and clean-up volunteers by St. Mane

Posted on 10 June 2020 by Tesha Christensen

Aric Hay (pictured left) and Bob St. Mane (pictured right in baseball cap) are partners in an entrepreneurial effort. They recently donated 500 “Southside Strong” T-shirts to business owners whose properties were damaged or destroyed by unrest along Lake Street. The T-shirts are now for sale online through St. Mane Sporting Goods. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)

By Margie O’Loughlin
Bob St. Mane is the second generation owner of St. Mane Sporting Goods in South Minneapolis, a store that generally does a brisk business outfitting youth sports teams throughout the year. When COVID-19 wiped out organized youth sports at least until this fall, St. Mane knew he was in trouble. It was time to start thinking outside the box.
St. Mane came up with the idea of making and selling unity T-shirts during the pandemic. The T-shirts said simply, “Minnesota Strong, Pandemic 2020.” He donated $5 from every sale to other struggling businesses; ones that, like him, hadn’t been able to get federally funded assistance because the government ran out of money.
Not only did St. Mane generate income for his own small business during the shutdown, he was able to make a significant donation to four others.
And now, he is doing it all over again.
In partnership with his next door business neighbor, Aric Hay of Print and Stitch, St. Mane is making and selling T-shirts in support of businesses lost or damaged during the recent unrest on Lake Street.
On June 9, 2020, St. Mane and Hay brought eight boxes of T-shirts to the parking lot at Roosevelt High School. They met up with dozens of community volunteers at 10 a.m., who divided into six walking teams. Each team was instructed to take a stretch of Lake Street. They went off in search of owners of damaged or looted businesses, and were tasked with giving each one a T-shirt that said “Southside Strong.”
There was to be no money collected on Lake Street that day – the 500 printed T-shirts were donated by Bob St. Mane and Aric Hay. It was just a day to show support for business owners and volunteers. Moving forward, community members can purchase T-shirts directly from St. Manes’ website at www.stmanes.com. The cost is $20, and $5 of that will be donated to the Lake Street Council’s general fund to help small businesses rebuild.
When St. Mane spoke to the crowd of volunteers at Roosevelt High School, he said, “First and foremost, we’re here to support the devastated businesses on Lake Street. We don’t want any of the stores to close permanently. We’re a small business struggling with our own problems this year, and we want to stay in business too. We get it.”
At 58 years old, St. Manes is the longest running sporting goods store in Minnesota. For more information about ordering T-shirts, call Bob St. Mane at 612-722-1447 or order online. The family-owned and operated business is located at 4159 28th Avenue South.

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