Can These Stories Help Eliminate Structural Racism?

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It takes more than a law to eliminate structural racism. According to Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon it also takes people speaking up and telling their stories.

Gordon and fellow council member Blong Yang are working on repealing city ordinances on lurking and spitting which they call the “New Jim Crow” laws. On Wednesday they moved a step closer to that goal when a city council committee voted unanimously to recommend the full council repeal the ordinances when they on June 5.

Gordon and Yang have encouraged people to come forward and tell their stories. Many of those testifying Wednesday and at previous hearings and community meetings are black, and they say the color of their skin negatively influences how police view them and enforce the law.

Stopped only because they are “young and black”

Several of those testifying said they felt the only reason Minneapolis police stopped them is because they were “young and black.”

“You wouldn’t be able to guess that I was a college graduate by looking at me standing in a parking lot, as well as you wouldn’t be able to tell I was up to suspicious activity just because I was standing in a parking lot,” said one testifier. “These ordinances help enforce profiling.”

Mike Griffin,Field Director with Neighborhoods Organizing For Change, said the ordinances were enforced unequally depending upon what part of town you were in. Around the University of Minnesota area students can stand on the sidewalk “smoking cigarettes, spitting on the sidewalk, talking, ‘lurking’ if you will.” and not be stopped by police.

“But then when I get in my car and I’ll drive to north Minneapolis where we have canvassers that go out, who would be standing outside, maybe barbecuing, maybe smoking a cigar going through their shifts, and they would be constantly stopped by the Minneapolis police department.”

“My equal protection under the law is not just on University Avenue in southeast, but also on Broadway Avenue in north Minneapolis,” Griffin added.

Another man was shocked at how a Minneapolis police office lectured him to not take out his cell phone in his neighborhood because “there’s a lot of black people.”

“And that’s something he said verbatim that really, really shook me. He saw me as a light-skinned person. I’m a light-skinned Latino. So I have a lot of light-skinned privileges. And I feel like he saw me as like his pal. That he could confide in me this racist garbage. And I worry that those kind of interactions are happening amongst police.”

Gordon says low level offenses laws such as the lurking and spitting ordinances “were written really as a way of controlling people based on their race or their economic status.”

“Obviously there has to be a culture shift in the police department, but there has to be a culture shift much bigger than that.”

Council member Abdi Warsame says he has been stopped for lurking because of the dark color of his skin, so he understands.

Gordon says he was moved by a testifier who said “my existence is not a crime.” “Your existence is a great and awesome gift to us, our city and our community and that’s the message you should get from your city council and from your government and from your community. So thank you very much.”

You can see a video replay of the public hearing and additional highlights here.

Michael McIntee

Michael McIntee is a former network TV news executive with more than 30 years of broadcasting experience. He began his broadcasting career at the University of Minnesota's student radio station. He is an expert producer, writer, video editor who has a fondness for new technology but denies that he is a geek. More about Michael McIntee »

Bill Sorem

Bill Sorem is a longtime advertising professional who started with Campbell Mithun and ended up with his own agency. After a tour as a sailing fleet manager in the Virgin Islands he turned to database programming as an independent consultant. He has written sailing guides for the British Virgin Islands and Belize, and written for a number of blogs. In 2010, he volunteered as a citizen journalist with The UpTake and has stayed on as a video reporter.

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