Mel Reeves. Fighting the Power.

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I was adopted informally when I was one years old. I don’t know the whole story about my birth mother and I don’t want to speculate. I know she had 13 children.  I was the 13th. Something happened to her after the 8th kid. She could no longer handle all those children.

One day when my older sisters were supposed to take care of me, an older woman noticed the infant sitting in the dirt by himself in our Miami yard.  She  fussed about how no one was taking care of the baby, took me to her house where she lived with her daughter and called my birth mother to come pick me up.

My birth mother never came. Those women became my mother and grandmother. Eventually they adopted one of my sisters daughters as well. They would always harp on us about how good we had it. It made sense to them, considering the deprived situation they came from. From my adoptive mother’s  perspective we had a roof over our heads and we never missed meals, how could we complain?

But from the perspective of us kids it was hell, inside and outside the house. They meant well, but they were overly strict, border-line abusive. They didn’t have any kid skills. We had so many chores, it was almost like my mother and grandmother were projecting something from slavery days. They were hardcore — old school. “Children seen not heard,”  though my grandmother had a soft interior.

I was physically small when I was a kid. And poor. I never had clothes that fit.  I wore a lot of high-water pants. Small, poorly dressed and low income. It made me the victim of bullies.  It was tough on my psyche. In junior high I got jobs and had my own money to buy clothes. I bought flashy stuff and then didn’t have enough for essentials. It wasn’t until high school that I figured out how to buy the clothes I needed.

Once when my mother and I went to a PTA meeting, some kid hit me in the back. I didn’t retaliate. I remember my mother being really upset I didn’t I defend myself. I didn’t feel like anyone had my back, including her, so how could I defend myself? My ego was as low as a kid’s ego could be.  That changed when I did start to defend myself in junior high school. Kids knew if they put their hands on me they were going to pay a price.

I think I learned to read before school because I was terrified not to learn. Once my mother put some of my stuff in a sheet, wrapped it on to a pole, and told me to leave, because I did not learn. But, my biggest beef with my mother was giving teachers free reign to corporally punish me. One time my fifth grade teacher called my house and said I threatened her.   That was a lie. My mom woke me up and I got a whupping.

I was the original book worm. I hid myself in books — read everything. One of my favorite series in third grade was the Boxcar Children. I also enjoyed a U.S. history series, full of stories about the West and the Civil War. They were propaganda of course, but they could not have been too bad, because I grew up with a positive view of Native American folks.  In Jr. High I became a WWII buff. I had all the dates and times down.

I used to go over to the neighbors and use their encyclopedias.  Eugene and Else Justice.  They lived across the street and had a bunch of kids — six girls and a boy. They were all older than me. I looked up to the boy. He was a deacon in church. I liked him. He liked me too. He was a father figure to me. He had his own construction company. I looked forward to his visits. He had a big old smile. He was no nonsense. A man’s man. He sensed that I was a lonely kid and he spent  time with me.

Then there were the Fennels. Their older son, Dwight J. Fennell, got a Ph.D. and eventually became a president of Texas College,  an HBCU.  I remember when he came back from college I thought, “That college thing is the way to go. He was a cool cat — a cool guy.

Anything that happened on the block I looked forward to.  We had a neighbor who had an uncle. We all called him “Uncle Van.” He lived in Chicago and Tennessee. All the kids liked him. He was gregarious — the life of the party. He would bring gifts for the kids. We all looked forward to him coming.

We knew all the neighbors for two blocks around. You could borrow a cup of sugar – an egg, whatever. That did happen. My mom had too much pride to sign up for welfare. She was a presser in a factory.  The work was seasonal.  A  neighbor who was getting welfare, would get commodities and share them. I like the canned meat. It would come in big role. I hated the instant potatoes though.

My mother would always act like we were better off. She was good at painting alternate realities and getting you to live in it.

Miami, Florida in the 1960s and 70s.

When I was little, Miami beaches were segregated. The public beach that was available to us was Virginia Key Beach. I remember seeing miles and miles of Black people. I experienced white people in stores. I didn’t think much of them one way or another. My classmates were justifiably wary of white people.  Their parents had experienced racism.

At ten I read Tear Down the Walls: A History of the American Civil Rights Movement. It told about racism in the South, informing me about a movement going on around me that I didn’t know about other wise. I filed it away. Civil Rights activists in Miami were wedded to the “big man” style of organizing. They got things done, but they didn’t build a movement.

My mother had a little degree of self-hate. She compared Black people negatively to White people.  After Martin Luther King was killed, I heard her yell out to neighbors— “They killed y’alls leader.” I held that against her for a long time.

There was class division in our community. Some of the teachers resented me because I was poor but smart like the middle class kids. They would bend over backwards to be unfair.  Once I got into a fight after school. My classmate who didn’t like me told on me and I got paddle boarded. Another time, my friend drew a rabbit. I laughed at the drawing. I got the paddle. Those memories sting.

My elementary school was segregated. We had hand-me down books. There was one teacher who was my saving grace. Ms Miller. Fourth grade. She took a real interest in me. She liked me and I liked her. It was the only time I made A’s in elementary school.

In junior high they bussed in some White folks. There weren’t enough White kids for the experiment to work. We didn’t mix with them. It didn’t work out well.

We had one White teacher in Junior High. Miss Morin. A flower child — fresh out of college.   She came to school dressed in mini skirts. We were 13-14. We thought we were going to take advantage of her. But she was tough, and a really good teacher — stern about us learning. I think she helped me start writing. She worked really hard with people on their reading skills. She stood out as a great teacher.

For high school I got bussed. Our neighborhoods was split four ways. I got to leave behind some kids I needed to get away from. The school I went to was 70% Jewish, 20% Black. There were 3,500 kids in that high school. It was a new building, air conditioned, with technology, a TV production studio, radio station, and a nice theater and gym. I became manager of the basketball team. I joined the theater club. The environment helped me. I blossomed, made straight As in 10th and 11th grade. There were some good teachers. One taught us Black history and culture. She was serious about us.

My favorite high school teacher was Mr. Hart. He taught African American history. He turned out to be a conservative, voted for Nixon. — He said “Nixon knows the Black middle class wants a piece of the pie and he’s cutting us in.”

I hit a bump in 12th grade. School bored me. I couldn’t concentrate. I still had a thirst for knowledge so I went to the library instead of school. We had no attendance requirements. I was smart enough that I could just come in and take the test and pass the class.

One of my buddies started to smoke weed. I did too. Smoking, drinking. It eventually caught up with me. I lost the basketball manager position. The administration still liked me so they let me slide.

On day I was confronted by  the assistant principal. He said “The teachers are letting you get away with murder. You have outsmarted them. You gotta go to class though, or they will figure out a way to outsmart you.”

Sure enough, come graduation time, I hadn’t finished the PE credit, and, though they let me walk, they would not give me my diploma. They wanted me to come back in the fall and finish well.

I gave high school the finger. I didn’t go back. I didn’t go to senior prom either because I didn’t have a girl. I was a nerd. I had just started to date.

I floundered for another year. Stayed with my mom, and worked just enough to put money in my pocket for weed. It was 1975. Affirmative Action time. At the end of my junior year I had eight college scholarship offers. I could have had my pick of colleges. I blew them all. After all I had been thought I just want motivated.

Church 

My saving grace was starting to do a few odd jobs at the Baptist Church. I wound up joining the church. Pretty soon I was taking Christianity seriously. Before long I felt called to the ministry. The minister said “OK. We are going to give you an opportunity to prove your skills.”

I borrowed something from the Declaration of Independence. The point was that Jesus can set you free. They liked it. They licensed me to preach. The preachers son got his license at the same time and we had a ball hanging out together.

Middle class Black churches required ministers to get a Divinity degree. So, I signed up for Bible College — Miami Christian College. I got good at basketball and made the college team. I had a really good English composition teacher who helped me with  writing.

While the teachers were good, some of the white students were ignorant. A few were even surprised that Blacks were Christians! Some were absolute racists.  It shocked the hell out of me. I thought that Christians would put that racism thing down.  It was bad enough, that I decided to leave.

I went to Miami Dade Community College. That was great! I got interested in theater. The students were mostly women, so I had a ball. They were from all over Miami. Salt of the earth people. I had a great sociology professor. We had to write a paper on the death penalty. At that time I had a conservative Bible view of the death penalty. An eye for an eye.  He took my paper and said:

“You can’t be Black and be for the death penalty! I am not going to give you a grade. Read this book: The Poor get Prison and the Rich Get Off and rewrite your paper.” I read the book. It changed my perspective.

At the Community College I got a part in a play by Ed Bullins, called A Son, Come Home. My theater teacher told me I was an actor so I started to apply to four-year Christian colleges that had theater programs. Northwestern College accepted me, so off I went, on a greyhound, to Orange City, Iowa.

College in Iowa

Talk about culture shock. I got off the bus next to a corn field. I was like — where am I? All this green and corn. It was beautiful. I took to it right away. In Miami we grew fruits in the back yard. I loved the green.

There were not many black folks at Northwestern, but those of us who were there bonded. One of my classmates conspired to make me the leader of the makeshift Black Student Union. They said “this guy can lead.” I was a pretty good hell raiser. We dealt with the same old crap. Questions like “How did you get here.”  I got pretty good at debating with those racists. I was the first student to speak during chapel service.I had started running cross country at Northwestern.

I realize just now, that the theater professor who pushed my application, was probably thinking he was bringing in a Black man who could sing and dance. I could not sing or dance. I ended up doing theater tech. The tech instructor was a goofy guy, but he was serious about us.  I’m grateful for that experience. Learning to make a theater set gives you the confidence you can to do anything.

Minneapolis in the 1980s. 

In the summer of 1980 I followed a classmate from the Twin Cities suburbs, to Minneapolis to work with a summer youth program.   I liked South Minneapolis.  The church I was working for was gracious enough to pay my tuition at Bethel Seminary.

Their youth program was pretty good — but my heart was not into Bethel’s Eurocentric schooling. I’m still trying to figure out how you can be conservative and Christian.  To me its an oxymoron.

I did make friends at Bethel with one of the best people I’ve ever met. She was from DePere, Wisconsin. She would drive me to school.  We’d go running together. She made being in that school easier, but…. I couldn’t stay.

It was a turning point for my activism. I joined Clergy and Laity Concerned and became their racial justice coordinator. We worked on jobs, housing, supported MN Students Against Apartheid. That is when I met Janice Payne Dorliae. She was a former Panther — a real revolutionary. I also befriended Chris Nisan who was a long time activist.  Janice would question us. She would tell us what to do. She would have us read and study. She would tell me about her past. She would engage us in political discussions, assign us books and ask  what we thought. I’m trying to do that now with younger folks. Study groups. I got that from Janice.

On the first day of the year, 1987, Janice died tragically. Her death was a huge blow for me.

Fighting  local brushfires of injustice. 

In 1989 there was the Embassy Suites case.  Cris Nisan did fabulous work on that case. It was so egregious. Black college students had rented a room. Someone called the police complaining about noise. The police came, with guns drawn and beat up some of the students. Chris convinced them to hold a press conference. He had the presence of mind to move quickly. The cops wound up not being charged.

I started writing for the Spokesmen Recorder. I was editor of and on during the 1990s. Cris Nisan and I started playing the role of social justice firemen. People would call about whatever was going on and we’d show up. We would go into the schools with parents. We even took on landlords. People knew who we were. We would show up and threaten to raise hell, get people to do the right thing. We would go to people’s jobs and support them as they raised hell with their employers. We were a little crazy, a little wild. We wouldn’t take crap from anybody.

When we worked for Northwest Airlines  we let the union  know they weren’t representing all their people. Some of those union folks hated my guts, others loved me to death. The old hard core guys loved me, those who had been with the union for decades, back when people were militant in their advocacy of labor.

I went to see what the housing court was like.  There was this woman with a baby, 19 years old who was being evicted in the middle of winter.  I  threatened to write a story.  They let her stay in her apartment.

Another case I remember well. It was in the paper. This lady was driving and had a diabetic stroke. She couldn’t talk, like people who have seizures. It made her drive erratically. She pulled over and the police drove up and began screaming at her, but she couldn’t hear, couldn’t talk. The cops dragged her through the front window, wrecking her back. The doctors she saw at HCMC doctors punked out and wouldn’t give her documentation. She went to Fairview for a second opinion. They came to the conclusion that she had had a diabetic episode. She won a suit. A lot of money. Moved to Dallas.

Long after, she came to visit me. She looked really good — I almost didn’t recognize her. She wanted to give me a part of her settlement. I told her “I can’t take your money — that’s  not what I did it for”. She said “What if I gave you just something.” She couldn’t believe I wouldn’t take her money. She took me out to lunch. She was able to retire, get out of here and buy a house.

We helped a lot of people who I don’t remember. At my 60th birthday party a man offered to pick up some more beer. I handed him some cash, but he refused it saying, “I know you don’t remember, but you did me a solid a long time ago.  Your money is no good to me. I’ll get the beer.”

The murder of Tycel Nelson by police on December 1st, 1990, in North Minneapolis was a pivotal moment. I’ll never forget the organizing around that.
The LA times reported that “racial calm in Minneapolis could be shattered by shooting.” There was a meeting at the Urban League. The city was afraid of the  community response and tried to get more conservative folks to get out in front of it. They were trying to keep a lid on things instead of trying to get justice for Tycel’s family.  We did some good organizing around that.

A few years later the cop who killed Tycel, Dan May, was given an award. Salt in the wound.

A lot of these cops who kill people go about their lives like they didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve never understood that. They swallow the hype that they are the arm of the state.

Look, I won’t argue with a criminal with a gun. There was a guy in Miami who used to stick people up. You just gave him your money. He had the gun. It’s the same with cops.  You don’t have rights when the police pull you over. You want to survive the encounter. They have the gun. You know the cops recruit psychopaths. They recruit racists.

 Miami, 2002-09

I went back to Miami in 2002, because my mom had cancer. I had been offered a  job with the Miami Times,  an African American Weekly.  That didn’t work out.

I got on the Miami Dade County NAACP board, and helped them take on labor complaints. It was worthwhile work.  I was able to work in coalition with the ACLU on police accountability issues.   We forced them to create a civilian review board. The ACLU was doing good work around the Patriot Act then.  I wish they would get more visible with Take a Knee today.

Struggling with the rest of the NAACP board, I got in touch with the middle class bias in Black leadership in Miami that oppressed me as a kid. I was investigating a case where a  security guard jumped  kids at Miami’s Edison High. I had met the kids who were in the school yard and interviewed them. They told the same story, over and over. The cops maced the kids. Adults were being dishonest. The media chose to believe the cops.

When I reported what happened to the NAACP board, most members chose to believe the media reports.  One of the members who disrespected me was a middle class woman who had been my teacher, who had made my life miserable as a kid. Now here she was calling me a lier! It pissed me off something severe. I said “Shame on all of you.”  I haven’t talked to them since.

I also took up the issue of Black Beach Week. Every Memorial Day since the 1990s  Black young people have been coming down to South Beach for a weekend of partying. People from as far north as New York, Virginia, come to it.  It draws tens of thousand of young people. The police arrest hundreds of kids every year and they rough some of them up.  (The event made news when someone got killed a couple years ago.)

As a board member of the NAACP, I and member of the ACLU sat down with the mayor, police reps and city officials and said, “You know these kids are coming. Treat them fairly.” We had some success. The number of petty arrests that were just racism, went down.  Those kids weren’t any worse then any other kids coming down to party in South Florida. But the city of Miami Beach didn’t want them.

I didn’t get a lot of traction with the Middle Class Blacks in the church and NAACP.  They had a conservative attitude: “If they misbehave …”.  But we were able to get the Police Chief, Mayor’s Office and Visitor’s Bureau to take some action. They were worried about their reputation.

When it comes to fighting racism in the education system, conservative Black folks often say “it’s the parents.” One incident in Miami illustrated to  me the fallacy of that thinking.  There was this failing school in a Black, working class part of  Brownsville, a  suburb of Miami. A new principal came and was doing a great job. He greeted every kid, got parents involved. The PTA was moving forward.  Soon as they began to succeed they replaced the principal. For me it was an aha moment. They don’t really want the parents involved!

I helped the parents organize, but they just refused to bring the principal back.  They even demoted him. They wanted to teach them a lesson.  A very important lesson.

I did some good work organizing the  Miami anti-war coalition to oppose the war in Iraq.  It was a good coalition — multi generational and multicultural. We did some education around the war and produced a really good pamphlet.

In 2006-7 I started doing some writing for Black Agenda Report and continued to do so when I moved back to the Twin Cities in 2009.

While I was in Miami we had Hurricane Rita. People don’t remember, because it after that came Katrina, but Rita was very destructive in South Florida. A lot of lot of blue tarps in Miami them. The roof came off our house.  I lost all my  papers.

Organizing in Minneapolis 2009-Present. 

Back in Minneapolis I worked on Natalie Johnson Lee’s City Council campaign.  It was during that campaign that her opponent Don Samuels said they should “Burn North High down.” She lost.

After that I thought I was going to do more with church.  I went to a religious retreat center for six months. That was invigorating.  I came back and got involved in fighting police brutality and the 1% instead.

The Occupy Movement was a good push back against the bailout of wall street. It   popularized the fact that we live in a class society. Occupy Homes in Minneapolis was powerful because we were literally saving people’s home.  We went into neighborhoods and helped a particular person who was losing their home. People supported their neighbors  We had barbecues in people’s back yards. We  took on the banks — especially TCF; went to shareholders meetings. The organizing was instructional. It showed how us this is how you organize — go door to door and talk to people.

The campaign to save North High school was also instructive. We engaged the  activist alumni, and just stayed with it, forcing the school board’s hand. We had a meeting at Zion Baptist church– 150 folks.  We created the blueprints for a  community school. They implemented it a little bit — we got the green house and the radio station, kept the classrooms small, but we didn’t quite get the “community school” we envisioned. Still, we won because we got them to keep the school open .

I helped organize the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar after he was killed by Minneapolis police. We organized a broad community meeting.  After the 4th Precinct Occupation was shut down, we were able to keep the struggle going.

King Demitrius Pendeleton and I helped organize a protest/vigil  after Justine Damand was killed by Minneapolis police. We’ve been saying for a long time, it’s not just Black folks…

After borrowing Marcus Harcus’s idea, I worked with some folks to start Malcom X commemorations in Minneapolis in 2014, the 50th anniversary of his death.  I would like to do it on grander scale some day. It is in line with my politics  to understand who he was.  Before he died he had become a real revolutionary. Internationalist, anti-capitalist, the guy who wouldn’t vote Democrat or Republican…

Reconciling and Revolutionary thoughts at 60. 

People refuse to do the the research on the cops.They have an ugly history starting with the slave patrols. They have been killing Black people since slavery. Thousands of people. But not just Black people. Cops dropped bombs on workers fighting for a few more nickels or the right to organize in the Colorado mines at the beginning of the last century. The cops have continually intervened on behalf of bosses and against workers.

I have never understood people, who call themselves human beings, who have the audacity to malign someone while they are bleeding. That is one of the meanest things you can do.

There is a section of the working class that will always ally with the cops, but there are others in the political middle— you gotta win them over — No one has ever made a revolution by themselves. Just you and a handful of folks — won’t do it. You have to win people over to your side.

Protesting is not enough.  If people don’t have any politics, they end up with Democratic party politics — a dead end.

You have to model what you want to see. I try to be open. I have a lot of ideas.

How do I do this work? I live a simplified lifestyle. I keep my expenses low.  When I was organizing  around the murder of Terrence Franklin by MPD,  a guy gave me a ride home. It was like he was looking under my skirt, so to speak — seeing the way I lived. He said “You don’t have a car?!  You share a place ?!

I don’t have savings. Only enough for my kids to bury me.

I peruse the ministry on and off. I started this work because of my understanding of the Bible. The call to do justice. Every time I go back I say, “I can’t do this.” In my reading of the Bible. I see a strain of love and justice running through it. There is craziness in that book as well, but I found in the prophets, a call to do justice and the idea that it’s a sin to create an unequal society.  There are rules about interest and redistribution when things get out of balance. Those are  socialist ideas.

I have always been sensitive to the underdog. Rather then wanting to leave the hood,  I wanted to go back to it. I know from when I was a kid, what it’s like to be friendless. It’s very personal. I feel peoples’ pain. Police violence stuff is especially painful. When the state kills its own….

What I’ve been doing lately is writing, working on my website: Fight the Power Journal.  I’m also trying to build a local movement around Take a Knee.

Next event is November 19 at the U.S. Bank Stadium. With any luck, we will build a movement.

 

Minneapolis Project. 

Raymond Dehn: Critical Resistance, Architecture, and State Electoral Politics.

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Minnesota State Representative Raymond Dehn District 59B. A life story with insights on gentrification, mass incarceration, organizing inside and outside of the electoral arena, using laws to  bring about social change, addiction, the foreclosure crisis in North Minneapolis, and building livable, equitable cities.

Getting in and out of Trouble 

I am at least the fourth generation to live on the North side of Minneapolis. My people were from Germany, and my father’s family settled in the Anoka, Elk River and Monticello areas and many of his family made the northern suburbs home. That is all I know. Dehn’s Farms, Dehn Oil— those are distant relatives. My ancestors were farmers. I honestly don’t know how far back the generations go in Minnesota, or why they came. There is much I do not know about my background. I was estranged from my family for a while and I think that’s why.

My mom was from Minneapolis and my Dad from Anoka. Together they moved to Brooklyn Park and that is where I grew up, on the edge of Crystal – about five miles from where I live now in North Minneapolis. It was a farming community still – the beginnings of a suburb. I could ride my bike five blocks and reach corn fields.

My father worked in a warehouse operating a forklift. He plowed snow for extra money in the winter. My mother worked out of the house occasionally. One job was at a paper company in the warehouse district that made the toilet paper wraps for soldiers in Vietnam. She also did seamstress work. All of us kids had paper routes.

There were five of us in my family until we adopted a six year old girl — a distant cousin. I was twelve at the time – a difficult time for the change in family status. Before that I was the youngest, with two older brothers. All of the sudden we had six of us in a house that was under 640 square feet. Fortunately we had a basement — a room for me to retreat.

I started drinking and taking drugs around the time my sister entered the household — 12 or 13. I still did OK in school so I got away with it for a while, and I was a wrestler. That allowed me to pass. Even though I was using drugs and smoking a pack of cigarettes, I was still a good athlete.

But it caught up to me eventually. I started using cocaine and I needed more money to support my habit. In 1976 I was arrested and convicted for a burglary, sending my life down a totally different track — a better one I think. Where I was heading, I would not have been on this earth much longer. I had started to associate with people who were carrying guns and I was starting to use drugs intravenously. People who work with addiction tell me I was heading for disaster.

My disaster, fortunately, was getting arrested.

I ended up serving 7 months at the Hennepin County workhouse. I started serving just weekends.  At first I was bringing dope into jail, but ultimately, I got sober while still serving my time. In jail I began to see I was getting chances that others weren’t getting. I decided I should use them.

I was released into a 28-day treatment at HCMC and then to a halfway house. I was fortunate that my father — though he didn’t have a great income as a warehouse worker — was a Teamster. He had health insurance that covered the cost my treatment.

I hate the phrase “getting back on track” — you are always on a track – just maybe not the one you desire. Way 12 halfway house in Wayzata changed my life in many ways. We learned behavior modification which involved looking at your life. When I got clean, abstinence was really the only way. (Today, with the opioid epidemic, people may actually need to use alternative medication to replace the substances they were abusing. A lot of addiction is self medication. We need to fund treatments for addiction and mental health issues and stop incarcerating mental illness.)

I was there with some pretty prominent names, adolescents from families everyone would recognize; people with resources. It made me realize how poor my family was. I hadn’t realized how much my family struggled financially because a lot of my friends were in the same situation. The neighborhood I grew up in was white and working class. At Cooper High school there were 4 or 5 Black people when I attended. There were a few kids from middle income families at Cooper when I was there, but Wayzata was a whole different class.

While in the halfway house I developed strong bonds and relationships. We supported each other in staying clean. When I was done, I moved away from my old neighborhood, away from the people I took drugs with. I separated from my family for a few years too, because my parents and siblings did not really understand the changes I was trying to make. I went to the U of M for two years, until I ran out of money. I moved to Minnetonka and got full time construction work.

At that time, before the Internet, it wasn’t easy for people to collect your data, or do a criminal background check. Back then, when you applied to a job you had an interview soon after, so no one had time to do any research. But I decided I wanted to vote again and I thought (incorrectly) that I would never be able to with a felony, and so I applied for a full pardon from the state of Minnesota. In 1982 it was granted. From that day forward I didn’t have to check the box.

With the pardon, I was able to live as if I had never committed the offense.

Politics through Architecture.

In the mid 80’s I reconnected with my Junior high school sweet heart. We got married and moved to Columbia Heights. I returned back to the University of Minnesota in 1989 to study architecture. In 1992 we adopted my son Matt and a couple years later my marriage ended and I also graduated with a degree in architecture. I was elected national president of the American Institute of Architecture Students, which meant going to DC to advocate for 35,000 architecture students in the U.S. and Canada. It required a lot of travel. I would tag on days to see my son in Minneapolis. When I was ready to look for a job again, there was a recession and computers were just beginning to replace architects. Firms were laying off, not hiring. I eventually got an internship in an architecture firm in Minneapolis.

While continuing to work in the profession I became involved in Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility, the architecture professions corollary to Physicians for Social Responsibility. They were engaged in a prison design boycott, which interested me. One of the board members at the time was involved with issues around mass incarceration. As part of my work with them I studied the 13th amendment. It abolished slavery EXCEPT for those who had committed a crime. Which means it didn’t completely abolish it at all. After abolition we perpetuated slavery through the prison system, keeping African Americans in bondage, through prison work crews. I began to think about my own experience with incarceration and the context of the larger criminal justice system.

I was invited to attend a Critical Resistance conference in September 2009. Their goal is a complete dismantling of the prison industrial complex. I was in a session with individuals talking about their difficulties in getting jobs with a record. It was really hard for me because I had a criminal record and I was pardoned and I didn’t have those problems. It was an important weekend for me. I met people from Minnesota who were active on the North side. During the key note address, Angela Davis asked all who had been incarcerated to stand. At that point only a few member of my family and close friends knew my story. The people I worked with who were attending the conference didn’t know.
I stood up.
Living on the North Side. community organizing and electoral politics.
My mom grew on 45th and Humboldt, so the North side was part of my childhood. I had spent a lot of time there as an adolescent doing the things I shouldn’t be doing. In 2001 an opportunity to care take a friend’s home while she went into the Peace Corps, brought me and my partner Joan to the North side. We fell in love with the community. I got on the neighborhood board. When the care-taking job was over three years later, we bought the house next door.

We watched the Foreclosure Crisis in North Mpls. develop. Suddenly there were all these new mortgage products that people were using. Suddenly you could buy a house just paying the interest and not paying principal. North Minneapolis was targeted, Brokers sold sub-prime mortgages, even to people that qualified for a prime mortgage because they could make a whole lot more money.

We bought a home in 2004, and in 2005-7 we would get calls nearly every night saying “now is a good time to refinance your home …” We had gotten a fairly decent mortgage, both of us were working, life was fine, so we weren’t interested. (This was before I lost my job in 2008.) Those phone calls were my first hint that the North side was preyed upon.

People were sold mortgages that weren’t good for them and ultimately put more money in other people’s pockets. Three, four, five years down the line, when their mortgage would reset, all of the sudden their mortgage went from $800 to $1700, during a really tough time when people were losing their jobs. I became involved with a group called Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition. We would get lists of people who were behind in their mortgage payments and we would go knock on their doors. We would try not to be intrusive by saying “we knew that they were behind.” We would instead say “We know that there are a lot of people in the community who are having trouble making their mortgages and we are out here letting people know that there are places that you can get assistance.”

People didn’t ask for this. Some say “they made bad decisions,” but if you’re economically struggling and you see an opportunity to make life a little easier, it is a normal reaction of anybody to take it.

Occupy Homes was mostly organizing on the South side, but there were a few people organizing North as well. They did good work. Civil Disobedience is one way to make problems visible.

Architecture offices are privileged places. I often heard comments like — “people who struggle are not working hard enough.” There was one guy— he was Black — who used to talk about people on welfare being lazy. I told him “Do you know that 60% of people on welfare are kids? How can they be lazy?” I began to think about how you reframe things so that people will stop and think before they get back to their daily lives. If challenged enough, world views can change. My own story had within it lessons about racial inequality in the judicial system that I needed to tell it. I’ll never know what it is liked to be Black in jail. – a person of color in our criminal justice system. I had privilege all along, though I may not have been aware it at the time. Yes, I worked hard, but being White gave me a different result.
I moved into electoral work during that time, beginning with the Wellstone campaign, before the plane went down in 2004. Then I worked on Keith Ellison’s congressional campaign in 2006.

During the 2008 recession I was laid off. I spent the first few hours of the day looking for work, but then — what do you do with the rest of the day? After the Critical Resistance conference I began to get involved with Take action Minnesota. I began to immerse myself in the community, working on issues of foreclosure, criminal justices, transportation (when they were looking at bringing light rail to the North side.) This involvement set me on the path toward running for the house seat.

I decided to challenge Linda Higgins for the State Senate position in 2010. That would create an opportunity for me to tell my criminal justice story. I didn’t receive the DFL endorsement but late in 2011, Linda Higgins decided not to run again. Bobby Jo Champion was in the House and he decided to run for the Senate. I ran for his House position.

That year my election was the most racially charged in the state. The seat that I hold had been represented by African Americans for about three decades. The individuals I ran against in the primary were both Black. That fact that I was White running for a seat people considered a Black seat created a lot of controversy, but I had a lot of support in the Black community because I had been out doing the work. I came to the “living room” of Aster Lee and Kirk Washington. They had gathered a group to interrogate me and they didn’t cut me any slack. I think that is important. We shouldn’t cut elected officials or candidates any slack. I have my own point of view and the only way to change it is to have it checked. It is human nature not to want to be challenged, but we are all products of our life experiences and we need other perspectives.
It was a tough race. Due to the foreclosure crisis the population in North Mpls. had dropped. Meanwhile the population in downtown increased. The district was redrawn to adjust to the population changes. It was now nearly all of downtown and near North. Due to the redistricting few people thought I had a chance of winning. I worked really hard. I was called a lot of things. I told myself, “This is what people of color deal with every day. You are a White guy of privilege, and someone is making a few comments about you? You need to get over that.”
Elections are a bit like basket ball games. Depending on where you are when the clock expires, you win or lose. A few days before the DFL endorsing convention I received the endorsement of Congressman Ellison and that changed the trajectory of my campaign. I won the primary by 20 votes.
Police relations and judicial justice on the North side.

I had the opportunity to attend an event on equity at the Kennedy School involving 70 state and local officials, Police Chiefs and County Deputies. I brought up that I lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood, that I had driven up and down Plymouth Avenue sometimes five or six times a day for over a decade and I never gotten pulled over. I’ve had headlights out, tail lights out. Yet everyone I’ve seen getting pulled over was Black, hands and feet spread on the car.
Some of the officers at the conference started ripping into me, saying, “You can’t say that.” I responded, “Look, I didn’t say this happens everywhere in Minneapolis. I said this happens on the street where I live. this is my experience, so you can’t tell me that I can’t say that.”

Relations were already strained between police and community on the North side before Jamar Clark was killed on November 15 2015. I think the communities’ response was appropriate.
I don’t know if in the aftermath a whole lot has changed. The Chief was talking about all the things they were doing at the same time that the inspector who is out in the community telling officers they need to connect with people, ended up on administrative leave. The good news is a couple months later he has now been assigned to a new division to look at community engagement city wide. I think Commander Friestleben, if he’s able to surround himself with the right people, could set the police on a different course of relations with the community. So I am optimistic, cautiously optimistic. As a paramilitary organization things can change quickly because it’s all top down. But there will be resistance from the rank and file. We all know police federation president officer Kroll, there are other individuals like him that exhibit racism. Until they understand who they are as people, it is going to be hard for them to police communities in a way that is understanding of the community they are in.If your day is spent in a car responding to emergencies, arresting people, giving them the one over, you begin to develop a view that that is all there is. Every officer should have implicit bias training and it should start while they are in training. Maybe there are some officers that should just not be on the North side, or south-side, they should be policing the southwest Minneapolis, but then you have what happened to Philando Castile in Falcon Heights…..

Clearly we need to train officers differently. The legislature can do a lot. There are two statutes we could change: 609.066 allows police officers to use deadly force when they believe their lives or someone else lives are threatened. This statute is why virtually no grand jury would ever be able to charge an officer for murder. 626.89 establishes a “reasonable standard” for police which is different from normal people standard. So they can act in very different ways than normal people can and get away with in a given situation.

In addition to changing those two statutes, we can change the pool of officers going into policing. That may even involve reducing the size. Quite frankly I think that done in the right way, if the size of the force gets smaller as a result, that is not a problem if we are policing differently in the community.

And then the community plays a role. When I was growing up and you got out of line, a neighbor would call you out. That doesn’t happen anymore and part to the reason is the number of guns on the street. We have way too many guns in our society and that is clearly driven by gun manufacturers because the only way they make money is when they sell guns and ammo.

A lot of people operate out of fear. Fear is a bad place to be in when making decisions on how to act. Clearly the officer who shot Philando Castile was agitated, fearful. If you watch that tape and I don’t know how you can’t question what happened. We didn’t see what happened prior to the shots but the audio makes it clear that the stop was somewhat questionable. The officer had assumptions going into that stop.

Some say the difference between an officer alive and a officer dead is a quarter of a second — but we need to change that. I look at the situation with Philando Castile and Jamar Clark and I think —- it’s a problem when officers come to a scene and 61 seconds later someone is shot in the head. That is where issues of de-escalation training are critical, and having officers with the right attitudes. In the Jamar Clark case those two officers had past records. It was astonishing to hear the Chief say “look, these are the people I have to hire from – this is the pool.” That is very telling. She was almost saying, “I don’t have a lot of choices of cops to hire, so some of the cops I hire are going to be questionable.”

Like Occupy Homes and the foreclosure crisis, the occupations of I-94 and 35W that happened recently, make it so people can’t keep their blinders on. Whether they agree with the tactics or not, whether they believe police are acting as they should or not, they can no longer ignore what is going on. If you are listening to the radio, watching TV you are now aware of what is happening because people are bringing it to your attention.
Getting the political Inside/ Outside balance right to further justice.

I have my colleagues all the time tell me —Oh those protestors (grumble grumble). I say, look, they play an important role. We don’t move until the community moves. I am in a safe seat, I don’t have to worry about how far on the edges I get, but most politicians, are afraid, they have to make compromises to stay in office.
I decided when I got into office that I would go in everyday and press a button, to vote for what was right and true. I’m not there to assure my reelection. I’m there to work for the people in my district and if they decide I am not, they will vote me out. My colleagues in vulnerable seats point out that I have that luxury. I remind them that I won my primary by 20 votes the first time around. I do know what a close election can be like.

My first two years in the house we had a majority in the House, the Senate, and a democrat in the Governor’s office and we were able to do some amazing stuff. There were some things we should have done, that we didn’t because there was hope that we might be able to stay in the majority with the 2014 election. We did not pass  One Minnesota – drivers license for undocumented immigrants, (so they could drive legally like they could prior to 2000) and voting restoration for people with criminal records. We should be like North Dakota and allow people out in the community with criminal records to vote.

We lost the majority AND we did not pass this essential legislation. It was a wrong calculation. Hindsight is easy. Now we are trying to win back the majority so we can do those things we should have done when we had it.

My life project: architecture and design of livable cities

My dream is to use architecture to design equitable neighborhoods. In 2013 I received a Bush fellowship and one of the things I looked at was Built Environments and how they impact the health of neighborhoods. I traveled to Medellin, Colombia to see what they had been doing. They went into some of the most difficult neighborhoods and built libraries, schools and parks. They built gondolas that would go up and down the mountain – public transportation for the poorest communities living on the sides of mountains. The gondolas gave people more time to work, and more time at home. It was amazing to see the transformation of that city. That is something we have not figured out. We spend billions on social programs that may move the bar a little bit toward equity, but we are reluctant to spend on physical infrastructure.

What you see every day as you walk out your door affects your whole being as a person. If it looks like the world doesn’t give a shit about you, it is hard for you to give a shit about you. I’m hoping to find that interaction between community, policy and design to begin to transform our neighborhoods. That is my life goal at this point —a big audacious hairy thing that I’d like to do at some point.

The natural evolution when you begin to transform communities is that it creates gentrification, where people in existing communities end up leaving and new people come in. My desire is that we develop a way that people that are living there, actually stay and benefit from the rejuvenation or rethinking of their community. One thing to make that happen is you have to change laws. We can’t dictate who lives where. It is both good and bad that we are unable to do that. When I talked to people on the North side about light rail, I say you know if you put in a thousand unit development and everyone who moves into it is White, even if no one else leaves the community you still created a demographic shift in the community that will have consequences. I think we need to discuss how we design housing developments but we also need to discuss community amenities and infrastructure for those who are there so they can stay intact.

The amount of money that has come to the North side in the last couple decades is the amount it takes to sustain the status quo, so that things stay the same. Not enough to be transformative. R. T. Rybak used to talk about the Midtown Exchange on the southside and how they were going to do the same thing on the North side. Well, for the Midtown Exchange, the city brought in $50 million and the amount of investment that followed was huge. They are not going to do that on the North side. So to make that comparison is naive at best.

When you don’t fund programs enough they will not work. That doesn’t mean they could not work. I’ve seen, far too often in my life, even within architecture — sometimes you start initiatives and you don’t see results so you stop them. You do not wait to see whether they would have borne fruit. Other programs and initiatives that have been around for a long long time and are clearly not doing anything anymore, we keep because of the legacies they have.

Segregation, racial inequality, immigration and whiteness.

Cooper High school — where I went —- is now is predominantly people of color — mostly African American. It speaks to how much Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs have changed in the last 40 years. It also shows that we have returned to segregation.

There was a while in Minneapolis when we began to have classrooms that were diverse. Kids of different races sitting side by side, — late 70s and 80s. We began changing back in the 1990s. Although the Minneapolis school district is very integrated I you look at specific schools there are only a few schools that are integrated and diverse.

I think preparing kids to live in diverse society they need to grow up in diverse settings and that includes a classroom where they are sitting next to someone different from them. I’m not talking about test scores, but preparing people to live in our world. The move toward segregation is tough to watch.

Charter schools have exacerbated the situation because they are tending to be focused demographically. It is hard to argue with people who say Black kids learn better in a classroom with other Black kids. I won’t argue with that when we put so much focus on test scores, versus looking at how people are doing five years after high school, it is tough to create the path forward.

In many ways we are at a tipping point. The opportunity is there for us to all work together in different ways. I see what is happening with Black Lives Matter and the group that shut down 35W — this is all of us trying to work around this issue. We are inflicting the comfortable to bring comfort to the inflicted. Social justice isn’t just for people who are inflicted by a structural system that disadvantages them. It affects all of us. The people in Wayzata are paying more taxes to deal with issues of locking people up throughout the state. Could that money be used better? Absolutely! But we have created a system that finds it easier to lock people up than to deal with the problems that cause their incarceration.

I got tons of emails from people about the liquor on Sunday law, 99.9% of them are contacting me for the first time. I thought, if your biggest concern in life is buying alcohol on Sunday – your life is pretty good and I’m probably not the representative that is going to be fighting for this issue. I’m here for the people for whom life has not dealt them a good set of cards. Those are the people I advocate for.

Immigration 

When we were taking all the land from Native Americans, the diversity was European, there were 27 different European languages on the Iron Range and there were conflicts between Eastern and Western European groups. After a generation or two however they were all White. That hasn’t happened for communities of color. I have a friend on the Iron Range who wants to bring Somali community members up to share their immigration stories, which aren’t that dissimilar for the families on the Iron Range

Part of the fear of losing whiteness is what do we have left? In becoming White we lost much our cultures. I can’t tell you my ancestor’s traditions in the ways that communities of color and Native Americans can. Once you lose power and domination what do you have? And we all know it’s really hard to give up power.

Building equity

We have huge disparities in Minnesota. People who cannot afford electricity, yet there are people who have houses with fifty rooms living by the lakes. We tried to address some of these disparities at the legislature in 2013-14 with things like all day kindergarten and increasing taxes on the wealthiest 2%. Still, what we have seen since the 2008 recession is that the recovery is going back to the top 5%. We have to figure out how to rebalance that. I think we can push business to play a more positive role in the working families’ campaigns. They should understand that paid sick time, livable wage and family leave are issues critical to having a positive productive workforce. There is a reason why we have those fortune 500 companies here. Some businesses understand it.

I am optimistic. Although when you make progress the right wing digs in their heels — but we are now having conversations about equity we would not be able to have 10 years ago. I know it won’t be fast enough. There are some mornings I wonder – how long can I handle the speed of this — but working with community keeps me energized.

Minneapolis Project.