Minnesota Untold: Black & Blue

If the murder of George Floyd brought a reckoning, there is no mistaking for whom the reckoning has come.   

On November 2, Minneapolis voters will consider a charter amendment that would transform the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) into a Department of Public Safety, emphasizing a public health approach to fighting crime.   

It follows nearly two years of protests and calls to ‘defund’ the police, the torching of the 3rd Police Precinct, and the departure of nearly 300 Minneapolis police officers.   

But a review of the 150-year history of the MPD shows such reckonings have come and gone with little impact on the way the department functions day to day.  

"As the (3rd) police precinct was burning, I had historian colleagues from across the country texting me, ‘Are you watching this? When was the last time this happened?’" said Michael Lansing, a history professor at Augsburg University.

The answer is 1967, when simmering unrest from a series of police abuse cases and chronic housing discrimination ignited protests and riots along Plymouth Avenue in North Minneapolis.  Businesses were looted and burned. The Minnesota National Guard was called in.  

But the untold story of the Plymouth Avenue uprising is the political fallout afterwards.   

The Rise of Charles Stenvig 

Minneapolis Mayor Art Naftalin, a Hubert Humphrey protégé, decided not to run for reelection in 1969, opening the door for Charles Stenvig, a detective and president of the Minneapolis Police Federation.  

Stenvig ran as an independent for mayor, portraying himself as the little guy fighting the liberal establishment and promising to "take the cuffs off the police." 

To nearly everyone’s surprise, including his own, he won, easily.   

At his swearing in, Stenvig told a reporter, "God is my chief advisor and it won’t cost the city a penny." 

In his extensive research of the Stenvig years and the influence of the Minneapolis police union, Lansing discovered that "all the politics around policing intensifies." 

"Stenvig is perfectly willing to throw his mayoral weight around in internal affairs in the police department," he said, as Stenvig makes a "full-throated public defense of public safety as it is, not as it might be." 

At the time, the police force was overwhelmingly white and had rejected efforts to reform the department both internally and externally, he said.   

Other historians have been connecting the same dots back to 1969. 

"They (the public) saw their world collapsing, and they responded by electing a ‘strong man’ in Stenvig whom they believed could bring back law and order," said Yohuru Williams, an historian and director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas.   

"I think we're at the precipice of a very similar moment today, as Minneapolitans turn on their televisions to protests, with the memory of the rebellion from last summer, and the flames that engulfed this community. They have a choice. We're at a crossroads," Williams said.   

Activists and critics of the MPD have drawn some of the same historical parallels.   

"He may have been one of the first law and order campaigns in the country because he ran specifically against what he called racial militants, criminals, and protesters," said DA Bullock, a filmmaker and activist with the police abolitionist group Reclaim the Block, who is a frequent critic of the MPD on social media.  

"Even though we’re not saying it as crudely in 2021, we’re still very susceptible to give in to fear based arguments.  And that was Charles Stenvig’s entire platform," Bullock said.  

Doubling Down on Policing 

Stenvig was reelected in 1971 by an even wider margin, 71 percent of the vote, emphatically defeating the well-known civil rights leader, Harry Davis. Davis was the first African American to run for Minneapolis mayor. 

In his second term, Stenvig consolidated power and eliminated any external oversight of the police department, including an early incarnation of the Civilian Review Commission.   

Stenvig also oversaw the MPD’s brutal crack-down on student protests over the Vietnam War at the University of Minnesota in 1972 by calling in tactical units and using tear gas, despite pleas for restraint from school officials.  

Stenvig would lose his bid for reelection in 1973 but would become mayor again in 1975.   

Historians believe his impact on the culture of the MPD has been enduring, even if most officers today don’t know his name.    

"They’re holdovers from this idea that we have to corral and control people of color, and the people of Minneapolis vote overwhelmingly for that with Stenvig in the late 1960’s, and then they vote again for it, even though they have a viable alternative," Williams said.  

"That’s really why it becomes such an important line of demarcation," he said. 

A ‘Near Race-Riot’ in ‘64 

For many African Americans in Minneapolis, the experience of the Stenvig years was deeply traumatic.   

"It was horrible," said Tene Wells, recalling the similarity of George Floyd’s killing to her father’s violent assault 57 years earlier.   

Her father, Raymond Wells, was a respected community leader, a founding board member of the Way Community Center, and a former Golden Gloves boxing champ.  

In May of 1964, police arrested Wells at 12th & Freemont Ave. N. for using profane language. 

According to news accounts from the time, three Minneapolis police officers held him down, as a rookie, David Clunis, beat Wells with a blackjack.   

The newspaper headlines quoted police as saying it turned into a "near race riot." 

Tene Wells, who was 12-years old at the time, believes her father was targeted because of his community activism.   

"And so, a bunch of cops beat him up, broke his ribs," she said. 

When charges against Raymond Wells were dropped a month later, he told reporters, "Prejudice in Minneapolis has been hidden for years." 

But on that same front page from June of 1964 there is another headline: "Mayor Denies Any Serious Race Bias Among Policemen."   

The mayor was Art Naftalin.  Three years later, Plymouth Avenue would burn.   

Expanding the Frame 

"It is very important to understand that there has been an effort to reform the police for 75 years, and this is where we’re at in 2021," said Lansing, the historian who has looked at this period. 

Hubert Humphrey was the first Minneapolis Mayor to promise police reforms when he was elected in 1945 and is widely believed to be one of the first mayors in the U.S. to require police training in race relations.   

Even by the 1940’s the MPD had earned a national reputation for brutality.  

At the turn of the 20th Century, a four-term mayor, Albert Alonzo "Doc" Ames, installed his own brother as police chief and turned the MPD into a criminal enterprise, running a variety of gambling and prostitution protection rackets hand-in-glove with criminal underworld. 

In 1934, the MPD was the tool of the business elite as it brutally cracked down on labor uprisings. In what became known as ‘Bloody Friday,’ police officers opened fire into a crowd of unarmed Teamsters’ picketers, killing two and injuring 67.

Activists have seized on the history of the MPD to argue for structural change rather than incremental reforms.   

MPD 150 is a "horizontally-organized" collective of researchers, activists, and artists who have organized a compendium of critical events shaping the history of the Minneapolis Police Department.  Organizers of the web site did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.   

Historians and activist say one need only expand the frame to see how modern municipal policing in America is descended from slave patrols in the south.  

The MPD was founded in 1867, just five years after the Dakota War and two years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.  

The MPD’s critics have drawn a comparison between slave patrols and the police body cam footage of the arrest of Jaleel Stallings in May of 2020, which showed police officers "hunting" protestors. 

"They started going out and catching slaves," said Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), at a recent press conference.  "And they continue that dark past and dark history." 

Others see the modern manifestation in various law enforcement philosophies and tactics over the decades, like Broken Window Theory, Stop and Frisk, and saturation patrols.  

"That kind of pretext stop, a blanket version of policing, definitely harkens back to this notion of slave patrols," said Bullock, the filmmaker and activist.  

"You’re patrolling sort of a general area, looking for a general type of person," he said.  "They’re guilty first and have to prove their innocence on the street. And that’s not the American way."