Tycel Nelson’s 1990 death ‘the breaking point of an era’

MGN Thirty years ago the Black community demanded accountability for MPD, and now, in the wake of George Floyd, the demands are strikingly the same.

Police brutality has a long history in Minneapolis

When Minneapolis Police Officer Daniel May shot and killed 17-year-old Tycel Nelson on December 1, 1990, then-police chief John Laux told the media that relations between MPD and the Black community “are certainly as tense as it’s ever been here.”

Nearly 30 years later, “tense” isn’t nearly sufficient to describe the mood of the city after former MPD officer Dan Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes.

While many were shocked by the devastating and undeniable image of police brutality that was framed against the backdrop of a city widely regarded as socially progressive, several Black activists have recounted how this violent behavior is nothing new in Minneapolis. They recall a history of White MPD officers brutalizing the Black community for more than 30 years.

Back when Nelson was killed, young activist Kimberly Washington was writing speeches demanding an end to police brutality in the Twin Cities, helping to organize marches and mass community meetings. “At that time in ‘89-’90, that was when we had these series of events where they killed Lloyd Smalley and Lilian Weiss with those stun grenades, and then they shot those two boys, they were 13 years old,” Washington said.

She recalled an incident that occurred around that time as she was driving home from work. “I was all dressed up and my little nephew was in the car. I’m at the light on 2nd and Washington, and all of a sudden I see these people in front of my car and they’re like, ‘Put your hands on the dash!’

She put her hands on the dash but then accidentally took her feet off the clutch and brakes, causing her to slowly roll towards the officers surrounding her car. “I heard ‘click click click click click,’ and there are guns being cocked. It doesn’t always click with people what’s going on, especially if you’re not doing anything,” she said.


“They dragged me out of the car, threw me on the ground and shouted, “Where are you coming from? What are you doing?’ I am crying saying what’s going on? You’ve got two and three guns in my face. It had to be ten cops.”

Washington said she had lived the reality of systemic racism all her life, but after meeting activists Mel Reeves, Chris Nisan and Keith Ellison, she said she began to push back. “I was so impressed with all of these young men who literally could bring political events down to the lowest common denominator so that the rest of us could understand and interpret it,” Washington said.

“They had studied a lot of the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King and Malcolm and they understood organization and getting the community out.” She said that becoming part of a team with them launched her anti-police-brutality career.

“I will never forget the murder of Tycel Nelson and the organizing effort,” said Mel Reeves, who has been organizing the Black community around anti-police brutality and social justice another for more than 35 years. “The community came out and demanded that Dan May be prosecuted.

“We organized in the middle of the winter by going door-to-door with flyers. There was no internet, no email, no cell phones. We brought over 500 people out to the steps of Minneapolis City Hall in that freezing winter,” said Reeves.

Reeves reflected that the situation between the police and the Black community has little to do with criminality but is rather political and sociological. “We live in an unequal and inequitable society. Police’s real job is to reinforce that inequality. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass, when one class—in this case a race—feels that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, then neither person nor property is safe.”

Graffiti artist, activist and author Ryan Dillard saw how unsafe a community could be growing up on the North Side of Minneapolis. He was told repeatedly he would never live to see his 18th birthday because he was a young Black man.

“Around that time we were all just coming of age, just being kids out there. We were a community,” Dillard said. “I was friends with Tycel, I knew his brother Phil, his family.”

He recalled that while Tycel Nelson certainly wasn’t the first young Black person killed by the MPD, something felt different about the loss of his friend. “His death was the breaking point for our era, the young adults and the children of our era that were forced into manhood and womanhood early,” Dillard said. “That’s when the term ‘Murderapolis’ came about.”

He added that some people in the community lashed out, took to the streets or stormed City Hall, while some felt so helpless they did nothing. Dillard turned to his art to express his grief.

“We painted a mural for him after he died, and there was a piece ‘Never Let Up’ on the accountability for the Minneapolis Police Department for what they did, constantly keeping Tycel’s name alive,” he said.

Thirty years ago the Black community demanded accountability for MPD, and now, in the wake of George Floyd, the demands are strikingly the same. This time, however, Black Lives Matter seems to be pushing forward with new, palpable momentum. For some like Dillard, Reeves and Washington, something feels different.

“I think Black Lives Matter began to inconvenience White people as much as we were inconvenienced,” Washington said. “I think the fact that now that there’s Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook and White people can actually see us dying and the rates at which we are dying, that is important.”

Reeves said that the next step is for people to educate themselves about the reality of racism embedded in the very foundations of the systems we live in. “The police belong to the ruling class and power structure,” he said. “The police don’t belong to us.

“They’re not accountable to us and never will be. The problem of policing will not end until the system of policing as we know it comes to an end.”

Dillard added that people need to keep putting pressure on these systems that allow racism to flourish. “We can’t, dare I say, lift the boots off of their necks like they did with George Floyd. We have to keep our knees and our elbows and boots on the necks of the government and the City that needs to be held accountable for hiring these people that are doing this kind of stuff without some type of psychic evaluations or personal background checks. We can’t stop.”

“One person’s death affects a lot of people, and Tycel Nelson was a person that was well loved in the community,” Dillard recalled. “When he was killed, a lot of people felt that pain. The George Floyd thing opened the floodgates, and it was like all the deaths that happened in this community breathe through George Floyd’s situation.”