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ACLU-MN Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project: Community dialogue focuses on solutions

Last month, representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice gathered grievances from members of the Bemidji area American Indian community.

Hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union-Minnesota Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project based in Bemidji, the Indians described their perceptions of victimization in interaction with the majority population. They cited inequities in policing, the criminal justice system and rates of incarceration. They also responded to problems in social, economic and education systems.

Facilitated by Ken Bergeron, acting regional director, and Kevin Lock, conciliation specialist, both of the U.S. Department of Justice Region 5, the participants listed their concerns. On Tuesday, July 22, the facilitators and Indian community members regrouped to work on possible solutions to the problems.

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji also attended the gathering.

Audrey Thayer, coordinator for the ACLU -MN Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project, said she was pleased with the participation - 48 attendees for the June meeting and 57 for the July meeting. She said a third meeting is planned with law enforcement officials in August.

"We're starting to educate Bemidji," she said.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of ACLU-MN, said the local project developed out of the "huge disparity in incarceration of Native Americans, not just in Beltrami County, but the whole area."

He said the reasons for the disparity are complex, but racism is part of the mix.

"I am also sure, because it happens everywhere, that people of color are over-policed," he said.

Participants in the June meeting identified police and justice system issues as major inequities. They cited perceptions of questionable probable cause stops, racial profiling, intimidation, racial retaliation and lack of cultural awareness among officers. At Tuesday's meeting, they suggested as solutions the creation of a tribal-county law enforcement consortium and a police advisory commission to deal with complaints against officers, racial profile training and recruitment of Indian officers.

Another suggestion was to develop a law enforcement officer exchange program between counties and tribes. On the judicial side, ideas included holding an annual intergovernmental meeting of county and tribal judges, attorneys, probation officers, ACLU and legislators.

"We're willing to try anything and we're willing to work with anyone," Samuelson said.

Part of the discussion related to restorative rather that punitive justice. Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver said restorative justice is already part of the system. A judge can rule a stay of adjudication for a person charged with a crime. If the defendant completes the requirements imposed by the court, there is no conviction.

Samuelson said he appreciated Faver's participation but added that he was disappointed that the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office and Bemidji Police Department did not attend or send representatives.

Other solutions offered to more general social issues included a collaborative substance abuse and mental health task force, providing legal system education and a "legislative mandate requiring teaching truthful history."

And in response to concerns about the lack of relations between members of majority religions and traditional Indian spirituality, the facilitators suggested formation of a seven-county interfaith coalition.

Samuelson described the outcome of the meetings as "less than exciting," but said he remains hopeful for improved race relations. He said the ACLU focused on Bemidji, in part, because it is a highly integrated community with a 26 percent Indian population. The area is also fairly self-contained with no other large population centers nearby. And, because of Bemidji State University, there is a significant sophisticated segment.

Thayer said the Greater Minnesota Racial Justice Project is the only outreach office of its kind. The ACLU will use the Bemidji project as a model for the ACLU nationwide.

"We thought this is a perfect place to see if we can fix this problem," he said of the racial divides. "It is an interesting start."