THE SYSTEM IS NOT BROKEN?

Protestors in Chattanooga
Protestors in Chattanooga

As I listened to Minnesota’s Governor Walz’s June 2nd news conference, I was dumbfounded to hear him say at the beginning of his opening remarks, “…This isn’t about a broken system. This is about a system that’s functioning absolutely as it was designed, unfortunately that’s meant to exclude some from it.”   

Wow, I don’t recall ever hearing a politician talk like that. My shock propelled me into listening to news conference and reading a copy of the transcript several times and then writing this post.

Until a few days ago I didn’t know the name of or anything about the governor of Minnesota. However, this changed after watching the news conference that may become recognized as an important event leading to sweeping changes in the institutional, social, and economic structure of the United States of America. 

To be clear, I still know nothing about his political record or what he did before entering politics and am basing the following opinions solely on his June 2nd press conference. I believe that the conference was an example of the  leadership our country needs especially in these turbulent times. 

Note that this view is informed by values and assumptions that form the groundwork of our book, Bring Out The Best In Others. Although there are several qualities that truly great leaders emanate, a crucial one is that they have the ability to bring out the best in the citizens they govern. The June 2nd news conference suggested  that Governor Walz has the ability to do this in Minnesota, as well as being a model for leaders nation-wide and even world-wide. Here is why I believe this. 

In his opening remarks, Governor Walz appears to listen to everybody and doesn’t reflexively turn a deaf ear to those he disagrees or cannot identify with. And it seems he listens with empathy and humility. He admits his limitations, one of them being that as a white man he cannot really know the full extent of pain of the black community. He calls out unacceptable behavior without resorting to personal insults or wild and damaging speculations about others. He focuses on systemic and individual behavior change instead of vilifying others’ character or intelligence. 

Throughout his remarks, Mr. Walz stressed the necessity of forming a stronger sense of community between law enforcement and citizens. It seemed clear that his intent was one of unifying, not dividing. He was clear that he believed peace in communities cannot be maintained by stronger shows of force but by “addressing the systemic issues that caused it in the first place.” Although he does not devalue the need for law and order, he implies that building safe communities where all citizens are given equal opportunities to pursue their own conceptions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness requires a partnership between police and the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect. 

Specifically, Governor Walz announced that the Minnesota Department of Human Rights was filing a “charge of discrimination to launch a civil rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).” This investigation will include reviewing the MPD’s policies and procedures during the past ten years to determine if the department has used systemic and discriminatory practices toward “people of color”. 

The Need For a Sense of Community

The Governor stated that this will be one of many efforts to restore trust between the police and the citizens they have sworn to serve and protect. Although the announced civil rights investigation will be limited to the MPD, his remarks made clear this was a nation-wide issue. It was also evident from his statement that reforms beyond policing policies and practices are needed. The following short quote says a lot.

“I’m listening and one of the things I need to do is use that ability to change and build coalitions to make this situation that has become intolerable across the nation, that will not go away with tough talk and more people on the streets in uniform. It will go away with the sense of community you see being displayed on the state capitol lawn today with law enforcement and the people that they serve seeing themselves as neighbor in the same society and the same opportunities for their children.”

The recognition of injustice for minorities has remarkably and, I believe encouragingly, gone beyond Minnesota. A recent Wikipedia entry lists over 500 American cities (including cities in several American territories) that have had protests fueled by the killing of George Floyd and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Compare this to the protests and riots in 1967 and 1968 in which at about 100 American cities were involved. Wikipedia also reports that similar protests have occurred in at least 40 countries which represent every continent except Antartica. 

Issues Deep and Wide

It also should be becoming clearer to everyone that these issues have deep and long-standing roots that go way beyond the Minneapolis Police Department. Racial biases have flourished in social, economic, and institutional domains since before the birth of America. One could argue it goes back thousands of years, but going back 400 years is a good start. Although the Governor’s address focused on the MPD, he hinted at other social, economic, and institutional factors but did not provide specific plans to address them. 

However, I believe the Untied States and probably most of the world will need to acknowledge and address the laws, regulations, government procedures, and social and individual beliefs and attitudes that foster inequality for many, if not most, members of minority communities. This is truly a Herculean and multifaceted task which will require hearing voices from representatives of everyone who is a stakeholder in this process. And, I believe that every American, as well as every person on the planet, has a stake in this process. It  will likely take years and change will likely seem to move too slowly and incrementally for some. And of course almost all changes, even the those viewed positively by a huge majority of people, will present new challenges. 

A Model News Conference

At the end of Governor Walz’s ten minute opening statement, he briefly announced the speakers that would follow, including the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor. The other speakers included the Commissioner of the Department of Public Safety and the Executive Director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, 

The speakers amplified the governor’s remarks while providing some additional details. I was struck by the coherence and consistency of the messaging during the entire news conference, including the question and answer period which followed the speeches. The whole news conference lasted about one hour. 

After the other speakers had finished, Governor Walz thanked them and concisely and cogently summed up the main points of the news conference. In doing so, he again revealed his humility, empathy, ability to listen and understand, and his determination and persistence in moving forward on these issues now. A slightly edited transcript follows.

“I’ve heard so many people tell me the anxiety they’re feeling from COVID-19 and how this was unbearable and that children and adults are dreading when the sun was going down. What’s going to happen, pins and needles. If I watch the news and wake up in the morning, what happened? And they’re so hoping they can go back, which we want to get to that sense of security as part of community so you can make the choice to get up in the morning and go for a run, go golfing, spend time with your family, go out to eat and do your job or whatever. That sense of not feeling anxiety. 

Then I had a lot of community members tell me, you know, that sense of anxiety you have, I get it driving my car because I’m black and get pulled over. I have that sense of anxiety all the time in certain situations because of how I’m viewed. 

So if we stand and say why does this matter to us? Just restore order and everything will be fine. For some. That is our whole issue here. Until we can make this state, this country and our society one where that anxiety goes away because everybody feels the same sense of security and the system is there to serve them, that is the only way we prevent this from happening again. 

I pray to God that no governor in the history of Minnesota from now on ever has to mobilize a force to be on the streets to put out fires and to stop what we saw happen. And the only way i’m going to ensure that doesn’t happen for everybody who follows is to take this moment and make the systemic change. That’s one step today, but let me tell you, it is one step of many.”

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Transcript of Governor Walz’s Opening Remarks

Below is an excerpted and edited transcript of Mr. Walz’s opening remarks. (If you’re pressed for time, read the passages in bold.) The entire news conference can be viewed, along with a transcript at this link: https://www.c-span.org/video/?472707-1/minnesota-governor-launches-investigation-minneapolis-police-department

…We saw thousands gather in front of the beautiful Minnesota governor’s residence that my family and I have the privilege of occupying for a short time. The pain of the families that were there was visceral. The anger of a system that seems to continue on. A group of people that know very clearly this isn’t about a broken system. This is about a system that’s functioning absolutely as it was designed, unfortunately that’s meant to exclude some from it….

But I think all of us have come to understand we’re not going to restore peace on our streets by having a bigger group of national guard show up. We’re not going to establish peace on our streets by keeping a curfew in place all the time. We’re going to establish peace on our streets when we address the systemic issues that caused it in the first place and that is what every voice on the capitol is saying, voices in front of my house is saying, that’s what Terrance Floyd is saying and that’s what we need to start saying. 

Whether it was from the colonial period through Jim Crow, it’s still with us… This will not go away once the fires are put out and there’s a lull… So I hear you and I’ve listened to community leaders and we together have seen this. City council members and others and are asking for structural change, specifically things that we can deal with and today, I’m here to talk about the structural change that needs to start with the Minneapolis police department and I can tell you this, I have talked to countless officers, I saw them take a knee out of respect in front of my house yesterday. Although there weren’t a lot of people there happy with them, but they did it because there’s not one of those officers I talked to that wasn’t sickened to the core about what they witnessed, knowing that when you’re part of an organization the culture permeates all of us. A culture that allows things to happen. A culture where the public cannot trust. 

We know that this is systemic, not just in Minneapolis and Minnesota, but it needs to start somewhere. It needs to start where we know things happen. And I know what organizations look like when you’re serving. I have served in some of the finest organizations whether they were public schools or whether in the national guard. And the leadership and the type of things you’re committed to make a difference. And they can be generational. We know that deeply seeded issues exist and the reason I know it is we saw the casual nature of the erasing of George Floyd’s life and humanity. We also know by the reaction of the community. They expected nothing to happen and the reason is, because nothing did happen for so many times…. 

So Minnesotans you can expect our administration to use every tool at our disposal to try to deconstruct systemic racism that is generations deep and we need to do it with the community, but I think the thing i’m hearing from the protesters is, we’re not watching and we don’t care what you say. We care what you do. 

So today as a step towards that deconstruction of systemic racism the Minnesota Department of Human Rights is filing a commissioner’s charge of discrimination to launch a civil rights investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department. The investigation will review MPD’S policies procedures and practices over the last ten years to determine if the department has utilized systemic discriminatory practices towards people of color. 

This is the first time the state is launching a civil rights investigation into the systemic discriminatory practices of the largest police department in the state. It is also the only investigation surrounding the killings of George Floyd how focussing on the policies and practices implemented by the Minneapolis police department. 

When the Minnesota department of human rights finds civil rights violations they seek change to prevent it from occurring again. They will seek an agreement with the Minneapolis Police Department to implement interim measures immediately in advance of long-term measures to address systemic discriminatory practices. 

This effort is only one of many steps to come in our efforts to restore trust within those communities who have been unseen, unheard, and believe that those that are charged to serve and protect not only don’t do that, they work against them. 

And I say this as a white man who walks through life with pretty much relative ease. I can’t ever know the pain of that black community members but I hear you. I’m listening and one of the things I need to do is use that ability to change and build coalitions to make this situation that has become intolerable across the nation that will not go away with tough talk and more people on the streets in uniform, it will go away with the sense of community you see being displayed on the state capitol lawn today with law enforcement and the people that they serve seeing themselves as neighbor in the same society and the same opportunities for their children. 

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