The story of how Minneapolis responded to that crucial moment is rarely remembered. But today, that response matters greatly. The city’s failure to properly address with the causes of that uprising has allowed relentless killing of unarmed people by law enforcement to continue over the past 50 years, creating a moment of reckoning.
The immediate response to the 1967 uprising in Minneapolis seemed constructive. Mayor Arthur Naftalin, a staunch Democrat and close associate of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, immediately reached out to civil rights organizers and business executives alike. Within months, new employment programs emerged, along with a genuine push to reform policing.
But the mostly white police department proved especially resistant to change. Their union, in particular, rejected all efforts to increase oversight. Already caught up in a labor dispute with the city, the officers responded to the intensifying pressure by threatening a work “slowdown.” As African Americans and American Indians continued to justifiably charge them with undue violence, many officers retorted that the growing public concerns about their behavior counted as “brutality against police.” The city and its police officers remained at an impasse.
As the mayoral election of 1969 loomed, an exhausted Naftalin decided not to run for a fifth term. So the president of the police union in Minneapolis — a Norwegian-American detective named Charles Stenvig — threw his hat in the ring. In June 1969, Stenvig, a self-declared independent with little political experience, won the contest in a landslide.
National observers reeled at the news. The New York Times noted that Stenvig campaigned “to take the handcuffs off the police.” Indeed, the Times pointed out that the new mayor was “a policeman, committed to strengthening the power of the police” in a city wracked with racial tensions. On election night, the openly religious Stenvig called for morality and order in public life and crowed that “my chief adviser is going to be God.”
Stenvig’s shocking ascension as a law-and-order politician reflected the deep structural racism in the city. Close analysis of the 1969 election results showed that Stenvig drew strong support from Democrats and Republicans alike living in white neighborhoods. Those white neighborhoods had resulted from the widespread use of racial covenants to confine African Americans to only two small areas of the city. Stenvig’s anti-establishment approach even attracted white voters who otherwise ignored municipal elections.
The politics of white backlash — a new iteration of white supremacy — now animated voters. Naftalin’s effort to bring business executives and experts together with young African American leaders and civil rights organizations in the wake of the 1967 unrest had threatened the racial status quo and alienated many whites in the city. As a union president, Stenvig brought working-class voters into coalition with more conservative Republicans. Together, they replaced the Democratic establishment “elites” with a shared adherence to Stenvig’s stated affinity for “the golden rule.”
Yet this affinity remained rhetorical. During his first term, Stenvig did little to address discrimination and consistently protected the police department’s interest. In his 1971 campaign for reelection, Stenvig repeatedly used racially loaded terms such as “hoodlums” and “burning and looting” to ensure that white voters across the city did not forget the 1967 uprisings. The dog-whistle strategy proved potent. He decisively defeated W. Harry Davis — the most prominent African American civil rights leader in the state — for a second two-year term.
Soon after his reelection, Stenvig settled the long-standing labor dispute between the city and the police department in the officers’ favor. Meanwhile, African Americans and American Indians in Minneapolis continued to experience disproportionate police harassment and brutality.
Stenvig lost in 1973 to his Democratic opponent. Yet voters returned him to the mayor’s office for a third term in 1975. By then, Stenvig’s calls for Christian morality in public life sparked a new municipal focus on pornographic bookstores and, in particular, the people who frequented them as a rare safe space. Stenvig’s political career finally came to an end when he lost the 1977 mayoral election. The police effort to harass gay men by “cleaning up” the city continued well into the 1980s.
Stenvig did more than embody white backlash politics in Minneapolis. He — often backed by a majority of the city’s voters — institutionalized it. Stenvig’s use of the mayor’s office for much of the 1970s to protect officers from external oversight cemented the police union’s powerful presence in city politics.
In the 1980s, Democratic Mayor Donald Fraser turned to a reformer from New York City to transform policing. The new chief, Tony Bouza, faced union opposition at every turn. In 1985, the Minneapolis Star Tribune openly wondered in an editorial “whether the mayor and the council will control the police department or whether power will shift to the police union.” Many white voters in the city continued to stand behind the police union.
During the 1990s, when the New York Times dubbed Minneapolis “Murderapolis” because of its high murder rate, officers consistently pointed to the need for law and order as white residents fled the city for the suburbs. Multiple attempts to increase civilian oversight fell short as the union expertly exerted political pressure in city council races.
And this tactic has remained potent. In 2014, the police union president questioned Mayor Betsy Hodges’s support for the police department after a local reporter erroneously suggested that she flashed a gang sign at a community event. In 2019, his successor openly challenged Mayor Jacob Frey’s authority when the city hosted a rally for President Trump.
For more than 50 years, reformers and community organizers have consistently pushed for change. But despite ongoing and partially successful efforts to diversify the force, police brutality continued unabated.
So, in 2020, another black man has died at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The city burns. As grieving citizens sort through the wreckage, Minneapolis — and the nation, because the city’s situation is far from unique — faces a choice. Will it again turn to the politics of white backlash? Or, this time, will it choose a more just future?