Contributed by Charles Samuelson, Executive Director, ACLU-MN
During the latter half of the 1960’s, the urban centers of the United States experienced large scale riots including one in North Minneapolis in 1968. Other people, smarter and more knowledgeable than I, can probably explain more clearly why these riots occurred. Poverty, hopelessness, the Vietnam War, racism were all factors – and there were certainly other factors as well.
This year we have seen troubling indications that another rise in urban unrest may be occurring. In Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis Missouri, a white police officer shot a young black man to death. Almost immediately, crowds of people began demonstrating, more officers arrived and a riot began.
Television showed pictures of military vehicles and what appeared to be soldiers confronted angry groups of men and women, sometimes violently, on the streets of Ferguson. At the same time stories began appearing in newspapers around the country reporting on the racial disparities in arrest rates and prosecution between whites and blacks in Ferguson and St. Louis.
For more than a decade, the ACLU of MN has worked for racial justice in greater Minnesota. We have worked with communities of color, with the police and with prosecutors in order to create an environment where there can be meaningful contacts between police and communities of color.
But now I am worried, in North Minneapolis we have the same sorts of issues that exist in Ferguson MO. We have a police force that is significantly whiter than the community. We have policing strategies that require aggressive policing in a given area. We know that North Minneapolis is targeted for more aggressive policing and we know that throughout Minneapolis that blacks are arrested at higher rates than whites.
While there is a problem with serious crime committed in North Minneapolis, the current police strategy of aggressively enforcing low-level crimes with hopes of preventing higher level crime doesn’t hold water. They have been using this method for decades, and there are still major problems with murder and assault. The time has come to de-prioritize these low level arrests, which only exacerbate problems between the community and police.
But, my fear is that we won’t change our policing strategies unless all of our members in Minneapolis call their council members and the mayor’s office asking them to change policing strategies. Otherwise I fear that we will be treated to the sight of a military response like we saw in Ferguson.