ST. PAUL — A month after an ex-Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes, resulting in Floyd's death, leaders in the Minnesota Senate announced that they would hold hearings to assess damage in Minneapolis and Saint Paul spurred by lootings and arson fires.
The move follows an unsuccessful special session that aimed in part at re-writing Minnesota's policing laws to prevent deadly force encounters and ensure accountability for officers that misbehave. The Minnesota Senate adjourned early Saturday, June 20, before lawmakers could come to agreements on the reform efforts, a deal on a bonding bill or compromise on how to allocate $841 million in federal COVID-19 aid funding to local governments.
Those discussions continue behind closed doors, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said and further special sessions could be forthcoming to pass those proposals. But Gazelka said senators need to evaluate the decisions that played out that allowed for more than a thousand businesses to be looted or burned in the Twin Cities metro area, and prevented the removal of a Christopher Columbus statue at the Capitol.
“I think the public demands answers and that’s why we want to hold these hearings and also if we wait too long, we begin to forget what happened,” Gazelka said. “We just want to make sure we get to the bottom of this. Now is the time to do it.”
A separate panel over a virtual meeting on Thursday discussed the tearing down of the Columbus statue and said they would set up a process for Minnesotans to provide the state feedback on artwork and statues on Capitol grounds.
Gazelka said he felt confident that FBI, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Department of Human Rights probes into the Minneapolis Police Department following Floyd's killing were sufficient to address possible problems. But he said there hadn't been enough review of the looting that took place and the state and local response.
Gazelka's colleagues earlier in the week criticized the Department of Human Rights probe saying they didn't believe the agency could conduct an unbiased investigation after saying "communities of color and Indigenous communities have suffered generational pain and trauma as a result of systemic and institutional racism."
Federal prosecutors charged several in connection with the looting and arson fires in Minneapolis and St. Paul. And lawmakers considered but couldn't reach agreement on nearly $300 million in grant and loan funding to business owners affected by the looting.
Democratic-Farmer-Labor Senate leaders on Thursday said the move to investigate the civil unrest rather than holding additional hearings for policing reform proposals was discouraging. Members of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus said the police accountability bills should be a top priority.
“I am deeply disturbed by Senate Republicans’ complete lack of urgency to protect the Black lives that are at risk of being killed at the hands of police officers," Senate Assistant Minority Leader Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, said. "After we saw the murder of George Floyd, the entire state and nation spoke out. They still aren’t listening to the demands for change within our criminal justice system."
Details about the composition of the hearings or issues set to be covered weren't immediately clear Thursday. But Gazelka said it was important that senators quickly move forward with their questions of state and local leaders who led response efforts.
“We all witnessed the destruction of businesses, some in broad daylight, with no police response and the question was, who decided the looters would be allowed to do that?” Gazelka said. “We all heard the pleading of the public for anyone to tell them what the plan was when all those fires were burning across Minneapolis and St. Paul, including damage to the suburbs as well, who was in charge? Those are some of the questions we want.”
The panel is set to convene for its first hearing next week.
A Columbus discussion
Minnesota's Capitol Area Architectural and Planning (CAAP) Board wasn't planning to address the Columbus statue toppling directly in their Thursday meeting, but the conversation inevitably went in that direction as board members discussed how to address Minnesotans' concerns over images of historical figures who committed racist acts.
Board member and state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said Thursday that taking down memorials entirely would be erasing history, and instead, she thought the memorials could be made into a "teachable moment" that includes an examination of a figure's racist actions.
But board member and historian Kate Beane, of the Flandreau Santee Dakota and Muskogee Creek tribes, said a statue of Columbus on Capitol grounds is comparable for Indigenous peoples to a statue of Adolf Hitler being displayed.
"Do we put on a plaque to reinterpret that?" Beane asked. "Or do we do something more, and include community?"
During the meeting, it was revealed that the Columbus statue sustained $154,000 of damage when it was pulled down, according to an appraisal. It is being stored in a joint Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety facility in the metro area. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is investigating the incident, and the Ramsey County Attorney will have jurisdiction over its prosecution. The maximum felony penalties would be 10 years in prison and $10,000 in fines. Charges have not yet been pressed.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who chairs the board and is a citizen of the White Earth Nation, said the statue tumbling didn't happen overnight; conversations over the ethics of monuments have been happening for years. But now, in the wake of Floyd's death, "there is an urgency" felt throughout the nation and Minnesota.
She said she has several times heard from other Native parents who saw the statue of Columbus as pushing a false narrative that Europeans discovered the Americas, when they were, in fact, already inhabited. And Columbus has a well-known history of perpetrating violence against Native peoples.
The board has many processes to decide what kind of artworks or monuments go up or down in the Capitol, but Flanagan said Thursday there wasn't a clear one for monuments on the Capitol Mall. Establishing such a process is important for the future, she said, because Minnesotans shouldn't "feel that tearing down a statue is their only opportunity for change."
At Thursday's meeting, Flanagan said the board will be delegating two task forces to establish such processes: The first will work to establish a process and policy for memorial removals or changes, with opportunity for Minnesotans to engage. The second will create what Flanagan called a "vision of what the Capitol should be," based on how Minnesotans do or don't see themselves represented in their Capitol.