Omari Chatman and I first met as leaders in Hope Community’s engagement work. He was working in food justice—community gardens, cooking classes and urban agriculture.
Working side by side, I’ve come to know him as a small business owner, a dad, a soon-to-be ex-husband, someone with a rascally sense of humor. He’s been actively involved in a park equity campaign, particularly a campaign to incorporate racial equity language into the city of Minneapolis’ park plan.
At 42, he is a youth mentor, an urban farmer, a good friend and a convicted felon.
Still, despite all of his civic engagement in the community, Chatman does not have access to one of the most fundamental rights of a U.S. citizen. Because of his felony status, he cannot vote in any elections.
Chatman has worked hard and overcome poverty, a high-crime environment, a lack of education and homelessness. He is a self-made man whose hard work and relationships helped him start his own business that employs himself and others. He is an active community member, a model citizen. But if you ask Chatman, he’ll tell you, “I’m not a citizen.”
Chatman moved to Minneapolis in 1999, with no job and no place to live. He stumbled upon on a construction crew from NetWork for Better Futures, now Better Futures Minnesota, working at Summit Academy. Chatman enrolled in the vocational training at Summit and after graduation, went to Better Futures for help with finding a job and housing.
In three months, Chatman was promoted to crew chief. His technical skills and leadership among his peers were apparent right away. He was a crew chief for seven years until he was laid off in 2007.
During that time he met a youth worker at Hope named DHop, another black man from Detroit, who asked him to be a youth mentor. Chatman initially declined.
“I was in my feelings with my own kids,” he said. “I was like ‘How can I mentor youth when I don’t see my own kids [back in Detroit]?’”
A year later, he decided to get involved and mentored a group of young people who were learning filmmaking. They worked with Sherine Crooms on her documentary about the 1969 black student takeover of Morrill Hall at the University of Minnesota.
Being laid off from his crew work inspired Chatman to start his own business. He now owns a home remodeling and handyman business, where he employs 2-3 young men.
Chatman’s first felony conviction took place back in Detroit when he was 17 years old. He was pulled over for a cracked windshield when police officers saw bullets in his car. Police asked him where the gun was.
He’d bought the gun for protection. “I was living in a big drug territory. People were doing a lot of carjacking and robberies, period. Detroit was crazy back then. All my friends had guns. Like an AK-47 they had in the front passenger seat. I had to protect myself and my family.”
Frightened, Chatman said he didn’t have it, but his cousin did. Officers asked him to take them to his cousin, but Chatman wouldn’t put his cousin in jeopardy, as he already had a warrant out for his arrest. He surrendered the gun, which wasn’t properly registered, and spent one day in jail. He was on probation for a full year. After being branded an ex-felon, work was hard to come by.
Chatman was convicted of felony nonpayment of child support in April 2015. Though he has always given financial support to his three children, years of unemployment and underemployment after a felony conviction caused him to fall behind on payments, and he is about $10,000 in arrears, plus about that much in fines and penalties.
Though he is serving no jail time, Chatman is under the supervision of the state until he catches up on his child support payments. As a convicted felon still on paper, he is also unable to vote in any elections.
“It’s taking away my rights to vote and to everything else,” he said. Reflecting on the upcoming presidential election he said, “I can’t vote for the person I really want to run this country and the people who make decisions about everything we do as citizens. To me, I’m not a citizen … with this felony.”
Chatman talked about the other collateral consequences of a felony conviction. “I can’t vote. I can’t travel. I can’t get a passport. If I miss one payment, they can lock me up. What makes me a citizen?”
“I’m not a citizen. I’m a slave to the corporation of the United States of America,” said Negil Neely, 43. He, like Chatman, is also disenfranchised due to convicted felonies.
Neely is a black nonprofit professional. He works in a member-based nonprofit, with 47 large and small member agencies. His job is to get agencies in the same field together to develop best practices and find collaboration opportunities and funding for collaborative projects.
He also works with young people aged 16 to 24 in a job readiness program. Neely gives them pointers and shares some of the barriers he’s faced to employment.
“I’m not afraid to tell them about my background,” Neely said. He pointed out that it’s important for them to see him there, in his suit, and know that he’s from the same places they are. “It’s like ‘He’s a lot like my dad, but he found a way to get out. I can get out, too.”
“I’m a four-time elected felon. I was convicted by the community like politicians are elected by the community,” he said. Neely makes no apologies for his past, nor does he try to excuse it. “It’s not who I am, it’s just been a part of my career.”
Neely’s first “election” occurred when was 22 years old. He and a friend were driving around the city late at night, when his friend told him to pull over. A woman got in the car and soon after, police were swarming the vehicle. During the subsequent search, police allegedly found baggies of marijuana and crack cocaine on the woman. They found nothing on Neely and his friend. The woman said she’d bought the drugs from Neely, so the two of them were arrested and his friend was released.
At trial, the public defender encouraged Neely to plead guilty, though he’d maintained his innocence the entire time. The defender. thought he couldn’t beat the charge, so he should plead out. If convicted, he faced five years in prison and one on probation. With the plea deal, he would get five years probation and only 30 days in jail.
Neely, not knowing much about the law and his rights within it, took the defender’s advice. He was informed that his charge would drop to a misdemeanor once his sentence was completed. In truth, the felony stayed on his record and began what he calls a downward spiral for him.
Wintana Melekin, Civic & Political Engagement Director at MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), says these types of plea deals are quite common in Minnesota.
“Minnesota does a lot of plea deals. There are lots and lots of felons on paper but not in prison or jail. 67,000 Minnesotans can’t vote. 47,000 of them are in the population, on probation,” Melekin said.
Neely says that maybe he was naive or didn’t pay close enough attention to the paperwork he signed when going on probation. With the belief that voting is akin to influence in our system, he continued to participate as an active citizen.
“I voted. I voted every election my whole time on probation.” In 2010, he was on probation for another marijuana “election” when he voted in the gubernatorial primary in Minnesota. In October of that same year, United States marshals began contacting his friends and family looking for him. One of them left a business card at his mother’s house.
When he called back, they asked to meet him at White Castle. When he got to White Castle, he was met by people from the United States Attorney General office. “They had this huge file. This file was my whole adulthood. At the very top it says Voter Fraud.”
He was being accused of illegally voting in the 2008 election and the 2010 primary election. Neely believes that he was targeted as a part of a plan to contest President Obama’s election. “I wasn’t on probation in 2008.” He was, however, on probation in 2010. He was charged and convicted of voter fraud.
Neely remembers two other men in court with him—another black man and a white man. Neelyl received 60 days in jail, and the other black man got 13 months. But based on his history, the white man was sentenced to 56 months.
“Fifty-six months for something that should be legal—that’s an American right—is terrible. But it shows that it’s not racism, it’s classism. This poor white person who they say is a career criminal is going to do four and a half years for what should be legal.”
I asked Neely what it means to him to not have the all the rights of a U.S. citizen. He hearkens back to the three-fifths compromise of 1787, where slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of representation—part human, part property.
“I can’t vote, travel without permission, get adequate employment, or bear arms to defend myself. Me doing marijuana does not mean I’m going to shoot somebody. I’m not equal until they decide I’m a citizen, a whole-hearted citizen.” He says he’s not fully human before the law, but a slave to the U.S. corporation. Slaves are only three-fifths of a person.
Neely offered evidence of his three-fifths status. When his aunt who lived in Nebraska died, he asked his probation officer for a permit to travel. “‘No. I ain’t letting you go nowhere,’” he told me. “So I missed my aunt’s funeral. He didn’t even give any excuse or reason. The corporation can see fit to do what they want to do with me at any given time. That was proof.”
When asked what he is doing to encourage others to vote since he cannot, Neely said he stays away from protests and demonstrations, because he feels they put him at risk. If there’s an interaction with police, he risks violating his probation. But he leans on his family and community members.
He tells his mother, “Mom, why don’t you at least go vote because I can’t vote. Vote for me.” But she’s too discouraged by the lack of visible influence or change her vote has affected.
“That kind of thought is barring us from getting out of where we are. People think they can’t make a difference and convince other people they can’t. I know I can make a difference,” Neely said.
Melekin started organizing because she knew she had to help make a difference after Trayvon Martin’s death. She started door-knocking with NOC and was running into one issue over and over. At every few doors she knocked, someone said, “I can’t vote. I’m on probation.”
In 2014, Melekin and NOC worked to increase voter turnout in North Minneapolis by 5 percent. They exceeded that goal, but Melekin dug in her heels. “Even if we increase voter turnout, it still doesn’t compare to turnout in the rest of the city because so many people don’t have the right to vote.” She has since built a strong base of community support around legislation to restore felon voting rights.
Melekin intentionally hired canvassers with criminal records, and gave them living wage jobs and political and organizing education. They started by contacting everyone in the NOC database who said they couldn’t vote. They held core team meetings with those impacted people creating their own campaign and agenda. “It was just folks telling me what they want to do.” They canvassed the streets, buses, and homeless shelters to reach people. Eventually this coalition was at the capitol lobbying for a vote restoration bill. They met with legislators and Governor Dayton, while learning about how a bill becomes law.
The bill was successful in the Minnesota Senate, but the House refused to hear it. It finally died on the floor when Republican lawmakers refused to pass a bill funding the judiciary if the felon voting rights act was passed. NOC never stopped organizing, and they were able to quickly mobilize people when a special congressional session was announced.
Nearly 1,000 phone calls and emails in fewer than 10 days went to legislators urging them to support the bill. When Governor Dayton released a one-pager with his priorities for the special session, the very last sentence said, “and restoring felon voting rights.”
“Our whole campaign lit up. Everybody got back in action. We had a people’s session. We went the Capitol right on the lawn. We had a barbecue. We had people tell the stories, talked about the bills we would pass as people. Then we went inside the Capitol and disrupted it for like, an hour. Legislators saw the energy and came up to us like ‘Can I author this next year? Can I help next year?”
NOC is fired up and ready to build on the momentum and successes of the last legislative session. Although the voting rights bill didn’t pass, the campaign workers see the impact of their efforts. Melekin shared the personal story of one worker, Fred [last name not given], as one of the campaign’s wins.
Fred was no different than other NOC canvassers. He had a felony conviction, had served his time and completed his probation period, but was still unable to pay restitution. Through the living wage salary NOC paid canvassers, he was finally able to pay his restitution fines.
“He was almost in tears telling me, ‘Wintana, I’m off probation. I’m off probation! I can vote again,’” Melekin said. “This is the amount of power you have when you know you can vote.”