Activists: Flowers' beating by police 'is not isolated'

Al Flowers thanked a roomful of supporters.
Al Flowers thanked a roomful of supporters at the Minneapolis Urban League offices in north Minneapolis, July 29, 2014.
Brandt Williams/MPR News

Al Flowers' face still shows signs he was involved in a violent confrontation. There are stitches over his right eye and staples in his scalp.

On Tuesday, the 55-year-old African-American community activist told a group of supporters at the Urban League headquarters in north Minneapolis that he was still in a bit of pain after a violent encounter with police early Saturday. But he apparently felt good enough to joke with them about his injuries.

"I'm a better fighter than this," he said. "I just got ambushed."

Flowers said Minneapolis police officers beat him up at his south Minneapolis home last weekend. He said the officers came to arrest his teenage daughter, but didn't have a warrant and a scuffle broke out after he asked to see it.

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"And once they attacked, I felt every blow," Flowers said to the dozens of people who gathered to express outrage over what happened at his home. "I felt every 30 to 40 blows to my head, my ribs, I got stomped."

Booking photo of Al Flowers
Al Flowers, as he appeared in his booking photos provided by the Hennepin County jail on Sunday.
Via Hennepin County jail

The police report doesn't specify how many officers were involved. Police arrested Flowers on suspicion that he assaulted a police officer, a felony, and on suspicion of obstructing the legal process, a gross misdemeanor. Officials with the Hennepin County Attorney's Office say no one has been charged in the incident.

Flowers has a history of criticizing the police department and has sued the city and the department for brutality. In 2008, the city paid him $15,000 to settle a suit over a 2003 incident outside the Urban League building. Witnesses said officers put Flowers in a chokehold even though he wasn't resisting them.

Spike Moss, an outspoken civil rights advocate, said he believes police officers targeted Flowers because of the color of his skin — not because of what he's said about police brutality.

"Al took that whippin' for us. That wasn't no Al whippin' that was our whippin.' That was a hate of us," Moss said. "Folks kept calling me, 'Spike, why would they do it?' They don't need no reason when you're black! They never answer our questions, 'why did you stop me officer?' They never tell us nothing! They just abuse us."

Moss also is angry about Police Chief Janeé Harteau's response to the incident at Flowers' home. Harteau declined to comment on the details of the case the day after the arrest. She also did not mention Flowers by name.

Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor of the New Salem Baptist Church in north Minneapolis, echoed Moss' comments.

Dozens came to support Flowers.
Dozens of people came to the Minneapolis Urban League headquarters in north Minneapolis, July 29, 2014, to rally support behind Al Flowers.
Brandt Williams/MPR News

"Al's incident is not isolated," McAfee said. "Those of us who've been around here for a while, you know we've been fighting this for quite some time."

No matter who takes over as chief, McAfee said, the culture among police officers who patrol the streets doesn't change.

"You can listen to the police chief if you want," he said. "But what she says doesn't always translate to what happens on the block. And until there is a strong move to eradicate that nonsense from the block, nothing will happen."

This is the second major incident involving Minneapolis police officers to spark outrage among members of the African-American community since Harteau was appointed. Last year, officers shot and killed Terrance Franklin, a 22-year-old African-American man in the basement of a house — a shooting they said occurred after he grabbed one of their guns and wounded two officers.

As she did in that instance, Harteau is asking for calm.

Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau
Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau talks about the weekend arrest of Al Flowers.
Peter Cox/MPR News

"We are completing a thorough investigation. All things are looked at, both criminally, civilly and internally," the chief said before the Urban League event. "And I just want people to understand that. We have to let the process take its course. And just because the chief and others isn't speaking, doesn't mean it's because we don't want to."

That same day, the city's civil service commission upheld her decision to fire Brian Thole and Shawn Powell, two white officers who repeatedly used racial epithets and obscenities during a confrontation with black men outside a Green Bay Bar last year. The commission also found that the officers made derogatory remarks about Harteau, who is a lesbian, when talking to Green Bay police.

But Rev. Jerry McAfee and others at today's meeting say they don't want another internal investigation. They say they want an outside organization to look into Flowers' allegations.

Mayor Betsy Hodges and Harteau released a statement Tuesday evening saying they will find an independent leader to guide the investigation.

"Chief Harteau and I decided together that transparency and fairness for Mr. Flowers, the Police Department and the community are best served by an independent investigation," Mayor Hodges said.

"I believe an outside investigation is necessary in this case to avoid any appearance of impropriety in the handling of this investigation," said Chief Harteau.

Despite their skepticism and frustration with the Minneapolis police department, there was at least one sign that there are still ties between the department and African-American residents.

Lt. Rick Zimmerman, head of the Minneapolis Police homicide division who works with the Community Standards Initiative, reached out to Flowers, who leads the organization.

"I just wanted to say, I'm sorry this happened to you, personally," Zimmerman said. "It will take time, but I hope you get some justice."

The allegations of police brutality also seemed to have galvanized several factions of activists who haven't always seen eye to eye over the years.

"We all have differences about the way we take up this work and the way we stand with our communities," said Michelle Gross, president of Communities United Against Police Brutality. "But at the same time, we can never let it be OK that anybody who's a leader in the community get attacked by the police — most particularly Al Flowers who is an outspoken critic of the police."