When Sorrow Turns to Anger

The lobby at Horn Terrace and Tower felt like a wake. Residents of the public-housing complex in south Minneapolis held hands and traded hugs. Politicians leaned into one another and exchanged whispers. A trio of police officers, eyes glazed by sorrow and fatigue, stood silent sentry near the front entrance--not because they had to, but because there was nothing else to do.

A few steps down the hall, a detective was slumped in a folding chair, just outside the women's restroom, where less than 24 hours before, Minneapolis Police Officer Melissa Schmidt was shot and killed by Martha Donald, a 60-year-old resident of Horn Terrace who also died when Schmidt and officer Tammy Friestleben returned fire. Inside the cramped bathroom, the dull white tile smelled of ammonia.

"This little girl came up to me this morning, crying, and begged me to tell her that it wasn't her grandmother who did this thing," said a friend of mine who works for the Public Housing Authority. "I didn't know what to tell her. This whole thing is crazy. All I can tell you is that that officer, man, she really was one of the good ones. The people who live here loved her."

Out in the courtyard, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak addressed reporters. Rybak had spent part of the day walking the halls at Horn Towers, talking with residents, many of whom told him to make sure to remind the media that people were dead and that the incident was still being investigated. The mayor did just that, while taking care to note Officer Schmidt's extraordinary sacrifice. "The most important thing," Rybak told me a few minutes later, "is that we come together as a community."

It was in that spirit that Fifth Ward City Council member Natalie Johnson Lee wrote a short letter to her north Minneapolis constituents on August 6, the day of Schmidt's funeral in Bloomer, Wisconsin. It was National Night Out, and Johnson Lee, who was attending the service, wrote the dispatch in case she did not get back home for the block parties, at which a moment of silence would be observed for Schmidt.

"On this day of mourning, we pause to reflect on the untimely deaths of two fellow citizens," Johnson Lee wrote. The second paragraph was all about praising Schmidt's "work and contributions." The council member concluded the letter by asking residents to resolve their conflicts in a nonviolent manner and work to ensure that "those who are deceased will not have died in vain."

The next day, the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis penned a letter of its own, chastising Johnson Lee for suggesting that Schmidt and Donald were "equally deserving of our grief." "Ms. Donald is no more a victim of the Horn Tower incident than Timothy McVeigh is a victim of the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building," read one passage of the response. The letter ended with a call for Johnson Lee's resignation.

The war of words has kicked up an impassioned response for and against Johnson Lee, and represents the very thing Rybak hoped to avoid: the politicization of an inexplicable tragedy.

To be sure, Johnson Lee's timing was questionable, and she could have used a good editor. The last paragraph, in which she encourages local churches to ring their bells "in memory of the slain," is particularly ambiguous; read one way, it suggests the council member believed that symbolic act, which took place on National Night Out, was for both Schmidt and Donald. There was no question among organizers, however, that the chimes were a tribute to the fallen officer. What's more, the word slain allows for no distinction between murder and self-defense.

The sentiment expressed throughout Johnson Lee's message, however, is wholly justifiable. The letter pays clear tribute to Schmidt and includes a not-so-veiled message to her constituency to help keep the peace (not an easy charge in north Minneapolis). She does not implore us to grieve for Donald, but for Donald's family and the members of the community who knew her.

The federation should not expect any literary awards, either; but, given the high emotions that accompany the death of a family member, their hyperbole is excusable. What is troubling about the response is its overall tone. Much more than Johnson Lee confuses the deaths of Schmidt and Donald, the federation seems to take umbrage at the idea that the larger community might feel anything but contempt for Donald.

The McVeigh reference is hard to swallow given that Donald's motives, not to mention the state of her mental health, are still a mystery. But regardless of whether you believe a murderer eventually deserves grace, it is only human to empathize with those left grappling with the grief a criminal has caused, both individually and collectively. Johnson Lee simply acknowledges the depth and scope of that pain.


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