The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unrest in Minnesota town offers warning to other U.S. suburbs, experts say

Pedestrians walk past the Brooklyn Center, Minn., water tower this month. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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BROOKLYN CENTER, Minn. — When William Adams moved to this area a few years ago, he joined thousands of Minneapolis residents in transforming Brooklyn Center from the mostly White suburb it once was into one where people of color account for more than half the population.

But as he tried to settle into the community, Adams, who is Black, was always reminded of how Brooklyn Center police used to harass him in the early 1970s when he came to visit his girlfriend, who was White.

“They would see something hanging in the window, or a light out on my car and pull me over just to deter me from being there,” said Adams, 67.

Today, Adams says not enough has changed within the Brooklyn Center Police Department. And with tensions between the community and police already on the rise before an officer fatally shot an unarmed Black man this month, Adams has decided to look for a new house even farther north of Minneapolis.

“I told my agent I now want to be 35 to 45 miles outside of the city,” said Adams, a heavy-equipment operator. “All the problems keep coming more and more up this way. That is why we are trying to get out.”

Adams’s decision to move reflects what demographers and sociologists say is the growing ethnic and economic diversity that continues to sweep into U.S. suburbs, making those communities the new front line in the nation’s culture clashes over racism and policing.

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As immigrants and people of color move deeper into the suburbs, increasingly shattering ­historical stereotypes of White, picket-fence communities, they are redefining politics and contributing to a rise in non-White officeholders. But even as the ­political leadership of suburban governments becomes more diverse, scholars say the police forces and other local government institutions often lag, creating new flash points for tension among residents.

In just the past few years, the nation has watched as controversial police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, and Kenosha, Wis., an outer suburb of Chicago, have led to widespread civil unrest. The disturbances raised questions about whether police departments and local governments are being responsive to their increasingly diverse citizenry and whether residents can expect equal justice.

Now, Brooklyn Center, about 10 miles from downtown Minneapolis, is at the center of that debate with the killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was shot during a traffic stop by a police officer who officials say thought she was holding a Taser, not her service weapon.

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The downtown Minneapolis skyline is visible from parts of Brooklyn Center. But last year, during the unrest that engulfed Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd, peace largely prevailed in the community.

Now, just two days after many Americans heralded a jury’s conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd’s murder, residents of this city of 30,000 will gather Thursday to bury Wright and again mourn a victim of a police killing.

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Minnesota National Guard troops and sheriff’s deputies with combat gear and armored vehicles guard the Brooklyn Center police headquarters as protesters slap at the gate demanding justice for Wright. Most local businesses are boarded up, creating shortages of gasoline and staples. In the week after the shooting, the City Council fired the city manager and the police chief resigned, sparking a leadership crisis.

“This has truly been a tragic and difficult week for the people of Brooklyn Center,” Mayor Mike Elliott said in the days after Wright’s April 11 killing, issuing a call for the community to remain calm. “Now the eyes of the world are watching Brooklyn Center.”

Myron Orfield Jr., a law professor and director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, said he has been warning for years that a growing number of the nation’s suburbs were “tinderboxes” because of growing inequality, bad policing and the slow disintegration of the country’s fair-housing laws. He noted Chicago, D.C. and Atlanta in particular and said he fears it is only a matter of time before unrest erupts in those cities’ suburbs.

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“You’ve got communities that are deeply segregated and have growing problems with crime, and you’ve got people who are afraid of rapid change,” Orfield said. “And you’ve got police officers who were hired 20 years ago when the community was a White community and you have this huge change, and when you send White police officers into predominantly segregated neighborhoods, they do bad things.”

Earlier this month, Orfield published a report that documented Brooklyn Center’s rapidly changing demographics. He noted that Brooklyn Center had become a hub of concentrated poverty and job losses, a trend that shows no sign of slowing as the supply of affordable housing continues to dwindle. The town has experienced the “fastest demographic transition” in the metropolitan region, he said.

As recently as 1990, 9 out of 10 residents in Brooklyn Center were White, Orfield said. Today, 38 percent of the city’s residents are White, 29 percent are Black, 16 percent are Asian and 13 percent are Hispanic. Its non-White residents are a combination of newly arrived immigrants and refugees and people of color whose families have lived in the United States for generations. West Africans — largely Liberians but also Nigerians — dominate the immigrant population, residents say. The Hmong community has a strong presence as well, with a small group of Laotian immigrants.

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Meanwhile, Whites and more-affluent Black residents are fleeing to outer suburban communities, deepening poverty in close-in suburbs such as Brooklyn Center, Orfield said.

Even as the Twin Cities metropolitan area grows wealthier, median incomes in Brooklyn Center have fallen from $64,993 in 2000, in inflation-adjusted dollars, to $54,786 in 2018. The poverty rate has also more than doubled to 15 percent over the past two decades, Orfield noted, comparing Brooklyn Center to the poor urban neighborhoods of the 20th century. The median income in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, is $78,167, according to census data.

Leaders with local nonprofit organizations said it will take time for the recent hard-won political power of non-White residents in Brooklyn Center to translate into lasting policies to combat poverty and systemic racism. The job is even more challenging, they said, because the small city is often left out of county and state funding and programming, leaving it to fend for itself.

Residents, many of whom live in one- or two-story mid-century homes or aging apartment complexes, say there are few grocery stores or places to shop or dine.

There is no downtown or central plaza, and businesses struggle to flourish. Target came and left. So did Michaels. The main mall, Brookdale Center, closed in 2010, leaving a Walmart as the commercial focal point for the community.

“It’s a diverse and global community, but at the same time, Brooklyn Center doesn’t have a lot of resources,” said Ekta Prakash, chief executive of the local immigrant services nonprofit CAPI. “It’s one of the places that has been left out.”

Still, as more people of color arrive in Brooklyn Center, these groups have begun to gain representation on elected boards, and advocates say the town could serve as a model for building up the middle class.

Elliott, 37, who was elected in 2018, is Brooklyn Center’s first Black and first Liberian American mayor. Three of five City Council members are also people of color. And the local state representative is a 27-year-old Hmong American, Samantha Vang.

Nelima Sitati Munene, executive director of the nonprofit organization African Career, Education and Resource, said the growing ranks of diverse leaders ­followed a “significant mobilization” to get voters more engaged in local governance.

“The community made an effort to say: ‘It’s not enough to be majority people of color. How are we being represented in the ­decision-making process?’” Munene said.

And there have been some examples of how this new leadership is changing the city. In recent months, the City Council and school board have taken steps to distance the city from one of its founders, Earle Brown.

Brown was a county sheriff who allegedly had ties to the Ku Klux Klan. In February, the City Council voted to change the name of the town’s community festival, Earle Brown Days. Last year, an elementary school named after Brown dropped the label.

But because of the relative newness of officials of color, Munene said, other “systematic injustices” in Brooklyn Center will be harder to uproot, including poverty and a lack of diversity in institutions such as the police department.

Not a single officer in the 49-member police force lives in Brooklyn Center, the mayor said at a recent news conference. He also said only a “very low” number of the officers are Black. Elliott’s office did not respond to interview requests.

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Meanwhile, overly aggressive police tactics, including motorists being stopped for relatively minor traffic infractions, have been a source of complaints for years, residents said.

Rebecca Headbird, a 40-year-old Native American, was born in Brooklyn Center and has been raising her mixed-race family here. Even before Wright’s death, Headbird said, she had lost faith that Brooklyn Center police could be trusted to be fair to her family.

She said Brooklyn Center officers have pulled over her and other family members for having a feather “dream catcher” — a traditional Native American good-luck charm — dangling from a rearview mirror.

“A lot of White people at least try to understand where we are coming from, but I feel like the police, they don’t want to,” Headbird said. “They just want to continue doing what they have been doing, even though things have to change.”

Alfreda Daniels Juasemai, 29, moved to Brooklyn Center in 2017, about a decade after her family migrated to the United States from Liberia.

Juasemai said she was drawn to Brooklyn Center’s diversity and thought she would feel secure being around fellow immigrants from her native country. But she said she quickly discovered Brooklyn Center was not as welcoming as she had expected.

Juasemai, who unsuccessfully ran for City Council last year, said it was common for some residents to call the police on her when she showed up at their doors to campaign. She said Liberians are also “harassed” by neighbors and police who complain about music during summer barbecues, which are customary events in Liberian culture.

“We thought by living in a majority-POC community that is very diverse, we were going to be shielded from this crisis of deep racism,” she said, referring to people of color. “But we shortly realized that after moving that that’s not the case.”

According to the Minneapolis StarTribune, Brooklyn Center police officers have fatally shot six people since 2012. All but one were people of color, including four Black people, the newspaper reported.

Jeffrey S. Storm, a veteran Minnesota lawyer who is representing Wright’s family, said that for too long Brooklyn Center police officers “have looked at the citizens of the city as people to be controlled rather than people to be served.”

Storm said it was especially insensitive that even after Wright was shot, Brooklyn Center police kept a “thin blue line” flag hanging on the station flagpole. Many people of color consider the flag to be disrespectful to the families of those who have been killed by police.

“I think we need a complete top-to-bottom state audit,” Storm said. “We need to figure out if we are doing the best job we can in training officers.”

A Brooklyn Center police spokesman did not return calls seeking comment on the department’s relationship with the community. Some residents say they still support the department and worry that the recent unrest will only further divide the community.

The police “are fair at least, and they don’t come in aggressive at people like you see in north Minneapolis,” said Derek Dreitzler, 30, who is White.

Dreitzler, who lives two blocks from a Family Dollar store that people looted and set afire during protests of Wright’s shooting, said Black Lives Matter demonstrators are driving away Brooklyn Center residents who once supported their cause.

“If you are trying to get to a store and you need to pick up groceries but everything is closing at 7 p.m., it’s going to upset people,” Dreitzler said about the curfew that was imposed because of unrest after Wright’s death. “And if you are driving your car, and suddenly [protesters] are surrounding your car, it makes a lot of people on edge and ready to get violent themselves.”

Orfield, of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, said the rapid changes in some suburbs were evident last summer when suburban leaders were surprised that so many racial-justice demonstrations took place far from traditional city centers.

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“The wealth is being stripped out of these places at the speed of light, and because the change is happening so fast, there is a huge unspoken tension about it and a fear about it,” said Orfield, who said the government should focus more on providing a range of affordable-housing options in all types of communities, including bolstering the Fair Housing Act. “These older suburbs, once they become poor, they don’t bounce back as quickly as larger cities.”

But Vang, the Hmong American state representative, said communities such as Brooklyn Center are still “the future face of America.”

“Brooklyn Center has an opportunity to show the world . . . America and the state what we can be when we invest in communities of color,” she said.

The non-White community here is not monolithic, she said, with each group having its own culture and expectations. Changing the government so it can benefit them all is no small feat, she said.

But “despite all these differences in the little suburban city of Brooklyn Center, we still choose to live together,” she said. “In these past couple days, the community is hurting. We feel the sense of hopelessness and pain, but we still choose the alternative. We still choose hope.”

Foster-Frau reported from San Antonio. Kim Bellware in Chicago and Jared Goyette in Minneapolis contributed to this report.