The Usual Suspects
Earlier this month, when word got out that Minneapolis city leaders, most notably Police Chief Robert Olson, had agreed to negotiate with a mediator from the U.S. Justice Department and a group of community activists, there was surprise and cheer in certain circles. A dead issue had miraculously been revived, and the city finally appeared serious about repairing poor relations between the Minneapolis Police Department and the minority communities it serves.
In other circles, however, there was little cause for celebration.
"It's become clear to me that the city will not come to the table in good faith," say civil rights attorney Jill Clark, who signed the initial letter to the Justice Department requesting mediation last August. "This is now a 'look good, feel good' process."
On May 22, a revival meeting of sorts--which Clark skipped on principle--was held at a public housing high-rise in northeast Minneapolis, where Olson literally sat at a conference table with federal mediator Patricia Campbell Glenn. He was flanked by Deputy Chief Lucy Gerold, Sergeant John Delmonico, the union leader for the rank-and-file cops, and at least 20 men and women in blue.
The gathering was ostensibly open to the public, so a handful of vacant community seats on the commission could be filled; designed to represent the city's minority population and dubbed the "Community Mediation Team," this group consists of African-American, Somali, Asian, Latino and GLBT representatives. When mediation begins on June 3, these 30-some activists will be on hand to offer advice and opinion. The real power, though, resides with eight "negotiators," who will hammer out any agreement between the justice department and the city. Most of them were picked before May 22.
It makes sense that Clark, a key player in the long battle to bring mediation to Minneapolis, is feeling discouraged. It has been six months since the Minneapolis City Council directed Olson and community leaders to mediate. Since then, she's been accused of political bias, cited for being uncooperative, tagged as power-hungry, and smeared for being a white woman. Unbowed, Clark spearheaded an effort to sue Chief Olson for refusing to mediate. The lawsuit, filed in Hennepin County District Court in January, was just recently dismissed.
Most maddening for Clark, though, is that she now finds herself shut out of a process she helped instigate.
On November 16, Clark, attorney Jill Waite, and community activist Michelle Gross presided over a meeting where 40 Minneapolis residents elected nine representatives (the original "negotiators"). A few weeks later, Olson ducked the first scheduled mediation session, calling for the NAACP and Urban League to be included. Even though the two organizations had originally chosen not to participate in the selection process, Olson's play set off a series of rifts in the community, and dozens of players were suddenly scrambling for a seat at the table. (See "Busted," City Pages, December 25, 2002.)
When the dust settled, Clark's original negotiating group had been scuttled and replaced by a team that, she insists, was hand-picked by city leaders (of the original nine-member team of negotiators, only longtime civil rights activist Ron Edwards remains). "This is not real mediation," Clark argues. "The process is flawed because the city is in complete control."
Several questions remain about which newcomers were chosen to participate in mediation--and why. Just a month ago, the process was gasping its last breath when City Council member Paul Zerby introduced a new resolution expanding the number of community groups that could be represented during mediation. He then declared that anyone who had a lawsuit pending against the city could not participate, not so subtly excluding Clark and a number of community representatives who were named in the since-dismissed lawsuit against Olson. This was a departure from the Justice Department's protocol for mediation, which says that a city must not influence who represents its community.
What's more, when Zerby introduced his resolution in council chambers, he singled out Clarence Hightower, director of the Urban League, for his hard work in reviving the process. As it turns out, Hightower had drawn up a list of potential organizations to invite to the new round of talks. Gregory Gray, a former state lawmaker from the city's north side, admits that Hightower's secretary made calls to various minority leaders. Zerby worked with Kinshasha Kambui, a community coordinator for Mayor R.T. Rybak's office who also recruited people to serve on the commission. (See "Cops Like Us," City Pages, May 7.)
Jill Clark, Michelle Gross, and others close to the process who don't want to be identified claim that what this adds up to, basically, is a "community" team chosen exclusively by the city--ensuring that when it comes to police/community relations, the status quo will be firmly maintained.
Hightower's Urban League, for instance, has a history of receiving grants from the city for various training and community projects (though it is Gray, not Hightower, who is representing the group in mediation). The same can be said for the City, Inc., an organization run by controversial north side activist Spike Moss, who has also been added to the list of community representatives. Last summer, in fact, Moss was offered money by Olson to keep the peace after a riot in the Jordan neighborhood. (Moss refused the money.) New team members Clyde Bellecourt, an American Indian activist, and Rev. Randy Staten also have longstanding relationships with city leaders. (Staten is now one of the eight "negotiators.")
As Moss has in the past, these men would all no doubt argue that it is exactly because of their experience with the city that they have a rightful place in mediation. While that may be true, there is at least the appearance of conflicting interests. "That is always possible when you have many folks come into play during mediation," says Daryl Borgquist, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice community relations division, adding that "there isn't a set of guidelines" that the department has for such cases. "Some people wear various hats in virtually any large or small city."
"Say what you have to say, man," Hightower responds when confronted with the same question. "I have no response."
MPD spokesman Ron Reier acknowledges that the department and the city have close ties to some of the new community representatives: "Absolutely, the list goes on and on of people we've worked with in the past." But he doesn't believe anyone on the committee will automatically side with police when negotiations get sticky. "Anytime you've got 25 people in a group, it's easy to start having problems with who's there."
Despite misgivings over the protracted struggle, Ron Edwards says that it was simply time to get the ball rolling again. But, he adds, "I hold no delusions of grandeur. I just think in terms of small steps. I don't want to come away bitter."
Clark is less sanguine, and, earlier this month, guaranteed that she won't be asked back to the mediation process by filing a federal class-action lawsuit against the city over police practices. "I don't want to criticize anyone by name, but all indications are people are involved now because the city wants them there," the attorney says. "Mediation is supposed to be voluntary. But the corruption is so deep in this town, it cannot be resolved by a voluntary process."
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