The Riot Card
It was inordinately brisk on Saturday, August 16, when Minneapolis police officer Charles Storlie unloaded his shotgun at 1:24 a.m., critically wounding a 15-year-old boy later identified as Lawrence Miles Jr. "This is touchy stuff. Just think what would've happened if it would've been 90 degrees outside and people were sitting out on their steps or walking the streets. That neighborhood could've exploded," one city official says. "I guess it still could."
Just seven hours after the shooting, Inspector David Indrehus held a press conference at the Third Precinct's station house. His account of the incident was sparse, but decisive. A cab driver called 911 after seeing one man aim a gun at another in front of an apartment building at 3628 Chicago Ave. S. When officers arrived, some were dispatched to the front door, others went to the rear. While one unidentified suspect was apprehended in an interior hallway, Miles allegedly rushed out the back door holding a gun. As he ran down the alley, he leveled his gun at officer Lawrence Loonsfoot. Storlie yelled for Miles to drop the firearm, but the boy continued to aim. Fearing for the life of Loonsfoot, Storlie fired. Miles ran a short distance, then collapsed. It was later determined Miles's weapon was a black semiautomatic pellet gun resembling a .45 caliber pistol.
Initially, both daily papers somberly reported this version verbatim. The Associated Press reports also included interviews with neighbors who knew Miles as "a good boy" and quotes from Lawrence Miles Sr., who couldn't believe his son would be foolish enough to point a pellet gun at police. The electronic media, on the other hand, were more enamored with Indrehus's spin. "If you point a gun at a police officer, you should expect to be seriously injured or killed," he said. "These officers have families to go home to, and when confronted with a situation like this, their training kicks in."
From the beginning, TV reporters went out of their way to point out that being a cop in "Murderapolis" is dicey stuff. Channel 5 spent so much time telling viewers how officers under stress could've mistaken a pellet gun for a handgun, they neglected to report the genesis of the incident. All of the on-air coverage, including a Sunday story on KARE-11 which featured a contradictory eyewitness account, had an uncharacteristically restrained tone. Sensing a politically explosive situation, the affiliates played it safe, assuming the best of the status quo. Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton dutifully chimed in, wondering out loud why children would be playing outside at 1:30 in the morning.
On Monday the 18th, the Strib reported that Miles was still in critical condition at the Hennepin County Medical Center, suffering from wounds to his chest and arm. They also ran a story based on the accounts of a 14-year-old boy named Burrell Wheaton, who said he saw Miles drop his gun and run before being gunned down. Suddenly, the open-and-shut case had cracks. Then--for over a week, for no discernible reason--the story died. A community meeting between Belton, community leaders, police officials, and 8th Ward Council member Brian Herron was not covered. No one ran a story about how the police would investigate the shooting internally or that witnesses were reluctant to come forward. Not even Miles's condition, which remained critical, was worthy of a news brief or a sound bite.
"I think it's really odd that the story broke that first weekend, and after that there was nothing," says Gayle Anderson, editor of the Minneapolis Spokesman. "It just disappeared. There was no update on the young man's condition; no follow-up on what the witnesses were saying. It was almost like it was intentional, to calm things."
Alternative, neighborhood-based journalists such as the Spokesman's Mel Reeves and activist Ron Edwards picked up the slack. On Thursday, August 21, the Spokesman reported Miles was shot in the back, not in the front as reported in the mainstream media. The weekly paper also quoted witnesses who maintained Miles did not have a weapon when he was wounded. "Neighbors also said that the pellet gun, which police photographed near where he was shot, was placed there by police," Reeves wrote.
Three days later, on Minneapolis public-access Channel 33, Edwards went a step further, asserting the pellet gun had to have been moved at least twice at the scene of the shooting. Using video footage from the crime scene, he argued Indrehus should've disqualified himself from playing spokesman, since Loonsfoot and Storlie were in his command. He also accused the Strib of giving aid and comfort to police by reporting that Miles was shot in the chest.
Few people read or saw either the Spokesman or Edwards's accounts. And of those who did, most no doubt wrote them off as predictably conspiratorial.
On at least one substantive issue, however, Reeves and Edwards were simply ahead of the pack. A Minneapolis Fire Department report, released to Strib reporter Jim Adams on August 27, indicated Miles was shot in the back. In Adams's subsequent story, Indrehus says he "wouldn't be troubled" if the shot entered through Miles's back because the victim could of turned as the officer fired. To prove his point, the inspector then references Tycel Nelson, who was killed by police in 1990. That Indrehus would refer to the Nelson case, which is still seen as a sham by many, proves that experience is no cure for insensitivity. That Adams would print the Nelson comparison without putting it in context reinforces Edwards's opinion that the mainstream media are racist, lazy, and out-of-touch.
"That comparison is an insult," Anderson says. "I can't believe they used that case to justify that the kid could be shot in the back."
Last Friday morning, August 29, an ad hoc coalition of local African American leaders--organized by the City Inc.'s Spike Moss and Rev. Randy Staten--held a press conference at Zion Baptist Church in North Minneapolis to protest the police's handling of the Miles case. Flanked by Miles's father, grandmother, and Laura Scott Williams, interim director of the Minneapolis Urban League, Staten read a one-page list of accusations and demands designed to get the camera shutters clicking: "We are here to express our outrage with the conduct of the city of Minneapolis and Minneapolis Police Department in handling the shooting of 15-year-old Lawrence Miles Jr. in the back. We are further outraged that there appears to be a major attempt to initiate a cover-up by the police with a distorted media campaign."
The scene was vintage Staten, who one local politico calls our town's Rev. Al Sharpton. There was righteous indignation, cries of "amen," and pleas for an "end to the madness coming from the mass media." Mary Miles, Lawrence's grandmother, delivered a tearful plea for the truth (currently her grandson is in "serious" condition). Tycel Nelson's sister begged reporters to stop dredging up painful memories. Before concluding the 20-minute briefing, the group--dubbed the Black Community Coalition--held hands and prayed to "open the hearts of those here reporting."
As distasteful as Staten and Co.'s commodification of grief was, however, there is some substance to his evangelical posturing. His group has hired attorney Fred McNeal to protect the interest of the Miles family and initiate appropriate legal redress--an arrangement that should make the heretofore silent family members more accessible to police officials and the media. To comfort the conspiratorially minded, Dr. John Plunkett, a forensic pathologist from Dakota County, was secured to examine Miles's gunshot wounds later that same day (the results are forthcoming). And a dialogue was initiated with Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson and Sgt. Pete Jackson to help previously reluctant witnesses, such as Burrell Wheaton, feel comfortable talking to police investigators. The group also called for the immediate appointment of a special investigator and special prosecutor.
On Friday night and Saturday morning, these demands made headlines. But already the story has fallen off the page. In defense of the local media, the Black Community Coalition was long on accusations and short on facts. Unlike Edwards and Reeves, they haven't done the footwork to substantiate their claims. And Staten has yet to allow the Miles family to speak with reporters. When a reporter from Channel 5 began talking with Miles's grandmother after Friday's press conference, Staten separated them. "She really wanted to talk," the reporter protested. "That's the problem," Staten answered. "We've done too much talking and there hasn't been enough listening." On the other hand, as Jane Jones, a community activist who watched the press conference from the back of the room says, even if the mainstream media did have more evidence of a cover-up, or better access, it's unclear whether they would run an evenhanded story.
"The stories that need to be done aren't being done," Jones says. "If we show solidarity, they're not interested. If we question authority, they pack up and go."
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