Mpls. protesters signal impatience with civil rights 'old guard'

Keith Ellison calls for the occupation to end.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison called for the occupation at the 4th Precinct to end for the sake of public safety at a press conference at Fairview Park in Minneapolis Nov. 30, 2015.
Courtney Perry for MPR News file

When a gathering of citizens joined Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges at a news conference last Monday and called for an end to the 4th Precinct protest encampment, they became, in the eyes of some of the protesters, part of the problem.

"If people aren't ready to herald that change and ready to be a beacon in that change, then they have to get out of the way."

Some Black Lives Matter organizers felt betrayed to see prominent African-American leaders stand with the mayor. They saw it as a rejection of their brand of street activism that has garnered national attention around the police shooting death of Jamar Clark.

"The real nut of Justice for Jamar is not taking over north Minneapolis and occupying the street," declared U.S. Rep. Ellison, D-Minn. "My plea is to minimize the impact, the negative impact, on the neighbors."

Many of the people flanking Hodges at the news conference were, like Ellison, veteran civil-rights crusaders in their own right. Ellison was echoed by Alfred Babington-Johnson, who in the '60s marched and went to jail for civil rights.

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They said the protesters, with their barricades and campfires, were becoming a nuisance and prompting concerns about safety and air pollution. They said the protest had to evolve to the next stage.

Within hours, a woman at the 4th Precinct protest took up a bullhorn and denounced "that press conference that Mayor Hodges did with the old guard leadership."

If the men at the mayor's press conference represented the "old guard," the woman with the bullhorn — 39-year-old Nekima Levy-Pounds — is a central figure in the new guard. She's a University of St. Thomas law professor who's helped lead the Black Lives Matter protests. And she's raised the profile of the Minneapolis NAACP since she was elected the chapter's president this year.

Nekima Levy-Pounds chants with activists.
Minneapolis NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds chanted with activists after a press conference at the Black Lives Matter protest site at the Minneapolis Police Department 4th Precinct Nov. 30, 2015.
Courtney Perry for MPR News file

Levy-Pounds invigorated the crowd with her attack on what she called the "black mis-leadership." She described the "old guard" as sitting at the table, looking for power and hurting the community.

That criticism stung some leaders whose credibility — whose very blackness — was being challenged. Some held signs calling Ellison a sellout.

"Everybody who stood with Mayor Hodges is not part of the solution," Levy-Pounds said. "They're part of the problem!"

Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, found herself on the opposite side from Levy-Pounds last week. Samuels was one of many leaders who, along with Ellison, signed a letter from Hodges calling for the protesters to break camp.

Sondra Samuels
Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, found herself at odds with protesters last week after she signed a letter along with Mayor Betsy Hodges and other leaders calling for an end to the 4th Precinct encampment in North Minneapolis.
Laura Yuen | MPR Photo

Samuels said characterizations of Ellison as a sellout don't square with his life's work. "[He's] the most liberal congressman we have, who himself has had decades of run-ins with police, and stood and protested as well," she said.

Ellison was not available to comment for this story.

It's not that Samuels opposes the goals of Black Lives Matter. She credits the group with driving the issue of police shootings to the forefront. She visited the encampment and says she encouraged the activists.

But she also says the constant presence of helicopters and police floodlights, reports of Molotov cocktails — not to mention the shootings of five demonstrators by a white gunman — were putting neighbors on edge.

Samuels says children on the north side already live in a violent community, and the continued encampment was making it worse.

"It's starting to feel ... that we are being occupied," she said.

It's going to take myriad tactics to bring the changes the protesters want, she said. Even turning the focus of the demonstrations to centers of power such as City Hall — which is what the activists have begun to do — is something Samuels says she would support.

Supporters gather at City Hall.
Around 200 Black Lives Matter supporters gathered in Minneapolis City Hall to protest the demolition of the camp outside the 4th Precinct police station Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

In the end, the encampment did go away — but not because protesters heeded the call of their elders. Police brought in heavy equipment to scoop up and haul away tents and firewood.

The demonstrators expected that day would come. But organizer Mica Grimm of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis said seeing Ellison and other community leaders back city officials felt like a betrayal.

"What they are telling us is that we need to trust the system, and the system will work itself out," Grimm said. "But the reason why we took over the 4th Precinct is because time and time again, we've seen the system fail us in instances like this."

Minnesota harbors some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. The younger generation of protesters says decades of diplomacy have not done enough to help.

And now, a new kind of disruptive protest has developed in response to the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police around the country. In Minnesota, the movement has led to the shutdown of freeways and a threat to block a marathon.

Black Lives Matter protesters
Protesters blocked an entrance ramp to Interstate 94 westbound in Minneapolis in addition to blocking the freeway itself Monday night, Nov. 16, 2015.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

By some measures, the strategy may be working. Gov. Mark Dayton has called for a special session to reduce racial disparities, and a civil rights federal investigation into Clark's death is underway.

But Black Lives Matter hasn't won a key demand — the release of surveillance and witness videos that could explain what happened in the Clark shooting. Authorities have said releasing those videos would jeopardize their investigation.

Grimm, 25, said she wants to learn as much as she can from older civil rights activists, but they should hear what her generation can teach them.

Mica Grimm, right, spoke at the MLK Day rally.
Mica Grimm, right, spoke at a rally in front of the State Capitol after the #ReclaimMLK march in St. Paul on Jan. 19, 2015, organized by Black Lives Matter Minneapolis.
Angela Jimenez for MPR News file

"In the '60s, they didn't have phones that could record what police officers did," she pointed out. "We do now. In the '60s, people didn't have Twitter, so people didn't know what was going on in cities across America and across the world. We do now. These are tools that will help us to make things better."

And a part of her, she said, feels like the older generation has failed young African-Americans.

"It's been years since we've seen civil rights improvements," she said. "It's been years since we've seen real investment in the north side. It's time for that to change. And if people aren't ready to herald that change and ready to be a beacon in that change, then they have to get out of the way."

Minneapolis mayor
City Council Member Don Samuels answered a question as the five leading DFL candidates for Minneapolis mayor debated Wednesday, March 27, 2013, at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2013

But former City Council Member Don Samuels, the husband of Sondra Samuels, said he was unsettled by the style of this protest. When the 66-year-old visited the 4th Precinct site, he said, demonstrators were blaring rap lyrics condemning the police, and he said he smelled marijuana.

"Some of those things frighten me, as someone who wants to support and does support the protest in spirit," he said. "If your protest is also against order, decency and law-abiding behavior, it can have negative consequences."

One critic of Black Lives Matter is the Rev. Jerry McAfee, 57, the former Minneapolis NAACP president. He opposed the 4th Precinct protest from Day One. And yet as a younger man, he vigorously rallied against police brutality in north Minneapolis. This is how he feels about the issue today:

"Jerry McAfee thanks God that Black Lives Matter deal with police issues because he don't want to. That's not what I want to do. It's too time-consuming. And the greatest problem we're having is not so much with the police, it's what we're doing with each other. I'm trying to stop black folk from killing black folk."

Tensions between old and young are nothing new in the civil rights movement, said Keith Mayes, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Minnesota.

Firewood is covered in tarps.
Community members camped in front of the 4th Precinct police station on Plymouth Avenue covered firewood with tarps to keep it dry on Dec. 1, 2015.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

"The black freedom struggle has always been about a youth movement being on the cutting edge of the issues, asking new questions, challenging those in authority to respond to injustices," he said. "To be quite honest with you, the older black generation is always out of touch."

Back in the '60s, Mayes said, young leaders of the civil rights era were told by their own parents that they shouldn't march in the streets or take over government buildings. He said those graying leaders today should remember history. Young people, he said, don't hold much power. They're not part of the establishment. All they have are their voices and their bodies.

"The older black crowd has to check themselves and say, 'Let these folks do what they have to do, because that's what we did when we were young,'" he said.

But if true racial equity in Minnesota is the goal, it's not clear which strategy will be more effective. There is wisdom in age, and idealism in youth, and this movement may find that it needs both.