Listen: Penumbra Theater 'On The Front Lines' discussion about race

Penumbra Theatre co-artistic director Sarah Bellamy moderated a discussion "On The Front Lines," featuring Nekima Levy-Pounds, University of St. Thomas professor and the president of the Minneapolis Chapter of the NAACP; John Harrington, Metro Transit Police chief and former State Senator; Signe Harriday, local artist and activist;  and Dave Ellis, a consultant. The panelists talk about the racial tensions between police and community.


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[THEME MUSIC] STEVEN JOHN: Welcome to MPR News Presents. I'm Steven John. Recently, the Penumbra Theater in St. Paul hosted a conversation on some of the biggest issues in America today, racial tension, gun violence, and police brutality. It was titled On The Front Lines. Penumbra co-artistic director Sarah Bellamy moderated the discussion, which featured University of St. Thomas professor and president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, Nekima Levy-Pounds, Metro Transit police chief and former state Senator John Harrington, artist and organizer Signe Harriday, and consultant Dave Ellis.

All are African-American, and each of the panelists has worked extensively on matters related to race and justice. Sarah Bellamy opened the discussion by asking if the increased media coverage of killings of young Black men was because of an increase in the number of incidents or an increase in awareness. Signe Harriday speaks first. Then you'll hear from John Harrington, Nekima Levy-pounds, and Dave Ellis.

SIGNE HARRIDAY: I believe that there is actually not necessarily an uptick, that the violence that's been sustained against Black and Brown bodies in this country has been sustained. I would argue that slavery never ended. It just shifted. And so this same horrific violence that we saw during that era has continued in different forms, that the system of white supremacy, in order for it to stay in the configuration that it is, it has required for that violence to persist. We have struggled in this country to speak our truths. We have struggled in this country to say what is actually happening.

So my perspective is-- and I realize it's just my perspective-- but that I believe that we have not properly documented the death and the killings over time. And so I don't actually believe that there is an uptick. I think that we have failed to actually recognize when it's happened. And frankly, we are still struggling with that without a-- I know that we are making steps in the right direction around the documentation of killings in our community, both from community members and from the system or the police or the state.

We are getting better at that, but we have a lot of work to do in that one area just to get the truth, the facts out. Is that fair?

SARAH BELLAMY: Mm-hmm, See, that's why we turn to you.



SARAH BELLAMY: I think you speak eloquently about that. And I'm wondering if, you know, another piece about this is-- the question of documentation is so important because there's so much that gets written out and written over. It actually brings me to another question that I wanted to ask you, Chief Harrington, about the police perspective with this because some of these killings, unfortunately, have involved officers. But we've also seen examples of direct violence against police.

You know, within the last-- since December, two officers and a deputy have been fatally shot. Recently, in City Pages, there was an article that was a feature story about the difficulties of policing today entitled A job Under Siege. I don't know if anybody had a chance to read it, but in it, officer John Sherwood, who works for St. Paul's East Side, was talking about the cell phone trend of videotaping. Whenever something is going-- transpiring, people seem to be really quick to turn on their cell phone videos.

And he said they're looking for that one instance when the human side comes out of a cop, frustration, a loud voice, something that sounds inappropriate. And I'm wondering, given the title A Job Under Siege, do you feel that police officers feel like they're under siege at this point, given all of what's kind of circulating in the media?

JOHN HARRINGTON: Well, I want to actually go back to the original, the first question, then I'll piggyback into that. But in fact, I think statistically, the numbers actually have gone down from the mid '90s when they were kind of at their worst in the age when New York was having 2,000 homicides a year and assaults on officers were at a much higher rate. On both sides of that line, assaults and killing of officers and assaults and killing of citizens have gone down significantly in most of our big urban centers over the last few years. A few exceptions.

My hometown is one of the ones where we really have not got a good handle on that. And we were averaging 500 homicides a year when I was growing up, and we're still around 500 homicides. In a good year, it's 400, which still seems horrific to me when New York can go down from 2,000 down to 600. So I think the numbers are actually going down, but I think the way the media-- the 24-hour media cycle perpetuates a notion that you keep seeing this over and over and over and you can't-- and until the next news story breaks, you don't get off of that news story.

And so, you know, today there was another, you know-- there was an active shooter at a school down in Mississippi. That trumped the story about the deputy in Kentucky, I think, that got shot and killed yesterday. So that story dropped off. But if it hadn't dropped off, we would have seen that cycle, I think, perpetuate for day upon, day upon day. Do my colleagues and I feel under siege? There's a piece of us that I think it'd be very difficult not to.

And part of that is the way the assaults on police officers have happened in the last few years. And I was trained in 1977. It's a very different era now. There were no cameras and there were no cell phone cameras and there were hardly any cameras at all, really. And so we were taught to go out and enforce the law. And we were mostly afraid that we were going to be shot on a traffic stop or that we were going to be assaulted while we were breaking up a domestic. Those were the two big, big killer situations where cops got jumped and got stabbed or got shot, usually in one of those two.

But they didn't prepare me for pumping gas in uniform as I'm going home and to be shot several times in the back. I was ready at the end of the chase that something untoward would happen, but mostly, it was a fight rather than a shooting. And so it is difficult not to put myself in the shoes or in the uniform of my colleagues who were sitting in a squad car in New York and somebody walks up and basically shoots them multiple times.

Because we were ready to be shot at if we were engaged in the fight. We were ready to be shot at. If we were engaged in the chase, if we were in there, you know, chasing the bad guy or we were going after somebody. We knew that risks. None of us that go into this business going in blind. We all get extensive training and we think about the risks. Those of us--

Yeah, I've got a lot of kids, a bunch of grandkids, and I know they worry when I went out. They still worry, even though I've got more of-- I'm pushing a desk rather than a squad car these days. You don't go into this business without recognizing that there are risks to what we do. But we were not prepared for this latest round of really what I think of as assassinations, where you walk up behind somebody and pull a trigger.

So it is difficult to not feel a bit under siege because we all do. We talk about the thin blue line. We talk about when one cop dies, we put that black band on our badge. And these days, we try and actually go to the funeral, and you see the widow, and you see their kids, and you empathize and feel like you can feel their pain. So it's difficult not to feel that siege mentality.

On the other hand, the reality of our day to day work is that we're probably safer than we've ever been. This year is not good. I mean, this year I think we've had 88 officers killed in the line of duty. So this year, we're up almost 9% in terms of officers killed in the line of duty.

But in general, over the course of my career, virtually every year that I worked, I saw the number of officers killed in the line of duty continue to go down-- good training, good equipment, community policing, where we knew the people in the community. We understood who they were. They understood us, and it often times is not.

I can still remember getting jumped on the East side as a young rookie cop and having the neighborhood come out to basically pull them off of me, because I was working a one-man squad on Midnights, and I needed all the help I could get at that point. And the community knew me as their beat cop.


JOHN HARRINGTON: So there is an image and reality that I think is at work as we talk about what does that siege mentality look like.

SARAH BELLAMY: This idea of a community defending you in a distressing situation, I think one of the things that is troubling about the ways in which we have these conversations is that we rely so heavily on binaries. And so when we talk about the community, it's like the police and the community as opposed to police as members of community who live and work alongside people in neighborhoods.

And so I think that's just a really important thing for us to think about, that we continually attempt to complicate the ways in which we're talking about this. So that oversimplification, I think, is what denies people empathy and connection in some way.

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: I would say that that is probably true for white Minnesotans and white people nationally. But the honest truth is, in the Twin Cities, for example, over 90% of officers do not live in the communities that they serve. Many of the officers live out of state, and they come into inner city communities having had zero contact with people of color prior to patrolling them.

And often people in the community feel as though they're under siege because for something like spitting on the sidewalk, you could be arrested in the city of Minneapolis. You could be stopped and frisked in the city of Minneapolis, searched without permission and in violation of your constitutional rights. That was until several organizations, including Black Lives Matter, in the Minneapolis and NAACP took up the fight to have that ordinance spitting on the sidewalk and lurking repealed.

And often the pushback that we receive when we're looking at laws on the books that we feel are unjust or that are perpetuating a sense of oppression, is that these are tools that law enforcement officers need. Well, how can that be an effective tool if you see someone spitting on the sidewalk and suddenly you have the full power to arrest them or cite them?

Now, this isn't happening in many of our suburban communities. You could not have people in a diner running and walking and spitting and then being arrested and searched. That wouldn't happen. We would not tolerate that.

However, many incidences happen within communities of color, whether it's the East side of Saint Paul, North Minneapolis, many of our inner city communities where people are the most vulnerable, because they usually have the lowest incomes. They have very little political power and capital, very little power in society. And that's where a lot of the violations of their civil rights happen.

So when we get to the point of talking about where individuals are killed by officers, that is the tip of the iceberg. Oftentimes, there are a lot of incidents that happen that build frustration in the community, that make people feel like they're under siege in their community. And that ultimately can put officers in danger.

And so what we argue is, if you want to de-escalate violence overall, then it's important to make sure that we are not criminalizing and imprisoning people simply because of the color of their skin and their socioeconomic status.

And that's what often happens. And if people are going to patrol our communities, then they need to have a nexus to the community. They don't need to come in like an overseer and treat people as though they're still in slavery.


SARAH BELLAMY: One of the things that I think you said that is so important in the context of Penumbra is season that we're offering. So we're getting ready to open a one-man show called Rodney King and Roger Guenveur Smith's investigation of the whole thing that transpired. And a lot of people can remember exactly where they were when news broke about what was going down is the idea that people can handle abuse to a point.

And we tend to think about the most spectacular moment as being the moment where we then overlook all of these daily infractions that happen, which remind me a lot of the Black Codes and Jim Crow law, when Black people are continually forced to step away from the sidewalk to let a white person. All of these denigrations that happen over and over and over that build a pressure point, I think that's such an essential thing to remember is not necessarily the spectacular moment that we need to be paying attention to, but the daily infractions of our own human rights and civil rights. So thank you for bringing that to bear. Did you want to say something.

DAVE ELLIS: Yeah. When I spend a lot of time, excuse me, just talking with young men in my community, young men and women, and they will tell me flat out, we don't know what's going to come at us. We watch TV. We know what happens in our personal lives. Valid or not, real or not, it's the perception that I don't know what's going to happen if I get stopped.

Now, I happen to have been one of the people who has been stopped. In fact, I told my son-in-law, watch because I said, there was a squad car. He's going to turn around and follow me. And he did and pulled up right behind me, pulled me over. And I handed him, gave him everything he needed. But fine, we're done.

And my son-in-law looked at me and said, dad, how can you do that? How can you take this day after day? And I said, because I don't want him to be afraid of me. And it's not about whether or not I'm afraid of him. He's the one with the gun in my instance.

Now, in some instances, somebody else has the gun also. And that's a dangerous situation when you've got people that are constantly worried about, I mean, I hosted conversations in Saint Paul and in Rochester right after the George Zimmerman verdict, the whole conversation. What have we learned?

And even within that dialogue, there were about 150 people at Wilder that night. And even within that dialogue, people were still at odds with one another, trying to understand how am I supposed to respond? As a Black man who gets to-- how am I supposed to respond?

If I say things the wrong way, then I get locked up. If I don't say anything at all, I almost feel like I'm being stripped of my manhood. And that's a real difficult thing for me to swallow. I don't know about anybody else. I don't take that one very well.

SARAH BELLAMY: Well, and the point that you make that's, I think, particularly poignant is the way in which-- I'm thinking about Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Daniel Maiden Jr. child after child after child that we've seen through the news. And they get younger and younger down to eight years old and then the proliferation of literature that comes out from Black parents talking to each other about how to manage their children so that they're safe out in the world.

And what we end up teaching them-- and this is something we grapple with at Penumbra when we're training young artists. And we know them to be goofy, silly kids, but they are in men's bodies, and they walk through the doors, and you can't follow them. But the children are asked to manage the fear of adults and that we put that burden upon them in a way that is so unfair. Not only does it strip them of their childhood and of what that should be, but it trains adults to rely on a child to manage them in a way so that if children are doing that, they're held accountable if they haven't been raised in that way.

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: But we've been doing that since the days of slavery.

SARAH BELLAMY: Oh, I know. I know that.

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: I'm saying for the sake of the audience for them to understand that this is how we have survived, having to train our children with a different set of rules by which to abide that white children often don't even have to think about, because we want to protect them. Mothers, during the days of slavery, having to tell their children how to respond to people on the streets, slave masters, people who they were working for in order to protect their lives.

And so that's something that has been embedded in us for 400 years that we've had to contend with and continue to pass those lessons along to our children. So when I take my son into a store, I have to tell him keep your hands to your side and stay close to me, because I don't want him to be accused of stealing something or someone following him around the store, because that strips him of his dignity and humanity.

So I try to protect him, but I feel bad as a mom even having to say that to my child. But that's the reality that many Black parents have to face in 2015. And that's just a small portion of the types of lessons that we have to teach our children.

SARAH BELLAMY: Right. Absolutely.

JOHN HARRINGTON: One of those lessons that I would argue is that, and we're trying to teach it both to the young men in Ujamaa Place and also teach it to young cops in Saint Paul and the Metro Transit, is about that legacy of what do Black folks-- what have they experienced over the course of the centuries? And so one of the things that I saw a couple of folks here that were part of, the Selma trip that helped make that trip come alive experience for the men of Ujamaa Place who were invited to come along, but also for several officers from different departments who have gone already. And then the plan that Chief Smith and I have got to try and send officers down there on a regular basis because we feel that it's important for them to have that experience.

In the land of Minnesota nice, it is oftentimes very difficult to get young officers from the suburbs to see the world through different eyes. And you take them down to Montgomery, you take them to Memphis, you take them to Selma, and you have them walk those streets and talk to the young people down there, many of which now are the ranking officers, the chiefs of police and the chiefs of the fire department down there who lived through that time frame.

We think it helps open their eyes to that experience that says, this is why that young man seems incredibly fearful of you when you walk up on the car, when you haven't done anything to him. You don't know him. This is the first time you've ever seen him, but he is so tight that you think, there must be something else going on here.

And what it really is, it's the history of trauma. It's the history of disenfranchisement. It's the history of abuse that he's acting out, that the young white cop or the young Latino cop comes up and says, I don't understand this.

So that, I think, is one of those things that we need to continue to develop, is how do we have that conversation? Because simply talking about it, I don't think has worked. I think you have to drop them into the experience of it if you're really going to have them be able to really, at a gut level, take that experience and actually apply it.

SARAH BELLAMY: I think that's critical. And I think especially at this time and place in our country when we see in certain states school boards trying to strip certain kinds of literature out of the education. So they're not learning about the Civil Rights movement in a robust way. I mean, it's already just like a paragraph in the history textbook that's like this big.

Americans just generally don't know our history well.

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: Because we're afraid of it.

SARAH BELLAMY: We are terribly afraid of it if we're on one side. And I think on the other side, it feels like it will never really truly be honestly told. And so there's a disconnect where it's almost like a psychic break in the American mind that won't allow us to really acknowledge what has happened and how it continues.

What I like about what all of you are saying is that it does not stop. It is a thread that continues throughout our American history. In some ways, it's the principles on which our country is founded and as we negotiate these ideas of liberty and freedom to understand that we're born out of enslavement and genocide.

And that's one of the things that I love about some of the work that we've done here at Penumbra. I'm thinking in particular about the August Wilson cycle and the way in which he always threads the story back to slavery to remind us this is where our country comes from, and we're not done with it yet. And that we shouldn't be afraid of that. But actually it would be a space where we might actually acknowledge who we are and be able to move forward together.

SIGNE HARRIDAY: Well, I was just going to agree, and I was going to say, I actually think it's a systemic choice, that erasure of history, that denial.

The institution-- and I do understand that the institution is carried out by individuals. Please don't misunderstand me when I talk about the institution. I recognize that we represent the institution as individual people.

But the institution of white supremacy, of patriarchy, of misogyny that fuels capitalism and what are the pillars of this country are very intentional about what is and isn't in our textbooks, what is and isn't on our children's plate to read. I mean, I hope that people here understand what's happening in Minneapolis right now. Yeah, OK. So you understand?

So this is something that is much larger than each one of us as individuals. And I guess, I hope, as an artist, that I'm helping you try to find a connection to that reality. How can you figure out what your role and place is in the legacy of America, which is blood soaked, which is-- I mean, I personally struggle sometimes, even as a Black person, trying to say, I'm going to take my space.

What space am I talking about? The space that was ripped and raped away from Native American people. I have to, we have to. You spoke earlier about we can't make it simple, Sarah. We can't make it simple.

We have to get into the complexities. We have to go deeper. We have to ask more questions. We can't know everything. I'm constantly reminded how much I just don't know. But we have to instill-- and this is the thing about the passing down to our children. We have to become more conscious about what it is we are giving.

As people of color, we are constantly having to not only decolonize our minds from what we have been taught, but there's an internalized level about what happens and what we think and feel about ourselves. So our work is deep and real. And we were fed the same, thank you, fill in the blank.

They say we were taught the same things in school that made you believe, and I say you as white folks, think that white supremacy was good. We were taught the same things. And it's a load of not good for anybody, but we can't just talk about it.

And I do think there's power in conversation, because conversation-- there can be a conversation that is kinesthetic, that gets us moving, that gets us thinking. But we do have to make it visible, because what is invisible is that fear between the officer and the man in the car.

What is invisible is what makes me make choices about where I shop and where I don't shop. What is invisible is about what is on the television. Am I discerning the images that I'm receiving, or am I just accepting them? What is invisible is how we live out our lives and the choices we make, that discernment about choice making.

And so I think that's where we've got to get more sophisticated about it. But I got off track.

SARAH BELLAMY: No, I agree. I think that's beautifully said.


Oh, please.

DAVE ELLIS: And do understand, when we talk about dialogue, we're so hooked into wanting a simple fix for everything. We want the easy way out. This is a very complex issue. This is not, I have a problem with the copier, so I have a routine for fixing it.

We're going to have to sit down. We're going to have to have this dialogue at some given point in time. And then we will move into all of these other places. But until we can find the strength, the courage, whatever you want to call it, to sit down and have this conversation and not walk away from it, because that's what we typically do.

We start it. Something will come up. People get upset. They leave. They don't come for whatever reason.

We can't walk away from this. We do live in a democracy. We have to do everything. But at some point, we're going to have to have this conversation and figure out what are we doing? OK, and what should we be doing?

SARAH BELLAMY: One of the things that we talk a lot about at Penumbra in our trainings around racial equity is the ways in which acknowledging racism for white folks, it often feels like the grieving process. So that there's a denial, and then there's anger, and then there's bereavement. There's all of these stages that people go through. And for each one of those stages, there's strategies and tactics to stop it from completing itself from people. And there's all kinds of behaviors that come up from this.

And I think as much as we need to focus and attend to, and I mean this very, very seriously, attend to the historical trauma, the ongoing pain and suffering and endangerment of people of color, Black folks and people of color, we also have to attend to the kinds of traumas that have been done by virtue of the creation of whiteness as a thing, because it didn't always exist. And what has happened to white people as they begin to have to identify with something that is in a kind of oppositional space with another group of people, that there's a kind of a trauma that is involved in that process. And that's something we don't often attend to.

And what we see over and over again is when we get in diverse spaces and people are trying to have conversations about racial equity is different groups need different things. And so you get white folks who really need to process, and they need to learn a lot. They need to learn a lot about it, because they don't experience it daily. It's not something they have to deal with necessarily. They have to choose every day to focus on that work.

Whereas Black folks, we've known that since we were little. And we need a different kind of a space. But how can we figure out ways to be together and also attend to the different things that we need to do? So that's where those conversations that you're mentioning are so important.

Just so that you know, if you're interested, we'll place a list of resources for further reading of some of the texts that we might mention or things that I quote if you'd like to pick them up. But recently I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book, Between the World and Me. Some of you may have read it.

It's a letter to his son. Beautiful, tough piece, but so important and really should be read. It's a letter to a son who's a child born Black in America and who's coming of age today. And Coates writes to his son, "This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it."

So throughout Black American literature, both from Frederick Douglass to Maya Angelou, we've grappled with this very conundrum. It's what WEB Du Bois called double consciousness. It's what Frantz Fanon calls or describes as being sealed into the crushing objecthood.

This process of being race marked in some way is an embodiment of history. Whether we want it or not, it's written on our bodies in a particular way. And Black folks carry that history, the burden of it, very heavily.

At Penumbra, for almost 40 years, we've made space for what I believe are honest and authentic representations of Black life and culture that add dimension and nuance to the representations that I think you were talking about when you talk about television and this need for discernment.

I've seen both artists and audience members heal from that work. And I'd like to learn a little bit more from you, Signe, about the process of art in your organizing, because I think that's a really particular choice for million artist movement. So if you could speak to that a little bit.

SIGNE HARRIDAY: Sure. I mean, I think we do believe that storytelling is a healing pathway. And so much of what becomes important in the work is giving space for people to tell their story in their way, in the ways that they need to.

So as a Million Artist Movement, as opposed to-- and we are very intentionally not an organization. We're this formation, and I know it's a little weird to grapple with. But the point is that people who are artists, but people who are also not artists, are finding ways to tell their stories.

So what that might look like is in a power gathering sitting, we may introduce an article for reflection. And in that article, we will ask people to mine for what is true for them and what is not, and give people the opportunity to speak that truth out loud in a community, a safe space, not a comfortable space, mind you, but a safe space. And so we create-- so that's one way, Sarah, that we do it.

I would say this other level of the professional artists who are creating professional work, we have a group of artists who-- I'm letting the cat out of the bag. Is that an OK thing to say?

SARAH BELLAMY: I think so.

SIGNE HARRIDAY: Some would find me--

SARAH BELLAMY: At the audience.

SIGNE HARRIDAY: --it's not. A group of artists want to reimagine and take a look at lynching photos. The NAACP has had a long history with art, actually, and has used art as a way to inform community and keep community. And there was a huge lynching campaign. So I encourage you to go and learn about what the NAACP was doing with that.

But to take images of lynchings and have a community of artists of color take those images and reimagine them. So the pathway to healing is the acknowledgment this exists. And yes, it did happen in Minnesota. Thank you.

Take these images and honor them in a kind of way. Not because it's beautiful, not because it's pretty, not because it's easy, but it's because it's part of that history learning and connecting. And then reimagine them into something that is a healing trajectory, a shrine, an altar, an acknowledgment of a connection to our humanity, to our ancestry. And let that be a piece that people can experience.

So that work is for that collective of artists and then for the community to be able to see that art. So that's an example, and that's coming. So--

SARAH BELLAMY: It's exciting.

SIGNE HARRIDAY: Ebony Jubilee coming.

SARAH BELLAMY: That's exciting. Nekima, I wanted to ask you a direct question about the slogan Black Lives Matter, because I've heard-- I mean, I'm sure all of you have. When you turn on the news and you listen to some of the rhetoric, and in a lot of ways, rhetoric makes reality. Unfortunately, today, we hear people saying, well, all lives matter and this.

And why are we having these designations of what lives matter? And in this age of Twitter, when short, pithy statements are really what people are looking for, what do you think should-- what's top of mind? What is the issue that people really need to be holding on to right now? And maybe you can speak a little bit to the contestation around the claim that Black Lives do matter.

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: So I would definitely argue that Black Lives Matter. That's point number one. And--


Thank you. It seems like a no brainer to me. But somehow people feel that when you're saying Black Lives Matter, that that means that you are making one group seem superior over others, when in fact, the opposite is true.

We're saying that this is a world where we've seen that primarily white lives matter most. And you see that being played out in the policies that exist, in the ways in which resources are allocated to different groups of people, and the institution of white supremacy that you talked about. There's not one single system or institution in this country that has not been heavily impacted by this system of white supremacy, whether it's our public education system, our policing system, our higher education system, our social welfare system, our business system, I mean, the list goes on and on in terms of the origins of those systems and how they play out in perpetuating oppression and injustice against people of color.

And as we've been talking about, slavery never really ended in this country, even going back to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Now, when I was in law school, we glossed over the language of the 13th Amendment. We just celebrated the fact that it abolished slavery. But when I started studying the war on drugs and mass incarceration, I actually went back to the 13th Amendment. And I was shocked when I looked at the language again, which just to paraphrase it, says neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall be allowed except if one has been duly convicted of a crime.

Now, I would argue, if you're trying to abolish slavery, why not just say neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall be allowed in these United States? Why add a caveat, opening the door to slavery and indentured servitude through the criminal justice system? And that's exactly what happened.

Many Southern states changed their laws on the books. They made standard behavior by Black men a crime, including things like spitting on the sidewalk. So when we fought that ordinance in the city of Minneapolis, we said, these are the Minneapolis Black Codes. And I don't think too many states and cities around the country are immune from the fact that this is embedded now in our constitution. And we've seen it play out, with over 2.3 million people currently incarcerated, 40% of whom are African-American.

There's no way that we can divorce the high rate of Black people, and particularly Black men who are incarcerated, from that legacy of slavery, from the fact that certain people have controlled these institutions throughout history.

So when we're saying that Black Lives Matter, we're saying, let's make what's currently not a reality in American society a reality. Let's not continue to turn a blind eye to Black people being criminalized, being kept on the bottom from a socioeconomic standpoint.

And when you have communities like Rondo, when you have communities like Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma that exist, where you have people who are angry, white people who are angry about the prosperity of the African-American community and who have torn those communities down or run a freeway through them or burn them to the ground, that's the legacy that we've dealt with that tells us that Black Lives don't matter in this country, where a Black man, woman, or child could be lynched and people turn a blind eye or bring their children out to a picnic to watch Black bodies being burned. That's what tells us that Black Lives don't matter.

And around the time that the Rodney King incident happened and the officers were acquitted, a friend of mine was actually killed. She was 15 years old. Her name was Latasha Harlins. And she walked into a store in our neighborhood, and she picked up a bottle of orange juice. Now, this was a national story, I think, in 1991, in March of '91.

And so she walked in the store, picked up a bottle of orange juice, put it in her backpack, started walking towards the counter. And the store owner was a Korean immigrant. And there have been lots of negative tensions between Blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles, there was a big cultural divide. We would have people coming into the community who didn't live there, who would set up shop, and they were often suspicious of the African-Americans who lived there.

And so Latasha went to buy that orange juice-- went to the counter with their money. She had placed the orange juice in her backpack, and the woman accused her of stealing the orange juice. Latasha got upset.

They got into a physical altercation. Latasha threw down the money and the orange juice and turned to walk out of the store. The woman leaned across the counter with the gun and shot Latasha in the back of the head.

Now, she was 15 years old, just one year older than I was. We had gone to junior high school together. The reality is that when the case was brought into the court system, the case was tried by a white female judge. And Latasha's killer received five years of probation. She had to pay for Latasha's funeral, and that was it.

Around the same time, a man kicked a dog and got 28 days in jail. And that was one of the precipitating factors that led to the LA uprisings. It was what happened with Rodney King and the acquittal, plus what happened to Latasha Harlins, because we were given the message that the lives of animals matter more than the lives of Black people.


So when we say that Black Lives Matter, that's the history that we're talking about. We're not saying that all lives don't matter because they do. But the reality is that we've been sent the message time and time again that our lives are worthless. And frankly, we're tired of it.

STEVEN JOHN: The last speaker was Nekima Levy-Pounds, a University of Saint Thomas professor and president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. She was part of a recent panel discussion at Penumbra Theater called On The Front Lines, along with Metro Transit police Chief John Harrington, artist and activist Signe Harriday and Consultant Dave Ellis. More of their discussion is coming up.

SPEAKER 7: MPR News Presents is supported by Medtronic, celebrating 10 years of the Global Heroes program, Twin Cities Marathon, and 10-mile runners who benefit from medical technology and didn't let their diagnosis end the run. More at


SPEAKER 1: Destiny and responsibility.

SPEAKER 2: He understands that there are certain things that the church can do. And then there are certain things that earthly institutions can do. And he wants each of those institutions to step up and do their role.

SPEAKER 3? The Pope can command or cheer on the faithful. What is he doing on this trip to the US? Next time on the Takeaway from WNYC and PRI Public Radio International.

SPEAKER 4: The Takeaway, weekdays at 1:00 PM here on MPR News.

STEVEN JOHN: Now back to MPR News Presents and the discussion about race. The panel responded to questions from the audience. One person bemoaned the lack of young activists and asked about the role of revolution in dealing with racial issues and police brutality. Artist and activist Signe Harriday responded first.

SIGNE HARRIDAY: I'll say that I don't think that there's a lack of young revolutionaries. I was in Cleveland for the movement for Black lives, and we had nearly a thousand young revolutionaries from all over the country. And frankly, there were people from around the world.

Black Lives Matter is certainly a global initiative and movement. It is not specific only to the United States. So I think that's important to recognize as well.

I would point people in the direction of studying Ella Baker. Barbara Ransby wrote a biography of Ella Baker. It's powerful reading, but it also talks about the style of leadership. And I think that we, in the current movement, have moved away from a messianic style of leadership and have moved more to a shared, decentralized style of leadership.

And so it may be difficult to ascertain who are the John Lewis's and who are the Mr. Bond, who we just lost. Who are those individuals? And I would say it's because there are 15 of them or 15,000 of them working very, very hard.

And so I would offer that to just start with and maybe, I mean, I can happily talk about the role of protest, too. I do think not only is it our right, but it is a way to elevate and amplify the voices of many in one moment, which I think is what has become so difficult in media these days. With the 24-hour news cycle, with Twitter, with all of those things, it does become difficult to raise a single voice at a specific time. And protest is a beautiful tool that enables us to do that.

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: I would just piggyback off of that. I would say that there has been a resurgence of young Black leadership that I've seen, especially since the Black Lives Matter movement started, which actually started in the aftermath of the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. That's when they actually first created the tag line, and that was three Black women.

And so they created that tag line actually as part of a gathering of people who had started to come together around these issues because of concerns that they had. So there have been people working in the trenches for a long time. I don't think that there is visible, as Sidney was saying, as what we've seen in the past.

And on some level, that actually is intentional. When we go to these gatherings like Cleveland, Detroit, and other places, the people who we consider to be in leadership often talk about the fact that they don't want to just raise up one leader, that they want to have many leaders throughout the country who are speaking a similar message, who are engaging in nonviolent, peaceful protests, who are speaking truth to power, and who are willing to take the risks associated with speaking truth to power. Because what we've seen in this country is revolutionaries be killed.

And that's sent a signal to many of us since the 60s of the danger of opening your mouth and speaking the truth. But I think now we have a generation of people who understand that. They've seen what has happened historically, but they know that the risks of remaining silent are much too great.

DAVE ELLIS: I honestly believe that the systems that we all work and live in are not broken. I believe they're uniquely designed to give us the outcomes that they give us. And so if we want different outcomes, we have to be brave enough to design a different system. I'm not talking about anarchy, but I am talking about designing something that will give us the outcomes that we want.

Before, there were singular leaders that even our media would run to with any event that happened. They would go to the same folks over and over.

And I finally started asking, who are they leading? Because they're not leading me, and they're not leading anybody that I'm talking to. But that's who the media goes to, because they will stand up. They will open their mouths. They will let it go.

But what I hear Nekima and Signe talking about is a new shift in the way leadership works because you stick your head up, you can get shot. And most of us are trying to figure out, how do we do this work, stay alive, basically, and not burn out? Because this is hard work. This is not a simple thing.

SIGNE HARRIDAY: And we still have political prisoners. I mean, I think that's also like a life reality that, again, has fallen off of the news cycle. But we have political prisoners in this country who were doing that work and continue from behind bars who are trying to do that work, who have been exiled, and who are receiving very-- I mean, I would encourage you to look up what's happening to Mumia right now. It is not beautiful and Russell Maroon and Sekou, and although he is out. We are so grateful.

But there is a lot of work that should be done around political prisoners. And we inside of the movement, no political prisoners are and aren't trying to become one.

STEVEN JOHN: That was artist and activist Signe Harriday. Another member of the audience asked how he should respond when people ask him about Black on Black violence. Here's the response from Nekima Levy-Pounds.

NEKIMA LEVY-POUNDS: Well, I always argue Black on Black crime is a myth. Even the language itself is racialized language, because the majority of white folks who are killed are killed by other white folks. So over 80%, some say upwards of 90%, of white people are killed by other white people.

We never talk about white on white violence, white on white crime, white people shooting up movie theaters and the likes. We just act as though that's an individual act. But when it is a Black person who is doing a crime like that, we actually ascribe that to the entire African-American race of people.

The reality is that when we're talking about homicides in the Black community, which is how I tend to frame the issue, we need to understand that there's a socioeconomic aspect to that. Typically, you don't have middle and upper middle class Black people shooting each other. This is something that tends to happen in low-income communities of color, and we don't take the time to actually dissect what those disputes are about.

Now, obviously, there are some disputes that are gang-related. And even that has to do with socioeconomic issues, a lack of economic opportunity, a lack of educational opportunity and the like, and being able to set up underground markets within certain communities and marking territory. Similar to what you might have happening with mob groups, for example, who feud. So that's one aspect.

Another aspect has to do with the fact that you have people who are concentrated in certain pockets of the city and who are sealed off from access to opportunity. Even the ways that the freeways are designed to basically lock people in, that's a visual representation of what's happening to them socioeconomically, politically, et cetera.

Again, we don't often dissect what's happening in those situations. We just put the tag line black on Black crime as though there's something genetic about us that makes Black people kill each other without really getting real about the fact that this is a byproduct of white supremacy. It is a form of genocide and suicide that's being played out on a regular basis, where you see young people who feel that they don't have a stake in society, so they lose hope and care and concern about their own lives, which means that they don't have hope, care, and concern about the lives of other people.

So what you have to do is work to restore that hope. And I listened to a man by the name of Father Greg Boyle, who started Homeboy Industries about 25 years ago, where he says nothing stops a bullet like a job, and jobs, not jails. That's their motto.

Can we begin to get to that motto in our society and think about the economics and the fact that we've moved away manufacturing plants, warehouses, places where people could work and earn a living wage and support their families even if they didn't have a college degree? We've moved away from that. And instead we blame the poor for acting in a manner that's consistent with the conditions that we allow them to live in. So that's my response.


STEVEN JOHN: That was University of Saint Thomas professor and president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, Nekima Levy-Pounds. Finally, an audience member asked the panel why more effort wasn't being made to get Black people to vote in order to make change. Metro transit police chief and former Minnesota State Senator John Harrington responded first.

JOHN HARRINGTON: I made a speech on the floor when I was on the Redistricting Committee about the gerrymandering of voting districts and noted that if we were to even be minimally representative, we would have to add 20 plus people of color to the Senate, and we'd have to add 40 to 60 plus to the house just to get to minimal representation. And that without that minimal representation, we were going to be stuck in having this same conversation over and over and over again.

That argument did not hold the day. Fortunately enough, in Minnesota, the districts are actually always drawn by the courts these days anyway, because the political parties cannot come up with a system where the voices of the community can ever be heard. We ask, could they simply allow for the maps to be sent out to the community so they could at least look at the maps? We were told, no.

We asked, we at least have the councils that are assigned by the governor to represent the different communities of color, at least look at the map so they could give a voice. They said, no. We talked about just putting the maps up on a website so somebody who was more computer literate than I was would be able to look at them and voice their concerns. And that got shot down.

Ultimately, the courts ruled. But the courts rules don't change things very much.

SARAH BELLAMY: I think the-- I'm sorry.

JOHN HARRINGTON: No, go ahead.

SARAH BELLAMY: I would just say there's a reason why when we vote, it's not a national holiday, that we all don't take off work and we all can't have the opportunity to get to the polls. We see people being deliberately disenfranchised of their right to vote continuously. And we need to get fiercely, fiercely protective of that privilege and make sure that other people can exercise their right to vote as well.

And I think you'll see that Penumbra is really trying to create more forums for us to be able to consider how to help in that process. But we really need to be paying attention to the kinds of schemes that happen in our country when people say, make sure that you vote tomorrow, and it's actually today that people are supposed to be voting. And you see these signs going up all over poor and low-income communities, where people may not have access to television or the internet or to other kinds of media that are constantly reminding them. So that would be what I would say is that if each one of us in this room can just become really fiercely protective about our right to vote and the rights of others to do that, that might change the representation.

STEVEN JOHN: That was Penumbra Theater's co-artistic director, Sarah Bellamy. She moderated a recent event at Penumbra Theater in Saint Paul called On The Front Lines. The panelists were Metro Transit police chief and former state Senator John Harrington, artist and activist Signe Harriday, University of Saint Thomas professor and president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, Nekima Levy-Pounds, and Consultant Dave Ellis. All are African-American.


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