“What are we here for?” Sheryl Spencer of the Minneapolis Urban League asked.
“We’re here for civil rights!” about 50 community members chanted charismatically, while enjoying free, homemade ice cream.
The excitement and upbeat atmosphere was almost palpable at the Minneapolis Civil Rights Community Social held June 11 at the Brian Coyle Community Center located in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. The room was filled with community members representing the diverse age, ethnic, religious, and racial groups present in the Twin Cities, as well as the GLBT and disabled communities.
Cosponsored by a coalition of civil rights and community organizations including the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission, the Minneapolis Urban League, OutFront Minnesota, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and the United Somali Movement, the event aimed to address Mayor R. T. Rybak’s proposal to cut the entire Complaint Investigation Unit (CIU) of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department (MCRD).
Although the Twin Cities is one of the most segregated metro areas in the nation, the city of Minneapolis spends only one percent of its budget on the MCRD. The CIU – one of three units of the MCRD – investigates and processes discrimination complaints in Minneapolis.
The Community Social was the third meeting the civil rights coalition has had. “This fight is not about black folks,” Kenneth Brown asserted passionately. “It’s not just about minorities. Take a look at this room, it’s a rainbow.” According to Brown and several others, the potential cut of the CIU will affect everyone, minorities as well as the GLBT, disabled, and elderly communities.
Phil Duran, a staff attorney for OutFront Minnesota representing the GLBT community, spoke at the Community Social. “Minneapolis is home to one of the largest GLBT communities outside the coasts,” he said. “Minneapolis’ commitment to our community has been essential.” But with another budget cut, he fears that all minority communities will become voiceless.
Taneeza Islam, an investigator for the MCRD and the Civil Rights Director for the Minnesota branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN), agrees that the GLBT community will be affected, but she believes that minorities who come from a lower socioeconomic status will be affected the most. “Ninety percent of the people who use our office can’t afford attorneys. Cutting this unit will cut our service from assessing people’s rights.” Furthermore, the real issue, she said, is accessibility. Besides not being able to afford attorneys, “people in Minneapolis are going to have to go to Saint Paul” to file their complaints.
The Somali liaison of the multicultural services office for the city of Minneapolis, Yusuf Ali, agrees. “We continuously get calls and walk-ins. People have all kinds of discrimination issues. When I tell people we won’t have this office anymore, they get surprised and confused.”
Ali said that many people who face discrimination are immigrants and many of these immigrants are Somalis. For those who can’t speak English fluently, going to the Minnesota Human Rights Department will be an issue of accessibility. However, Ali also stressed, as did several speakers before him, that “this isn’t just a Somali or black issue. It’s everybody’s rights – women, Somalis, blacks, whites. Our communities will become voiceless.”
Islam explained that the CIU files and investigates discrimination cases including those of employment, housing, and police discrimination. This is unlike the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which only investigate housing discrimination and employment discrimination, respectively.
MCRD currently has a work-share agreement with the EEOC. The department gets paid $550 each time an EEOC case is complete. Kashif Saroya, Outreach Director for CAIR-MN, said that soon even the EEOC will begin limiting its services to only ten hours per case. After ten hours, the case will be closed and the complainant will get a “right to sue letter.” This allows them to file in federal court, but there they must pay for their own attorneys. “Can you imagine ten hours for a person who went through so much?” Saroya asked the audience members. “How can we even think of cutting this department when people’s voices aren’t being heard?”
When a complaint is filed with the CIU, its investigators must determine if the case is found to have probable cause to believe that there was discrimination. If a case is found to have probable cause, then the complainant has evidence of discrimination that makes the case more credible. The complainant can decide to settle the case with the other side or have a public hearing where a panel of civil rights commissioners hears the case. If no probable cause is found, the Minneapolis civil rights ordinance allows complainants the opportunity to appeal the decision, and the commissioners listen to that appeal.
Toni Newborn, a CIU investigator, shared a few cases that were found to have probable cause of discrimination. One case was that of a Caucasian woman in a wheelchair who was denied entry to a Halloween contest at a bar. The bar asked her to leave because her disability would be a liability. She filed a complaint with the CIU and the department found probable cause for discrimination.
Newborn also explained the case of a Somali woman who was denied employment as a ticket taker for a Vikings football game. The company that refused her application claimed that her hijab – headscarf – was a security risk. She filed a complaint with the CIU. After investigating the issue, the CIU found that the company had hired other people who were wearing hats, and thus there was probable cause for discrimination. She received financial compensation.
Despite the success stories, there still is a chance that the CIU will be cut. If that happens, the 450-plus currently open and active cases with the city of Minneapolis will transfer to the Minnesota Human Rights Department in December.
If the cases transfer to the state, they will do so without the investigators who have been working on them in the city, said Kenneth Brown, chair of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Commission.
“In fact, ‘transfer’ is a poor choice of words,” said Brown. “The cases will not be transferred. They will stop. Then [they’ll] restart under the state’s law”, which is “completely different.”
Louisa Hext, a Minneapolis Human Rights Commissioner, also said that due to the difference between city and state laws, the state department “can throw out a lot of these cases. Even if they’re [found to have] probable cause, the judge will only take a few – not all.”
Hext also mentioned that the state department “doesn’t take into consideration things like the way the investigations are to be handled and the ability to facilitate these investigations with the limited number of staff.”
A limited number of staff and more cases on top of its current caseload make it inevitable that the state department will have to increase its speed when investigating each case. “[The department] won’t get more time or enough funding. I’m concerned about the quality of work that will be done,” said Phil Duran.
Besides discussing the above disadvantages for the community if the CIU is cut, other speakers at the Community Social also brought up the government’s wasteful spending. Farheen Hakeem, a Green Party candidate, said that “$10 million of [the city’s budget] was spent on overtime for police.” Brown echoed Hakeem’s sentiment when he said that the police department has cost “$16 million extra” in the past seven years.
Towards the end of the event, each present community member was given a chance to propose a strategy preventing the budget cut of the MCRD and the dismantling of the CIU. Suggestions ranged from holding a march, having a postcard campaign, organizing a call center, to exposing wasteful government spending.
Islam said the CIU may have to start charging five dollars per complaint in order to sustain the unit. “It’s not the best strategy, but a nominal fee may be the last resort,” especially since two hundred new complaints are filed every year. Another suggestion she emphasized at the Community Social is to renew the department’s “HUD status”. If the contract with HUD is renewed, MCRD will start receiving $1500 for every housing discrimination case transferred and completed.
Despite the thirty ideas that were enthusiastically proposed on June 11, two weeks later frustration is running high and time is running out. “People have not been stepping up to the plate,” said Louisa Hext. She has also expressed frustration with the mayor. “The Civil Rights Commission had requested a meeting with Mayor Rybak in March, which is when the Commission was first informed of the proposal. But it was behind-the-scenes. He’s not meeting with people out in the public.”
Hext further explained that the Community Social was organized because the mayor did not follow through with a commitment he made to offer an opportunity for the boards of the Minneapolis community to respond to his plan in June. More recently, Kenneth Brown requested a meeting with the mayor and a few key stakeholders; this request has been rejected.
The reason for this rejection was that a Task Force has already been set up to address the budget cut. On July 1, Michael Jordan, MCRD Director, will report the Task Force’s recommendations for the department to the city council. Also, the Task Force already had a community engagement meeting earlier this month that served as an opportunity for the public to express its concerns and opinions about the potential cut.
Hext says that only 12 people showed up at the meeting, and that the mayor has not responded to the poor turnout.
The City Council will hold a meeting at the City Hall Chambers on Monday, July 6th at 1:30 P.M. A silent protest at the council meeting is being organized by University of Minnesota student groups.
Lolla Mohammed Nur (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a student at the University of Minnesota and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.