While the City I love burns

R.T. Rybak
May 29 · 7 min read

Sleepless and mortified, my heart melts in real-time as parts of the city I love so deeply burn away. Knowing these neighborhoods as I do I see way too clearly what is going up in smoke. While the TV showed things on fire, I saw flames getting closer to the first-generation entrepreneur who so proudly showed me the new business where he invested everything he had, the neighborhood kids who cheered so loudly at the opening of that library, and the seniors in that wonderful care facility where they must be trapped because of COVID.

It is nearly impossible to get these horrifying images out of our heads, but we must, because right now our eyes have to stay focused on one single image:

A human being, staring calmly off into the middle distance, while his knee suffocates another human being. Our repulsion should boil over as we see this is a white police officer, who took an oath to protect and serve that person on the ground, who is a black man, who we know would not be treated like that if he was white. We should be shocked again when we see other officers doing nothing to prevent a death.

And nothing should shock us more than the fact that we are no longer shocked, because this image is so familiar.

Until every one of us can see that image for what it is we cannot move another inch forward. Our country, and our beloved imperfect city, has tolerated two tiers of justice too long when we never should have tolerated it in the first place. We need to acknowledge that on some level, every one of us had a role in keeping this inequity in place.

I’ll go first, because after 12 years as mayor of this city, I should. My own efforts to change a police department and its culture failed badly. That will haunt me for the rest of my life, and it should. As each of us sees and acknowledges our own part it can be paralyzing. It was for me. But I was touched deeply yesterday by my colleague at the Minneapolis Foundation, Chanda Smith Baker. Having grown up and now raising a family as an African American in north Minneapolis, and leading Pillsbury United Communities for years, she has seen so many more of the consequences of our deep, endemic racism than I ever will. But as we surveyed the damage and pain in our community she said simply, and clearly: “We have no choice but to act.”

So act we will.

We will deploy $500,000 from The Minneapolis Foundation’s Fund for Safe Communities to support the people of Minneapolis as they strive for justice, equity and healing in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody.

Money matters. But it is not the only tool that can and should be used by a community Foundation like the Minneapolis Foundation. The Foundation needs to use its visibility, privilege, and trust in the community to bring about change in policies and values. Most importantly, the Foundation needs to recognize that while raising its voice, it also needs to lift up the voices of the people who are closest to the issues. In addition, my responsibility goes beyond leading the Foundation to include the special obligation of a former Mayor who owes it to the city to be as blunt and sometimes dangerous in sharing what my experience tells me needs to be done right now.

So what can others do?

A very well-intentioned friend asked me yesterday what was the one thing he could do to make this situation better. I had to say, “there’s no one thing.” You can’t fully stop racism in policing without understanding the racism in the laws we ask our police to enforce, the racism in a criminal justice system that over-incarcerates black men, the racism in how we white Americans perceive a threat when we see someone who is black. An unjust economic system matters, and so does the issue where I focus most these days: the intolerable racial inequities in education.

It all matters and it’s all connected. But, right now, nothing matters more in Minneapolis than reforming the Minneapolis police. Obvious first steps include demilitarizing the training programs, building better tracking systems that intervene early in an officer's career before the behavior escalates into these tragic incidents, and overturning the “Stanek Amendment” - the legislature shoved down Minneapolis’ throat to prevent the city from requiring officers live in the city.

There are many more specific actions that can be taken but above it all is police culture. I know this city’s history well. There’s been something about police in Minneapolis — practically from the beginning. I’m often asked why does one of the most progressive cities in the country have so many racial issues with our police? First, this city that so proudly wears its progressive credentials has actually not been so progressive on issues of race — especially as race relates to police, housing, the economy, and more.

More important, after years of being a reporter covering the department; and after years serving as Mayor and getting to know many officers well; I have come to know that we have a majority of officers who let a minority of officers create a dominant us-vs-them culture steeped in racism.

Central to that is the toxic Federation President Bob Kroll who pushes every hot button, blames every victim, refuses to acknowledge any misbehavior, and plays to the deepest fears of his members. (If this is sounding familiar, it should.) Protesters have called for his resignation. But he is an elected official. And like any politician, you can only remove that person if the police officers who elected him rise up and say enough is enough. It is both shocking, and shockingly unsurprising, that we have not heard more officers speak out about George Floyd’s death. To the many good officers I know exist: I know the consequences of being shunned by your co-workers, but I also know you know in your heart that George Floyd should not be dead. Your silence is deafening and this city cannot move forward until we hear your voices.

I also truly believe our greatest hope is Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. I have known Rondo in many ways — as the incredibly effective chief of staff to a police chief, I tried to fire; as the officer who night after night I saw build rapport with residents living in fear; as the officer who sued the department for racial bias; as the precinct commander who built deep respect with both the officers and the community and now, as the chief who made the right call by immediately firing the officers involved in the death of George Floyd. His moral compass has never wavered. His empathy has never faltered. He is a child of our city whose roots and understanding run deep. He is exactly the right person at the right time. Rarely does the world present us with clear-cut choices but in this case, I can bluntly say: Rondo is the good guy, Kroll is the bad guy and I urge every person in the community to stand squarely behind Rondo at this critical time because he absolutely must win.

He is not alone. Mayor Jacob Frey stood rock solid with his chief when the tough decisions needed to be made and I know personally he has the moral clarity to do that again. Help him succeed where I failed.

He is also not alone. This city council has the guts and perspective to do what’s right. Specifically, this city that should rightfully feel such shame for letting this go so long should also be filled with pride in the inspirational leadership that Andrea Jenkins and Jeremiah Ellison, a kid from the north side, bring to our community.

We have stood at this place before, in Minneapolis and across the country. Another incident, a few days of promises and then…as the attention fades, so does the hope for change. Is change possible? I know it is because I have seen it before.

Forty-one years ago, I was a young crime reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. Night after night, I covered a police department that had deep issues of trust with two communities: residents who were black, and residents who were gay.

All these years later one of those groups has seen enormous change. The Minneapolis Police, which back then routinely beat and humiliated gay residents, is now one of the most gay-friendly departments in the country with openly gay officers serving in every part of the force, including at one point, the chief role.

The fact that we have seen so much progress with gay residents and almost none with black residents says a lot about racism. We need to own that. But it does also say that change is possible, and now we have to prove that is true.

I finish writing this as the sun comes up. I hear a siren and shudder to think what has happened overnight. Teetering on the precipice with the city I love so deeply, I can only say: Hold that horrible image of the knee on the neck in your head to see clearly what is wrong that must be made right. Take the advice Chanda gave me that, “we have no option but to act.” And realize that sometimes when you fall over the edge you are actually going to a better place.

R.T. Rybak
Former Minneapolis Mayor (2002–2013)

R.T. Rybak

Written by

Minneapolis Foundation CEO. Lover of all things Minnesota, esp. the Twins. Author of Pothole Confidential: My Life As Mayor of Minneapolis. @R_T_Rybak

R.T. Rybak

Written by

Minneapolis Foundation CEO. Lover of all things Minnesota, esp. the Twins. Author of Pothole Confidential: My Life As Mayor of Minneapolis. @R_T_Rybak

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