A Civil Rights Icon Explains Why Minneapolis Became a Hotbed for Black Protest in 2015


Josie R. Johnson moved to Minneapolis in 1956. It was different back then. The Lakers still played there. Hubert Humphrey, the city's old mayor and Lyndon B. Johnson's future vice president, was in his second term as Minnesota's Democratic representative to the U.S. Senate.

Ten years earlier, in 1946, a local journalist named Carey McWilliams had dubbed Minneapolis "the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States," citing an "iron curtain" that barred Jews from the housing and employment opportunities enjoyed by white non-Jews in the city.

Johnson would soon learn the same lesson these Jewish residents — and later, black residents like herself — still face in Minneapolis today: When it comes to the treatment of marginalized people, the state of Minnesota is often anything but "nice."

Few people outside the Midwest know much about the experience of black folks in the Twin Cities. The region's go-to pop culture reference is Fargo, a satirical crime thriller that deconstructs the politeness and folksy charm associated with Minnesotans — qualities endearingly synthesized using the term "Minnesota Nice."

It's also a very white portrayal. "I think Minneapolis is a community where most assume there are very few black people, and where issues dealing with race don't exist," Johnson, a prominent civil rights activist and advocate, told Mic in an interview. "That's a position that's been true ever since I moved here."

Today, the city is more than 18% black — and the disparities facing black residents go a long way toward explaining why Minneapolis became home to one of the more volatile protests against police violence of the past year and a half.

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In 2013, the Council on Black Minnesotans — a body tasked with advising the state government and legislature on black issues — released a study that found striking disparities in how black people fare in health, employment rates, income and educational outcomes statewide compared to their white counterparts. An ACLU report in May added that blacks accounted for 59% of low level arrests by the Minneapolis Police Department between 2012 to 2014, despite constituting less than 20% of the population.

This is especially telling considering how well the region's white people fare. An Atlantic article lauding Minneapolis-St. Paul's high employment, income and college-graduation rates among millennials was criticized in the March issue for ignoring the plight of black residents. According to the Washington Post, responding to the Atlantic, 62% of black Minneapolis children attend high-poverty schools, for example. Meanwhile, the black-white financial gap in Minnesota — a metric that includes median household income and comparative unemployment rates — is the widest in the nation. "Today, Minnesota is probably as segregated as it's ever been," Johnson said.

These issues came to a head this year: In the early hours of Dec. 3, Minneapolis police officers driving bulldozers and wearing riot helmets destroyed an encampment outside the department's 4th Precinct in the northern part of town. A group of demonstrators had been camped there more than two weeks, protesting the police shooting of 24-year-old Jamar Clark in November.

Jim Mone/AP

It was not the first time a black man had been shot by police in Minneapolis. In September 2013, a grand jury cleared five Minneapolis officers of wrongdoing in the death of Terrance Franklin, 22, whom they shot and killed during a scuffle in a darkened Uptown basement earlier that year. But after a year of protests across the country — stemming from the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and spreading to New York City, Baltimore and elsewhere — Minneapolis was poised to erupt. "Everything has its moment," Johnson said.

The details surrounding Clark's death remain hazy. It was reported that officers and paramedics responded to a domestic violence call Nov. 15, during which Clark interfered with the emergency workers' attempt to move a woman from the scene into an ambulance. The police union said Clark gained control of an officer's belt and pistol in an ensuing scuffle, according to CNN. Witnesses disagree, saying Clark was handcuffed and lying on the ground when he was shot.

In either case, the protests that followed became nearly as volatile as the incident itself. On top of the long-running occupation outside the 4th Precinct, demonstrations were marked by the encroachment of three alleged white supremacists, who opened fire on protesters the night of Nov. 24, injuring five.

"I'm not necessarily surprised that it happened, but it's always shocking when it actually does," Kandace Montgomery, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, told Mic. "I think for a lot of people, Minnesota showed its true racist colors that night."

Jim Mone/AP

Johnson has been pensively watching all of this unfold. At 85, her civil rights experience spans well over 70 years. As a teenage girl in San Antonio, Texas, she was already gathering signatures to protest the poll tax. In 1961, five years after moving to Minneapolis, Johnson was a key lobbyist in the passage of a fair housing law that expanded the scope of Minnesota's Fair Employment Practices Commission, which was tasked with preventing housing discrimination against black residents. Three years later, in 1964, she led a coalition of women on a bus trip to Mississippi to protest the treatment of blacks in the South.

Johnson has a doctoral degree in education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In 1971, she became the first black appointee to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, where the university has since established a humanitarian award in her name. On May 23, 2014, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges declared a "Dr. Josie R. Johnson Day" in her honor. 

But as racism and anti-black violence roil in the streets around her today, she cannot help but wonder how much has actually changed since she moved to the Twin Cities. "There's a frustration among our young people that things have not changed for the better," Johnson said. "While the [explicitly racist] laws have been eradicated from the books, the attitude clearly hasn't changed.

"[Unless] people change, they'll still find ways to execute the same policies and procedures as when the laws existed ... In the '60s we used to say, you could change a law, but unless you change a heart, the law, for all practical purposes, remains the same."

Craig Lassig/AP

In recent days, reports have surfaced of a generational rift between two factions of protesters in Minneapolis — the younger faction, who find themselves disillusioned with the intentions and capabilities of the city's elected politicians, and an older generation, who hope to collaborate more with the mayor's administration. It's a struggle as old as civil rights activism itself. And Johnson maintains older generations need to do a better job teaching young people about the successes of the past — and even more importantly, the work that's left to do. 

"I charge my generation with the responsibility of making sure that we are in communication with our children," Johnson said. "That we teach the history of our ancestors' struggle. Because many people know so little about their history, it is difficult for them to appreciate the frustration they feel. The issues we face, in terms of emancipation, civil rights — there still aren't many that have been removed from the plate of issues facing our people."

But internal conflict is one thing. The specter of masked white men attacking a peaceful protest is another entirely. The implications of the Nov. 28 shooting weigh heavily on Johnson, who at least hoped the hatred that fueled racist attitudes in her time were relics of a past era. "To have [the protest] look like a universal Minnesota support of justice, and then to have a group of young white boys come by with an intent to create serious harm, was a surprise to all of us," she said.

"It reminded me of the great sadness I felt with the South Carolina killing. I was of the opinion that much of that supremacist, racist behavior belonged to a different generation. When that 21-year-old boy shot our brothers and sisters, my heart bled. I thought: How could a child that young already be that embedded in the attitude that he expressed that night?

"It makes many of us question the progress — that we're back to 21-year-olds acting like this," she said. "It said to me, as an old civil rights worker, and an old person, one of the few of my age left in Minnesota — that these children had not successfully heard the story that needed to be heard by all its citizens about the value of other human beings.

"It felt like all those years of sacrificing of so many African-American people had not been understood or appreciated. So I asked myself, what then have we been teaching? What are our children learning?"