words by Eamon Whalen
photography by Bobby Rogers
In the early morning hours of November 15, 2015, Minneapolis police department officers Mark Ringgenberg and Dustin Schwarze were called to a party in North Minneapolis by paramedics who were assisting a woman named RayAnn Hayes. Hayes had injured her ankle several hours earlier while intervening in an altercation at the party. While in the ambulance with Hayes, the paramedics had perceived a 24-year-old Black man named Jamar Clark—who was standing outside the ambulance—as a threat to their safety. Within 61 seconds of the officers’ arrival, Clark was placed in a chokehold and thrown to the ground by Ringgenberg, and then shot in the head by Schwarze.
This is about all the public can be certain of in this case, yet a flawed narrative of the night’s events has been presented as absolute truth by the MPD, nearly every local media outlet and, as of last Wednesday, Hennepin County prosecutor Mike Freeman, perpetuated the story that Clark had assaulted Hayes and interfered with paramedics. We were told that as Ringgenberg took Clark to the ground, he ended up with his back on Clark’s stomach. As per the officers’ accounts, Clark reached for Ringgenberg’s gun and Ringgenberg told Schwarze to shoot Clark, which he did. In his press conference recounting the events leading up to Clark’s death, Freeman announced that he would not be pressing any charges on Ringgenberg and Schwarze. He cited the lack of evidence to prove that Clark was handcuffed when he was killed—the claim of many eyewitnesses—and he cited DNA evidence proving Clark’s hand was on Ringgenberg’s gun.
Afterwards, Freeman was lauded for his “transparency,” from both sides of the aisle, including Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, as well as long-time suspected racist Minneapolis police union head Bob Kroll. It is laudable that Freeman did away with the secret grand jury method of indictment which allowed his office the ability to publish over a thousand pages of evidence online for public access. Unfortunately this is about as far as Freeman’s efforts to protect and serve went. His press conference relied almost exclusively on the accounts of officers from a department that has been proven to lie, plant evidence and generally act as an occupying force in North Minneapolis. In the days following the decision, those seeking justice have been left with far more questions than answers.
For instance, excluding the officer’s accounts, what evidence supports the claim that Clark was such a threat that he had to be taken down in a chokehold within a minute of officers arriving at the scene? Could the DNA on Ringgenberg’s gun that matched to Clark be there because either A) Ringgenberg was lying on top of Clark, or B) Ringgenberg admitted to touching his gun after the altercation? Why were Schwarze and Ringgenberg’s excessive force lawsuits from their previous jobs in Richfield and San Diego not brought up for the purpose of context? Why didn’t Freeman mention that Clark was in the midst of filing a lawsuit against the MPD for excessive force from a previous incident this summer? Most importantly, why did Freeman essentially outright dismiss several eyewitness testimonies?
There are also larger questions surrounding the killings of people of color by the state. Like why must those allegedly resisting arrest, like Jamar, have to be shot in the head? And how is it that police can negotiate with and take countless deranged White gunmen into custody but kill an unarmed Black person in seconds? These questions were compounded in the following days, when it was revealed that RayAnn Hayes told investigators in a February interview that she was not Clark’s girlfriend, and he had not hit her, statements that contradicted the initial interview she had given while in a morphine-induced haze in the hospital. Hayes was then interviewed by WCCO’s Reg Chapman last weekend, and held a press conference Monday where she reaffirmed these notions. At the very least, why didn’t Freeman explain that Hayes had been on record saying she wasn’t Clark’s girlfriend?
If I were a betting man, I’d say it’s because Freeman already had his narrative etched out and wasn’t going to let what may be the most important civilian voice and testimony in the case stop him from telling it according to his original design. Freeman’s narrative presented an especially localized case of deja vu, a variation on the same painfully predictable story a victim’s family, friends, community and the public at large are told when police officers take the life from a Black body. Like so many cases preceding this one, a publicly elected county prosecutor, whose sole civic function is to seek justice for his constituents, acted as defense attorney and publicist for a police department. This time, they explained how a white cop could reasonably fear for his life and kill an unarmed Black man in a minute, and evade any culpability whatsoever.
Here’s an excerpt from Freeman’s intro, that also, with deep stinging irony, evoked the legacies of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
“This case is not at all similar to some of those seen around the country in Chicago, Cleveland or North Charleston, South Carolina. These officers were called to respond to a person who had assaulted his girlfriend and interfered with paramedics caring for the girlfriend. These officers did not have the opportunity to negotiate or tactically withdraw.”
Freeman presents these statements as objective when there are miles and miles of grey area. For starters, this case is absolutely similar to those of Chicago’s Laquan McDonald, Cleveland’s Tamir Rice, and North Charleston’s Walter Scott. Altercations where white police officers misperceived Blackness as a threat to their safety, killed a Black person and then lied about what happened, and Scott's case attempted to plant evidence. The only thing separating this case from those is the lack of crystal clear video evidence to prove it. It’s likely that Clark did not assault a woman who was likely not even his girlfriend. There is no clear video evidence that shows Clark interfered with the paramedics. If the entire altercation was over in a minute, it takes only a human with a brain to know that “negotiation” and “tactical withdrawal” were the last things on these officers’ minds.
Part of the way the state is able to manufacture the truth is through a parallel, interdependent construction of doubt in the form of character assassination. In this case, they intended to manufacture the doubt that Jamar Clark was a good human being who wanted to be alive. They did so through the domestic violence narrative with RayAnn Hayes, as well as specious dog-whistle anecdotes from the officers. According to Shwarze, as they approached Clark he was “fidgeting” and had a “thousand-yard stare,” how one would describe a war-torn soldier. Then, after Schwarze warned Clark he was prepared to shoot, Jamar Clark told him he was “ready to die,” a statement Freeman repeated several times in his press conference despite its irrelevance and outright callousness. A good rule of thumb to calibrate one’s personal lie detector is that when an officer’s story sounds like they’re trying to write a screenplay, and a prosecutor sounds like he’s doing a table read of said screenplay, they’re both, more than likely, full of it.
These false narratives are given weight because of age-old stereotypes of Black criminality. Stereotypes that have allowed the deaths of so many Black men and women at the hands of police and self-appointed vigilantes for the most minor, if any, social infractions. Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun in a park, Freddie Gray looked at an officer and ran, Sandra Bland talked back, John Crawford took a gun off a shelf at Walmart, Jordan Davis played his music loud and Trayvon Martin had his hood up. And now Jamar Clark, who had his life taken because he had his hands in his pockets and an odd facial expression. Conveniently, those who killed him got to tell the story. And like they are time and time again, the voices of Clark’s northside community members—the eyewitnesses—were pushed to the margins.
As Freeman said, it’s true eyewitnesses often have conflicting accounts during tense, traumatic situations like these. But what he didn’t say is that it’s equally true that police officers lie about what happens when they kill people, and those lies are often supported by higher-ups like mayors, governors and county prosecutors. One of Freeman’s sharpest critics, NAACP president and civil rights attorney Nekima Levy-Pounds has pointed out that eyewitness testimony is enough to send people—mostly Black and Brown—in Hennepin County to prison all the time, but in this case the recollection of two white officers with blood on their hands holds more weight than twenty Black northsiders.
As more Black men and women have their lives turned into hashtags by the police, the words “reasonable” and “justifiable” will continually be employed as the offending officers’ saving grace. And while these concepts may be applicable to a single case, they simply can’t be applied to a problem that is a clear nationwide pattern. When The Washington Post and The Guardian tally the amount of civilians extra-judicially killed by state-sworn public servants in 2015 at 975 and 1,125 respectively, and when there are already nearly 300 in 2016, their methods have to stop being stated as reasonable or justifiable, and must begin to be called something else much worse.
As The Nation writer Dave Zirin quipped on Twitter, the problem of police violence is not a few bad apples, but a “poisoned orchard.” Since 2012 alone, the MPD has paid out 6 million dollars in excessive force lawsuits and since 2009, every person killed by the MPD has been a person of color. At the moment, Minnesota Vikings Defensive tackle Tom Johnson is suing the MPD for excessive force and the public is still waiting for details on an officer-involved shooting Monday in south Minneapolis. Meanwhile, the MPD is in the midst of trying to minimize any kind of net positive effect police body cameras may have on their relationship with the community by proposing that it’ll be up to the officer to decide when to turn the camera on, and that they’ll be able to review their videos before they write their reports.
Yesterday in the State Office Building in St. Paul, Black community leaders unveiled the United MN Black Legislative Agenda. Neighborhood’s Organizing For Change executive director Anthony Newby in his introduction said that we are witnessing a moment yet unseen in his lifetime, in Minneapolis, and in the greater state of Minnesota, regarding both the stark racial inequity that is among the worst in the nation and the powerful grassroots movement to upend it. Clark’s death ignited an 18 day occupation of Minneapolis’ 4th precinct, where organizers and community members were fed, clothed and housed in their search for justice, despite a militarized police presence, a white supremacist terrorist attack and many civic leaders turning their back on them. Newby spoke of the movement’s momentum since then, where he’s seen an unprecedented generational, organizational and ethnic convergence to work to change through both protest and political policy.
Much of this case has mirrored what transpired in Chicago with the cover-up of the killing of Laquan McDonald. A scandal that has since seen the police commissioner fired, the county prosecutor defeated at the ballot box and nearly the entire city calling for the mayor’s resignation, with most, if not all, the credit due to grassroots organizing. A compassionate person with their eyes open would hope we take a cue from our Midwestern neighbors. Because when it boils down to it, all we know for sure is that Jamar Clark was killed for passively non-complying with officers. Even if Freeman’s entire version of the account is taken at face value, what’s left is police officers with incredibly poor deescalation skills and a wildly irresponsible disregard for human life. When you multiply racist fear with total procedural incompetence, the result is the loss of yet another Black life, and Freeman’s interpretation of the evidence just doesn’t add up.