#pointergate means spotlight, donations for small nonprofit

Anthony Newby and Navell Gordon
Neighborhoods Organizing for Change executive director Anthony Newby, left, and canvasser Navell Gordon point at each other on Nov. 11, 2014, a reference to the now infamous "Pointergate" report from KSTP.
Curtis Gilbert / MPR News

The online uproar over a local television report accusing Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges of flashing a gang sign has thrust a small non-profit organization into the national spotlight.

But even before what's been mockingly called "Pointergate," Neighborhoods Organizing for Change has enjoyed growing influence in Minneapolis city politics.

Last week KSTP-TV reported Minneapolis police were "fuming" about a photograph on Facebook. The story from reporter Jay Kolls claimed the photo showed Hodges "flashing what law enforcement agencies tell us is a known gang sign for a northside gang."

Retired police officer Michael Quinn said in the story that Hodges put police officers at risk with her gesture.

But it quickly became clear that the picture was completely innocent. Hodges and the man were merely pointing at each other as they posed together at a get-out-the-vote event. A video that captured the same moment showed them awkwardly trying to decide what to do with their hands.

Mayor Betsy Hodges
Mayor Betsy Hodges poses for a photo in a screengrab from a KSTP news report.
KSTP

Media critics across the country ridiculed the report as preposterous, shoddy and racist, because Navell Gordon, the man pictured with Hodges, is black. The criticism went viral on Twitter with the hashtag #pointergate, which has been used more than 61,000 times according to the social media analytics site Topsy.

KSTP continues to stand by its story. In a follow-up story on the station's website, a headline said critics of the report were "missing the point."

The social media storm may have been a public relations fiasco for the station, but it brought a lot of goodwill to Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the non-profit behind the get-out-the-vote event.

Executive Director Anthony Newby said his tiny organization has seen unexpected donations from far-off places.

"There were folks from California, Washington, rural Maryland, Florida, Texas, Wisconsin," he said. "So literally all across the country people are paying attention to the story and are donating."

Beyond money, the organization has gained social and political capital as a result of "Pointergate," Newby said.

That is perhaps fitting, as Neighborhoods Organizing for Change was born because of another online video. The group grew out of the ashes of ACORN, a national network of community organizers brought down by conservative filmmaker James O'Keefe in 2009.

After O'Keefe went into ACORN offices with a hidden camera, and posed as a pimp trying to procure tax advice, the video showed ACORN employees in Baltimore appearing to cooperate. The ensuing scandal forced the organization to close its doors in 2010.

Neighborhoods Organizing for Change — often called NOC — filled the void it left. It started with less than $100,000 in annual revenue and today has about $700,000 to fund its staff of four full-time employees and a team of canvassers. The organization has a liberal bent and works on a range of issues including transit, the environment, minimum wage and racial equity.

Hodges inauguration
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, with her husband Gary Cunningham by her side, takes the oath of office Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News file

After Hodges' inaugural address in January, the group's supporters streamed into the Minneapolis City Hall rotunda, chanting "Equity now! Equity now!"

But they weren't protesting against the new mayor. They were cheering her on. Newby, NOC's executive director, served on Hodges' mayoral transition team. He told the crowd she gave one of the best political speeches he'd ever heard.

"Betsy mentioned equity nine times," he said. "I counted them. Nine times!"

The mayor's close relationship with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change — a frequent critic of the police department — may be contributing to Hodges' strained relationship with the police union. Newby said the group's canvassers, including Gordon, have been victims of racial profiling.

Gordon said he has had two run-ins with police while working for the organization.

"They like stopping young black men," he said. "They want to catch something on us. They want to put us on probation. They want to get us locked up — some of them do. I'm not going to say all of them."

Gordon, who is on probation for illegally owning a firearm, said he's turned his life around thanks to NOC. He said he has nothing to do with gangs.

City Council Member Alondra Cano, who also is a fan of the group, questions the motives of KSTP and the police sources behind its report.

"I think this story was definitely about retaliation on elected officials and community members who are trying to change business as usual, who don't want to see more police abuse anymore," Cano said.

Police union president John Delmonico could not be reached for comment. But in the KSTP report he questioned the mayor's allegiances. He asked whether Hodges was "going to support gangs in the city or cops."

Hodges has declined to be interviewed about "Pointergate."

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