Hate Mail II

How about a real investigation this time?

THE LETTER SCRAWLED on Minneapolis Police Department stationery that arrived at City Council member Brian Herron's office last week followed so close on the heels of Sgt. Alisa Clemons's reinstatement to the MPD that it's hard not to infer a connection. Clemons, you will remember, is the black officer who was fired last fall because the department claimed she had written hate letters to her black colleagues in 1992, and subsequently restored to her job by an arbitrator who cited the city's nonexistent case against her.

The latest episode bears the scent of a frameup: inept beyond belief, but a frameup all the same. It appears the sender would like everyone to believe that Clemons is at it again--trying, for some obscure and Machiavellian reason, to create an impression of bigotry and racial tension where there is none. Of course it's ludicrous to suppose that a reinstated Clemons would sprint back to work to begin heaping trouble on herself again. The letter, quoted by the Star Tribune last Friday, is a supremely insulting parody of black English; common sense dictates that there is every reason to think the writer was white. What the Herron letter underscores is the likelihood that there is a perpetrator in the department who was never touched by the original investigation into the 1992 letters.

That investigation, conducted by the FBI and the MPD's internal affairs unit over a three-year span, was targeted toward Clemons from the beginning. It thus served not only to scapegoat Clemons, but less obviously to preempt any scrutiny toward vigorously racist elements in the department. It's that laxity that seems to be coming home to roost now. Unfortunately, it is not without precedent.

Last fall, amid the furor over the Mark Fuhrman tapes, I wrote a column in which I alluded to a 1981 incident involving a civilian employee of the MPD and a subsequent investigation. It began when the employee, a white female typist, went on a couple of ride-alongs with a black male officer. She was then branded a "gray bitch" by some of her coworkers, and a rumor began to circulate that some officers and clerical workers in the MPD were planning to gin up complaints about her work to drum her out of the department.

Instead the woman took matters into her own hands by filing a civil rights complaint. The resulting investigation turned up a sordid vein of racism among certain cops and civilian employees. The woman's chief witness in the case was handed a Nazi flier by one coworker, who told her, "This is our Affirmative Action Program." The exhibits in the case included a Wanted poster featuring a caricature of a black man that had been passed around the department. "The man in the above composite sketch is a Black American (more commonly known as a 'nigger') and he is wanted for crimes against society," it began.

All told, the investigation pointed to a pattern of harassment against the woman and her chief witness by cops and civilian employees alike, culminating in a petition to have both women transferred to some other city department. Eventually the principal antagonist received token discipline. A broader investigation was duly promised. When all was said and done, the two women who complained left the department and their tormentors stayed. End of story.

But that was over a decade ago, wasn't it? One of the commonplaces invoked whenever the legacy of institutional racism rears its head is to insist that things have changed since the bad old days. The trouble is that there is once again fresh evidence to the contrary. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the Herron investigation in days to come. Those white officers who do not relish the image of their department as a racist backwater ought to stand shoulder to shoulder with their black colleagues in demanding a real and thorough investigation this time.

RON BROWN'S DEATH has loosed a predictable torrent of fatuous praise for the great man. Perhaps the most galling aspect of the various tributes accorded Brown was the testaments to his ardor in matters of civil and human rights. Truth be told, Brown was a scoundrel where the fate of dark-skinned folk other than Ron Brown and friends was concerned. During his early days with the Washington influence-peddling firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow, he represented the interests of Haitian boss Baby Doc Duvalier in Beltway circles, thus helping to keep millions of Haitians in thrall to a brutally repressive dictatorship. He was likewise an active player in the firm's efforts on behalf of Guatemalan business interests with ties to that country's notorious death squads, which have disappeared something over 150,000 people since the late 1970s. The firm's Guatemalan business was enormously lucrative, contributing substantially to the $1 million buyout Brown received for his partnership share when he left to join the Clinton administration in 1993. As commerce secretary he continued in the same proud tradition. When he died, he was on what amounted to a goodwill tour with American businessmen looking to profiteer on the destruction wrought by years of war in the former Yugoslavia--a fitting, if not particularly distinguished, exit.

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