Why you should care
Because racial disparity should affect everyone.
The fallout over police shootings that left Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile, in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, dead this week is being waged throughout social media. But how are political leaders actually contending with their laws and policies in the wake of these deaths — and of so many other Black American males? The Department of Justice has launched a civil rights investigation in Louisiana, while Minnesota’s governor has called for a federal investigation into Castile’s death.
On the other side of the Mississippi River, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is all too familiar with this sort of bloodshed. Last fall, a police shooting of an unarmed Black man in her city led to an 18-day occupation of a police station by local protesters. In the end, a county attorney announced that no charges would be filed. When OZY met with Hodges before this week’s tragedies, the former city councilwoman — a white Democrat who took office on an equity-for-all platform in January 2014 — talked about addressing race relations in big cities.
OZY: How do you handle lethal force situations between police and the community, like the one in November?
Betsy Hodges: We asked for a federal investigation within 24 hours — we already had a mechanism in place for critical incidents like that, which is unusual. Typically, the investigation is done by the police department itself. We believed that the department could do an effective job, but we also knew that regardless of whether or not we did it right, the community would have questions about the result. I would say it should now be standard operating procedure in cities.
OZY: The police department was open to being scrutinized that way?
B.H.: I was open to be scrutinized that way, regardless.
OZY: Why do you think you were able to weather the storm of that shooting?
B.H.: The first thing, I have to say, is that it was completely understandable to me why [people were upset]. There’s racism and then there are racist systems in this country. People are angry about it. I share that anger.
Overall, public safety was paramount. It’s a balance between making sure the protesters have space they need to exercise their First Amendment rights, and making sure that public safety is maintained. For a lot of officers, public safety and law enforcement are the same thing. There were laws being broken during the occupation: fires in the middle of the street, tents on public ground, a road that was being blocked.
We didn’t want to spark uprisings or riots. We wanted to give people the space they needed.
OZY: So you told police to hold back and maybe not sweat the small stuff?
B.H.: Yep. We didn’t want to spark uprisings or riots. We wanted to give people the space they needed. And the space shifted over time. It wasn’t an accident that it ended peaceably. Every day I was working, the city was working backstage — to mediate, to have negotiations, to have the lines of communication always open. I was talking to the family and protesters.
OZY: Watching Ferguson and Baltimore, did you ever think, “This could happen to us”?
B.H.: Yes. My chief had been to Ferguson and was part of the after-action process there and what the lessons were. I had a staff member who had been at Sanford, Florida, just a month before. She had her handwritten notes that we were using. We did a listening session, the night of the shooting, with the community. Because in Sanford, we knew that they waited a few days, and the community had to agitate. And I didn’t want anybody to have to agitate to have a public space in which to express what they were thinking and feeling.
OZY: What drew you to become an advocate for solving racial disparity?
B.H. I grew up in a very wealthy, very white suburban community. And I always had this feeling that I was missing something, and I couldn’t name it. When I went away to school and started taking sociology classes, I could name dynamics in my community that I couldn’t articulate before. There came a moment in my early 20s where I realized that racial disparities are bad for everybody, and that the way racial relationships get set up in this country, it’s harder for white people to recognize that it is hindering us. I’m not trying to equate white people’s experience with racial systems with people of color’s experience: White people are often absent from the impact.
Some of my role models are Hubert Humphrey — he was the mayor of Minneapolis, architect of the civil rights department there, before he was senator and vice president. Former Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone is always an inspiration to me. Humphrey and Wellstone have shown me that white people can lead thoughtfully and respectfully on issues of race, knowing that in large measure we get to lead our white brothers and sisters. My goal is to make sure that your race, your current income, your zip code no longer predict life outcomes.
OZY: What are the little things that go into making city policies more equitable?
B.H.: It’s anything from what is our street lighting policy, and is it complaint-based? Because we know that poorer neighborhoods are less likely to complain. So we’re switching to LEDs and will have a replacement schedule over time so that all neighborhoods are well lit at all times. There is a 30-million word gap between white kids and kids of color by the time they are 3 years old — I have a cradle-to-K program that is looking at brain development and healthy starts for those kids.
OZY: How do you feel about the future of the country, considering these types of incidents?
B.H.: I wouldn’t say it’s exciting, because the activism we’re seeing now is born out of devastation and a legacy of hurt. But there’s an opening being created to accelerate the work of racial justice in this country. There is an eagerness to take advantage of the moment that’s being created, while lamenting the things that have created that opening.