It looked as though a couple police officers went dumpster diving for ornaments.
Hanging from the Christmas tree inside a Minneapolis Police Department precinct were half-crushed cans of Steel Reserve malt liquor and crumpled bags of Takis chips and Funyuns. There was a cup from the fried-chicken joint Popeyes and two packs of Newport cigarettes — pieces of actual garbage accented by a single strip of yellow crime-scene tape that didn’t quite cut it as tinsel.
If the police thought the scene was a joke, nobody was laughing.
“These pieces of trash were deliberately chosen to represent how certain officers feel about the community they serve: that black people are a stereotype to be mocked and the lives of those they serve may as well be reduced to trash in the gutter,” said City Councilman Phillipe Cunningham, who represents constituents in the majority-black Near North neighborhood where the MPD’s 4th Precinct is located.
The two Minneapolis police officers who created the display were placed on leave Friday in response to fierce backlash from both the African American community and public officials, including Mayor Jacob Frey, who described the tree as “racist, despicable, and well beneath the standards of any person who serves the city of Minneapolis.” The tree, beyond being seen as a “racist dog-whistle,” as longtime civil rights activist Ron Edwards described it, also rekindled simmering distrust between police and the black community in Minneapolis.
Three years ago, community organizers led an 18-day occupation outside the 4th Precinct station to protest the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old black man. Since then, activists said at a news conference Friday, they had hoped police would be doing everything possible to improve their relationship with the Near North Minneapolis community, rather than seeming to go out of their way to strain it.
“I just could not believe that after everything we’ve been through to try to change the narrative about the African American community, that our police officers still held that same mind-set,” Black Lives Matter Twin Cities activist Chauntyll Allen said at the news conference. “They have no respect for the lives that have been lost.”
Cunningham and Minneapolis Board of Education member KerryJo Felder were among the first public officials to sound off about the tree after hearing complaints and seeing photos flood social media. Cunningham said Friday on Facebook that he learned from speaking with an MPD inspector that every year an officer is assigned tree-decorating duties. This year, Cunningham said, two officers decided to hang the inappropriate ornaments as a “prank.”
“They hurt EVERY gain made in improving community-police relations,” Cunningham wrote on Facebook. “On a personal level, despite being a [Council Member], I am still a Black man myself and these outrageous reminders only further my own feeling [of being] generally unsafe around police officers.”
At first, Frey was so incensed that he vowed the officers responsible would be fired by the end of the day.
Termination, he wrote, “is necessary — both to discipline the officer and to send a clear message: [Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo] and I will not tolerate conduct that departs from our values.” But within hours, Frey walked back the statement after realizing “there is a legally required process that must be followed" before an officer can be discharged, his spokesman, Mychal Vlatkovich, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Arradondo, describing the Christmas tree as a “racially insensitive display,” said in a statement that he was “ashamed and appalled" by the behavior of the two officers involved. He said a full investigation had been launched.
Edwards, the civil rights activist who has lived in Minneapolis since the 1940s, told The Washington Post that what the community needs to see is a black officer in charge of the 4th Precinct. Racial insensitivity training, he said, will only do so much. And for those who questioned what was so racially insensitive about the bag of Takis and the fried-chicken fast-food cup, Edwards said those who lived in the neighborhood didn’t need to ask.
“These policemen are well familiar with what racism is,” he said. “They knew exactly what they were doing when they ‘decorated’ the tree.”
More from Morning Mix: