Nekima Levy Armstrong, J.D.
Nekima Levy-Pounds' Fight for Racial Justice
How a mother, attorney, and occasional rapper named Nekima Levy-Pounds became one of the most prominent and divisive civil rights leaders in the state.
by Chris Clayton
How a mother, attorney, and occasional rapper named Nekima Levy-Pounds became one of the most prominent and divisive civil rights leaders in the state.
by Chris Clayton
It’s the Friday after Thanksgiving, and all is calm outside the 4th Precinct in north Minneapolis. Protesters huddle around bonfires on the sidewalk. A row of canopy tents lends an air of permanence to the scene, as does the black banner draped like a pirate flag over the precinct’s monument-style sign. The banner reads “#Justice4Jamar”—a rally-ready hashtag for Jamar Clark, the 24-year-old African American man who was fatally shot by police during a domestic dispute call in the area on November 15. Some initial eyewitness reports said Clark was handcuffed and then shot, while the police union claimed he wasn’t subdued and, in fact, had reached for an officer’s gun. In the days since, Clark supporters have occupied the station grounds, singing, chanting, and mourning a death that in their eyes was unjust.
At around 9 p.m., an attorney named Nekima Levy-Pounds calls an impromptu meeting to update protesters about the flames that have kept them warm for the past two weeks. She tells the group that she’s talked to city officials who are worried about the fires’ impact on children and the elderly in the neighborhood. Some at the meeting deem such concerns as passive-aggressive gamesmanship—an attempt to take over the takeover. But nearly everyone agrees to seek other heat sources if it means prolonging the occupation.
Levy-Pounds, 39, is often at the center of debate. She’s a tenured law professor at the University of St. Thomas, where she runs a civil rights clinic devoted to social justice policy. She pens op-eds for MinnPost and the Star Tribune decrying institutional racism and white privilege. And as president of the Minneapolis NAACP and a member-adviser of the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter, she bridges the area’s entrenched civil rights traditions and its radical youth movement.
Levy-Pounds’ wide-ranging activism brings her power and access. In a given week she might play a support role after a race-related incident, work with her students to create policy change, and meet with Governor Mark Dayton about inequity in the state. With a foot on the pedal of racial tension in the Twin Cities, she has the ability to contextualize and create narrative. It’s a role she’s welcomed, tapping her background as an academic, policy wonk, and bomb-throwing orator. Days after the Clark shooting, The Washington Post quoted her comparing Minneapolis to Ferguson, Missouri. “When you combine economic injustice with police abuse, that opens the door to uprisings and riots,” she told the paper.
Nekima Levy-Pounds (center, with megaphone) speaks at a candlelight vigil for Jamar Clark outside the 5th Precinct in north Minneapolis, November 20, 2015. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
Minnesota has seen its share of civil rights demagogues—visionaries like Fredrick McGhee, street activists like Spike Moss—but Bill Green says it’s never seen one like Levy-Pounds. “We’ve been through periods like this before, where black leaders were speaking out,” says Green, a history professor at Augsburg and author of multiple books about the black experience in Minnesota. “What makes Nekima unique is that she’s a woman and she’s successful in the traditional sense of the white world. She’s succeeding on the inside, so people on the outside listen.”
As Levy-Pounds is wrapping up the bonfire meeting, congressman Keith Ellison approaches and asks if he can address the crowd. Ellison had been a friend of the occupation in its early days, calling it “our constitutional right” and visiting the site. But he changed his tune when a group of self-described white supremacists opened fire on occupiers one night, injuring five protesters. A subsequent press release from Ellison’s office called safety at the 4th Precinct “our highest priority” and urged the movement to “evolve beyond the encampment.” Protesters, in turn, called Ellison a traitor.
“We’re not going to hear from government officials right now,” replies Levy-Pounds to Ellison’s request. “This is a community meeting.” The legislator points out that he’s a resident of north Minneapolis, but Levy-Pounds holds her ground, calling his presence inappropriate. She reiterates that Ellison is not going to get the stage, and he eventually leaves.
On its head, the showdown—which Levy-Pounds and several witnesses have confirmed, though not Ellison, who refused to comment for this story—might not seem all that remarkable. Protest sites have always been battlegrounds, even for those who are ostensibly on the same side. But consider the players: a rising civil rights leader and the most powerful black politician in the state. Consider the moment: a flashpoint for racial tension in America spurred by the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers around the country.
Through this prism, the confrontation is a microcosm of a country once again taking stock of its legacies of power, race, and injustice. Was Levy-Pounds’ kiss-off of Ellison misguided? Did she lose a valuable ally in a progressive legislator who has long fought for the same causes as she? Or was it a tactical victory, a line-in-the-sand moment for a new guard that favors disruption over incremental change? Is there a chance it was both?
Whatever the case, Ellison was standing by Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges the following Monday as she called for the end of the occupation, citing unsafe conditions and the need to keep Plymouth Avenue open to traffic. A few days later, police tore down the encampment and snuffed out those coals for good. But the movement lived on, roaring at times thanks, in part, to its outspoken leader, who had other fires to start.
"I’ve always been comfortable in my role as an agitator,” says Levy-Pounds during one of two interviews for this story, both of which took place on UST’s downtown Minneapolis campus. In person, she’s candid and confident, rarely breaking eye contact, alternating between talking points and freeform monologues. At each of our meetings she sports animal- print dresses and tight, shoulder-length braids—a more laidback look than the leather jacket and thick “goddess braids” that have become her signature in the street. “I like to be fierce,” she says of her protest-chic aesthetic.
Her cheerleaders say she brings fierceness to everything she does. “I’m impressed by her self-sacrifice and what she’s willing to put on the line,” says NAACP member Raeisha Williams. Others accuse Levy-Pounds of favoring bombast over nuanced analysis. In response to her view that the occupation prevented north Minneapolis from burning by providing an outlet for its anger, Minneapolis city council member Blong Yang, whose Ward 5 houses the 4th Precinct, says, “It’s revisionist. How do you cause an occupation—cause inconveniences—then take credit for what didn’t happen?”
For the agitator, controversy is always close by. If Levy-Pounds had a tagline, it might be, “Chipping away at old structures that favor white Twin Cities residents since 2003”—the year she left a teaching job at the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign for the professorship at UST. When she first arrived, Levy-Pounds was impressed by the high quality of life, good-paying jobs, and caring communities. But after reading local African American newspapers and talking to black community leaders, she came to believe there were two Twin Cities: one white and one nonwhite, separated by a canyon of disparities.
The divide remains today. In October, financial news outlet 24/7 Wall St. named Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington the third-worst “city” for African Americans in the country. Using 2014 U.S. Census data, it showed large gaps in unemployment rates (12.8 percent for black Twin Cities residents compared to an overall rate of 3.9 percent) and median household income ($73,700 for white families and $28,000 for African American families).
State Census data rounds out the picture: In 2014, Minnesota’s poverty rate was 11.5 percent—among the lowest in America. The poverty rate for black Minnesotans, however, was 38 percent, well above the national rate of 26 percent for African Americans, and the highest in the state among all ethnic and racial groups. The numbers are equally lopsided with regards to incarceration rate, homeownership rate, and student performance—and none of them favor African Americans. “I had no idea about all the inequities in our supposedly liberal state,” says Levy-Pounds. “At that point, I said, ‘I can either stay in a box as a law professor or step out and try to get to the root of the issues.’”
To that end, she began approaching inequity the way one does a piñata—as a thing that must be cracked open to be fully understood. She organized conferences that addressed the intersection of race and class. She started a nonprofit to help black former inmates find work. And in 2007, she launched the Community Justice Project, a civil rights clinic where she and her students use a blend of legal research, advocacy, and negotiation with government leaders to tackle systems they believe hurt people of color. Though not as sexy as protest, it gets results. A recent victory: successfully pushing the Minneapolis City Council to repeal its lurking and spitting laws, which the CJP felt unfairly criminalized the homeless and people of color.
In recent years, Levy-Pounds has entered the PR phase of her activist evolution, writing editorials in news outlets and blasting local institutions in a podcast called Real Talk (whose theme song at one point was “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy). She often turns her sights on Minneapolis Public Schools, accusing it of “letting African Americans fall through the cracks” due to mismanagement of funds, an overly Euro-centric curriculum, and a lack of culturally competent teachers. Levy-Pounds downplays the role socioeconomics play in student performance, saying just because a kid is poor or has a tough home life doesn’t mean he or she can’t find success at school.
MPS officials, including Board of Education director Don Samuels, declined to be interviewed for this story, but Bill Green of Augsburg says Levy-Pounds is simplifying the issue. Green has experience in this arena, having served as superintendent of MPS from 2006 to 2010. “It’s not either-or,” he says of the school accountability debate. “Nekima’s right about the system—I don’t sense we’ve made much progress. But schools can only do so much. They only have the kids for six to eight hours [each day].”
Law enforcement is another frequent target. “We have an out-of-control police force in Minneapolis,” says Levy-Pounds. “There’s blood on the hands of city council members and lawmakers for continuing to allow excessive force complaints to be settled and not addressing the root causes of why they are being settled in the first place.”
It’s a classic bit of rhetoric—combative, evocative, and at least somewhat true. Between 2006 and 2015, 269 officer conduct lawsuits were brought to the Minneapolis attorney’s office, alleging excessive force and other violations. Of that number, 160 favored the plaintiffs, with a total of nearly $20 million paid in the settlements. But it’s hard to know what to make of this data. On one hand, it pales in comparison to, say, New York City, which paid out $165 million in officer misconduct cases in 2014 alone. Of course, New York has more officers and residents than Minneapolis. Smaller cities, meanwhile, often don’t share such data, making apples-to-apples comparisons difficult. Tracking annual trends with city stats is equally tricky because in a given year, older lawsuits are mixed in with current ones.
Levy-Pounds’ public-facing quotes often require careful scrutiny. Not because she doesn’t know the numbers, but because, as longtime local civic leader Yvonne Cheek points out, “She has a handle on how to talk about things in a metaphorical way—in a way that gets people’s attention on the ground.”
Minneapolis police chief Janeé Harteau admits there have been problems in the department. “Have we had officers in the past who have used excessive force and done bad things and have been fired? Yes,” she says in an interview at her office in February, shortly after the city council voted to reappoint her for another three years. But Harteau says law enforcement is evolving, and part of that evolution means more training and accountability measures—things like implicit bias education and a body camera program for officers that’s set to launch this month. She says Levy-Pounds’ criticism of the department is hypocritical. “Nekima does to the police the very thing she doesn’t want us to do to her—which is to stereotype and categorize. She calls us ‘out of control’ and ‘murderers’—that’s inflammatory.”
Levy-Pounds allows that there are good cops on the force, but she says as long as police misconduct occurs, she’ll continue to draw attention to it. “That’s my purpose, to shift the paradigm,” she says. “That’s how we move forward.”
In the age of the digital hot take, when public figures are reduced to caricatures in the time it takes to refresh your feed, it’s tempting to fixate on Levy-Pounds’ angry activist persona. But those close to her paint a more complex portrait. “Nekima defies easy stereotypes of community activism,” says Robert Vischer, dean of UST’s law school. “She’s lighthearted—has a great sense of humor. And she’s one of the most faith-filled people I’ve ever met, which makes some who are used to working in a secular lens of community activism uncomfortable.”
She’s also a mother to five kids (three biological, two adopted) and a wife to college sweetheart Phalen Pounds. She likes to go to the movies and Dave and Buster’s. Other nights she stays in and makes homemade macaroni and cheese at her stately brick home in north Minneapolis. A shelf in her dining room overflows with cookbooks, kids’ books, social commentaries (The N Word), and the odd John Grisham paperback (activists—they’re just like us!).
Music is another love. Levy-Pounds is considering buying a motorcycle so she can ride around listening to her favorite Usher song, “Bad Girl.” As a teen in South Central L.A., she started rapping and still occasionally spits a verse, as she did at a local tribute for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old African American who was fatally shot by police in Ferguson. Mica Grimm was among those at the tribute. “Nekima hopped onstage and challenged all these rappers,” says Grimm, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis. “She’s this respected law professor, but she’s still very real. Very L.A.”
Tempering the L.A. edge is a hint of Southern charm. It comes out in her hospitable smile and exceedingly polite e-mails. She and the South go back. It’s where she first became conscious of her blackness. “One of the few times I’d see white people was when the insurance guy came to the door,” says Levy-Pounds of growing up in Jackson, Mississippi in the late-1970s and early ’80s. “My grandma would put her pennies together to try to have insurance for everyone in the family.” And then there was the third-grade teacher, a white woman, who would walk by Levy-Pounds’ desk and hit her with a ruler. “She wasn’t doing that to the white students.”
But overall, life was good in Jackson. Though her family was poor, their working-class black neighborhood was close-knit. People bartered, shared goods, looked after each other’s children. “I always felt safe in Mississippi,” she says. That feeling vanished when her mother divorced her stepfather and moved her three daughters to Los Angeles to start over. Money was tight, so they settled in South Central—at the time the epicenter of the country’s crack-cocaine trade and gang wars.
“We moved when I was 8,” says Levy-Pounds. “I had never had any exposure to the inner city before. People didn’t look out for each other there. It was dog-eat-dog.” But it wasn’t all bad. Levy-Pounds’ mother, Vera Davis, found steady administrative work. At night, she cooked Southern food for the family. “As the oldest child, I stayed close to my mom and learned from her,” says Levy-Pounds. “I was second in command.”
Levy-Pounds started her civil rights journey at age 9, when she saw lawyers on TV advocating for the little guy. “I looked around in my community and said, ‘I need to help. I could do that.’” Her neighborhood was rough—years later one of her former classmates would be shot and killed by a corner store owner who accused her of stealing—but it had an advantage over Mississippi: African American teachers who taught Levy-Pounds to embrace her blackness. She became a standout student and a self-starter. “Nekima was very ambitious as a child,” Davis says of her daughter. “If she forgot to do her homework, she’d wake up at 2, 3 in the morning to finish it.”
That ambition led to a plot twist when Levy-Pounds landed a scholarship to a renowned boarding high school in Massachusetts. At Brooks School in North Andover, the 14-year-old was thrust into a predominantly white and wealthy milieu. “I was a straight-A student in junior high,” says Levy-Pounds. “But when I got to high school, I realized how much further ahead the white students were. I had to request a tutor because I didn’t have the head start that most of my fellow students had.”
Levy-Pounds caught up—and found acceptance among her well-heeled peers—but there was one unexpected drawback to her upper-crust education: When she went home on school breaks, she found that she had lost her street smarts. “Where I’m from, the ability to navigate neighborhoods and people can be the difference between life and death. I’d go home and feel fearful, like I was in this dangerous foreign environment. I had to be intentional about recultivating those instincts.”
Eventually, she grew adept at floating between worlds, the unlikely product of the Deep South, Rodney King–era L.A., and an East Coast prep school. Her versatility served her well as an African American studies major at the University of Southern California and as a law student and instructor at the U of I, Urbana-Champaign. It proved equally valuable when she landed at majority-white UST, and today, it helps her navigate the choppy waters of local civil rights leadership. As president of the Minneapolis NAACP since May 2015, she’s come under fire from her predecessor at the organization, Jerry McAfee. In a November AP story, McAfee called her a “glory seeker.” Levy-Pounds hit back in the media, referring to McAfee as part of the local “black misleadership.”
Jason Sole, chairman of the group’s criminal justice reform arm, downplays such criticism. “Some of the older male leaders feel like their reign is up,” says Sole of the power shift within the institution. “To me, they’re not relevant.” He adds that Levy-Pounds has brought much-needed organization and life to an outfit that was all but dormant before she took over. Sole guesstimates that Minneapolis NAACP membership has quadrupled under its new leader.
Levy-Pounds, social chameleon, is in a different leadership role this past Martin Luther King Day, when a large crowd fills a chapel to hear her speak at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. The audience is diverse—old, young, black, white, Asian, Hispanic—which is typical of her talks (she’s a regular on the college and church circuit). Secretary of State Steve Simon is present, as is one of Jamar Clark’s cousins.
After hearty applause, the guest of honor, dressed in a fuchsia skirt suit, takes the stage and jokes about the audience braving the cold: “There is a God!” Levy-Pounds then launches into a sort of activist’s state of the state. She quotes MLK to warn against complacency in times of injustice: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Other topics include Levy-Pounds’ leadership evolution, the notion of two Minnesotas (we’re not all lucky enough to have cabins, she says), and Jamar Clark (“The world tells you to trust the system when a man is shot. That is a lie.”).
Like an avalanche, her talk builds in intensity as it goes, at times feeling more sermon than keynote. The audience responds in kind with amens and mmm-hmmms, and for a moment the traditionally white worship space feels like a black church.
It took temporary blindness to turn Levy-Pounds into a full-blown, loudspeaker-carrying street activist. On a November 2014 trip to Ferguson, she was tear-gassed by police at the protests following the non-indictment of the officer who killed Michael Brown. Emboldened, she returned home and formed a loose alliance with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, impressed by its millennial savvy and old-school disruption tactics. She joined the fledgling protest group during its first major statement: the shutdown of 35W just south of downtown Minneapolis in response to the deaths of Brown and others. “Lying on concrete on the freeway in solidarity with other individuals was powerful and transcendent,” says Levy-Pounds. “I felt like I was transported back to the 1960s in terms of understanding what that activism felt like. It was really the first time I had let my activist side fully come forward.” Weeks later, she was with the group at its December 2014 protest at the Mall of America, which resulted in multiple charges, including tresspassing, for her and 10 other activists (the charges were later dropped).
Levy-Pounds’ current relationship with the group is one of casual symbiosis. She offers it legal advice and legitimacy, while it schools her in the cross-platform ways of Gen Y uprising. But being associated with Black Lives Matter means Levy-Pounds is often defending its actions. The most common knock against them goes something like, I support their cause, but I don’t agree with their tactics. What if someone was trying to get to the hospital and they couldn’t because protesters were blocking a highway? To which a visibly irritated Levy-Pounds responds: “You can pose a million hypotheticals [with highway shutdowns], but so far none of them has actually happened. What some see as an inconvenience pales in comparison to the inconvenience of someone losing a relative by police brutality.”
Levy-Pounds compares the negative PR surrounding Black Lives Matter to backlash faced by MLK and others in the 1960s. “The important thing is to keep pushing to get the message out,” she says. “I’ve gone to city hall, I’ve gone to the capitol, yet I’m still helping to disrupt—both tactics can work in tandem.”
She used that approach in January, when she and other protesters interrupted a Minneapolis board of education meeting and got it to delay a vote to make interim superintendent Michael Goar permanent head of the district (Goar’s opponents say he hasn’t responded quickly enough to the needs of black students). A month earlier, Levy-Pounds and a group of north Minneapolis residents successfully lobbied the Minneapolis City Council to table a $605,000 amendment that would have repaired the 4th Precinct. Critics called the amendment, which was put forth by mayor Hodges and council member Yang, tone-deaf in light of the Clark shooting and subsequent occupation.
Levy-Pounds isn’t shy about going after the mayor, who she says has failed people of color in the city: “Have we seen an increase in overall quality of life for African Americans and other people of color in Minneapolis? I would argue we have not.” To blame Hodges for even a fraction of the city’s disparity woes, however, downplays the limitations of her job. Minneapolis’s weak mayor system requires a council vote for the majority of its business. Though Hodges makes major appointments, including police chief, she’s first and foremost an agenda-setter. And in that capacity, she believes she’s done right by the people. “I ran on the need for equity and it’s what I’ve been focusing on since the day I was elected,” says the mayor in a February interview at city hall. She points to a 40 percent increase in hires of people of color for city jobs since she took office in 2014 and the fact that the most recent class of police hires was 61 percent nonwhite.
Hodges admits she hasn’t done a great job communicating the work she’s been doing, but she says it’s because she’s had her head down trying to create systemic change. “In a world that was built on racialized systems, we have racialized outcomes,” she says. “Transformation—that is what I’m after. Not this or that program. Let’s transform how we do business at the city level to make the city work for all people.”
Change a few words in that last quote and it could be Levy-Pounds talking, and therein lies a hard truth of this current conversation about race and equity: The gaps go well beyond the numbers.
So how did a strident voice like Levy-Pounds’ rise to prominence in a historically white and buttoned-up state where firebrands tend to flame out? By “shocking the sensibility of white friends who might still hold the view that things are all right for people of color in Minnesota,” says Green of Augsburg. He believes the “I’m OK, you’re OK” narrative is rooted in “the politics of niceness and political correctness”—a sort of insidious cousin to “Minnesota nice.”
In his book, A Peculiar Imbalance, Green posits that the state’s northern geography and reformist attitude imported by white settlers from New England made it relatively sympathetic to the plights of African Americans in the years leading up to the Civil War. Yet our early leaders, mostly white Protestants, “extended rights in a seemingly incongruous manner,” writes Green. In the 1850s, blacks in Minnesota were allowed to buy property and own businesses, but they couldn’t vote, run for office, or serve on a jury.
The incongruities remained after African Americans gained voting rights in the state in 1868. To avoid jeopardizing their tenuous freedom, the small black middle class that formed in St. Paul in the 1880s chose not to speak out against the duplicitous attitudes of white northerners. Thus, notes Green in his book Degrees of Freedom, state leaders were able to craft a mythology in which they were the altruistic patron who, though racially superior in their minds, improved life for blacks by removing obstacles: “Through the eyes of self-satisfied boosters, Minnesota had done what no other state had been able to do—resolve, at least within its own borders, the Negro Problem.”
In reality, most black Minnesotans in the late 1800s and early 1900s were mired in poverty, though things grew brighter with the passage of the Hubert Humphrey–authored Civil Rights Act of 1964. A 2015 report by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity chronicles the decades following the landmark legislation. From requiring all cities to build a fair share of low-income housing to aggressively desegregating schools, Minnesota’s integration policies were among the most progressive in the country.
But in the mid-1980s, changing political tides saw the state drop the fair-share requirement, and the majority of affordable housing became clustered in urban areas. Education reform in the ’90s created further segregation. The report asserts that while “choice” measures and the rise of charter schools were meant to better integrate the state’s schools, the opposite occurred, and in a 12-year span, Minneapolis schools jumped from 34 percent nonwhite to 59 percent nonwhite.
The study’s thesis: “It is becoming clear that many of the efforts originally intended to address poverty today actually contribute to severe and growing racial and social isolation in schools and neighborhoods, preserving the segregation that is at the root of racial inequality in the United States.”
The Met Council and charter advocates have disagreed with this assessment, the former arguing that cities are better off incentivized to carry fair-housing loads, the latter that school choice is hardly the same as forced segregation. But no matter your view, says Cheek, racial division remains the elephant in the room. Cheek applauds Levy-Pounds for challenging seemingly everyone around her, including “so-called traditional African American leaders like myself who might take a more measured pace and use less strident language.”
As Cheek implies, local black leadership is not a monolith. So who, then, challenges Levy-Pounds for the megaphone? Green says no real foil has emerged. “One way to explain the absence of a counterbalance to Nekima is that one might not want to be used to promote divisiveness,” says the historian. “He or she might say, ‘I don’t want to threaten the efficacy of the overall agenda.’ That’s a delicate balancing act.”
Sixty-one seconds. That’s the time that passed from when MPD officers confronted Jamar Clark outside an apartment building on Plymouth Avenue to when officer Dustin Schwarze fatally shot Clark in the head. But you know this already because Clark, like Michael Brown, has become another tragic avatar for the country to mourn and to argue over. Which means you know the other facts and theories surrounding Clark’s death. Maybe you watched Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman’s press conference on March 30, in which he announced he would not be charging Schwarze and officer Mark Ringgenberg in the shooting.
Perhaps you visited HennepinAttorney.org and pored over evidence made available to the public, including state BCA reports, 911 audio, and grainy video of the scuffle between Clark and Ringgenberg. Did you, like the rest of us, recite and debate the key points of Freeman’s no-charge decision? On paper, they read like the lines of a Beckett play: Clark refused to take his hands out of his pockets. Schwarze couldn’t get handcuffs on Clark. Ringgenberg tackled Clark with a move that “was not favored.” Clark reached for Ringgenberg’s gun. “DNA is truth serum.”
The mayor and police chief praised Freeman for his transparency. Levy-Pounds and others blasted him for focusing too heavily on police accounts and not enough on eyewitness reports. Clark advocates also wondered if the young man would be alive today had officers used more effective methods of noncompliance and de-escalation. Why, they asked, wasn’t he tased or shot in the leg?
Regardless of which side you’re on, it’s hard not to view March 30 as a sad day for Minneapolis. The inevitability of Freeman’s decision was sad (cops rarely face charges in fatal shootings, even without the use of a grand jury, as was the case here). The tangle of circumstances that led to Clark’s death was sad. “Jamar Clark’s case did not happen in a vacuum,” said Levy-Pounds after Freeman’s decision. And the reverberations outside the courthouse felt downright devastating. “There is a tear that has ripped through our community, one we cannot sew back up,” said mayor Hodges in a press conference that afternoon. “And together as a city and a people, we can walk through this tear to build what we all want—a city that is safe and equitable for everyone.”
But can we? An optimist might note that Clark’s death prompted unprecedented scrutiny of officer behavior by activists and media members. A more world-weary take is that common ground is a long ways off. “Things might have to get worse before they get better,” said the NAACP’s Jason Sole in an interview a month before Freeman’s decision.
Levy-Pounds doesn’t have time for hypotheticals. She’s a woman of faith, after all. As this story went to press, she was busy calling for authorities to re-open Clark’s case—a demand that prompted questions about her own future. Asked if she’d ever run for office, Levy-Pounds says for now she’ll continue her multi-pronged fight for justice: “I don’t like politics and I don’t like politicians, typically. I don’t want to sell my soul to get ahead politically.” That said, she hasn’t ruled out challenging Freeman for reelection in 2018. And she is aligned with certain government figures, including Governor Dayton, who presented her with a service award in January and proposed $100 million in his 2016 budget to address the state’s racial disparities. Alondra Cano is another ally. “I’m impressed by Nekima’s fearlessness in bringing tough conversations forward,” says the Ward 9 Minneapolis City Council member.
Some, including Cheek, think Levy-Pounds might benefit from making even more friends on the inside. In the Minneapolis policy arena, the activist faces a strong police union, a city council that’s frequently divided on equity issues, and an embattled school board. Levy-Pounds acknowledges the challenges ahead but believes her work is leading somewhere positive. “You have to shine a light on injustice and racial hatred in order to heal,” she says.
Jayda Pounds marvels at her mom’s strength. “We sometimes think of our mothers as frail, but not mine,” says Jayda, an 18-year-old freshman at UST. “She takes criticism and does the work in the face of it. To see that resilience has been amazing.” Levy-Pounds credits her faith for keeping her tough. She prays multiple times a day—in the car, at protest sites, wherever. “We are actors in God’s drama,” says the pious agitator. “Life on earth is like a dressing room, and I believe people will be judged on where they stand.”
Chris has been with our organization for five years. Before joining the Mpls.St.Paul team, Chris was deputy editor for DeltaSky, published by MSP Communications. As editor-at-large, Chris is a contributing writer and frequent editor for stories.