Since the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, Minnesota has been at the center of an intense debate about police brutality—and progressive state Attorney General Keith Ellison has been speaking bluntly about the urgent need to open up the debate about policing. Speaking out for fundamental change is nothing new for Ellison, a former cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who has a record of working on economic, social, and racial justice issues. He is not in charge of prosecuting fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s killing. But members of the Minneapolis City Council have supported a call from Floyd’s family for the attorney general to take over the prosecution.

For now, Ellison continues to advocate for accountability and for the right of Minnesotans to demand it with mass protests. As violence has flared, he has expressed concern, along with many others in Minnesota, that provocateurs are “trying to tarnish the reputation of the noble protest for justice.”

Ellison and I spoke on Friday and again on Saturday about what must be done to achieve police accountability and police transparency. Here are highlights from our discussions.

John Nichols: You have been outspoken over the years about police brutality. Let’s start by putting what’s happening now in context.

Keith Ellison: Well, you know that the police are now and have always been in place to maintain the legal/social order. If that’s a just social order, that’s one thing. If it’s one based on slavery, Jim Crow segregation, capital, and Big Business abusing labor, then the police have always played this role where they are the ones who sort of maintain that social hierarchy.

I grew up in Michigan, and people there have a strong memory about how it was police and policelike forces that put down strikes, how police and parapolice forces were the ones who maintained the racial hierarchy.

When John Lewis, who’s a member of Congress, got arrested for challenging segregation, he was arrested by a police officer, right? So they maintain a legal status quo and a social/cultural order and always have.

It’s important to understand you can’t look at the police in isolation. A lot of times we do that because what they do is so flagrant. I mean, the knee on the neck, right? Or the shooting of [African American youth] Laquan McDonald, where [Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke] wrote in his report that [McDonald] attacked him with a knife, when he was so clearly assassinated on the street. Same thing with Walter Scott [an unarmed African American man killed by a police officer in South Carolina], who was running away and was shot.

The question is, why do these cases so often result in either no charge, no grand jury bill of indictment like in the Mike Brown case [in Ferguson, Mo.], no conviction, hung juries? I mean, we all saw what happened to Philando Castile—live on Facebook—who was shot down by Officer Jeronimo Yanez [in Falcon Heights, Minn.], and yet there was no conviction in that case. It’s just almost impossible to imagine it wouldn’t have resulted in a conviction, but it didn’t. Or what about Freddie Gray? Perfectly healthy, they throw him in that [Baltimore police] van, and he comes out dead, and next thing you know, all these officers are charged, and yet no one is held accountable for the death of Freddie Gray.

There’s got to be some element of complicity and culpability on behalf of the system that sends the officers out there.

JN: There’s impunity.

KE: Impunity is one of the benchmarks of how police engage with, clearly, communities of color, but also low-income white communities, working-class white communities. You look at the history of it, it’s very much there. There’s no doubt that there’s a disproportionate number of people of color impacted negatively by police-community engagements, but the fact that we don’t talk about the white victims means that we racialize this thing to the point that there are people who don’t think that it’s a prevailing American problem. It is!

What we found in our study, where we did a working group on preventing deadly force encounters with the police—it was a joint working group between the Minnesota attorney general’s office and the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety, just finished it in February 2020—is that most of the officer-involved shootings and officer-involved deadly force encounters were actually among white individuals and in greater Minnesota. But people of color were definitely overrepresented based on population. There’s no question.

JN: You describe this as “a prevailing American problem.” Let’s talk about that.

KE: Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both spoke extensively about police brutality.

Whether you’re talking about the NAACP or the Nation of Islam—you span the ideological spectrum—police brutality has always been a major issue.

So this has been a clear feature of black life in America, and everybody knows it. Every parent knows it. And yet it is this problem that seems to be ever present and never quite goes away. People think over time this will stop. No. No, it won’t.

JN: We’ve seen mass protests, in Minneapolis and around the country. There is clearly a lot of passion and attention right now. Can this be a turning point?

KE: Yes, I really do think it can be. But that, by no means, is a foregone conclusion. It all depends on the leadership we can exercise now. And what that means is that we’ve got to put forward ideas and mobilize around them at a time when hearts and minds are open for systemic reform.

I think that the Ro Khanna and Lacy Clay bill in Congress [a proposal by Democratic members of the House to require that federal officers use force only when necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily injury] is an excellent example that could perhaps get some traction. The ideas we have in our working group on deadly force encounters, we have a whole group of recommendations. It’s time to put those things into place so that we can have meaningful change.

Milton Friedman—not a person I’m a fan of—said, you know, only in times of crisis can true reform ever move forward.

It’s one of the reasons why Dr. King, through his marching, literally tried to create crisis, because that’s when people will do some reform. He did it nonviolently, but still, people sitting in, occupying, and marching was disruptive to the normal flow of a Southern segregated town. So I think this crisis can [create an opening for reform]. The fact that this crisis took a deadly and dangerous and sad turn, the fact that it was sparked by the death of a man who had everything to live for, is so tragic. But I think we’re not going to honor his memory unless we do use this point as an inflection point for meaningful reform and change.

Even The Washington Post had an editorial saying, You want to stop riots? You’ve got to reform the police. But you know what, John? Here’s an interesting thought. The Kerner Commission said the same thing in 1968. There was a whole string of urban unrest sparked by police brutality that occurred in the 1960s, and the Kerner Commission report came back and said, Look, the spark is police. But the kindling that made the house burn down was joblessness, unemployment, poor housing, concentrated poverty, people without opportunity who were just done with that and needed to do something, anything, to get the attention of everybody else to say, “This must change.”

So that’s the deal. I will caution, however, that civil unrest and social disruption don’t always lead to change. There’s no guarantee that we’re going to get the change we’re seeking. That too is an organizing challenge, and you need great ideas, and you need sustained energy around an agenda. But it can happen, and I’m working for it.

JN: That brings us to politics. When we spoke earlier this week, you were emphatic about the need for [presumptive Democratic presidential nominee] Joe Biden and other leading political figures to speak out on this. All of this is happening in an election year. How do those things intersect?

KE: We know that there is a vision being offered already, and that vision put out a tweet that said, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” That vision is referring to protesters as “thugs.”

So we have somebody who is running for president [Donald Trump] who has a vision of what policing should look like in America. We have that. Do we have anything else?

This is why it’s critical for the Democratic nominee to project a vision around policing that is positive, that is constructive, that really converts policing into a guardian relationship rather than a warrior sort of model of policing.

We need a vision that says there’s going to be accountability. We’re going to train people around how to be smart on crime, not just tough. We’ve got plenty of tough. We are in no short supply of tough.

We need Biden talking about it, but we also need senators who are running to talk about it. We need representatives who are running to talk about it. We need state legislators to talk about it.

You know, it’s got to be a political issue. How are we going to police? And as I said before, you can’t just change policing. You’ve got to change the structural inequalities which make military-style policing necessary in the minds of people who want to preserve that status quo.

JN: You’re talking about societal change.

KE: Yeah. Now, there are some who will say, “Well, until we change society, we can’t change policing.” Absolutely untrue. We’ve got to start with police.

Right now we can say that when it comes to discipline, a collective bargaining agreement from some right-wing police federation can’t [be allowed to] protect an officer who abuses citizens. We can say that, you know, when it comes to wages and working conditions, that can be a collective bargaining issue. But when you’re in a position to deliver death or life to people and you abuse people, we need a clear line of authority, and that needs to be something that we lay at the feet of the chief and the mayor.

In Minneapolis, one of our primary problems is that we have a police federation where the president operates as sort of an alternative chief. He’s unelected. He’s only accountable to the members of the federation, [a great many of whom do not] live in Minneapolis, yet he kind of directs police behavior in Minneapolis, to the detriment of the people of Minneapolis.

The [police] chief, working on reforms, saying the right things, showing up at the right meetings, is frustrated because of this guy. That cannot continue to exist.

I mean, this guy [the police federation head] went and spoke at the Trump rally, and wanted to wear his uniform. The chief said, You cannot do that. And he says, Fine, I’m going to wear a T-shirt that says, “Cops for Trump.”

So we’ve got this sort of really problematic situation. This is a political matter, and it needs to become a political issue. Biden needs to come up with a very clear set of ideas based on [Barack] Obama’s ideas of 21st century policing. That was a good document. Let’s build on that. He has it within his ability to do and needs to take that leadership.

JN: Attorneys general across the country, certainly enlightened attorneys general, can play a real role in this, as well. You’ve got some ideas about what they can do to reform things.

KE: One of the things is the bully pulpit. You’re a statewide officeholder. You have to speak about just and humane policing and police accountability and police transparency. You can do that even before you think about representing any state agency, before you file a single lawsuit, before you prosecute a single case. Think about your role as just a moral voice in the state that elected you.

Then we move on from there. You can convene the Department of Public Safety. You can convene the police and the prosecutors and the sheriffs and talk about how we are going to get to a better way.

There’s a lot of people who are in law enforcement who are like, “You know what? I actually did join the force because I thought I could help people, and I don’t really see that happening, and I want to reform.” I met so many who were there, officers who said, “I will not tolerate an officer being inhumane, but if I do complain, is that person going to be right back there on the force? And if they are, does it even make any difference if I do complain? I’ve got to get along with this guy. But if I knew this person was going to be fired if I complained, then I would complain.” That is clear.

In terms of attorneys general, some of them do have jurisdiction to prosecute official misconduct. I don’t have that authority yet. It might be something that legislators are looking at as a reform.

So there are a lot of things that state attorneys general can do, and we are in the middle of a criminal justice reform movement as well. [Philadelphia District Attorney] Larry Krasner is not an outlier. He may be the leading voice for reform from prosecutors, but he’s not the only one, and more people running for prosecutor are looking at a model where they can bring an enlightened, inclusive spirit to the work that they’re doing.

So this is a moment of opportunity at multiple levels.

JN: Finally, one of the striking things in this moment is the contrast between what happened to an unarmed African American man in Minneapolis versus these images of heavily armed white men in state capitals [protesting Covid-19 restrictions].

KE: You know what? I think that people really are watching that.

Armed militia members, almost all of whom are white guys, many of them carrying AR-15s, in fatigues, nothing happens to them when they’re threatening the governor of Michigan, when they’re threatening the governor of Minnesota, when the president is saying, “Liberate Minnesota. Liberate Michigan. Liberate Virginia.”

There’s no response. Nobody says, “You can’t bring that gun in here and menace the governor.”

And yet at the same time, there’s a very, very harsh response to people who really aren’t doing anything other than exercising their First Amendment rights.

So this is a very, very stunning contrast, and it helps everybody kind of frame the issue.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated where Officer Yanez shot Philando Castile. It was Falcon Heights, Minn., not Anthony, Minn.