A Native American woman accused a police officer of harassing her and pulling her over without cause while she drove in town. A Black man claimed multiple violent run-ins with the police. A second Black man originally from Chicago accused law enforcement of singling him out while he was fishing next to several white people on a lake.
“That’s a classic case of profiling,” said the third man identified as Jay. “Being up here I want to be part of the change. I don’t want to be part of the problem. But how can I be part of the change when I’m already deemed a criminal?”
The three individuals shared their experiences with law enforcement on the Iron Range, after being invited to do so for the “Conversation with the Courts'' event on Tuesday over Zoom. They join a group of more than 50 people — judges, lawyers and community leaders — in the discussion about racial issues in the criminal justice system in the Sixth Judicial District.
The event comes amid the internationally publicized trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis police officer who has been charged in the death of George Floyd.
Nearly one year ago, Seraphia Gravelle and her friends on the Iron Range co-founded the grassroots group named Voices for Ethnic and Multicultural Awareness of Northern Minnesota (VEMA) in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. They organized the group here in the predominantly white region of the state, where they have held protests and sought out collaborations — sometimes successful, sometimes not — with local cities and police departments. In recent weeks, the Sixth Judicial District’s Iron Range Equal Justice Committee reached out to VEMA in an effort to host a listening session meant to cultivate relationships by talking about racial issues.
“This is the beginning of the discussion in our community,” said District Judge Robert C. Friday during the 90-minute event which was recorded on public access television.
Panelists generally spent the time online introducing one another to the group which included District Judges Rachel Sullivan and Michelle Anderson; VEMA co-founder Nathaniel Coward; Sixth District Chief Public Defender Dan Lew; Mark Muhich, Managing Attorney for Iron Range Public Defender’s Office; and Mike Danks, Hibbing Probation Office Supervisor.
Two moderators from Lead for America Fellowship Program helped to introduce panelists, including Friday and Sullivan who spoke about their state and ongoing training and also talked about their attempts to connect with citizens in the community on a more intimate level. Mulich noted that the public defenders across the district do “receive elimination bias, as well as diversity and inclusion” training. (No one from the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office showed up to the event, though a moderator said a prosecutor was out ill for the evening.)
“I wish this was an issue we could immediately flick a switch and all of us be very skilled, knowledgeable, embedded with all of those principles as we carry forth our duties as judges or as a judicial system,” Friday said, referring to topics surrounding racial discrimination in criminal justice systems. “But it’s not like that. It’s a process.”
Friday, who said he was born on the East Coast, said he is “really encouraged by the strides” that have been made on the Iron Range. “But if the question is, could we do more? The answer is, we always could as we strive towards doing more with our individual judicial teams, as courthouses, and then ultimately as a judiciary as a whole.”
Originally from Chisholm, Sullivan touted the Equal Justice Committee as a group capable of connecting with people of color across the Range and their efforts of hosting “open courthouse” events. She added, “I do think it’s important that we listen to our community members and we hear what’s happening. That’s one way that we’re trying to grapple with the struggles of our community.”
A moderator taking questions from the panel asked, “Criminal justice providers could go to training every week. It does not mean the implicit or explicit bias will change. Then what?”
In answering the question, Friday noted Jay previously saying “racism is always going to be here.” He continued, “There’s some truth to that.”
“You can go to all the trainings, but if the person isn’t willing to hear, isn’t willing to learn, isn’t willing to take action and change their behavior, all the education in the world might not change it,” he said. “But on the other side, does that not mean we stop trying? Does that mean as an individual and as a human being that I stop trying to work on my shortcomings and my areas of defect? And I think the answer to that is a resounding no. I think that we have to.”
Despite the collaborative spirit of the evening, several individuals raised concerns over there being nothing presented but talk.
“People have been listening for all these years, but ain’t nothing being done,” Jay said. “I think it’s time to stop listening and take action.”
Later on, Leah Rogne, a professor at Minnesota State University, chimed in, saying, “I think the missing equation is getting people in leadership positions to speak out and say that racism exists and commit themselves to doing something about it.”
Friday wrapped things up with a call to take action and join them for the next meeting tentatively scheduled for May 11.
“Part of the engagement and the listening is ultimately the response in looking forward and looking at what we could do as an Iron Range community to potentially find solutions that work for our community,” he said.
He continued, “I’d love to change the world and fix the world, but I’d love to make Virginia, Hibbing, Chisholm and the whole Iron Range a better place. And I really think that energy is here and that desire is here and the willingness to have open, honest and difficult conversations that may make us uncomfortable. That we hear things that we may not want to hear. If we can keep that going forward, that’s the remedy to find solutions and institute action that actually results in change.”