Last November, KSTP TV in Minneapolis made themselves a laughingstock. They ran a news segment claiming that Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges had “flashed a gang sign” with an unidentified, faceless, African American man.
The “gang sign?” She and voting rights activist Navell Gordon had posed together, pointing at one another! Politicians and everyone else point that exact same way all the time. In this case, it was just a dumb public relations photo during a get-out-the-vote drive before the 2014 election.
Navell Gordon was not affiliated with any gang. In fact, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau was with them! But KSTP didn’t bother to check any of that.
KSTP brainlessly played into the worst sort of “dog-whistle” politics. It had nothing to do with gangs and everything to do with disgruntled policemen. The Mayor had called for more police accountability, including body cameras. To put pressure on her, police personnel found a “news tip:” Navell Gordon and the Mayor posing together, captured from Gordon’s Facebook page. An anonymous “source” shopped it around to three local news outlets. Two refused to run the story. ABC affiliate, KSTP, cluelessly ran it without checking the police claims.
Media watchdogs quickly condemned KSTP for “deliberately distorting facts” and the Society of Professional Journalists called on KSTP to disavow the story. Other outlets called it “the most racist news story of 2014.” Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” ran a hilarious segment lampooning the whole fiasco.
Of course, the heart of satire is that it makes you laugh to keep from crying. But there are truly heartbreaking issues at play here. Which is why I riffed on the “Daily Show” segment in my sermon on “Race, Group Dynamics, and Ferguson” few days later.
All this was shortly before the Ferguson Grand Jury’s Non-Decision on the killing of unarmed black youth Michael Brown. In my sermon, I predicted that non-decision. My take was that our judicial system itself was too bound into sociological racist dynamics, to be effective in this case. That turned out to be correct. Still, my sermon took a conciliatory tack. I got criticized for being too hard on the police. I also got criticized for being not hard enough on the police.
What I did not take into account (because it hadn’t happened yet) was the Justice Department’s subsequent finding: Ferguson city fathers routinely used police ticketing of African Americans to fill out the city budget. That is, police harassment of black citizens was a “cash cow”–tax extortion without representation–with the police as tax collectors. They were required to issue maximum citations to keep their jobs.
This blatant “monetizing the justice system” is way too common. It’s related to what’s been called, “The Prison-Industrial Complex.” And that takes us right back to Navell Gordon. He had pled guilty–and was on probation for–a non-violent drug-and-firearms offense. He was extremely lucky to have only gotten probation. Many young black people have wound up with big jail time–or dead–for much less. (Does anyone remember Sandra Bland?)
Gordon had an impeccable work record with the community action group that employed him. But his luck was running out. He had been rousted by police for handing out voting rights leaflets in a grocery store parking lot, “taken down,” “detained,” and charged with “resisting arrest.” Since he was already on probation–he faced a very uncertain fate at his upcoming hearing.
To the reprehensible non-journalists at KSTP, though, the story wasn’t about the young man’s perfect work record, trying to overcome a past mistake. It wasn’t even the injustice of getting in trouble with the police for encouraging people to vote. It was that Gordon, a young black man, was photographed with his arm around the Mayor, an attractive white woman.
Ironically, the flap over “pointergate” threw a national media spotlight on this sewer. With all the publicity, the “system” could no longer make Gordon quietly disappear, as it has so many other young black men. (Though the writer of the “pointergate” story continued to send e-mails of Gordon’s “long rap sheet,” “gang membership,” and impending arrest–none of which were accurate. Nice guy.)
This is what racism looks like in America. Michael Brown and Navell Gordon are the same in a way: young black men on the meatgrinder end of a virulently racist system, in which police are too often used as enforcers. One was lucky and one was not. Sometimes you have to laugh at the stupidity of it all. More often, it’s all you can do to keep from crying.