To truly understand the fury felt as this city watched a video of George Floyd slowly dying under the weight of an officer’s knee, it’s necessary to step back in time.
Floyd is the latest in a series of high-profile killings that have exacerbated the corrosive relationship between people of color and a criminal justice system many feel is stacked against them.
“If that was me and my friends, we would be in jail, that night, for first-degree murder,” said Kevin Reese, who grew up in the neighborhood and has seen many kids go to prison for life in cases he said lacked hard evidence. “They have completely criminalized the whole community. That’s where the rage comes from.”
Four decades ago, Minnesota’s small, flourishing black community fell victim to redlining and discriminatory bank loan denials, sending crime rates soaring alongside increased guns and drugs.
An execution-style hit on officer Jerry Haaf in 1992 triggered a crackdown that critics say perpetuated a culture of brutality and impunity by police that continues.
A gang strike task force was formed to reduce crime. But a class-action lawsuit exposed widespread allegations of misconduct, and the city paid out $3 million in settlements. The unit was dismantled in 2009, but many put away by testimony from its gang experts remain in prison.
Critics say reformsintended to curtail use of force have never materialized.
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In the last five years, the Minneapolis Police Department has used force 11,000 times, according to a review of police data by The Associated Press. Black people accounted for 60% of those cases, even though they represent only 19% of the city’s population. Body pins were most commonly used, followed by punching, kicking and shoving.
The city’s police department did not respond to questions for this story.
Other high-profile cases of on-duty police killings include Jamar Clark, 25, in 2015; his family settled for $200,000. Philando Castile, 32, was shot in 2016 in nearby Falcon Heights while his girlfriend live-streamed the aftermath. A $3 million payout was made.
The only officer known to face murder charges was Mohamed Noor, a black Somali-American, sentenced to 12½ years for shooting and killing a white woman, Justine Ruszczyk Damond, in 2017. Her family received a record $20 million settlement.
In the heyday of the task force, police compounded the terror and despair of those living in neighborhoods already devastated by income disparities and underperforming schools. Harassment was constant, and some recalled police stopping youths playing outside, ordering them to lift up their shirts to prove they weren’t packing guns or dope.
At 18, Adrian Riley said he was beaten by police for refusing to give up the name of a friend who ran from the officers. He said he was then charged with disorderly conduct and released.
His mom, Mary Ann Riley, remembers finding him curled up in bed.
“I snatched the cover off him and I said, ‘Oh my God. Who did this to you?’” she said. “I didn’t even know who my son was, they beat my son so bad.”
Though Minnesota is viewed as progressive, it ranks among the country’s worst on racial disparity. That extends to prisons -- blacks represent about 7 percent of the population, but make up 36% of those behind bars.
“I believe that all of us -- police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officials -- are complicit. I am complicit,” said Perry Moriearty, a University of Minnesota Law School professor. “We continue to operate within a system that, from its earliest days, has disproportionately criminalized, arrested, prosecuted, locked up and executed black and brown people.”
When Sen. Amy Kobuchar -- seen as a possible vice presidential pick -- was Hennepin County’s top prosecutor in 1998, her office worked to convict the alleged killers of two black kids hit by stray bullets in drive-by shootings.
The Associated Press spent a year investigatingone of those cases. Myon Burrell was 16 in 2002 when he was accused of firing a gun that killed 11-year-old Tyesha Edwards in her home.
It happened blocks away from where George Floyd was killed. In fact, Burrell maintained that Cup Foods -- the same convenience store where Floyd is accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill -- was his alibi.
Surveillance tapes were never reviewed, and friends with Burrell that day were not interviewed. No DNA, weapon or fingerprints were found in the case. Most of the jailhouse snitches used to convict Burrell have since recanted, and police are shown on a video offering a man $500 for every name he provides -- even if it’s hearsay. Burrell, now 34, was sentenced to life.
“Either an unarmed black man is being snuffed out by a racist white cop, “ he said. “Or an innocent black boy is being railroaded … and having his life stolen.”
The second case Klobuchar trumpeted involved the 1996 gang-related shooting of 11-year-old Byron Phillips. Two years after his death, Klobuchar put up billboards requesting information.
Not long after, a man named Kawaskii Blanche was arrested.
Police have for months refused to provide reports and media files tied to the case, but court records and trial transcripts point to a dubious police probe and prosecution.
There was no physical evidence linking Blanche to the crime, and the sole hotline tip came from a woman who had 11 felony convictions and 13 aliases. She received $3,700 after saying she saw a gun and overheard Blanche, her nephew and others talking about the shooting. Before her nephew was scheduled to take the stand, a police officer coached the woman to write a letter to her nephew in jail, ensuring their stories would match. Eyewitnesses did not testify.
Blanche, now 46, has been in prison for more than two decades. He is serving life.
“I believe in equal opportunity,” he said. “I just want to be treated like everyone else.”
Associated Press journalist, Angeliki Kastanis, contributed to this report from Los Angeles.