Death reignites hard questions for Minnesota black leaders
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) For many leaders in Minnesota’s black community, the dropping of a federal investigation and no charges being filed after a black man was killed by Minneapolis police in November was reason to question whether months of work to repair racial disparities and police-community relations had paid off.
The question is again being asked after last week’s fatal police shooting of another black man in the Twin Cities area.
The governor has promised justice to the family of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot while reaching for his wallet during a traffic stop Wednesday in suburban St. Paul, according to his girlfriend, who video-streamed the shooting’s bloody aftermath on Facebook. The shooting came eight months after police fatally shot 24-year-old Jamar Clark in Minneapolis during what authorities said was an altercation with police.
“I do not have faith in our justice system,” Nekima Levy-Pounds, head of the Minneapolis NAACP, told protesters last week while reflecting on Clark’s case. Another protest sparked by Castile’s death shut down Interstate 94 in St. Paul late Saturday, resulting in dozens of arrests.
Clark’s death drew Minnesota into the national debate over police-involved deaths of young black men. Soon after, lawmakers designated $35 million for job training, investment funds and other programs targeting impoverished black residents in Minnesota, where African Americans make up just 6 percent of residents but are four times as likely to be unemployed as whites.
The problems are starkest in Minneapolis’ largely minority north side, where Clark was killed. The area is marked by dilapidated housing projects and rundown storefronts. It was the site of race riots in 1967, when protesters burned down businesses before the National Guard restored order.
A census report last year showed that black household incomes in Minnesota declined to $27,000 in 2014, compared with almost $65,000 for whites. More than 1 in 3 black Minnesota residents live in poverty, three times higher than whites.
Sen. Jeff Hayden one of Minnesota’s three black legislators said the funding approved this year was a critical step toward progress. But he noted that funding focused on poverty, not improving police-community relations. Hayden said he understands the feeling of police bias against black residents that has permeated protests following Clark’s and Castile’s deaths.
“When I learned how to cross the street, not too long after that, my mother taught me how to deal with police when they stop you,” the Minneapolis Democrat said. “Your heart’s racing. Your palms are sweaty, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. This affirms what everybody’s nightmare is.”
Other community leaders see signs of progress. Anthony Newby, head of the north Minneapolis organizing group Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, pointed to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s decision to stop using grand juries in cases of officer-involved deaths. Newby, who also is black, said the decision was a landmark moment, noting that protesters had complained that the secret panels too often exonerated officers.
Newby also said Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s remarks last week that Castile likely wouldn’t have been shot had he been white proves the black community has a powerful ally moving forward.
“I think there’s no question that he’s been willing to be led, frankly, by black leadership,” Newby said.
Dayton met with black community leaders, including NAACP national president Cornell Brooks, over the weekend. Dayton said last week he wanted to get input from people “on the front lines,” because change couldn’t be a top-down approach.
Thomas Kelly, an attorney for the officer who shot Castile, said Castile was pulled over because the officer considered him a “possible match” for the description of a suspect in a recent robbery in the area. Kelly also said the officer was responding to Castile’s gun, not his race.
Castile, who had no felony record, told the officers he had a gun and a permit to carry it, according to his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds. She later told reporters that said Castile had the firearm in a holster.
Hayden and Newby said the key next step was to improve police training and the interactions between residents and officers in minority neighborhoods. Hayden added that Reynolds’ decision to use Facebook Live could be pivotal.
Video of Clark’s fatal run-in with police proved inconclusive. But in Reynolds’ nine-minute video, she calmly explains while sitting next to Castile, his shirt soaked in blood that she and Castile were pulled over for a “busted tail light.” She said Castile was reaching for his wallet when he was shot multiple times.
Police have refused to say what led up to the shooting or why Castile was pulled over. Investigators have said video of the shooting could be gleaned from a squad car’s dashboard camera.
“That’s what’s going to start to move the ball: Everybody gets to see it,” Hayden said.