Why did it happen here, like this?

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Protesters march down University Avenue in Saint Paul after blocking I-94. Photo by Kori Suzuki '21.

Liam McMahon, Managing Editor

The protests that erupted in Minneapolis and Saint Paul (MSP) last week after four Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) officers murdered George Floyd could have happened anywhere in the United States. Police violence against black, brown and indigenous people (BIPOC) happens everywhere in this country, as the nationwide protests — and resulting violent crackdown by police — illustrate. 

Yet, here in MSP, there is a distinct history that informs the nature of protest. That history encompasses not only the era of broken windows policing and the police violence of the 1960s, but stretches back further, to before Minnesota became a state, when the U.S. Army violently displaced indigenous peoples and held slaves at Fort Snelling. 

MPD150, a collection of “local organizers, researchers, artists and activists” who are “working towards a police free Minneapolis,” detailed this history in a 2017 report they described as a “150 year performance review” of the MPD.

When four MPD officers murdered George Floyd, the local history is part of what made MSP ripe for widespread protests. Whether all participants knew it or not, the protests themselves have relied on powerful historical resonances. Those resonances stretch back to the recent past and the protests following the police murders of Jamar Clark in 2015 in Minneapolis and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights less than one year later.

But the struggle against state violence in Minnesota dates back hundreds of years. In 1862, the Dakota people, facing persistent, violent settler colonization, fought a war to try and stop it. 

Looking back provides answers to questions about what people are protesting and why, as well as what activists are demanding.

The U.S. Army at Fort Snelling: Colonization and Slavery

The U.S. is a settler-colonial venture, one based on the forced displacement of indigenous peoples and built by the labor of enslaved people. That legacy is no different in Minnesota, and critically important to understanding the anti-black and anti-native history of police in MSP. The first police forces in midwestern frontier towns were established in large part to protect white people from indigenous peoples. In the south, early police were tasked with finding and catching enslaved black people who had escaped. 

Long before the St. Paul Police Department (SPPD) formed in 1854 or MPD did in 1867, there were armed white men in Minnesota to guard white settlers from indigenous peoples. They were called the U.S. Army.

The land that is now Minnesota was a part of the Northwest Territory when the U.S. Army built Fort Snelling in 1819 at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, in modern-day Saint Paul. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 officially forbade slavery in the territory that is now Minnesota. But slavery was already practiced in the unorganized territories in 1820 and persisted for many years after it was outlawed, including among members of the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Snelling. 

The army held enslaved people against their will at Fort Snelling until 1858, when the U.S. incorporated Minnesota as a state. The most famous enslaved persons to live at the Fort were Harriet Robinson Scott and her husband, Dred Scott, who, along with two women named Rachel and Courtney, sued for their freedom. 

The Missouri Supreme Court found in 1836 that both Rachel and Courtney had been unlawfully enslaved in Minnesota, and were therefore free. Harriet and Dred, however, spent more than a decade engaged in a legal battle with the people who enslaved them before the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1857 that it was not only lawful for enslaved people to be taken into U.S. territory where slavery was illegal but that Harriet and Dred were not citizens and therefore had none of the rights of citizens.

In addition to the U.S. Army, slave owners would visit Minnesota on vacation, which prompted further freedom lawsuits. After abolitionists freed an enslaved woman in Minneapolis in 1860, white people rioted across the city. According to Augsburg historian William D. Green, Minneapolitans roamed the streets with weapons for months afterward, and “what averted that pending crisis was when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter and started the Civil War.”

One year after the Confederate attack, war broke out in Minnesota between the U.S. Army and the Dakota. 

The war came after decades of marginalization and violence against the Dakota, as the U.S. negotiated and reneged on treaty after treaty with the sovereign, indigenous nation. White settlers demanded more fertile land and more access to timber, and forcibly displaced the Dakota to infertile land. At the same time, the U.S. refused to pay promised treaty annuities. Facing starvation and near-certain death, the Dakota revolted in 1862. 

The U.S.-Dakota war waged for six weeks before the U.S. won. 

During the war, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey had declared that the Dakota must “be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” After it ended, the U.S. Army forced many Dakota from the state, into what is now North and South Dakota and Canada, and in 1863, Congress passed the Dakota Removal Act, which made it illegal for any Dakota people to reside in Minnesota. 

Lieutenant Colonel William R. Marshall forced 1,658 Dakota women and children on a death march to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, where they spent the winter freezing and starving. Hundreds died. Marshall, a founding trustee of Macalester College’s prep-school precursor, the Baldwin School, became Governor of Minnesota in 1866.

Colonel Henry Sibley, a former Governor of Minnesota and “early supporter” of Macalester, according to Jeanne Kilde’s Nature and Revelation: A History of Macalester College, convened a military tribunal that sentenced hundreds of Dakota men to death. He forced them to Mankato on a death march, where the U.S. Army hanged 38 Dakota men in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. 

The U.S. Army forced hundreds of other Dakota men to a military prison in Davenport, IA, where 120 died.

Despite their best efforts, government officials in Minnesota did not expel and exterminate all indigenous people living in the state. They did, however, succeed in forcing them to live on reservations.

 Late in the 19th century, the government also began stealing indigenous children from their homes and forcing them to live in boarding schools where they had to change their names, dress differently, cut their hair and were forbidden from speaking their native languages. There were hundreds of boarding schools run by the government across the country – Minnesota had 16. The practice continued until late in the twentieth century. 

Indigenous parents only gained the right to stop the U.S. government from taking their children away and forcing them into boarding schools in 1978, with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

At the time of the U.S.-Dakota War, there was little to no “police” presence in either Saint Paul or Minneapolis. While Saint Paul had established a police force in 1854, they were volunteers in their early days, and many left the city behind to fight in the Civil War, leaving the U.S. Army and a citizen militia behind. Minneapolis, meanwhile, founded its police department in 1867.

Suppressing organized labor, anti-blackness in the MPD

Early in the 20th century, a new strain of organized white supremacy emerged rapidly across the United States. The Ku Klux Klan, which in the 1920s had more than two million members across the country according to historian Jon Meachan’s “The Soul of America,” had more than 50 chapters in Minnesota

The rising tide of white supremacy led to some of the worst racial violence in the country’s history. During the summer months of 1919, known as Red Summer, white mobs attacked black people across the country. Much of the violence happened in the north, which had seen a massive influx of black people as a result of the Great Migration. Anti-black violence erupted in more than 25 cities. Mobs killed hundreds of black people and displaced thousands more in pogroms where people were burned out of their homes. The violence in Minnesota was not on the same scale as in other parts of the country in 1919, but in 1920 a white mob lynched three black men in Duluth.

Unsurprisingly, as more black people came to the north, including Minneapolis, there was increased police brutality directed against black people. According to the MPD150 report, some of the first calls to reform the MPD came from the Minneapolis NAACP and other community activists after one day in 1922 when MPD officers “savagely beat and arrested four men for allegedly inviting some white women to a dance” and another officer attempted to kill a black man in Mill City for refusing to “move on” from where he was standing. 

At the same time, MPD regularly cracked down on organized labor in Minneapolis. MPD — along with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office — worked in partnership with the Citizen’s Alliance, a group of businessmen adamantly opposed to labor activism and left-wing politics, who on occasion raised their own private army to put down strikes. 

The MPD150 report described the relationship simply: “The Citizen’s Alliance used MPD to harass, infiltrate, and attack labor groups, preventing them from building political power and organizing unions.”

MPD continued to work with the Citizen’s Alliance through the 1920s and 30s to break strikes across the city by both arresting strikers and using violence to get strikebreakers to work. When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, MPD partnered with the FBI to surveil its own citizens, looking for Japanese and German spies. According to the MPD150 report, the department spied on more than 10,000 residents of Minneapolis during the war.

Rondo and the displacement of black people

From 1956–1968, the city of Saint Paul forcibly displaced its black residents when it constructed the I-94 freeway directly through the Rondo neighborhood, a thriving community with a vibrant black middle class and integrated schools. 

Long home to immigrants and people of color, Rondo was home to half of Saint Paul’s black population in the 1930s. Naturally, the people who lived there did not want to leave when city leaders proposed connecting downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul by bulldozing their neighborhood.

Community leaders in Rondo formed the Rondo-St. Anthony Improvement Association. The group called for financial assistance for those displaced by construction as well as protesting the proposed route itself. While unsuccessful in calling for a different route for the freeway, protests prompted the Housing Authority to pledge to provide $30,000 in relief money. They never paid a cent. The lone gain of the protests – and a legacy still seen today in Saint Paul – was the creation of the raised bridges across I-94 that connect northern and southern Rondo, divided by the freeway in between.

Some Rondo residents tried to remain in their homes. The Rev. George Davis, an old man living in Rondo, refused to leave. In 1956, SPPD officers showed up on his doorstep with axes and hammers, removed Davis from his home and proceeded to break the windows and tear out the plumbing so Davis would have nothing to return to. 

The freeway, forming a physical barrier between the two parts of Rondo, did more than displace hundreds of families. It drove a wedge into the community. And, because of racist housing practices like redlining as well as the lack of financial support for those displaced, black people who had previously owned homes in Rondo found it incredibly difficult to buy new ones. 

The displacement of people coupled with redlining and restrictive housing covenants and employment discrimination, which continued into the 1960s, is part of why Minnesota today has some of the starkest racial disparities in the country in home ownership, educational attainment, and workforce participation.

For years in the Twin Cities, activists protesting police brutality have blocked traffic on I-94, and on Sunday, May 31, they did it again. Marchers moved from a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol onto I-94, where they blocked the freeway and marched for miles, finally exiting in the heart of what remains of Rondo, north of the freeway.

The 1960s: Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous police violence

As the Civil Rights Movement and responding police violence swept the United States in the 1960s, Minneapolis saw both protests and violence. A riot broke out in 1966 on Plymouth Avenue in response to decades of employment and housing discrimination. 

A larger demonstration came the next year after four days of sustained police violence. Over those four days, police did not intervene when city buses refused to bring black people back to North Minneapolis following the Aquatennial parade, stood aside and allowed a white mob to attack a group of black people, among other incidents.

As Augsburg University historian Michael Lansing put it in a recent Washington Post article, the riot was an “uprising.” 

Reacting to the police violence, city leaders in Minneapolis promised to change. Their reforms — including outreach to BIPOC communities and a Civil Rights Commission created by the City Council to investigate civilian complaints against MPD — were “notorious for their inability to hold police accountable for brutality and misconduct,” according to the MPD150 report.

The Twin Cities are home to a large urban indigenous population, who, along with black people, have experienced and continue to experience police brutality. Following the uprising, and with little trust in the police, black and indigenous people began to organize themselves to protect their communities.

In 1968, indigenous activists put a name to their cause, founding the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis. 

One of AIM’s first actions was running community patrols across Minneapolis to try and protect indigenous people from police violence, which Macalester history professor Katrina Phillips detailed in a recent Washington Post article.

In Minneapolis, indigenous people “organized against ongoing discrimination, racism, police brutality and civil rights violations,” Phillips wrote.

AIM went on to pose a fundamental challenge to the U.S. government. The group fought for the sovereignty of indigenous peoples, sought to force the U.S. to recognize its treaty obligations, to restore rights and lands denied to indigenous peoples and much more. Its nationwide movement occupied Alcatraz and the Pine Ridge Reservation. 

The FBI and CIA were concerned enough about this movement to spy on and try to end it. They did not succeed.

The same forces that swept Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968 ushered in a new city government in Minneapolis in 1969. Charles Stenvig, the president of the police union, ran for Mayor promising law and order. Running as an independent, Stenvig attracted the support of white people more than any other political constituency.

“The politics of white backlash — a new iteration of white supremacy — now animated voters,” Lansing wrote in the Post. “[Former Mayor Arthur] Naftalin’s effort to bring business executives and experts together with young African American leaders and civil rights organizations in the wake of the 1967 unrest had threatened the racial status quo and alienated many whites in the city.”

During this period, those same forces of white flight and backlash affected black students at Macalester, many of whom struggled to find off-campus housing nearby. 

As mayor, Stenvig cared more about protecting the MPD than addressing racism and undid some of the modest reforms enacted while Naftalin was in office, including disbanding the City Council’s Civil Rights Commission, which had held the power to investigate the MPD. In 1971, Stenvig was re-elected, defeating W. Harry Davis, a civil rights activist. 

After Stenvig was ultimately defeated at the polls in 1973, little changed in the MPD, nor did it when he was reelected for another term in 1975. In addition to its abiding anti-black violence, Minneapolis police soon developed a reputation for being anti-LGBTQ+. 

Former Minneapolis Police Chief Tony Bouza, who came from the New York Police Department in 1980 to reform the MPD, described the department as the most “virulently homophobic” he had ever encountered in his memoir “Unbound: Corruption, Abuse, and Heroism by the Boys in Blue.” Although Bouza was chief for nine years, little changed during his tenure in large part because of the way the Reagan Administration increased the war on drugs and the militarization of police.

Twin Cities law enforcement unreformed, unreformable

Police brutality directed against black and indigenous peoples continued in the 1990s after Bouza was gone. Activists called for change throughout the period, with heightened levels of awareness after the police killing of Tycel Nelson, a black 17-year-old, in 1990, the police shooting of a 16-year-old boy who was holding a toy gun in Little Earth in 1993 and the police kidnapping of an East African man named Tesfai Kashai Dirar in Little Earth in 1994.

In 1998, the MPD was used to break up the Minnehaha Free State occupation of State Highway 55. The non-violent occupation was coordinated by members of the Mdewakanton band of Dakota in response to the planned construction of Highway 55, which was to run through sacred land. After months of occupation, under pressure from the governor, hundreds of law enforcement officers — including many MPD members — forcibly broke up the encampment. The construction went ahead as planned.

18 years later, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department sent its deputies to the protest encampment at Standing Rock, where indigenous activists and allies were trying to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

Back in Minneapolis, the status quo remained. In 2002, the federal Department of Justice mediated between community members and MPD after police shot an 11-year-old boy with a stray bullet during a drug raid. Four years later, police shot and killed 19-year-old Fong Lee while he was running away from them. Despite the belief from Lee’s family and a witness that Fong was unarmed and MPD planted a gun on his body, an all-white jury found that the officer who killed him, Jason Anderson, did not use excessive force.

In 2015, activists shut down I-94 and occupied MPD’s Fourth Precinct in North Minneapolis for nearly three weeks after police shot and killed an unarmed black man, Jamar Clark. Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who has been sidelined from prosecuting George Floyd’s killers after pressure from activists, declined to charge either officer involved in Clark’s murder.

The next year, protests again erupted across the Twin Cities Metro Area after Falcon Heights Police shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop. Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her daughter were in the car when it happened, and Reynolds live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook. Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who murdered Castile, was found not guilty of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm at trial. 

In 2017, a Minneapolis police officer shot and killed Justine Damond, an unarmed, white Australian-American woman, who had called 911 after hearing noises outside her house. The officer who killed her, Mohamed Noor, was sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison.

In an irony that escaped few, Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, the white police officers who killed Jamar Clark, were not even charged. Noor, a Somali-American police officer who shot a white woman, was convicted and sent to prison.

Then, on Monday, May 25th, 2020, four Minneapolis police officers — Derek Chauvin, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lange, and Tou Thao — murdered George Floyd outside of Cup Foods in Minneapolis. The murder ignited weeks of protest not only in MSP but across the country. MPD responded to peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. They shot protesters and journalist Linda Tirado in the face with projectiles, causing Tirado to lose the use of an eye. They arrested CNN journalist Omar Jimenez, a black man, for standing on the street and reporting.

The University of Minnesota, Minneapolis Public Schools and the Minneapolis Parks Board have all since cut ties with the MPD. All eyes are now on the Minneapolis City Council which was set to discuss the future of the MPD on Friday June, 5. Council President Lisa Bender, is vowing to “dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and replace it with a transformative new model of public safety.” 

Also under scrutiny is the city government in Saint Paul, where the school board is set to discuss the future of its relationship with the Saint Paul Police Department next week.

Protests continue, here and across the country. But the choices protesters have made in the Twin Cities are familiar — they bear the marks of Minnesota’s particular history of state violence.

Since Floyd’s murder, protesters in MSP have marched down I-94, taking control over the road built to divide black people who lived in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood. AIM activists in Little Earth and the Native American Cultural Corridor have led community patrols to protect their community from violence, just as they did when AIM was born in the city 52 years ago. Black people in neighborhoods all across MSP have also formed community patrols, just as they did in 1968.

When protesters have chanted, the names in their mouths are “George Floyd,” “Breonna Taylor,” and “Ahmaud Arbery,” yes, but the things that they are protesting are not new. That is the point. White supremacy and police violence are not a 2020 problem or an MSP problem. They are fundamentally American. So is attempting to dismantle them.