The ACLU Fights for Minneapolis

The ACLU Fights for Minneapolis

Though international attention has waned, the battle over policing here still rages. Several lawsuits by the ACLU cut to the heart of what’s at stake.

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Minneapolis, Minn.—In the 16 months since Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd, the streets of Minneapolis have only occasionally been filled by protesters. The police killings of 22-year-old Amir Locke and 20-year old Tekle Sundberg this year sparked outrage, though to a lesser degree. Despite dwindling boots-on-the-ground action, however, the fight over policing in Minneapolis rages on.

Chauvin’s trial garnered global attention, while his conviction was widely hailed as a victory in the ongoing fight against police violence. Yet the Minneapolis police budget has expanded despite widespread calls—including a public pledge by a slew of city council members—to defund the department. The autonomous protest zone known as George Floyd Square is still occupied, but car traffic now snakes through it. And criminal cases for the other officers involved in Floyd’s murder are still winding through the bureaucratic maze we call the justice system.

But taking the officers who murdered George Floyd to court is just the tip of the iceberg. Fights over policing also continue via lesser-known civil lawsuits. Several brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) cut to the heart of policing debates in Minneapolis and beyond.

Policing homelessness

In October 2020, the ACLU of Minnesota filed a lawsuit against Hennepin County, the city of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB), and several specific public officials. The plaintiffs include nine individuals experiencing homelessness, the majority of whom are Native American or Black, and the housing nonprofit ZACAH.

The initial complaint outlines the invasion of privacy and property these individuals faced. When their housing encampments were bulldozed by officers—at times without any notice of eviction—they lost tents, mattresses, court documents, birth certificates, family photos, and more. Officers also used tear gas and made arrests during the sweeps.

The court quickly denied the ACLU-MN’s request for a temporary restraining order on encampment sweeps, but the plaintiffs could still win a more permanent injunction and receive compensatory and punitive damages. On August 19, the judge allowed the majority of claims in the lawsuit to proceed. Claims against MPRB Superintendent Al Bangoura and Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto were among those dismissed.

​​“People who are unhoused have the same rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, to privacy and to due process, and those rights must be respected,” ACLU-MN Legal Director Teresa Nelson said in a press release.

Community members have attempted to defend encampments physically as well. On July 8, a crowd successfully staved off the attempted eviction of an encampment in south Minneapolis. But that victory was short-lived. As Unicorn Riot reported, the encampment was destroyed just weeks later.

Expanding surveillance

Last December, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit compelling nine federal agencies—from DHS to the DEA—to release records of their aerial surveillance of protesters. The lawsuit was filed in district court in New York, as the ACLU is headquartered there. But the surveillance in question spans the nation. The FOIA request cites New York Times reporting that showed the Department of Homeland Security alone logged over 270 hours of surveillance footage in mere weeks. According to court records, agencies that have not yet fulfilled the FOIA request anticipate doing so by the end of the month.

Several federal agencies named in the lawsuit are known to have worked closely with the MPD during the 2020 protests and Chauvin’s trial. In March, MIT Technology Review published a detailed exposé of the “shadowy surveillance machine” known as Operation Safety Net. The article describes how Minneapolis police made use of Customs and Border Patrol drones and helicopters to patrol protesters—in addition to employing facial recognition technology, cell-phone surveillance, fusion centers (which allow different law enforcement agencies to share information), and more.

The MPD will also soon have drones of its own. Earlier this month, the department announced plans to purchase unmanned aerial vehicles. Last Wednesday, Jon Kingsbury of the MPD told the city council’s Public Health & Safety Committee that these new said drones will not be used for active surveillance. But council member Robin Wonsley pushed back, noting a recent MN Department of Human Rights report showing MPD officers have previously misused technology to surveil Black leaders and organizations.

Numerous community members echoed Wonsley’s concern during public comments, citing a lack of trust in the department. A petition against drones has also been circulating. While the MPD was legally required to hold a public hearing, the law doesn’t specify how they must implement local feedback. Representative Ilhan Omar has previously criticized police surveillance in the Twin Cities as well, noting its historical bias against communities of color. Kingsbury said he expects the drones to be purchased within the next two months.

Freedom of the press

Police didn’t just surveil protesters in 2020. They also waged chemical warfare and shot rubber bullets at them, often without warning. The city of Minneapolis has already approved numerous settlements, many in excess of a million dollars, with individuals injured during protests. But in several instances journalists have been caught in the cross fire as well.

In June 2020, the ACLU of Minnesota filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of local journalists. The complaint did not mince words. Its opening line: “The press is under assault in our City.” The filing went on to allege that police had done everything from pepper-spraying and tear-gassing journalists to wrongfully arresting and threatening them at gunpoint.

During Chauvin’s trial in April 2021, police again demonstrated extreme aggression toward protesters and journalists alike, this time in the nearby suburb of Brooklyn Center. Police officer Kim Potter killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. During subsequent protests, the ACLU-MN filed a request for a temporary restraining order to stop law enforcement from attacking and harassing journalists, which was granted.

This February, the case was settled with State Patrol and the Department of Public Safety for $825,000. The settlement included an injunction mandating the State Patrol and Department of Public Safety to stop targeting, attacking, and arresting journalists. The court will oversee compliance for six years. The lawsuit is still ongoing against the city of Minneapolis, MPD and Hennepin County Sheriff, and others.

What’s next

Returning to the murder of George Floyd, officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao will face the state this fall. Lane, who pleaded guilty to second-degree state manslaughter charges, is expected to be sentenced in September. The remaining two will face trial in October.

Federal judges have already sentenced all four to prison. Chauvin, for one, will now serve an additional 21 years.

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