The problem with the Minneapolis police has decades-deep roots

Cecil E. Newman
MSR file photo

Six blocks and 75 years away from the Minneapolis street where George Floyd suffocated beneath the knee of a police officer, a squad of a dozen cops raided a restaurant owned by a Black civil rights leader. Officially, they belonged to the “morals squad,” a title that in practical terms often translated into harassing Minneapolis’s small African American community.

On that Wednesday night in August 1945, the police officers frisked the patrons of the Dreamland Café, forced the men to produce their draft cards and demanded that the women open up their purses. The two who refused to comply were arrested, jailed and interrogated at the lockup downtown.

Under normal circumstances, the episode would have ended with humiliation and an upcoming court date. But it just so happened that one of the jailed women worked for the Spokesman and the Recorderthe jointly owned Black newspapers in the Twin Cities, and she used her one phone call to alert their founder, editor and publisher, Cecil Newman.

For 15 years already, Newman had been assiduously chronicling the bigoted misconduct of Minneapolis’s police force. The written record he kept during the 1930s and 1940s comes as a bitter reminder that the road to Floyd’s death under an officer’s knee ran far longer than most commentators realize.

Journalistic accounts of Floyd’s death while being subdued by Derek Chauvin, and as three more officers looked on, have referred to other killings by police in and around Minneapolis. Jamar Clark and Justine Damond in Minneapolis and Philando Castile in the nearby suburb of Falcon Heights all died from police bullets since 2015. Only in the Damond killing, when the fatal shot was fired by a Somali American officer, was a cop convicted.

Yet the attention to those recent, tragic episodes overlooks the decades-long history of toxic relations between Minneapolis police and minority communities, an ongoing enmity that has defied reform efforts by liberal politicians and increased diversity in police hiring. Without recognizing that long arc, it is hard to comprehend the explosion of rage and violence from protesters.

As a young reporter, before creating his own newspapers, Newman watched Minneapolis police stand idly by in 1931 as White mobs nightly terrorized the family of an African American postal employee for the temerity of buying a home in a White neighborhood.

Newman was several years into running the Spokesman and the Recorder when two drunken, off-duty White officers went on a rampage in a Black neighborhood near downtown, beating and falsely arresting three residents. Even though Newman gathered firsthand testimony from 20 witnesses, the officers were simply transferred to a different precinct.

By the time of the raid on the Dreamland Café, Newman held cautious hopes for a better outcome. He was a supporter and friend of Hubert Humphrey, who had been elected mayor two months earlier promising action on civil rights. At Newman’s behest, Humphrey drove to police headquarters that night and had the two Black women released.

That act of principle on Humphrey’s part, however, revealed as much about the policing problem as any solution to it. He could not intercede in every such case, and his mayoral files were bulging with citizen complaints about police abuse.

Many involved Black residents, and a significant share of others included Jews, the other marginalized minority in town. One drunken police officer barged into a pawn shop owned by a middle-aged Jewish man and stuck a gun on him, leaving the terrified pawnbroker to offer the $40 in his cash register as a ransom. Another officer issued literally thousands of tickets along a major street in the Jewish section of North Minneapolis. Most of the time, offending officers escaped with a mild reprimand or change of assignment.

Trying to bring professional standards to an inbred, undereducated police force—it required only an eighth-grade education—Humphrey raised both hiring standards and annual pay. He started sending cops to the University of Minnesota for training in what was then called “human relations.”

But after barely three years as mayor, Humphrey won a seat in the U.S. Senate. Though he made great progress in Minneapolis in parts of his civil rights agenda, he never came close to reforming the police department. In the decades since, other liberal mayors of the city—including the current one, Jacob Frey—have similarly struggled to remake the institutional DNA.

Black people may be disproportionately on the receiving end of police brutality, but there is a reason that the George Floyd killing has so quickly become a national issue. As Cecil Newman wrote in 1932 about the mob assault and police passivity in the case of the Black homeowner.

“It is a case of the people, White and Black, who believe in the fundamental laws of the country and the state. It is a case of right against wrong. It is the concern of any man, be he Jew or Gentile, White or Black, Protestant or Catholic. This country will never be safe until the rights of every citizen are safe.”

Samuel G. Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University, is writing a book about Hubert Humphrey, civil rights and the 1948 presidential campaign.

This article was republished with permission from The Washington Post.