MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — In the tense days after a black man’s death at the hands of police, Minnesota’s first African-American congressman stood with protesters as they besieged a police station, even tweeting what he called an “agonizing” photograph showing his son with hands raised in a confrontation with officers in riot gear.
Yet lately, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison has fallen out of favor with some protesters camped outside a Minneapolis police precinct. They’ve carried a scrawled sign calling him a “sellout” and expressed similar sentiments on social media after the congressman joined calls for them to take down their tents and remove their roadblocks and campfires.
The Minneapolis Democrat, who gained international attention as the first Muslim elected to Congress, has been playing a delicate balancing act with protesters whose goals of police accountability he shares and officials who might be able to make changes they want.
“I’m not mad for anyone making an unkind sign about me. I get attacked all the time for my religion. So none of these things bother me. People don’t always understand what you’re doing and why,” Ellison said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Ellison, 52, came home from Washington to support community members upset over the death of Jamar Clark and a difficult history of relations between the north Minneapolis black community and police.
The 24-year-old Clark was shot in the head Nov. 15 during what authorities said was a struggle with two officers after he interfered with paramedics who were trying to help an assault victim.
People who claim they saw the shooting say Clark was handcuffed, but the head of the city’s police union has said Clark had his hands on an officer’s gun. State and federal investigators are still trying to piece together what happened.
Protesters are demanding the release of any video that authorities have of the shooting. Officials have refused, saying it would compromise the investigation.
Ellison supports releasing the videos but has been saying for days that the protesters need to break camp, reopen the street and turn to other ways of pressing their cause, which he considers “righteous.” He repeated that call Monday at a news conference with Mayor Betsy Hodges, longtime black community leaders and city officials who said the occupation is hurting the neighborhood. He has engaged protesters in a lively debate about tactics via Twitter but hasn’t been able to persuade them to budge.
One of the most visible protest leaders, University of St. Thomas law professor and civil rights attorney Nekima Levy-Pounds, said government leaders are trying to exploit a generational and leadership divide in the black community – and she faulted Ellison for being part of it.
“It’s unclear to me what his role has actually been,” said Levy-Pounds, who stressed that she was speaking only for herself and not the Minneapolis NAACP, of which she is president. “On the one hand, I’ve seen him out at the protests encouraging people. And then on the other hand, I’ve seen press releases saying that he doesn’t support the protesters. And he stood with the mayor yesterday.”
Steven Belton, interim president and CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League, who also spoke at the mayor’s news conference, said their critics need to understand that they’re not asking them to stop protesting, just to end the occupation.
“It’s a little disingenuous for them to be attacking the congressman who has staked his career and his personal passion on representing north Minneapolis,” Belton said. “It’s disingenuous to say he’s out of touch.”
University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs said Ellison, who represents one of the most liberal districts in the country, bears little political risk. If the protesters can’t work with “one of the most influential progressives in Congress,” he said, it’s hard to imagine who they could find as a partner for bringing about practical change.
Ellison said that police accountability is a nationwide problem that must be addressed but that’s going to require changes at both the local and national level. Burning bridges won’t help advance that policy agenda, he said.
“It’s been a very difficult balance. It’s hard for people to understand that when you criticize and raise issues of police accountability you’re not trying to attack all police. … At the same time some of the protesters think that if you say anything critical of the encampment you’re 100 percent against the encampment,” he said.
“It’s hard for people to understand you can be for them but question the particular methods they’re using at the moment.”