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Twin Histories: Segregation and Police Violence in Minneapolis

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

I.

DJ Screw “built his career on a strange, brilliant idea: slow down the music” to the point where “it sounds like something is wrong.” To the point where everything “seems to be dying—voice, beat, scratches, melodies,” the sound taking the listener “into a whole new world.”

George Floyd ran with Screw in Houston, rapping as Big Floyd on his tapes. As everyone knows, Minneapolis police (MPD) murdered Floyd last month. In the snuff film, you know immediately something is wrong, a man dying before us, taken from this world.

II.

Floyd’s murder tape gives sight, if you look closely, of a world little-named in pieces on his killing. Sustained police savagery marks this world, one city bureaucrats worked, long ago, to segregate, and more recently to keep that way. It is Minneapolis. And knowing its linked police and housing histories is crucial to making sense of today’s protests. These histories show a city saturated in violence—state-sanctioned violence.

III.

MPD, after forming in 1867, made its reputation as a goon squad loyal to local capitalists. Cops fought class wars—actual, violent wars—against striking workers. In 1889, streetcar employees struck for fifteen days, protesting slashed wages. Police intervened. Trailblazing labor reporter Eva Valesh witnessed “a full force of police” ready to defend Thomas Lowry, the streetcar tycoon, and his property. “The mounted and foot police drew their clubs and dashed into the crowd,” she wrote of one crackdown, where “patrol wagons carried full loads to the police station.” The strike ended on company terms.

In the next century, MPD assumed a paramilitary role for the Citizens’ Alliance, formed by elite businessmen in 1903 “to broaden and strengthen the war on unions.” Cops sought “to harass, infiltrate, and attack labor groups,” and terminated the 1909 Machinists’ strike.

IV.

White citizens rallied that year to drive a Black man from Prospect Park. A Black couple, Madison and Amy Jackson, moved there, then tried to build a home nearby for their friend, William H. Simpson. But 125 whites, “many leading business and professional men” among them, gathered in protest. They read a declaration: “We are not here to argue, but to make a perfectly plain statement of our position in the matter, to wit: That we do not want you.”

The city’s first racial housing covenants date to this era. They were “preemptory” in Minneapolis: its “black population remained small until the second half of the 20th century.” Homes in white neighborhoods, covenants stressed, could never “be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.”

V.

June 20, 1922: “MPD officers savagely beat and arrested four men for allegedly inviting some white women to a dance.” June 21, 1922: Patrolman George McNamee confronted a Black boy “sitting on a railing outside of [a] drug store,” struck “him with his club,” then unholstered his revolver and shot four times. The boy survived.

VI.

So did racial covenants, thanks to major trade groups and federal support. The National Association of Real Estate Boards, in 1924, not only endorsed covenants, but deemed them moral, part of its “code of ethics.” The Supreme Court, in Corrigan v. Buckley (1926), upheld their legality.

VII.

Arthur and Edith Lee were, in 1931, “the lone black couple in an all-white neighborhood” in South Minneapolis. “Mobs that sometimes swelled to thousands of people surrounded the home to intimidate and force out the couple and their young daughter, who was 6 at the time.”

VIII.

MPD, serving its Citizens’ Alliance masters, sought to crush the 1934 Truckers’ Strike. Workers won the first skirmish, vanquishing cops “in a massive battle downtown.” Later, police attacked “a group of seventy strikers, shooting them in the back with shotguns as they ran away and killing two of them.” But this terror campaign failed. Protesting workers formed a union—a blow to city business leaders.

IX.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s “administration created the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC)” in 1933. To decide how to grant mortgages, it designed “color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the nation, with the safest neighborhoods colored green and the riskiest colored red.” Black neighborhoods were, by definition, high-risk in HOLC terms, “too hazardous for federally-backed loans.”

Minneapolis officials embraced this “redlining.” Their “1935 land-use planning map of the city,” for example, labeled neighborhoods “Slum” and “Negro Section” accordingly. The city Board of Education later published this map in their “Citizen’s Guide,” “distributed to families looking for housing and educational opportunities for their children.” One had to know which neighborhoods were safe.

These places became easier to identify. “By 1940, as covenants spread, black residents had become concentrated in three small neighborhoods” in Minneapolis, as “some of the most desirable green spaces in the city were ringed by residential districts that barred people of color from taking up residence.”

City planners then focused public housing construction in Black communities—in “the poorest section of north Minneapolis”—explicitly “reject[ing] the notion that public housing should be scattered throughout the city.” For the Minneapolis housing chief, this decision signaled that “the advocates of segregation” had won.

X.

Police treated Minneapolitans of color like enemy agents. During World War II, the MPD’s Internal Security Division, formed with J. Edgar Hoover’s help, monitored “people who might be subversive.” This list included “over 10,000 ‘enemy aliens’” that “anti-immigrant sentiments” motivated the force to suspect.

XI.

Minneapolis ghettoization deepened in the mid-20th century. City council members ruined whatever chances Mayor Eric Hoyer had, under the 1949 U.S. Housing Act, “to implement the integration of low-rent housing.” Instead, the city further developed, over the following decades, “a large concentration of public housing projects in north Minneapolis,” structures “racially segregated and physically isolated from the surrounding community.”

Racial covenants aided this work. Near Lake Nokomis in South Minneapolis, they helped “transform the area into a middle-class white enclave.” Though the Supreme Court, in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), concluded “racially restrictive covenants were no longer enforceable,” it was only 1953 when the Minnesota Supreme Court banned these covenants, and 1954 when Governor C. Elmer Anderson signed a bill outlawing them.

But it was too late. In Minneapolis, what was “illegal racial segregation under the U.S. Constitution, the Fair Housing Act, and other housing statutes” became entrenched.

XII.

The Minnesota State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported, in September 1965, that “discrimination as a major social problem in Minneapolis…is almost wholly a problem involving Negroes and American Indians,” and “especially apparent in police-community relations.” Two years later, “police watched on as a group of four white boys savagely beat a Black boy.” The Committee again, in 1974, “found that MPD was enforcing laws unfairly in the Native community,” and the force racked up “eleven incidents of police brutality” in 1975.

Cops murdered “Black elders Lillian Weiss and Lloyd Smalley during a botched SWAT raid” in 1989, when “a stun grenade—designed for use in hostage situations—caused a fire at [their] home, killing them.” MPD “killed Tycel Nelson, a Black 17-year-old,” in 1990 as he ran for safety. They threw two indigenous men in a squad car’s trunk in 1993, taking the pair on a “rough ride,” and later that year “shot a 16-year-old playing with a toy gun” in the indigenous Little Earth community.

XIII.

Redlining, though illegal, persisted. Blacks in Minneapolis, in the early 1990s, were still “routinely rejected in the mortgage lending process more often than white people.” In 1993, ACORN “found that applicants from low-income neighborhoods with high concentrations of persons of color…were denied insurance coverage three times more often than applicants from middle-class white neighborhoods” in the city. “Insurance redlining,” this was called.

These practices were just part of persistent discrimination. NAACP and Minnesota Legal Aid Society lawyers charged, in 1992, “that the public housing and Section 8 programs in Minneapolis had been operated in a manner that helped to create and perpetuate racial segregation.”

XIV.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) put a chapter on Minneapolis in its 1998 report on police brutality. “Lax oversight and the failure to act quickly to dismiss an abusive officer” revealed MPD’s priorities. “Of the fourteen city police departments examined,” HRW concluded, “only four—San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Minneapolis—still allow chokeholds.”

The sadism continued: “In 2006, MPD officers beat a Native-Latino man and locked him in a swelteringly hot squad car for more than half an hour.” Reporters exposed, in 2009, the Metro Gang Strike Force, a police gang that “had been surveilling, brutalizing, and stealing from people of color in Minneapolis” for years. MPD’s 2013 confrontation with Terrance Franklin ended when he “was cornered and shot to death in a South Minneapolis basement,” and in 2015, “officers shot and killed Jamar Clark, an unarmed Black man, while responding to a 911 call in north Minneapolis.”

XV.

North Minneapolis was “manufactured by racial zoning policies created by the federal government,” and then “institutionalized by local urban planners.” By policies that, today, make once-covenanted Minneapolis homes worth 15% more than those never aided by racist law. By policies that helped create the racial wealth chasm.

That divide—Black households have 8.7% the wealth of white households, as of 2016—is worse than it was in 1968. It “actually widened a bit over nearly a half century of what is commonly thought of as progress for African-Americans.”

XVI.

“Watch me,” Big Floyd commands, again and again, on a freestyle circulating widely since his murder. In the end, millions did. And the resultant activist upsurge is thrilling. But we need a sustained effort, for years, to dismantle this country’s police and housing systems—both racist, both violent, both rotten at the core.

More articles by:

Nick Alexandrov lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com

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