A few days before the November 4th election, I took a photo with an organizer while doorknocking to get the vote out. In that photo, the organizer and I pointed at one another (after, it has often been remarked, an awkward moment of set-up). A local news station ran a story that the pointing of our fingers constituted gang signs, that the photo undermined the morale of the officers in the Minneapolis Police Department, and that participating in the photo constituted poor judgment on my part. The head of the Minneapolis Police Federation — the union that represents Minneapolis police officers — made a comment publicly to that effect. He said, “She should know better” and asked, “Is she on the side of the cops or the gangs?”
As one of the two people pointing in the photo, I’ve tried to understand what the head of the police union thinks I should do, or not do. There seem to be four options.
First, maybe the head of the police union would like me to stop pointing altogether for the safety of the community. If that were truly his concern, that my pointing constitutes gang activity, then his outrage would have been sparked long, long ago. Because as the internet has documented in great detail, I point. I point a lot. Lots of people point. The President. Bill Clinton. Stephen Colbert. Babies. It is the earliest form of human communication.* I’m not going to stop pointing.
That option doesn’t make sense.
Second, maybe the head of the police union wants me to refrain from being in the presence of people whose criminal history I don’t know. In other words, maybe the head of the police union doesn’t want me interacting with the public. When I meet people, I don’t know if they have ever been arrested for or convicted of embezzlement, or domestic assault, or shoplifting, or murder, or burglary, or driving under the influence, gun or drug possession, or too many parking tickets. I have no way of knowing, nor do I ask. Frankly, if I did know that someone had a criminal past, it wouldn’t prevent me from talking with that person. It certainly wouldn’t prevent me from working on a Get Out The Vote drive with that person. That’s the kind of mayor Minneapolis chose.
That option doesn’t make sense, either.
The third option may be that the head of the police union doesn’t want me standing next to young African American men. One frightening implication of the KSTP story and police union President Delmonico’s support of that story is their implicit assumption that I should use stereotypes to assess with whom I should or should not meet or stand or talk. As The Onion once satirically wrote, “Stereotypes are a real time saver.” It is not a good basis for decision-making, however. It blunts the humanity of the person making the judgment and creates unnecessary separation between two people in a world where more, rather than less, human connection is needed for us to move forward as a community.
This is yet one more option that doesn’t make sense.
Which leaves one final option. It could be that the head of the police union wants me to stop working to raise the standards of police culture and accountability. It could be that he objects to the community policing and relationship-building measures that I am acting on, and attempted to use this non-story to discredit this work.
I share the public’s speculation that this is the real option.
If that is the case, he has failed on two levels. First, the people of the internet have called out this story over and over with outrage and humor, shining the light of day on the ridiculous premise on which it was based.
Second, and more significantly, I am undaunted in my commitment to making sure that police–community relationships are as strong as they can be. I am undaunted in my desire to support and develop police officers who serve respectfully and collaboratively every day to keep people safe and make all our neighborhoods stronger. I am undaunted in my plans to increase accountability for consistent bad actors in the police department.
Let me be clear on this final point. There is a critical difference between our good officers who have a bad day on the job, and officers, however few, who have a standing habit of mistreatment and poor judgment when relating to the public, particularly people of color. I am as concerned with the negative effects of this conduct on the police department as a whole as I am with its effects on our community. I am convinced that we can change it, even if it takes years.
If the fourth option is correct, my commitment to this work means that the head of the police union or other detractors will pitch more stories that attempt to defame that work and its leaders to various media outlets. So be it. I know the charge that I have been given by the people of Minneapolis and by my own conscience. I will continue to follow that charge.
*UPDATE: My apologies to The Daily Show, whose research was instrumental to my understanding of pointerology. “The President. Bill Clinton. Stephen Colbert. Babies. It is the earliest form of human communication.”