Grandstanding blocks the Northside peace process

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Last week, Mayor R.T. Rybak and interim Police Chief Tim Dolan journeyed up to the North Side to announce their new public safety initiative, a plan designed to neutralize the young gangs that are terrorizing that part of town. This is not an easy thing for Rybak to do; North Side audiences–particularly the black activist community–have never taken to him. But last week’s press conference marked a new low for the mayor’s relationship with the vocal bunch of community leaders who speak with so much passion against the white power structure in Minneapolis.

On this particular occasion, Al Flowers and Rev. Jerry McAfee shouted down the mayor and the police chief, alleging that the new policing strategy would do nothing more than target young black men as scapegoats for an economy that has simply left the North Side behind.

The move sent a frustrated Rybak and his staff out of the room, certainly souring the already delicate relationship between those who purport to speak for the black underclass and a mayor who appears to be trying to make some inroads against the terrifying violence that North Side residents have had to deal with over the past many years.

There is much room for criticism here. I’ve seen Al Flowers at work for a few years now, and he has often been a polarizing force in police-community relations. The same can be said of Rev. McAfee. It’s easy to dismiss these two (and a host of others) as egocentric activists whose work has more to do with getting face time on the evening news than with working toward some real solutions for the community they claim to represent.

But to reach such a conclusion is to dismiss the energy and passion they and their ilk bring to the debate over how best to create more opportunity for the underclass in this still very segregated city. And to conclude that Rybak and Dolan’s latest initiative is a cynical political strategy designed to simply round up young black men is to dismiss the very real complexity of the problem they and others in City Hall are desperate to solve.

Anyone outside of the mainstream power structure has to create a stir in order to be noticed. Anyone outside the insular North Side black community has to create a program in order to be considered a serious player. So both sides are captive to a paradigm that has been shown to be less than effective over the past 40 years. And that–not the people involved–is what has to change before we’re going to see any progress in crime prevention on the North Side.

Yes, there have to be consequences for criminal behavior. And, yes, there have to be ways for government (in this case, the police) to understand the complex racial equations that govern the criminal justice system. But until people like Flowers and McAfee begin to expect the same accountability from the school board, from local corporations, and from North Side parents that they expect from City Hall, there’s going to be little progress.

A civilized North Side is not going to be created from stronger law enforcement any more than it will be found in more 1960s job programs. The only solution will emerge from private sector investment and commitments from parents, kids, clergy, and other individuals to creating a community worth embracing. In this sense, Council Member Don Samuels has the right idea: the black middle class needs to return to the North Side and with it a more comprehensive desire for peace and prosperity.

We’re not going to arrest ourselves out of the violence that’s contaminated North Minneapolis. Neither are we going to create opportunity for young black men by vilifying City Hall and the police. Jobs and investment are the keys to survival there–just as they are everywhere else in the city. The city has a role in making that happen; community leaders have a role, as well. It’s time they put aside their egos and political agendas and combine their talents for the common good.