‘I can feel their anger, pain and fear’: Brooklyn Center’s first Black mayor on Daunte Wright protests and America’s biggest challenge

Securing justice for young man’s family a priority, Mike Elliott tells Andrew Buncombe

Wednesday 14 April 2021 18:31
<p>Mike Elliott has fired the city’s police chief Tim Gannon</p>

Mike Elliott has fired the city’s police chief Tim Gannon

On Sunday night, as hundreds of people gathered outside Brookyn Center police station – protesting over the killing of Daunte Wright – a slightly built figure was walking way from scenes that would quickly turn chaotic.

His face bore a look of concern. Yet, he paused long enough to mention he lived in the area and to give his name – “Mike Elliott”.

Within hours, if it hadn’t happened already, Elliott, 37, the mayor of Brooklyn Center, would be cast into the centre of a storm. His community of 30,000 would be rocked, both by the shooting dead by police of 20-year-old Wright, and the force’s response to the protests – in particular the excessive use of tear gas and rubber bullets.

The following day, as police revealed body-camera footage showing three officers pulling the young man over, and one female officer fatally shooting him, apparently by mistake, Elliott – unlike the police chief, Tim Gannon – felt the officer should be fired immediately.

“We cannot afford to make mistakes that lead to the loss of life of other people and in our profession,” he said at a press conference, while explaining that he did not have the authority to fire the officer. 

Shortly afterwards, Elliott was given new powers over the police, and Mr Gannon and his officer, named as Kim Potter, were on their way out.

“I’m hoping this will bring some calm to the community,” said Elliott. “We want to send a message to the community that we are taking this situation seriously.”

Daunte Wright’s mother honours her son during a protest over the fatal shooting

When Elliott was elected mayor in 2019, the first Black man to hold that post in the city’s 110-year history, he said he wanted to ensure equality for the city’s different ethnic groups, and to foster a sense that someone was looking out for them.

And this week, he has emerged as the public face of the city’s efforts to secure justice for Wright’s family, and in particular for his mother, Katie Wright, who alerted the media to the death of her son even as his body lay in the street.

Brooklyn Center is the most diverse city in Minnesota, and Elliott, who moved to the US from Liberia when he was 11, tells The Independent he is proud of that fact. 

“What I really love about Brooklyn Center is it is a very welcoming place,” he says. “There is part of our community where folks built their homes and have lived all their lives. There are other members of our community who are migrants.” 

Speaking in his office in the city hall complex, he adds: “But what’s fascinating, what’s beautiful about Brooklyn Center, is that it is fully integrated.”

That may very well not extend to its police force, which critics say has a long history of discrimination against communities of colour. The Star Tribune said the killing of the 20-year-old this week was the 6th officer-involved death since 2014 – all but one of them involving people of colour. 

The most recent was in 2019, when police shot and killed 21-year-old Kobe Dimock-Heisler, who had lunged at officers with a knife. The young man, who was on the autism spectrum, had used a hammer and a knife in a fight with his grandparents that day, but had been disarmed by the time police arrived.

Nevertheless, officers insisted on entering the house, and shot the young man six times. His mother, Amy Dimock, said police had escalated the situation and “ended up putting my son down like an animal”.

A repeated criticism of the force is that its officers are overwhelmingly white and do not live in the city. Elliott confirmed to reporters this week that none of the 47 police employed by the department live in Brooklyn Center, though some live in neighbouring communities. Only a very small number are people of colour, and just four are African-American.

He said the force needs to hire more officers of colour, and should look to draw from the community. 

“There is a huge importance to having a significant number of your officers living in the community where they serve,” he said. “It helps infuse knowledge of the community into policing, and I think that can only help to enhance the work of the officers, and it can only help to make their jobs better or easier.”

Daunte Wright with his 2-year-old son

While Brooklyn Center may be one of several growing communities in the Twin Cities area where a majority of residents identify as “non-white”, it was not always the case. Reports suggest that, just three decades ago, it was 90 per cent white, compared to just under 40 per cent today.

Many communities in Minnesota and across the nation, practiced so-called redlining, in which the deeds, or “covenants”, for properties and land in several neighbourhoods legally prohibit owners selling to Black and minority residents.

A 2020 investigation by the University of Minnesota, called Mapping prejudice: A painful part of Minneapolis history, highlighted thousands of such covenants and their impact on the disproportionate development of the region’s communities. 

While the Twin Cities repeatedly top “best places to live” surveys, critics point out that such accolades do not reflect the experience of Black people here. A 2019 survey by USA Today ranked the area 4th worst for Black Americans, and found it had some of the highest racial economic disparities in the nation.

Activists say even road projects, such as the I-35W, which cuts through south Minneapolis, were often built through Black neighbourhoods, with the impact of splitting them up.

“The devastating consequences of housing segregation is felt, I believe, mainly in education,” Keith Mayes, a University of Minnesota associate professor of African American Studies, told KARE-11News. “And the housing disparities created the educational disparities that we still live with today.”

Kirsten Delegard, Director at Mapping Prejudice Project, tells The Independent, there is little evidence that Brooklyn Center or Brooklyn Park, the sister community, had such covenants. She says it is one of just a few cities in the state where people of colour make up the majority.

“As more Black people have moved out of Minneapolis for different reasons, it is one of the few places that has provided opportunities for affordable housing for non-whites,” she says.

Last month, in an effort backed by Elliott, Brooklyn Center joined the Just Deeds coalition, which is seeking to highlight, and end, any racial covenants on government-owned properties.

In his press conferences, Elliott has sought to sympathise with the protesters, while urging them to act peacefully. Indeed, he confirmed he had been out on the streets on Sunday night, which was when The Independent initially met him.

“I got a chance to talk with folks who were out there protesting,” he said. “And what I saw was young people, many of who looked like Daunte Wright. And I could feel their pain, I can feel their anger. I can feel the fear in these young people.”

He said: “They’re showing up to ask why is it, there’s a significantly higher likelihood of an encounter with police in their own communities, resulting in their demise, in their death. I don’t think they are there to cause harm.”

In addition to firing the police chief and the city manager, Elliott has asked that a banner saying “The Thin Blue Line” be removed from the police station, amid claims it is inflammatory.

Protests have continued despite the firing of the police chief

Elliott tells The Independent that the force is now being asked to respond in “ways it has never had to move before. And so it’s taken myself and the leadership and the police department to be nimble, and to be responsive”.

He adds: “We certainly have a lot of work to do as a police department, in order that we can better serve the community. That’s for sure. That was true before Daunte Wright was murdered, and remains true right now. There’s a lot of work we have to do.”

Elliott, who says he enjoys gardening and running and has fallen back on his fitness to propel him in recent days, has permitted activists to attend his press conferences. There have been some heated exchanges.

On Tuesday, Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he welcomed the move by Elliott to fire the police chief and city manager. Activist Nikima Armstrong said it was a “step in the right direction”, but wanted more done.

She has also called for an independent state special prosecutor, to handle the investigation of all police-involved killings. 

She told protesters on Tuesday night that an independent body, and not Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), should oversee probes into incidents such as the killing of Daunte Wright. “We want an independent body to investigate police killings and not the BCA,” she said.

Some commentators have suggested Elliott’s press conferences have felt chaotic and that he is struggling to get a grip on the situation.

He disputes a suggestion that he is going to get blown away in the whirlwind.

“I’m confident we will see this through. Because we’re working together as a team, [and] we’re also working with our regional and state partners to address this crisis,” he says.

He adds: “The most important thing in all of this, really, is to keep the community safe. And to make sure that there is a process with accountability that leads to justice for Daunte Wright.”

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