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Reporter’s notebook/Thoughts on Minneapolis and the nation

With the primary tomorrow, I figured I’d be writing one last column about the election, but the events in Minneapolis and the resulting peaceful protests and violent riots have been heavily weighing on my mind.

This column can’t do any justice to what happened to George Floyd. I simply can’t imagine what went through his mind those eight minutes a Minneapolis police officer had him on the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck — all over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.

I think the phrase “privileged” is thrown around too much, but I’m not beyond admitting that I’m likely privileged due to skin color. It’s not a privilege for which I asked. I had no say over the color of my skin when born. My grandmother on my mom’s side was a native Hopi from the American Southwest, but my father’s side is mostly a European heritage of sorts and I identify that way.

I also grew up poor from a poor family and can definitely tell you that made things hard for me growing up and even into young adulthood. Being poor and a college dropout to boot meant I stayed in minimum wage jobs for most of my 20s. I had to work hard to get into journalism, but I can also say that a black person with the same circumstances as I had would have definitely had it harder.

I’ve read a lot of articles comparing our time now to 1968 and the strife of that era. I could probably pull up some stats showing how things have greatly improved since then, including on the race front. But that’s not much consolation to someone still experiencing racism or prejudice by saying “hey, at least the racism today is better than the racism from 30, 40, or 50 years ago.”

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So, was the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department due to racism? I would say no, but it was certainly racial. U.S. Census statistics show that Minneapolis is 63.8 percent white and 19.4 percent black. Oddly enough, there are 19.9 percent of people living in poverty in Minneapolis. Minorities own 20 percent of businesses in the city. When it comes to higher education, only 15 percent of black people are likely to have a bachelor’s degree compared to 42 percent of white people.

According to The Washington Post, Minneapolis has the worst issues of racial inequality of any major city in the U.S., with median household income for a black family coming in at $36,000 compared to $83,000 for a white family. Homeownership for black families is only one-third of the rate for white families.

Now, combine that information with the demographics of the Minneapolis Police Department. According to The Minneapolis Star Tribune, only 8 percent of the city’s police officers actually live in the city, according to 2017 numbers. Nearly none live in the city’s minority communities, according to The Wall Street Journal. Again, I don’t think racism was at play here, but all these ingredients create an us vs. them mentality.

I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite books, “Rise of the Warrior Cop” by Washington Post reporter Radley Balko. It details the evolution of police departments into highly militarized entities. S.W.A.T. tactics — meant to be used for hostage situations and deadly situations — are often used to issue arrest warrants and often for non-violent crimes. Officers are trained to assume everyone they encounter is armed. Federal incentives funnel military-grade equipment and weapons to police departments.

When you’re trained to be a hammer, everything is a nail. An investigation into a counterfeit $20 bill can escalate into allegedly using one’s knee to eventually cause the death of a suspect. Us vs. them.

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I can’t tell you how to fix racism other than educate your children to be better than the generations that came before. But if you want to solve police brutality, I have some suggestions.

One, police need to live in the communities they police, they should be representative of the communities they police, or at the very least they need to be in their communities proactively. You should know the name of your local police officers. Second, (Democrats won’t like this) but union protections should be lessened to not shield bad cops. Third, (Republicans won’t like this) but get rid of any immunity protection for police. Officers need to be held accountable to the same laws they enforce.

I’d also take away the military toys that police departments receive frequently from the federal government. While police in riot gear are not the cause of the violent protests, they’re certainly adding fuel to the fire with how they’re handling the rioting. Federal funding of police departments needs reconsidered, as it usually encourages the purchase of military gear or creation of S.W.A.T. teams. A town of 3,000 doesn’t need a S.W.A.T. team.

My point is incidents, like the death of George Floyd, don’t happen when police know their communities and aren’t trained to view every encounter as a potential risk to their lives. Training in de-escalation needs refreshed and improved. Force, of any kind, should be a last resort.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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