The Jordan Shuffle

The city plays politics with police/minority relations

Four hours into the Minneapolis City Council meeting on September 13, what had been a tedious affair suddenly erupted into a shouting match. The gallery began heckling the 13 council members as they squabbled over whether to call in a federal mediator to lead meetings between black residents and the Minneapolis Police Department.

"This city is on edge," cried one woman, as the catcalls continued. "People are going to die. You cannot afford to wait."

Just moments earlier, Gary Schiff, representing the Ninth Ward, had introduced a motion to get the city and the federal mediator drafting a plan to move forward immediately. Shortly afterward the Eighth Ward's Robert Lilligren offered a substitute motion that would, in essence, delay any action by referring the proposal back to two committees.

"What are we afraid of?" Schiff scoffed. "We're just opening a dialogue." The catcallers, nearly 20 in all and most of them black, burst into applause.

Lilligren was busy lobbying for votes on his motion from some of the more conservative veterans of the council, including Lisa Goodman (Seventh Ward) and Barb Johnson (Fourth Ward). Suddenly Lilligren took to his microphone and addressed Schiff: "I'm afraid your motion is designed to kill the federal mediation."

In the end, the council adopted Lilligren's motion, as many in the chamber stormed out in disgust. Cries of racism and accusations of backroom dealings filled the air. Out in the hallway, Police Chief Robert Olson half-heartedly claimed that he's not opposed to mediation. Most onlookers were not pacified.

The battle goes to the heart of how city leaders intend to deal with a series of events that have seen relations between minorities and the police reach new lows this year. Officers fatally shot a Somali man in March. A shootout in a south Minneapolis high-rise resulted in the deaths of a white police officer, Melissa Schmidt, and an elderly black woman, Martha Donald, on August 1. And on August 22 a riot started in north Minneapolis's Jordan neighborhood when an officer's stray bullet hit an 11-year-old black child in the arm. Many Somalis and African-Americans warn that more violence is sure to come.

"The substitute motion does nothing but give the appearance of moving forward," argues Schiff, who took office in January. "My motion was merely a directive to get things moving. Go out into the black community and you'll find that people are worried they won't be represented unless we do something now."

What mediation might mean for Minneapolis is not entirely clear just yet. But a "fact sheet" from the Department of Justice emphasizes that the Community Relations Service, the arm of the department that offers conciliation and mediation, "does not have law enforcement authority and does not impose solutions, investigate or prosecute cases, or assign blame or fault." Instead, the process is likely to involve formal mediation between city officials and community leaders, training programs on race and use-of-force policies for police, and police/public dialogue regarding racial tensions. It sounds like window dressing to many, but Schiff and others contend that even the most minimal steps are crucial now.

Lilligren's move surprised a lot of people. As the openly gay representative of a racially mixed ward, he has been widely seen as a champion of civil rights and minorities in his first term. But Lilligren insists that, far from trying to stall or kill mediation, he was trying to save the possibility. "I don't believe the Schiff motion would have passed, even though I would have supported it," Lilligren maintains, adding, "It was a rough day for us all."

Lilligren is quick to note that he rallied tenuous support for his motion from Goodman, Johnson, Paul Ostrow (First Ward), and Scott Benson (11th Ward). "It was viewed as a 'no' to mediation on my part, but that's not my intention at all," he says. "I want mediation, and I want to convince others on the council that this is what we need to do."

If that's so, Lilligren may have a tough sell ahead of him. The presence of a mediator from the U. S. Department of Justice has fueled paranoia among city leaders, especially on the city council. The federal indictments of Brian Herron, the former council member for the Eighth Ward, and Joe Biernat, who represents the Third Ward (which includes Jordan), along with the rumor of a federal investigation into the police department, have made the city council fearful of dealing with John Ashcroft's DoJ.

"That's about it," admits the Second Ward's Paul Zerby, explaining his reticence to have a mediator in town. "It's a very politicized department Ashcroft has."

The day before the council meeting, Patricia Campbell Glenn, the federal mediator in question, stood before the Minneapolis City Council and faced nearly an hour of grilling.

"Are you a spy for Ashcroft?" asked Natalie Johnson Lee, who represents the Fifth Ward and is the only black council member. The question drew chuckles from the audience, but Johnson Lee asked publicly what some have been thinking.

Glenn, a carefully spoken black woman, answered calmly, "Absolutely not." Then the 59-year-old began to recount her 25 years with the Community Relations Service, noting that she's "dealt with more attorneys general than [she] can remember."

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