Patrons say Black and Brown users are unfairly targeted
Tezzaree El-Amin Champion doesn’t use the libraries anymore because of a traumatic experience he had while using the North Regional Library 10 years ago.
“We were young. We had a lot of energy. Were just a little bit too loud and louder than what they would like. And instead of [the librarians] saying, ‘Hey, you guys need to lower your voice,’ it was, like, ‘Hey, you gotta leave the library,’” said El-Amin Champion as he happened upon a protest at North Regional Library at 1315 Lowry Ave. North on Saturday, December 2. “That was such a traumatic experience for me.”
The rally El-Amin Champion happened upon was being held by the Library Patrons Union (LPU), a group of leftist Minneapolis library users, at least one of whom is a former library staffer. They gathered just over a year ago to protest what they believe is the Hennepin County Library’s unfair treatment of Black and Brown library users.
The protest highlighted just one of those examples of unfair treatment. On October 11, union members say they saw a security guard grab a nine-year-old at the North Regional Library’s parking lot, forcibly detaining the youth. The nine-year-old had been barred twice from the library for assaulting staff and vandalizing patrons’ vehicles.
In video footage obtained by the MSR from someone who happened to be at the North Regional Library shortly after the incident unfolded, the security guard, a Black man, appears to later taunt witnesses who confront him for his behavior. “What you gonna do about it?” said the guard in response to a youth who told him he didn’t have to “push him and hold him like that.”
Hennepin County denies the guard detained the nine-year-old. Instead, they say the guard “put his hand on the youth’s shoulder.” They did not address the security guard taunting witnesses because they had not seen the video, but expect staff to address patrons respectfully.
Activists say how the library treats Black and Brown patrons is a problem. The conversations LPU members and the MSR have witnessed often amount to directives issued by security, with security officers issuing trespass orders should patrons attempt to ask why they are being disciplined and forced to leave the library. A county spokesperson said their security officers are supposed to “have conversations” about the county’s trespass policy with patrons and explain what policies they are violating, before evicting them for trespassing as a last resort.
Activists say the Hennepin County Library issues user trespass orders at least once a day. The MSR has been unable to independently verify how many people have been ousted from Hennepin County libraries for trespassing, as the library considers the available data not subject to public review according to state law. Freelance journalist Tony Webster is suing Hennepin County for access to the data, maintaining that the county library trespass data is not subject to data-security provisions in state law.
Activists instead want to see libraries provide services that address the root causes of troublemaking that happens at a library. “[They] need human experience trainings and development trainings,” said Crystal Colbert-Brown, a Northside resident whose nine- and 12-year-old children use the library.
“For example, what is expected of kids, because kids aren’t going to be quiet all the time,” said Colbert-Brown. “Part of the reason they go to the library is so that they can be themselves.”
As Colbert-Brown talked, activists began writing with chalk on the sidewalk around the library outlining their demands. Some of the demands included no cops and more social workers, youth workers, harm reduction specialists and food.
“We want people to be able to meet their basic needs in this space. [Libraries] may be the only warm public spaces [people can go to in the winter],” said Erin Bogle, a former librarian who helped found the Library Patrons Union.
Since the Library Patrons Union started, the county’s libraries have made strides in improving how they respond to behaviors the library considers unwelcome. As of August, library staff are now able to learn how to use Narcan, the drug that reverses opioid overdoses. The county says the policy change is not connected to efforts by the Library Patrons Union.
Moving forward, the Library Patrons Union plans to fight for more money for the county’s libraries, as well as to revise the trespass policy “so that it serves folks,” said Bogle.
Transparency is another concern of Bogle and the LPU. “I put in a request last September for trespass data, and it took me an entire year of going downtown sitting at a table with a security guard a couple feet behind me taking photos of PDFs on a computer.”