“Getting through this can make him or break him,” said Anthony Ellison, Keith’s younger brother. “This is up there with Brown v. Board of Education. This is Thurgood Marshall s---.”
Over the past few days, Keith had spent his time talking the victim’s family through the difficult process to come. (“I told them that some people might try to say negative things about him, and you just have to remember the beautiful person he was,” he said.) He’d sat for various media interviews about the coming trial, which is about one officer’s actions — but also about the entire system of American policing. That Sunday evening, however, it was time to fete his daughter, Amirah, and his ex-wife, Kim, who were both celebrating birthdays.
Kim was happy for the distraction. As chairwoman of the Minneapolis school board, she had been busy digging out from nearly 6,000 emails after terminating the district’s security contract with the police department.
And everyone was excited to catch up with Jeremiah, their second of four children and a city council member who has been a loud voice in the “defund the police” movement gaining steam among activists. To not be late, Jeremiah had his staff whisk him to dinner directly from the park, where he’d drawn cheers for promising to “dismantle” the department.
“It was surreal,” said Kim. “We’d all done big things in the past, but never quite like this and never all involved in the same fight.”
“It really was a surreal moment,” Jeremiah agreed in a separate interview. “It felt like an important moment for the city, and our family found ourselves wrapped up in it.”
It was surreal, but also weirdly . . . normal. The parents futzed with the computer, trying to figure out how to pull up Jeremiah’s speech, eventually making the youngest person in the room figure it out. They all gathered around to watch, home-movie style, while munching on falafel; razzing Jeremiah for looking especially bald after shaving off his dreadlocks, and nagging him about whether he’d been good about social distancing.
“It was just family time,” Keith said. “What other people might view as the Ellisons talking politics, that’s just our regular conversation.”
Recently, police brutality has become a topic of conversation at kitchen tables across the country. Many black families, like the Ellisons, have been having these discussions for generations. And now, positioned as a new kind of political dynasty during a national moment of reckoning, they’re hoping they can finally get everyone else to listen.
Keith, 56, the grandson of a voting rights activist, has made a career of making the case for change — first as an organizer and defense lawyer, then as the first Muslim member of Congress, and now as the first black politician elected statewide in Minnesota. But no task has been quite like charging four police officers — Derek Chauvin, who pinned Floyd under his knee, and three others who witnessed Floyd’s death but did not intervene — while the whole world watches.
“Statistically, Ellison is probably going to lose,” said Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University and former federal prosecutor.
And what would that mean, exactly? What would it say about this nation’s system of policing, of racial inequity, of the Ellison family’s generations-long battle for civil rights, if after the whole country watched a man die under the knee of a police officer for the alleged crime of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, the attorney general is still not able to get justice?
Keith is not willing to entertain such questions. He knows the criminal justice system favors police officers put on trial for killing black men, but he’s been preparing for this moment his entire life.
Keith learned at an early age not to trust the police.
“They will kill you,” he remembers his father telling him, “and there won’t be much of anything you can do about it.”
The son of a psychiatrist and social worker, Keith grew up with four brothers in a middle-class neighborhood in Detroit. But even their relative wealth didn’t shield them from the types of encounters their father warned them about, whether it was Anthony getting arrested for trying to “break in” to his own home as a teenager or 17-year-old Keith being mistaken for a criminal when he went to pick up the family’s Pontiac Sunbird from the mechanic.
“I got there and somebody had broken into the car,” he said. Keith called the cops to report it; the officers arrived and shouted at him to take his hands out of his pockets.
“They put guns on me,” he said. “They threw me in the car, handcuffed me and took me in. . . . It was the dumbest thing ever.”
Keith is hesitant to tell this story these days, lest he’s pegged as someone having had a lifelong vendetta against the police, something he’s says is not at all true. And Keith is right to be worried. For most of his career, controversy has followed him — some warranted, some not.
He once penned op-eds under the name Keith X Ellison and his past connections to the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan have led to accusations of past anti-Semitism. As a the first Muslim congressman, he freaked out small-minded conservatives by getting sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s Koran. When he ran for attorney general, he was dogged by allegations from a past girlfriend about emotional and physical abuse — claims that an investigation commissioned by the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party found unsubstantiated. Most recently, he gave his critics material to paint him as sympathetic to anarchists with a 2018 tweet that featured a photo of him holding an antifa handbook (a spokesman at the time said Keith hadn’t read the book and had espoused nonviolence through out his career, and the tweet has since been deleted).
He’s long had a bit of a “troublemaker” reputation, said Kim, who remembers hearing stories about the Ellison boys causing mischief around the neighborhood long before she met Keith.
On one of their first dates in high school, Keith took Kim to a new restaurant in town that was decorated with posters hanging from the ceiling celebrating the cultures of various countries. When he saw one that he felt extolled the wonder of apartheid South Africa, he tore it down.
“I was forever banned” from that restaurant, Kim said laughing at the memory. “That was Keith. Wrong was wrong, and he wasn’t going to put up with it, consequences be damned.”
After enrolling at Wayne State University in 1981, he petitioned for divestment from the South African government. He found his voice as a columnist for the student newspaper and found religion, converting to Islam at the age of 19.
He married Kim in 1987 (they divorced in 2012 and he’s remarried now), and the two of them moved to Minnesota, where Keith attended law school, started a family, and spent many of his evenings organizing protests against police brutality. One instance, detailed by Mother Jones Magazine, stood out. After two incidents of aggressive police behavior in one week — first, cops killed two elderly black residents after throwing a flash grenade in a suspected crack house, then, days later, used excessive force to break up a party of black college students — Ellison led a march of 75 people to City Hall, where they crashed a city council meeting.
Later, Keith’s work both as a lawyer with a focus on poor clients, and as a radio host with a show titled “Black Power Perspectives,” kept the topic of police-community relations at the center of his life.
“Black people do not live under a democracy,” he told the Associated Press at a demonstration following the Rodney King beating in 1992. “You don’t have an obligation to obey a government that considers you to be less than human.”
One way to fix that, Keith decided a decade later, was to try to change the government himself. From the inside.
On Nov. 15, 2015, Minneapolis police killed Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man, following an altercation.
What led to the shooting is a matter of dispute — the president of the Minneapolis Police Union, Bob Kroll, said Clark was actively resisting arrest and had tried to take an officer’s weapon, while some witnesses said that Clark was not resisting and that he may have even been handcuffed at the time of the shooting.
Protests began almost immediately, with Black Lives Matter activists and supporters camping outside of the police precinct. Over the course of 18 days, a now-familiar scene played out in Minneapolis: peaceful protests turned tense, at least partially because of an aggressive attempt by the police to tamp things down.
Jeremiah didn’t consider himself to be a particularly political person back then, even though his dad was a congressman and even though his parents had pulled him around protests in a wagon before he could walk. As an adult, he’d dropped out of college to pursue life as an artist and was making a living as a muralist.
“My first instinct was to be really worried about everyone’s safety,” he said. His second thought was to worry that everyone might be hungry, so he decided to make a tamales-and-coffee run and hand out some breakfast. He stuck around all day, and into the chaotic night as tensions between the protesters and police rose, and as the tear gas and rubber bullets began to fly.
In an instant, an officer pointed a rifle in his direction, Jeremiah threw his hands in the air, and somewhere, a photographer captured the moment.
“I was horrified,” Keith said of seeing that picture. “I felt my heart in my chest. It was the first time I thought my child would be in danger for doing what I taught him to do.”
But Keith didn’t have much time to dwell. He’d been elected to Congress to serve this district in 2006, a grass-roots candidate who promised to bring his organizing bona fides with him to the corridors of power. He’d had the realization that his father was onto something when he used to tell him as a kid: “Any jackass can kick down a barn, it takes a carpenter to build one.”
Keith spent more than a week hanging around the BLM encampment, acting as something of a liaison between the Clark family, the politicians in charge and the activists. He may have been the best-positioned politician to play such a role, having spent years as an activist himself, but he was still a politician, which meant being pragmatic in a way that ultimately left some protesters disappointed.
Things in the encampment took a dark and violent turn when white supremacists showed up, shooting and injuring five of the activists. Worrying that the protest had turned into a safety risk, the mayor held a news conference urging organizers to shut down the encampment. Keith stood by her side, offering his tacit agreement, a move that led the then-president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP to refer to him as “old guard” leadership. Ultimately no officers were prosecuted for Clark’s death.
“I was a bridge,” Keith said about his role. “Understand that the first thing about being a bridge is that people drive over it.”
Now, however, he’s the one doing the driving.
Long before Keith was born, his grandfather Frank Martinez spent his days dodging the Ku Klux Klan and organizing black voters down in Louisiana.
“One of my favorite books is ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ ” Keith said. “It’s all about how things replay from generation to generation. I do think about us in that light.”
In many ways, the story of civil rights in America is the story of the Ellison family: over the course of four generations, they have reached heights that Keith’s grandfather could only dream of. But they’re still waging what feel like the same fights.
A little less than a month ago, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman held a news conference about the killing of George Floyd and said there was “evidence that does not support a criminal charge” — despite the viral video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes. That night, the police department’s 3rd Precinct was burned to the ground. The next day, state lawmakers sent a letter saying they’d lost faith in Freeman and urged Gov. Tim Walz to hand the prosecution to the attorney general. Within three days, he did just that.
When Keith left Congress in 2018, many of his friends were surprised that he’d leave a safe seat for a job that many saw as a step down. But Keith said he thought he could be a more effective fighter as attorney general rather than just another foot soldier on Capitol Hill. This case may prove him right.
It’s still early stages, and Keith has tried to temper expectations: both about how long the investigation may take, and that there’s no such thing as a slam-dunk case against police officers. He’s got champions in his corner, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, a longtime ally who said he doesn’t know a “stronger fighter for justice” than Keith. But a lifetime of partisanship means Keith is not without detractors.
“He’s got a lot of baggage,” said Doug Wardlow, Keith’s Republican opponent in the 2018 AG race. “He’s the most overtly political attorney general Minnesota has ever had, and on top of that, he has a long history of police bias.”
As he did in his campaign against him, Wardlow pointed to what he calls Keith’s “troubling support of domestic terrorism,” citing as examples his support of Sara Jane Olson, a left-wing activist who put pipe bombs under police cars in the 1970s, and the antifa handbook tweet.
“I’m concerned that that bias could adversely impact the prosecution and cause a miscarriage of justice,” he said.
The job of attorney general means getting criticism from all sides, and already Keith’s heard from people who thought Chauvin should be charged with first-degree murder, and he is fully aware that if he doesn’t get convictions in all the cases, some of his allies will be upset.
Persuading a jury to convict a police officer has been a historically difficult task, even with substantial evidence. Just ask the families of Walter Scott in South Carolina or Freddie Gray in Maryland.
“We do have to overcome cultural challenges,” Ellison said. “People are raised to believe the police are there to help them.”
But on this, the culture seems to be shifting. Today, more than two-thirds of Americans believe Floyd’s killing represents a systemic issue in law enforcement, a dramatic increase from how Americans responded to the 2014 killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York.
Keith has a role to play on the path toward any possible reform; a prosecution, activists believe, would be an important first step. But these things have a way of moving from one generation to the next, and the future may lie more with Jeremiah than with Keith.
After the Jamar Clark shooting in 2015, a switch flipped for Keith’s son. He decided to run for office himself, winning a seat on the city council on a platform of police reform, and swept into office on a progressive wave. This month, that council announced they had a veto-proof majority vote to defund the police. What exactly that will look like is still a question, but to Jeremiah it’s a way of looking at reform, not as a series of tweaks, but tearing down how we think of public safety, and building up something entirely new. Exactly what that replacement would look like is something he and the council could be debating for months.
“It’s not like we are going to abolish the police without having something else in place,” he said.
At its core, the debate over dismantling the police department is about figuring out the best way to allocate resources: Does it make sense to spend so much on military-grade weaponry? Are armed police the best first responders for all 911 calls? Would some money be better spent on housing or social services? And yet, as a rallying cry, “defund the police” is not without controversy. Which is, perhaps the point.
“To make social change you have to be somewhat provocative,” Keith said, though he doesn’t endorse the idea.
“I think he misses it,” his ex-wife, Kim, said. “But he can live through his son.”