A Whiter Shade of Pale
Two years ago, R.T. Rybak was an upstart mayoral candidate campaigning hard on a promise to throw open the doors of City Hall. Candidate Rybak made the most of a prevailing sentiment that his incumbent opponent, Sharon Sayles Belton, was beholden to insider politics and out of touch with real problems facing the city. Rybak cruised to office almost solely on the vague populist note that, whatever the issue, he would be there.
In retrospect, Rybak's campaign pledge looks like the purest hokum. When Stephen Porter's allegations that Minneapolis police sodomized him with a toilet plunger surfaced two weeks ago, Rybak as mayor found himself fighting accusations similar to those he brought upon his campaign opponent. Eventually, Rybak had no choice but to try to connect to a populace he has ignored all along.
It should come as no surprise that there was anger in the black community in light of Porter's story. Two Fridays ago, Rybak, along with Police Chief Robert Olson and council members Natalie Johnson Lee and Don Samuels, held a community forum at Farview Park in the Hawthorne neighborhood, just blocks from the north side duplex where Porter says the incident happened. About 300 people, mostly African Americans from the area, gathered at 7:00 p.m. for what was supposed to be a one-hour chat with city leaders.
Instead, it turned into a two-hour character assassination. Maybe someone could have predicted the profound animosity in the park's gymnasium that night, but certainly Rybak didn't expect it. And almost all of it was directed at him. By 7:15, the mayor was noticeably ruffled.
The Rev. Jerry McAfee spoke first, setting a tone that remained throughout the course of the night. "Part of this would have been prevented if you had been present here the whole time, if you weren't busy playing politics," McAfee said, glaring at Rybak while some 30 members from his congregation at the nearby New Salem Baptist Church rose to their feet in the bleachers behind him. "We were here before you got in office, and we ain't goin' anywhere."
Then McAfee and his congregation walked out.
It soon grew more futile. Any concessions Rybak made were met with scorn and snickering. And on and on it went, until the Rev. Randy Staten, in a fine display of grandstanding that couldn't be ignored, declared that Rybak was an even bigger enemy to minorities than Charles Stenvig, a former Minneapolis mayor whose tenure during the dawn of the 1970s was marked by a police crackdown on north-side blacks. Stenvig's name still drew boos when Staten uttered it.
But aside from simple outrage, this was a crowd well aware of Rybak's emerging policies regarding minorities and civil rights. Someone in the audience accused Rybak of downplaying the importance of federal mediation (the long-stalled series of talks between minority leaders and MPD representatives, brokered by a negotiator from the Department of Justice). Others complained that Rybak had cut the budget of the Civilian Review Authority, the citizen board that investigates complaints against cops. And still others wanted to know why Rybak had refused to meet, on various occasions, with members of the black community to discuss these issues.
Mostly, though, they wondered why they had never seen Rybak in the neighborhood before.
It was ugly to watch someone so thoroughly handed his head in a public venue. And in many ways, Rybak put himself in this position: There wasn't a single criticism levied against him that was untrue.
To his credit, Rybak stood there and took his lumps without withering completely. But, as is his habit, Rybak repeatedly made efforts to steer the "forum" back to what he considered to be a dialogue. For every accusation made against him, the mayor had a response. At one point, after repeated grumbles that he was invisible, Rybak even held up a list of community meetings he had been to since becoming mayor.
This was a mistake. Instead of making the mayor seem accountable, Rybak's counterpunches made him look defensive. He failed to notice that nobody at the forum wanted to hear about his mayoral record, they just wanted to be sure the mayor heard them. But they may as well have been speaking a different language.
Response to the Porter case has fallen along racial lines. Since the story broke, many whites and the media have had more than a few misgivings about Porter's story. There's seemingly reason, at least, to doubt the extent of Porter's allegations.
But in talking to blacks around the city, this is not at all the prevailing sentiment. Without a doubt, they believe, Stephen Porter was abused by the Minneapolis police. To even question the story smacks of a kind of long-familiar racism.
The last person to grasp this is Rybak. Of course, as mayor, he can't simply accuse the officers and accept Porter's story for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the possibility that the officers may be cleared in the pending FBI investigation.
But it's also clear that Rybak is more interested in defending the cops than in letting blacks know he feels their pain. "Let me say one thing real clearly: I am completely outraged by the allegations, if true, and there will be swift and immediate consequences," he began at Farview Park. "But we don't know what happened ... the officers involved may not be guilty."
It wasn't lost on anyone in the room that during his campaign, Rybak received the endorsement of the Minneapolis police federation, the union that represents the city's rank-and-file cops. Rybak lobbied hard for the federation's support, and most blacks see this as an alliance with a department that has mistreated them for far too long. That Rybak would get the union's nod over Sharon Sayles Belton, a black woman, still fuels racial resentments.
Those resentments have existed for years, of course, and were at a flash point when Sayles Belton was campaigning for mayor in 1993. Don Fraser, who was the outgoing mayor at the time, threw his weight behind the Sayles Belton campaign, in large part because he believed she could, at least symbolically, ease the rift between blacks and the police.
Not that Sayles Belton did anything concretely better than Rybak has. Her civil rights record was abysmal, and she did nothing to add more cops of color to the MPD. But there was a feeling among African Americans that Sayles Belton was one of them, from the same neighborhoods that they were from, and ultimately understood the anger so prevalent in their community.
Rybak has rarely even tried to convey empathy. He defeated Sayles Belton by playing to the racial divide in Minneapolis. He went after wealthy liberals who live around the lakes in south Minneapolis and siphoned votes from working-class whites in the northeast neighborhoods of Minneapolis. He never went after the black vote.
More to the point, Rybak seems incapable of fathoming the depths of the black anger directed at him; he seems like a throwback to an earlier generation of empty white political suits prone to wailing: What, what, what do they want? Rybak never seemed so disastrously out of his element as when he made the occasional passing effort to talk street: "I just gotta be real with you," Rybak told one critic. "Even though you raisin' some good stuff.
"We have a problem, hear me say it," Rybak finally conceded. "I haven't said it before, but hear me say it now: We have a problem."
Nobody was buying it. "I'm a real nigga, I'm from the street," retorted Charles Dixon, a 27-year-old resident from the neighborhood. "You wanna know me, come hang out with me. This little forum, this is political shit. This ain't real."
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