Keith Ellison came of age as an activist fighting police brutality. Now, as the attorney general of Minnesota, he’s prosecuting what may be the most important police brutality case in modern history: the case against the four Minneapolis police officers accused of murdering George Floyd, an unarmed black man.
As a University of Minnesota law student in the late 1980s, Ellison became a leader in a series of protests after police killed two elderly black residents in a botched drug raid. As Mother Jones has written, those officers escaped accountability, but that led Ellison to create the Coalition for Police Accountability and build a career in politics that eventually made him the first Muslim member of Congress and now the top prosecutor in Minnesota.
Ellison spoke about the protests, prosecutions and police power with Reveal’s Al Letson for this week’s episode, just as he was making the decision to bring more serious charges against the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes, Derek Chauvin, and to charge the three other officers present who didn’t stop him.
You can listen to the full show here. Below is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
Al Letson: When I see these uprisings happening across the country, the feeling that I get is that a lot of the people that are marching in the street have the exact same feeling of that we’re just tired. We’re tired of having this conversation. We had it when Eric Garner died. We had it when Philando Castile died. And at this point, like, we’re just so over it and that anger is just exploding. What do you say to those people who are just tired and over it?
Keith Ellison: You know, if you try to ask somebody for patience who’s been extremely patient, they might have some choice words for you, right? I just say to those folks, you know, we’ve never seen meaningful social change without people getting in the street, raising their voices. I say be safe. Remember COVID. I say, you know, be peaceful. But by all means, exercise your First Amendment right, because if we don’t have that, it’s extremely difficult to get policymakers to implement the changes that could bring about a better set of circumstances for us. So that’s what I tell them. And, you know, I mean, I don’t ask for patience. Imagine it’s 400 years of people being denied it in so many cases where there was no accountability. I mean, it just compounds, you know, that level of disappointment and expectation of an unjust outcome.
AL: So now you’ve been handed the case to prosecute the officer. Everything you do is going to be under not just a microscope in your state, but worldwide. What’s your approach going to be?
KE: Well, our approach is going to be not to worry about public pressure, because if you worry about that, then your eyes are not focused on justice. I’m comfortable we’ll call it a murder, because that’s what the complaint alleges at this time. But we’re going to make a very strong case that the jury should convict. But we do understand that we’ve got to be very, very methodical because, you know, these cases are not easy. And, you know, Al, it’s interesting, you know, from time to time, video comes out on these matters, and people are outraged at what they see. And yet the cases do not result in the kind of outcomes that one would expect.
AL: Why is it so hard to convict a police officer when we have videotape showing exactly what happened?
KE: Let’s just run the numbers. Walter Scott, from what it looked like, he was executed, running from the police, shot multiple times. Hung jury. Rodney King, the first Simi Valley jury. Not guilty. Philando Castile. Not guilty. So to your question, why? I think multiple reasons. One is that jurors have a tendency to resolve doubts in favor of the police. The truth is that under the law, an officer has no more credibility as a witness than any other witness. But given our culture and our training and our upbringing, they are accorded with a certain degree of credibility. And so there’s a factor.
The public expects that people entrusted with the role of guardians will be guardians. And that means intervening when someone is in distress. Even if it is at the hands of another person entrusted with guardianship. That is a community expectation. It’s not unrealistic. It’s policy in many police departments throughout the country, including Minneapolis. The idea of duty to assist, duty to intervene. These are real things, and they’re reasonable expectations for somebody entrusted with the role of guardian in our society.
AL: So since 2012, 2,600 complaints have been made against police, which resulted in just 12 disciplinary actions. Just 12. Minnesota doesn’t make it easy to get access to disciplinary records. Is that part of the problem?
KE: Lack of transparency contributes to the problem. There’s no question that that is true. I mean, I think some sunshine in this situation would do a lot of good for the officers who are trying to do the right thing. I mean, here’s one thing that I’ve known, you know, and many of your listeners know: There’s a lot of great officers out there who joined the force to help people. And yet, what is the benefit of doing the right thing? And what is the cost of doing the right thing? For example, if you have an officer who says: “I saw my officer do something that is unethical, wrong, immoral, I told him to stop it. He told me where I could stick it. And now I’ve got to deal with this guy and all his friends on my job every day. And the management and nobody else seems to be able to even protect me.” I mean, the bottom line is, this is a problem. This is a cultural issue. And we’ve got to be able to create an environment where we keep the good people good, which means that we have accountability for people who do wrong.
AL: Are police unions too powerful?
KE: In Minneapolis, I’d say yes. I’m not an authority on all of them, but personally, I think that when it comes to pay, pension, working conditions, that there should be strong police unions, strong unions – period. But when it comes to misconduct and discipline, when it comes to mistreatment of persons in custody, or I think that the officers should have due process in the hands of the City Council or mayor.
AL: I have a feeling that for you specifically, this is going to be a really hard, uphill battle, because if we go back to 2007, Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, called you a terrorist.
AL: And this is the same man accused of wearing a white power badge on his jacket.
AL: So I’m just curious how you’re going to be able to work with people who label you a terrorist, to move the whole conversation into a better place?
KE: Well, for your listeners, if I could give a little context: He was teaching a police officer training class. There was nobody in the room except police officers. And he said the people of Minneapolis are really dumb. We’re at war with the terrorists, but they just elected one of them. And then one officer says, “Wait a minute, are you talking about Congressman Ellison?” And he said, “Well, we did just elect him.” And so she showed courage, moral courage. And she would not let it go. And she pressed that complaint. He ended up having to apologize or whatever. But then later, he told me he didn’t really say it. But I’m like, whatever, man.
AL: And this is all based on your religion. This is based on the fact that you’re Muslim, right?
KE: That is true. That is the reason. But look, there are serious issues that we have got to deal with. And it has to do with the personnel. And it has to do with a number of things, including the president of our federation. You know, we need somebody who is trying to try to protect our community. Not somebody who was on some other agenda.
Kroll said he’s going to wear his uniform to the (President Donald) Trump rally. The (police) chief said, no, you can’t do that. And so he shows up with some T-shirts saying, “Cops for Trump,” and then gave a big speech at that rally, which was not at all, you know, bringing our community together, I tell you that much. And so this is the kind of person that we’re dealing with here, you know, and I don’t know what we do about it other than call it out and hope that the police union members select somebody who’s really looking out – yes, of course, for them, because that’s what unions do – but also for the people who they are responsible for protecting and serving. I mean, it’s like a nursing union being against the patients, right? I mean, this is a crazy situation.
AL: Let’s talk about President Trump. On a call with governors, he has told them that they have to go tougher. He has threatened to deploy military troops if a city or state, and I quote, cannot “defend the life and property of their residents.” Given your own experiences, how would you respond to this kind of move?
KE: I would just say that President Trump has been not helpful, you know, when he used the term “dominate,” “you have to dominate.” The problem is that officers are trying to dominate. That is why we’re in this mess right now. I can only conclude he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care or some combination of the two about how to restore order. I mean, you know, the fact is the things that he says are actually putting officers, many of whom are pretty young, in harm’s way. We need to learn how to serve the community, how to work with the community, how to build a trusting relationship – not dominate.
AL: So what’s been your personal experience with the police? Have you ever felt singled out because you’re black?
KE: Yes. Oh, yeah. More than once. But, you know, at an early age, I grew up in the city of Detroit, and I just remember my father was the first one, he told me: “Put your hands on the wheel. Don’t talk back. Keep your ID with you at all times. Don’t do anything they say don’t do.” And then he said to me, “Because they’ll kill you and there won’t be much of anything any of us can do about it.” And it kind of scared me quite a lot. But I was fine. I just figured that was the way it was. He told my brothers the same thing, and that was the way it was, the way we grew up. But then I had other experiences which sort of inform me. But I have good experience with the police, too.
It was a mixture, but there were some unfortunate incidents there, which I’ll never forget. And when I was a little kid moving towards my teenage years, you know, I remember my perception of the police did change.
AL: Across the country, the level of anxiety for black people is just off the charts. You were a little kid when the protests happened in Detroit in ’67 and ’68. They sent in the Army and the National Guard. Dozens of people were killed. Does the response from the police in the government remind you of what happened when you were a kid?
KE: You know what it reminds me of? It reminds me that there’s a little kid, 4 or 5 years old right now. Just freaked out and scared to death and doesn’t know why this is happening. They just know Mom is scared. Dad is scared. And when a little kid sees their parents scared, they are really scared, you know, because that’s the person who protects them. There are indelible memories being imprinted on the minds of children right now. And I just think we really need to think about that as we decide how we’re going to allocate our time in the next five months, five years, 50 years. And if we are really going to say this is the issue we must solve and we’re not going to quit. We’re not going to wait till the next horrific, tragic episode. We’re going to keep on working regardless.
So that’s what it reminds me of.