As Minneapolis community organizations grapple with the killing of George Floyd, locals are still grappling with the memory of justice delayed and denied in the murders of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile. As a journalist, it has been a tough week trying to sustain and be well personally while remaining committed to uplifting the stories and work of people directly impacted by the news we cover.
In service of that mission, on Friday morning I spoke with Hennepin County Commissioner Angela Conley about the events that we have been watching unravel over the past several days in Minneapolis. Conley was the first Black person elected to the Hennepin County Commission in its 168-year history. The Hennepin County Commission is responsible for county governance and is divided into seven districts, with commissioners serving four-year terms. Conley was joined by fellow county commissioner Irene Fernando in calling on Hennepin County Attorney Michael Freeman to press charges against police officers in the killing of Floyd. A few hours after our conversation, Freeman announced that former officer Derek Chauvin had been taken into custody and would be charged with murder and manslaughter.
Like many communities across the country, there is a deep reservoir of unresolved issues, from policing to structural inequities like underemployment, unemployment, and housing.
On top of the usual harmful conditions that communities are pushing past to thrive within, we are also in the middle of a pandemic with varying degrees of response and support for many people who are among the most vulnerable and most directly impacted. Reflecting on this week as well as the prior instance of unchecked police violence, Conley centers the community’s need to process grief as well as finding momentum to push forward. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Anoa Changa: Can you talk about what is unfolding right now in Minneapolis? How are you, in your official and personal capacity, showing up in this moment?
Angela Conley: This is a really important discussion to have. It’s a story that often gets hidden after protests erupt. This was a murder that happened five blocks from my front door. This is a community that is very special to me. I was born and raised in this community and now have the privilege to represent this community on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners. It was traumatizing, on top of the post-traumatic stress disorder that we still have after the murders of Philando Castile and Jamar Clark.
And there’s also this overwhelming feeling of sadness. We’ve been holding down the intersection [where Floyd was murdered] since Monday. It’s important that we keep that space sacred. But the escalation of what happens when state-sanctioned murder happens to Black communities is that there’s this tension in terms of anger. And to me that’s justified. And as things continue to escalate, while we wait for a very delayed response and charges from our county attorney, our city ultimately became a war zone.
It’s not my role or position to police how people grieve. But I’m also not naive that there are agitators out there. The intersection of 38th and Chicago has been a very peaceful and loving environment. To see what we’ve seen over the course of the last five days is devastating to me. It’s been a lot [with] the community mourning not only the death and the murder of George Floyd, but also the destruction of Black-owned businesses and businesses owned by our Latinx and Native American brothers and sisters, that they struggled to keep open even during a pandemic. So, we have this on top of the pandemic and it’s just devastating right now to the Southside of Minneapolis, our city, and to the country.
Changa: In some ways, the explosive response to state-sanctioned violence is really a building up of constant struggle and collective trauma that in many moments we are still processing. Can you talk to me about the multitude of issues that feed into community grief?
Conley: I have been saying that we are under a collective depression right now. I don’t need to remind anyone that for hundreds of years we have been under the boot of oppression and racism in this country. And the origin of the police state comes from protection of property for people who owned slaves. We’ve seen how that has evolved over the years through the fact that right now, today, one in three Black people are somehow involved with the justice system, whether we’re in jail or prison, on probation, or on paper. If we can call it the justice system. So when you murder one of us on video in the most disgusting and anti-Black way possible, you are going to see Black people feeling like they are helpless and have nowhere to go. We have seen these officers get away with murder and stay on the police force. What does that do to the psyche of Black communities who are already dealing with living in poverty, not having generational wealth or access to basic resources? We have a huge epidemic of unsheltered [people] and homelessness in Minneapolis and in other parts of the country as well. And it’s affecting Black people greatly.
We have all of these different societal structures stacked up against us. And then you add state-sanctioned murder. We can only expect for our community to be reeling from this and looking for any way to release this type of anger, to release this type of frustration that we have. We can’t get away from these images. When things like this happen our dead Black bodies are spread throughout the world. These are intrusive thoughts which are psychologically damaging to the human brain, our mental health, as well as our physical health. Stress is a physical response that has been damaged permanently by what the police state is doing to our community.
Changa: How do you balance both being a part of the community and being a part of the governing structure in Hennepin County?
Conley: You know, I became the first Black county commissioner in Hennepin County’s history last year. I was sworn in on January 9, 2019, and [before that] Hennepin County had not had a person of color or a Black person on their Board of Commissioners, which is a powerful level of government. And my background is social work. I’ve been a social worker. So I have always been about uplifting the dignity and worth of human beings and focus on the communities that are hit the hardest.
I have been an activist and advocate for a very long time. Back when the freeways were shut down after the murders of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, and when we were occupying the Fourth [Police] Precinct here in Minneapolis. I have had boots on the ground every time something like this happens, because I need to feel and hear from the community firsthand. So walking in this world in the body of an activist who is also an elected official to me, it’s two-fold. We need more activists in political office and we need more activists who aren’t afraid to speak out unapologetically about the injustices that are happening in our community. It’s very easy to be a politician. All you have to do is say what people want to hear, make the right connections, and know people who know people. But we need people in these seats who have had enough, who want to see political change and who are willing to go against the grain to make that policy happen.
So I’m using my platform and power that voters have given me to be as unapologetic as I can. And that just comes natural to me. So there’s me taking what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced in my own life experience into this work. And the community can see that authenticity. I’m privileged enough to have this platform because a community needs someone who is willing to speak truth to power no matter what those circumstances are, even if it means that at some point, your own colleagues will not agree with you.
Changa: In thinking about next steps as someone who has been present in the community, what should be happening going forward? What should the people be looking to do from this point?
Conley: We need people like Mike Freeman, our county attorney, to acknowledge the fact that there is injustice in the way that police officers and police murders happen. Two, we really need to rethink how we police across the country. Policing is antiquated in the way it’s currently done. We have a police union right here that is led by someone who has made anti-Black remarks, someone who has made very racist comments. So I think that people need to understand that policing as it is right now is an antiquated model of protection of property, not service to community.
Also, I want an empathetic response to community. Because right now, the community does not trust this system. We do not trust the police officers who patrol our neighborhoods, who profile us. So a message to county and district attorneys is that when these things happen you come into our community, you show that you are empathetic with others. Myself and Mike Freeman, we share the same constituents. And if I can be on the ground, he can be on the ground. He’s not immune to the feelings of his constituents.
Changa: Is there anything else that I didn’t ask about that you think is important to address at this moment?
Conley: Again, we need to think about moving forward after the smoke clears. The conversation around changing our model of antiquated policing is important to holding the pressure and the people accountable who have the ball in their court now. The world is watching. The focus should always be [that] we have had fires, we have had people crying in the streets, we have had a person die during a protest. I want people to know that. They’re both in the situation. And the focus needs to be on the murder of George Floyd and on what happened at the intersection of 38th and Chicago, where a 10-minute video showed a knee on that man’s throat. An officer with his hands in his pocket looking very comfortable taking the life of a Black man.
Right now, the corner of 38th and Chicago is a shrine to George Floyd. It is a beautiful display of love and community. Two days ago, we had 300 people mourning together, making art, artists healing, burning sage, barbecuing, and music. It was a beautiful celebration of his life. And I really want people to see that part of how people grieve.