Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Keith Ellison

Clemons: Welcome Attorney General Ellison. It’s great to be with you today, and I heard a comment I may get it wrong, but paraphrasing, that a lot of people are approaching this police question and the George Floyd murder as a black problem, and you've said it's an American problem. Tell us how you're framing it. 

Ellison: Well, the truth is that policing in our country has been under close scrutiny for literally decades. We're now at a point where we might be able to have a real reform, but this is not a new issue. I mean, look, labor strikers back in the 1920s, were getting beat up by police. Civil rights workers, same way. So, this history has been around for quite a long time. Our current system of policing, there have been attempts to reform it, and yet we keep seeing things the way that they are at this point. So, I think there's a general sense that dramatic transformation is necessary. And so, it's not true that this is only an African American problem or a people of color problem. It's a problem of anybody who was on the bottom end of the power equation. And so, we need reform on all sides. I'll say that this movement that we see that is starting now in the streets. Last year, 2019, myself and the commissioner of public safety, under the leadership of the governor, we had a working group on reducing deadly force encounters with the police. Before George Floyd ever said he couldn't breathe, we were trying to do work on this problem. The tragedy of George Floyd's is that we weren't able to get meaningful reform in time to save his life. But the loss of him probably is going to propel us to be able to make some reforms in the future.


Clemons: How pervasive has this abuse been and how long it has been ignored?

Ellison: Well, I'll tell you this, when I was about four or five years old, I was on my tippy toes looking through the window in Detroit, Mich., as I saw armored personnel carriers drive by. When I became a teenager, I said to my dad, “Dad, do you remember the riots? I remember them so well. I was a little kid, but I remember the soldiers." And he said “Of course I remember them, I lived through them. I was working throughout. But what you don't remember because you weren't around, is the '43 riots sparked by the same problem.” And so pervasiveness, let me tell you, it's been a key feature of life in our country for a long time. Organizations who have diverse political views as much as the NAACP versus the Black Panther Party, leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, different points of view, all talked about police brutality. And so, this problem is deep-seated, ongoing and has been resistant to change. I believe that it really is much deeper than the police. It has to do with more than our criminal justice system. Actually, it has a lot to do with the fact that our country has some of the most unequal socioeconomic relations that it has had since the Gilded Age. And it's all held together by force. And it's all held together through a system of policing and prisons and criminal justice that keeps people in their place and prevents them from affecting the change that's needed to have a more just, equal, equitable society. So that's kind of how I'm looking at this problem. We also need to see that this problem is deeper than the police in that, you know, it is some of the attitudes that we see expressed, are carried in people who are not police. I mean, if you look at the situation with Mr. Copeland, who was birdwatching in Central Park, the fact that that young white woman thought that she could disobey the rules by having a dog off-leash when she was called on that by Mr. Copeland. Her answer was not to leash her dog and say, “I'm sorry, I'll go to the right place.” Her answer was to put him on tape and scream that a black man was threatening her life. And so, I mean, she's one of the good people, right? She's one of the folks, she's an educated person, she's embarrassed and mortified with what she did. But what if she was on a jury? You know what if she was the person talking to the police chief about safety? I mean, what she was doing is enforcing a set of hierarchies that bleed into the way we police. And so, I think we need some real overhauls and we should use this moment in history to really do some self-reflection. And let's not stop at reforming policing. Let's reform how we treat each other as fellow Americans. 


Clemons: When people are clamoring for justice and you hold, in the state of Minnesota, those scales of justice, what does social justice look like in a tangible way to the black and brown communities and other vulnerable communities that are essentially protesting for their rights? 

Ellison: Well one thing it means is that, given trillions of dollars over the course of 10 years back to rich people so that we won't even have the money to have school counselors, to have nonviolent crime reduction, to have more resources devoted to, I don't know, processing rape kits, is an injustice in and of itself. If you are in an income bracket where you benefited from Trump's tax cuts and 83 percent of them went to the top 1 percent you're participating in an unjust system, and you need to raise your voice and say, “You know what? To whom much is given, much is expected. I'm not going to sit here and take a massive tax cut that I don't need and most of us didn't even ask for.” And yet we're not gonna have enough money in Minneapolis to send out people to do mental health screenings, to provide health care for everybody, to make sure everyone has a safe, decent place to live, to do lead screenings for kids. We're not gonna have to spend the kind of money that we should in policing to make sure that a noncoercive investigator goes to take the call on a $20 counterfeit bill, as opposed to four guys with guns, nightsticks and chokeholds. I mean, that's what we really need. It starts way back. I think the problem is that people feel like “I'm good. I don't believe in that. That's wrong. Yet I got my big tax cut and I'm buying another house in the Virgin Islands.” So, we got problems going down deep, man. We've got to start with the structure of our society. Why do we have such tremendous inequality? What does the bottom half of the inequality equation look like? It looks like inadequate schools. It looks like housing you cannot afford. It looks like an abandonment of putting public housing investment. It looks like no control over our environment, it looks like environmental justice. It looks like pollution. It looks like a massive disinvestment in the things that people need in a gross hoarding of wealth of people who don't need it. And of course, if you have a system that unjust, you need somebody to hold it in place because people won't tolerate it. Who's that? The police. So, in some ways, I think the police get a raw deal, because what the power-majority in America says is you keep them over there. We don't care how you do it. Just let us keep our stuff. And that's sort of, you talked about the unwritten social contract. That's the unwritten social contract we're living in today. It allows people to feel good about themselves as they hoard masses of wealth that they don't invest in the communities that helped them become wealthy and profitable and prosperous. They don't share with anyone else, even the people who made the wealth. And so that's kind of the thing that I want to say to folks. Don't just say you're for police reform. Let's talk about tax reform and let's talk about balancing the scales and making sure that our cities have the resources that they need to make sure that everybody can lead a just life so you don't put all the money into the police department. You put some money into parks, education, schools and health care. And you will see the incidents that occur involving things like George Floyd go to a rarity if you were to do that. 


Clemons: What are the blind spots that need to be removed in the Democratic leadership side of things to get this right. Or are they on the right course right now? 

Ellison: I do believe there's a structural problem in the Democratic Party, but let me just say this one thing to my fellow Democrats at the moment: Do not let this hashtag dismantle the police get turned into a weapon against Democrats. The people who use it and the people who say it are saying there's a better way to provide public safety than the traditional model that we're using. They're not saying they don't want safety. They're not saying they don't want security. They're saying we want more safety and security, including for people like George Floyd. And if we allocated resources differently and set up some new alternative structures, maybe we could be safer and observe human rights as well. That's what's being said. I've heard people get really afraid of this language, which is intended to be provocative. I'll concede that. But part of what we need to do is to help interpret what people are saying by listening to them. Well, what they're saying is Cease Fire, an organization that's not the police that does gun violence reduction might need a better budget, and maybe if we resource them better, we could have cut down on shootings in neighborhoods, like all across Chicago. Maybe if we said we were going to invest more in mental health and dealing with people who are in crisis, chemical or in mental health crisis, we could reduce deadly force encounters with police that way. Maybe we need to look at how we deal with sexual assault and actually — talk about believe women. Don't tell me you believe women and you will not process these rape kids, you know? So, my point is, you know, there are other ways to get to the goal of safety and all we do now is we use a paramilitary model where we call the people in that institution captain and lieutenant and all of that. We use all the military lingo. We give them weapons. We trained them in the use of weapons and then we go say, solve every problem that's out there. They're not equipped to deal with all the public safety challenges that are out there. They're not trained well enough. That's why we talk about training all the time. And now the police are saying you’re training us to death. I'm like, you're right. Maybe we're trying to put too much weight on the thin reed that is the current model of policing. And we need to figure out other ways to achieve safety. Not just that paramilitary model that has existed since the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries that really kind of started in slave catchers, Indian fighters and strikebreakers. Now it's ripened into what we call the police, and that's what we have today. But we keep on trying to just sort of make small changes. Maybe we need to think about how we make ourselves safer. Safety has got to be the key. So that's what I say to Democrats, if you don't lean into this and help people understand what the protesters mean, then Trump is going to say, “Oh, those crazy Democrats are anti-police. They're just trying to get rid of your safety, they just don't care about you. They’re crazies.” Help your people understand that nobody's trying to sacrifice their safety. We're actually trying to enhance their safety by being creative and innovative about how we achieve that safety. That is what they're saying, and by the way, I'm not even one of the ones making a call to dismantle police. That's actually the protesters call. I'm a 56-year-old guy. That's not the call I've made. But I do feel a certain responsibility to help people understand what is being asked for and how to interpret this.