Promoting Peace in Difficult Times

Monday, July 18, 2016

A guest post by Luz Maria Frias, vice president of community impact at The Minneapolis Foundation.

Despite the seemingly recent explosion of headlines associated with police misconduct, excessive police force involving the African American community is not new. Historical footage of the civil rights movement is replete with images of police brutality against peaceful demonstrators. More than forty years ago, Marvin Gaye referenced "trigger happy policing" in his soulful description of Inner City Blues. The unforgettable images of Rodney King’s beatings are forever etched in our collective memories. Media coverage sparked national outrage engendering small windows of public sympathy giving meaning to the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.”

If you talk to anyone in the African American, Native American, Asian American, and/or Latino communities, stories abound about the number of times a family member has been profiled and mistreated by police. The nature of the profiling among those personal accounts are eerily similar and not restricted to social status or education. Historically, little progress had been made in eradicating the use of excessive force since it boiled down to the police officer's word justifying the “need” for force against the average citizen's innocent plea for the truth.

The use of social media has redefined the dynamics of police interactions. The proliferation of smart phone videos capturing accounts of the beatings and killings have turned the tide of public conversation and sentiment. Within minutes, video accounts of police officers’ use of excessive force go viral nationally and internationally. We've seen the impact the aftermath of the videos associated with police shootings can have in local communities such as Ferguson and Baltimore.

In May 2015, following a presentation on racial justice work across the country by Lori Villarosa, Executive Director at Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, one of our Board trustees posed an insightful question: "are we prepared for a Ferguson-like disruption?" As a community foundation, we have a keen interest in strengthening our community. Community foundations historically have responded after natural disasters e.g., tornadoes, floods, etc. by partnering with emergency personnel and providers. However, the challenge for us was whether there was anything that we could do proactively to safeguard our community.

After researching whether other communities had engaged in any proactive measures prior to the various police shootings and finding none, we set out to design a process of our own. My background as a trained mediator and civil rights advocate led me to focus on building relationships among the "unusual suspects." My experience also informed our decision to strategically select facilitators who had the moxie to hold their own among grassroots leaders as well as members of the establishment.

After vetting nearly a dozen potential facilitators, we landed on a two-person team highly skilled in facilitation, race relations, and trauma-informed healing. Six years prior, I had mediated a highly contentious matter between city officials and members of the African American community. That process informed our approach in designing a process for our Foundation. Once we had the process designed, I was cautiously optimistic that we could engage the necessary players.

Margaret Wheatley once wrote: “Human conversation is the most ancient and easiest way to cultivate the conditions for change –personal change, community, and organizational change.” As a Foundation, we agree with Wheatley and have made the role of “convener” central to the work that we do in our community.

Building off of existing relationships in the community, I personally approached the various players: the City Attorney, Mayor's office, Police Chief, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, NAACP Minneapolis, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and the National Initiative for Building Community Trust & Justice. The meetings were "by invitation only" and were closed to the media. Confidentiality was key to engagement. The goal of the meetings was to hold a dialogue about the pressure points in our community and begin to identify actions that could be taken to ameliorate them.

Over the course of the intended three meetings, participants held frank and difficult conversations. Despite the tensions, participants began taking meeting breaks with one another and exchanging cell phone numbers on their own. At the conclusion of the structured process, the group asked our Foundation for further facilitated dialogues with a focus on addressing criminal justice reform. No one could predict that our efforts would be tested merely two weeks later.

November 15, 2015 is a day that will be forever etched in my mind. It was the day that Jamar Clark was fatally shot by a Minneapolis police officer. The shooting was partially caught on video. Eyewitnesses from the community swear that Jamar was handcuffed with his arms behind his back when he was shot in the head. Police accounts argue that Jamar reached for the officer's gun which led the officer to shoot him.

The shooting went viral within hours. Members from our group individually contacted me to thank our Foundation for the relationships that they had built during our convenings. The overwhelming consensus then, as it is now, is that as a community we were able to stave off a Ferguson-like reaction because of the facilitated convenings that our Foundation led and had culminated a mere two weeks before the shooting.

Although we avoided a Ferguson-like unrest, tension remained high. Community members occupied the Minneapolis Police Fourth District Precinct station for 18 days. The occupation was a non-violent and peaceful protest much different than what transpired in Ferguson and Baltimore.

Shortly after the end of the occupation, the holiday season arrived followed by local celebrations honoring Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy. Thereafter, I began hearing from our participants that they were open to reconvening as a group. We brought the group back together in February 2016. It was a difficult meeting focused on truth and reconciliation. Although there were numerous learnings generated at the meeting, one lesson resonated loud and clear: the importance of historical trauma and the need for providing mental health support and resources for the community activists as well as the immediate neighbors living in the community where the shooting occurred. Activists and residents alike, while tenacious and inspirational, remain vulnerable to the uninsured and low-wage jobs pervasive in that area of our city.

Unlike the immediate supply of grief counselors in mass shootings, grief counselors are not deployed in the community following a police shooting of a civilian. The trauma associated with the shooting, in addition to the historical trauma of excessive police force, can be devastating to community members resulting in manifestations of suicidal ideation as time has shown us locally and nationally. As a society, we need to proactively provide resources in these settings and prioritize the mental health needs across our community without exception.

Our efforts to ensure peace in the community were tested, yet again over the past few months. First, when the Hennepin County Attorney announced that the two officers involved in the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark would not be criminally charged. Our group convened shortly before and after the announcement. Secondly, when the local U.S. Attorney announced they would not pursue federal civil rights charges against the two police officers. Although frustrations ran high, demonstrations in the community remained peaceful.

At the close of our last convening, participants made it clear that as a group they are committed to the promises they made to one another early in the process to remain “at the table” and work towards criminal justice reform. We will continue to convene this group and hope for a long-term relationship resulting in systemic change for generations to come.

Until now, our Foundation's leadership on this initiative has been under the radar. At the prompting of our participant members as well as some of our Trustees, we are sharing our efforts with the hope that other foundations across the country may step into a similar role in their own communities.