Mebrat Belay Yeazizw came to Minneapolis from Ethiopia 11 years ago and has great difficulty speaking English. The fact that her native tongue, Amharic, isn't commonly spoken on Twin Cities street corners undoubtedly had something to do with the problem she confronted one evening this past fall. But the language barrier appears to have been just one element of a racial and cultural divide that continues to grow between immigrants like Yeazizw and city authorities.
On Saturday, September 22, Yeazizw (pronounced YAH-zih-zoo) and her friend Almaz Tesema visited Karmel Square, an African mall that's a popular gathering spot for the local Somali population. Neither woman had been to the mall before, so it took a few trips around the block to locate the cluster of storefronts near the intersection of West Lake Street and Pillsbury Avenue South. But they eventually reached their destination and embarked on a shopping expedition.
A few hours later, when they returned to the lot where they'd parked, they spotted a tow truck. Fearing that her red Geo Prizm was about to be towed, Yeazizw raced to the car and pulled out of her space. She did not get far. When she'd arrived she had failed to notice that she was parking in a lot that belonged to a Walgreens drugstore, and the towing company that patrols the lot on behalf of the store had immobilized her car with a metal "boot."
What happened next resulted in the 39-year-old Yeazizw being arrested on the spot and spending several hours in a jail cell. She now faces multiple charges (some of which are gross misdemeanors): attempted assault on a peace officer, obstruction of the legal process, disorderly conduct, and failure to obey the order of a police officer.
According to the Minneapolis Police Department's report about the incident, Ofcr. Linda Chaplin was working off-duty at the lot, observing as cars were towed away. Chaplin states that when Yeazizw returned to the lot she refused to pay the towers the "drop fee" to get her car back. Instead, although Chaplin advised her not to, Yeazizw began driving away, toward a "crowd of people who were standing in the driveway." At this point, the report states, Chaplin ran after the car and ordered Yeazizw to stop, then reached into the car to turn off the ignition. "[She] punched me and continued to try to drive off," reads the report. "At this point I grabbed her by her hair and held her until help arrived."
Yeazizw's attorneys, Jill Clark and Jill Waite, assert that their client--who was grabbed by her hair, yanked from her car, dosed with pepper spray, and arrested--assaulted no one. In response to the officer's claim that Yeazizw posed a danger to pedestrians, they point out that her booted car could not possibly have moved fast enough to injure anyone. They also say that when Yeazizw first saw the tow truck, she approached the off-duty officer and asked whether her car had been ticketed, and the officer said no.
Though the complaint in the court file states that 15 to 20 people gathered to watch the incident, Clark says police failed to interview or get contact information from any witnesses. (Clark has obtained a sworn affidavit from Yeazizw's friend Tesema supporting her version of events.) The attorneys believe the charges against Yeazizw should be dismissed for lack of evidence. Further, they allege in a motion filed in Hennepin County District Court that the towing company, Gopher Towing Inc., failed to properly post signs and information explaining the parking regulations and was purposely targeting Somali immigrants.
Gene Buell, owner and president of Gopher Towing, says his company does not discriminate against Somalis, or any other group. "Absolutely not," he asserts, pointing out that his crews work on behalf of their clients. "We target limit-testers of any race, nationality, or income level." Buell does concede that the signs in the lot did not state the fees for towing or booting. That regulation is a new one, he explains; while he knew the city had discussed adding the requirement, he was unaware that it had been passed into law when the incident took place. (According to the Minneapolis City Clerk's Office, the change passed on September 14 of last year and took effect, coincidentally, on September 22. As of last week, the signs in the Walgreens lot still did not comply with the new laws.)
A hearing on the motion is scheduled for February 22. Mary Ellen Heng, an assistant city attorney for Minneapolis, is working on a response to Clark and Waite's motion. "From the state's standpoint, we have most of the facts I need and feel there's enough there to proceed with the charges that have been brought," says Heng. "The case was handled fine by the police. We have enough probable cause to go forward with the prosecution."
Yeazizw's attorneys contend that her case touches on a deeply imbedded institutional racial bias. "At the end of the day we're convicting a lot of black people," Clark sums up, citing a 1993 report by the state supreme court's task force on racial bias in the judicial system. "We've got to start looking at all parts of the system and see where we're going wrong."
With incidents like the one in the Walgreens lot, the issue goes beyond race: It includes cultural and language barriers that can prove difficult to surmount. These issues are familiar to Clark and Waite, who have represented other African immigrants in similar discrimination cases (see "A Matter of Principle," August 8, 2001)--and who are representing Yeazizw in a separate pending case against her former employer and the Edina Police Department. (In that matter they allege that Yeazizw was discriminated against by her employer, then abused by police and by employees of the Hennepin County Jail.)
Clark acknowledges that some people may be quick to doubt her client because she's claiming discrimination in not one, but two cases. "Looking at it from the side of the prosecutor, they say, 'She's clearly guilty of this, because she's accused in another city.' First we have a problem of being guilty until proven innocent," says the attorney. "This is what happens to the disenfranchised--it's a societal snowball effect. That's a high point of her cases: It highlights that issue."
Officials within the Minneapolis Police Department agree that cultural differences can sometimes pose problems between cops and the people they encounter. "The biggest challenge for law enforcement in Minneapolis is the different immigrant cultures and making sure we provide them with information," ventures Sharon Lubinski, commander of the Minneapolis Police Department's Third Precinct. "On the street it's less controlled, unpredictable, don't know which person you're dealing with. That's very, very difficult to deal with."
Lubinski is not familiar with Yeazizw's case, which took place in another precinct, and she emphasizes that she's in no position to judge what transpired. But she has had considerable experience in dealing with immigrant populations, especially East Africans. About three years ago, when Lubinski worked in the downtown precinct, she noted a wave of run-ins between police and East Africans. She helped the department get a federal grant to hire a Somali crime-prevention worker. "They were coming from a totally different culture and didn't understand the American criminal-justice system," Lubinski explains. "And the Minneapolis Police Department didn't have a good understanding of their culture, either."
The grant allowed the MPD to hire Ahmad Hassan, who serves as a liaison between the police and the Somali population. "I wish I had six of him," Lubinski says of Hassan, who helped develop information for Somalis regarding the 911 system and traffic stops. Lubinski says hiring Hassan--whose job is now a permanent part of the MPD's budget--is a step in the right direction, as are similar outreach efforts to Minneapolis's growing Russian, Southeast Asian, and Latino populations. "We take police officers from society, and there are a lot of biases in society," she says. "But police officers have a much greater obligation to act without bias. We have the power to arrest, to take people to jail--in certain situations, to use deadly force. We have to make sure that whatever action we take is based on the actions of the person, not just the race and background of the person."
Elements of the state's judicial system have improved overall, says Minnesota State Public Defender John Stuart, but there's still a long way to go. "A perpetual commitment is needed to improve this situation," says Stuart. "The question is: Does Minnesota have an honest commitment to having a high-quality justice system? A hallmark of a high-quality justice system is to keep responding to new groups of people and their needs."
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