Racist Christmas Tree

A tree decorated with trash and police tape stood inside the lobby of the Fourth Precinct of the Minneapolis Police Department. 

Adorning Christmas trees is a tradition that dates back to the 16th century.

According to Study.com, Martin Luther was the first person to put candles on a Christmas tree. He was said to have been inspired to do so after seeing stars twinkling through evergreen trees. The question now is what inspired two Minneapolis police officers in the Fourth Precinct to place items such as Newport cigarette packages, a Popeye’s container, a bag of Takis, cans of malt liquor and possibly most disturbing, yellow crime scene tape on a tree in the precinct’s lobby.

The incident took place Nov. 30 at Minneapolis’ Fourth Precinct headquarters, 1925 Plymouth Ave., N. The two officers who provided the so-called decorations – items seen as stereotypical, and an act deemed as racist – are on paid administrative leave and the incident is under internal investigation. Citing that investigation, a police spokesperson said the names of the officers could not be released due to state law.

Community members – and at least one city councilperson – say the problem is bigger than just two officers. They say there is a long-standing culture of racism that permeates throughout the precinct – the precinct with the largest contingent of Black residents in Minneapolis.

“(The applying trash to the tree) speaks to how they view the community,” said Raeisha Williams of Black Coalition and former communications chair for the Minneapolis NAACP. “To go dumpster diving like they did says they see us as trash. And over the past three years officers in this precinct have been responsible for the murder of three Black men. No other precinct has this level of a problem.”

Jamar Clark was killed by police in November of 2015, Thurman Blevins was killed by Minneapolis Police on June 23 and on Nov. 9 Travis Jordan was killed by officers responding to a welfare check call for Jordan, who was said to be suicidal. Clark was unarmed. Both Blevins and Jordan were said to be armed – Blevins with a gun and Jordan with a knife. The Jordan shooting is still under investigation.

Williams said the yellow police tape was most hurtful.

“That tape they put up there says they see us as murders and for those of us who have experienced the trauma of violence it is very triggering,” said Williams. “When I saw that yellow tape it brought back the trauma of my brother being murdered earlier this year.”

At least one person within the Fourth Precinct took exception to the items being placed on the tree. Williams said she and other activists were sent a text photo of the tree by someone from within.

Minneapolis City Councilperson Phillipe Cunningham (Ward 4) said the trust between police and community is in need of repair as a result of the Nov. 30 incident. 

“This conversation about the tree is not about litter. It’s not about trash or the fact that people of all races like Taki’s. It’s about broken trust. The police break our trust when they do things that undermine the humanity of our community,” said Cunningham in a statement. “This is connected to a long history of issues between police departments and disenfranchised communities like the Northside, particularly for Northsiders of color.”

Tensions between Black citizens and Fourth Precinct police are longstanding.

Dating back to the Plymouth Avenue uprising of 1967 when protests began over an alleged police beating of a Black woman to the 2015 killing of Clark, an unarmed 24-year-old killed just a block away from the Fourth Precinct headquarters by officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze, police have often been at odds with many in the community. In a 2016 interview with activist and historian Mahmoud El-Kati, he said the location of the Fourth Precinct headquarters is symbolic, as it was erected in an authoritarian maneuver on the spot of former Black power movement organization, The Way – a group often targeted by Minneapolis police.

With the Nov. 30 incident feelings of distrust have reemerged. That distrust was addressed by Minneapolis Chief Medaria Arradondo.

“I am ashamed and appalled by the behavior of those who would feel comfortable to act in such a manner that goes against our core department values of trust, accountability and professional service,” said Arradondo in a statement. “I have initiated a full investigation and will make information public when possible in accordance with Minnesota State Statute.”

Arradondo, the department’s first African-American chief, was seen as a bridge between community and police during the 18 days-long 2015 occupation of the Fourth Precinct following the killing of Clark. Arradondo was appointed chief in 2017 following the resignation of former chief, Janee Harteau.

The Monday after the tree was defaced Arradondo announced a change in leadership at the Fourth. Demoted is Inspector Aaron Biard, who headed the precinct since last year. Taking over atop the Fourth is Assistant Chief Mike Kjos. Kjos led the precinct in 2012 and again in 2016.

It is still unclear if others were involved in the placing the stereotypical items on the tree or if there is video footage of the act; questions being addressed by the investigation, says Minneapolis Police Department spokesman, John Elder. Elder said there is no timetable for a decision to be made as to the officers’ fates. He did say the final outcome for the officers could result in termination from the force.

Williams said though she is satisfied with the initial steps of the chief and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who called on the officers to be fired, she said she and others has requested meetings with both, but to date those requests have gone unanswered.

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