The Two Jills

Why a pair of white women lawyers are taking the fight over federal mediation to the courts

Since August, Minneapolis community activists have been in touch with the U. S. Department of Justice, asking for a federal mediator to come to town to quell tensions between the police and minority communities. In November, the City Council approved mediation, directing MPD Chief Robert Olson and community leaders to pick members for both sides to come to the table.

So far it hasn't happened. In December, Olson balked, saying he would not mediate unless representatives from the Urban League and the NAACP were involved in negotiations. This set off a rift in the community. Suddenly a lot more people clamored for a seat at the table. Meanwhile, a lawsuit was filed against Olson in January, essentially claiming that the chief had not carried out his duties as an employee of the city by ignoring the council directive to mediate.

In the middle of the protracted fight are two attorneys, Jill Clark and Jill Waite, widely known as "the Two Jills." Clark and Waite have been organizing against MPD practices for more than a year. In addition to engineering the Olson lawsuit, they were involved in organizing the meeting where community members were chosen to be on the panel. And they have been blamed as mediation slowly falls apart. As Jerry McAfee, a black minister from the city's north side who has tried to get in on the mediation talks, said in December, "I don't see too many white women lawyers getting beaten up by the police."

Jill Clark (left) and Jill Waite: "Police around the country are telling me that the reputation of the Minneapolis Police Department is scary."
Craig Lassig
Jill Clark (left) and Jill Waite: "Police around the country are telling me that the reputation of the Minneapolis Police Department is scary."

But Clark and Waite remain unbowed. In recent weeks, City Council member Barb Johnson (Fourth Ward) has been gathering support from her colleagues for the council to rescind the motion for mediation, thereby washing the city's hands of any legal trouble. But Clark and Waite dismiss this logic as disingenuous, since Johnson has been a critic of the process all along. Further, they claim that if the council kills mediation, more litigation will follow.

The Two Jills insist it is Olson, not the lawsuit, who has derailed mediation. "His excuse changes every time," Clark says, arguing a simple defense for their action. "Olson's delayed since December 9, since before the lawsuit. We've been trying to settle this since the day we filed it. Just come to the mediation, and we'll drop the suit."

 

Gathered in Clark's home office in Golden Valley, where a fax machine is in constant transmission mode, the two lawyers say efforts to mediate have been rife with ego, racism, and misogyny. "Unfortunately, there's bigotry between communities of color, and there's sexism within communities of color," Clark ascertains. "We're aware that we're white."

Clark and Waite say they would rather not argue about their race. The point, they say, is to keep the heat on city leaders for failing to rein in Olson. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak has said he is loath to force Olson to mediate, and the City Council has done little since approving mediation originally.

"Olson's got to show up, and for him to do that what it's going to take is his bosses telling him that he must attend," Waite notes, saying that it doesn't seem likely. "Which leads one to wonder who's really running the city, doesn't it?"

Of course, who's running the drive for mediation is an equally ambiguous question. Few doubt that from a legal standpoint, Clark and Waite have their bona fides. They are a contrasting duo, with Clark having grown up quite literally all over the world, landing in Madison, Wisconsin, to go to law school before coming to Minneapolis 15 years ago. Waite grew up in a small South Dakota town and went to law school at Baylor University before coming to Minneapolis in 1987. But they are alike in having taken on hundreds of police brutality cases, many involving the MPD, over the last few years.

"In doing so many police brutality cases, I talk with police around the country, and police are telling me that the reputation of the Minneapolis Police Department is scary," Clark says, adding that a "systemic change" of the MPD is more important that just mediating with the Department of Justice.

There are those who question the role of the two attorneys and their apparent inflexibility toward adding more people to the community panel. More than that, many in the black community feel the lawyers have co-opted a cause that is rightfully theirs. "I wish there were more African-American men taking a role here, since they are more likely to suffer from police misconduct," says Keesha Gaskins, third vice president for the NAACP. "If someone else takes over the issue, there's community distrust and community backlash, and the Jills need to be more sensitive to that."

Gaskins also questions the influence Clark and Waite have on the community team. "On the one hand, it's an excellent position for the community to have someone with so much expertise in handling police brutality cases to be guiding this process," Gaskins admits, adding that the NAACP is still considering a seat at the table the community panel has offered. "But they are doing more than just advising, they have voting power on the panel, and that's unusual. Are they advisers or participants?"

Clark and Waite, not surprisingly, defend their roles, and both are eager to point out that part of their goal is to put a white face on the fight for racial equality. "I think it's an attempt to marginalize what we're fighting for to say, why are these white women interested in this?

"Why isn't everybody jumping out of their chairs to do something about this? That's my question," Clark says. "White suburban Minnesotans experience the police as their protectors, people in minority communities experience the police as paramilitary battalions."

So the two attorneys are content to wait it out, convinced that federal mediation--and Justice Department oversight of any agreement reached--is still the best option for minorities in Minneapolis. To step aside at this point, they claim, would ruin any hopes for improving relations between police and minorities. "If that were to happen, that would be the death knell for federal mediation," Waite says, adding that if the council were to rescind because of the lawsuit, it would reveal which council members were serious about mediation in the first place. "It would prove once and for all that [Olson] can undermine the process."

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