On Sunday, May 6, 100 faith leaders, community leaders and Hennepin County residents gathered at New Creation Church in North Minneapolis to have a public meeting with County Attorney Michael Freeman. The event was hosted by ISAIAH and Faith in Minnesota groups The Black Church Collective (BCC) and Barbershops Creating Change in the Community (BCCC).

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman listens as Pastor Paul Slack asks a question at a community meeting on Sunday, May 5, 2018.

The event’s purpose was to ground community members in the role of county attorneys, as well as the massive amount of power they hold in decision making around criminal charges and sentencing. They have a huge amount of discretion and agency on when and how they charge and sentence. This is especially important in a county and state that has record number disparities across racial lines, particularly for black communities.

Minnesota is 85.3% white and only 5.2% black. Yet, only 52.5% of the prison population is white with an enormous 34.8% black population. Also, even though crime has decreased, the incarceration rate continues to climb and the racial gap widens.

Knowing the deep racial disparities, community members challenged Freeman’s tenure as county attorney. Over the course of longer than 20 years in leadership, the community has seen a pretrial jail incarceration rate of 47 per 100K people skyrocket to 102.2. Although the rate has taken a slight decrease since 2007, it hasn’t been at a rate close to the steep spike.

“Is our system perfect? It certainly is not. We have racial disparity that is too large,” Freeman agreed that the stats are alarming.  “I do what we can to try to eradicate these racial injustices.”

Freeman noted an idea to have automatic expungement for juveniles and adults who go through a diversion program. However, when ACLU and NAACP member, Elizer Darris asked if Freeman has prepared or assisted in getting a bill or legislation done it was revealed that Freeman hasn’t pushed either.  “I don’t think it’s possible to get much progressive legislation through,” Freeman responded. “I feel like a voice in the wilderness.”

Members became frustrated at this response and other answers by Freeman. “Blacks have been voicing and advocating for justice, fairness, and truth, yet we are discounted as a ‘voice’ in all these conversations,” said ISAIAH pastor, Brian Herron of Zion Baptist Church in North Minneapolis.

Chris Prowd, a leader with BCCC and a West African Minnesotan, shared his story.  A cab driver attempted to charge him double the fare to return his house keys that he accidentally left in the back of a taxicab.  When Prowd argued with the cab driver about the unreasonableness of paying more to have his keys returned, Prowd ended up getting sprayed with mace by police, arrested and questioned about his immigration status.  Prowd ended up pleading guilty to a petty misdemeanor for fear of otherwise risking a felony charge.  “I have a criminal record now that will follow me everywhere because I was too afraid to call out injustice. I do this work because no one should have to go through this,” said Prowd.

Knowing these inequities aren’t uncommon, community members challenged Freeman on several issues, including if he should be charging less harshly and less often; what his role is in pressuring Sheriff Richard Stanek to end his legally unnecessary and questionably unethical practices of citizenship questioning and colluding with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); and with the clear stats, if he’ll take responsibility for his part in the system of mass incarceration that’s failing the black community?

Tension in the room ran high with leaders and community members highly dissatisfied with the indirect answers received by Freeman. However, attendees were more hopeful as Freeman agreed to meet with the leaders in a month to dig deeper into the important conversation.

Pastor Brian Herron left the room with an important charge for everyone, including Freeman. “We must commit ourselves to this work for our families and communities. Link up with the organizations putting in the work and be serious about creating real change and progress. We have to ask ourselves, what are we willing to do for our freedom?”

You can view the entire forum here: https://www.facebook.com/ISAIAHMN/videos/10155324990706479/