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Legal Rights Center Works with Minneapolis Community to Reimagine Public Safety

July 30, 2020
Courtney M. McSwain

Interview w/ Malaika Hankins, Community Strategy Lead and Restorative Facilitator

How has the Legal Rights Center responded to the racial justice protest movement taking place right now, particularly given your location in Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed by police?

The Legal Rights Center was founded in a very similar moment after the riots of the late 60s that happened here in Minneapolis. We were founded in partnership with leaders from the American Indian Movement and the African American community who were facing similar protest-related legal challenges. They brought together their resources and created the Legal Rights Center as a law firm to provide high-quality criminal defense work for the community.

So, while no one woke up the morning of Memorial Day expecting that the city would explode in the way that it did, I think that, because of the work that we do, we were particularly well-primed to leap into action and support our community as we were asked to. Immediately following George Floyd’s murder, we worked in partnership with the National Lawyers Guild to activate a legal support hotline for folks being arrested at protests, and we partnered with the Minnesota Freedom Fund to send our lawyers into jails to get bails paid so that people could come home. We also are providing ongoing legal support for those who received citations and were arrested back in the end of May and the ongoing legal needs that have emerged as people remain the streets here.

With asks from our community, we advocated for the State’s Attorney General to take over the prosecution of the case and we worked to help our community understand the charges the officers involved were facing. We try to remain nimble to the asks of our community in this moment, which means we’re all working a lot harder and more hours, but it’s what we see as fulfilling our mission.

The Legal Rights Center also responded to campaign to get justice for Cornelius Fredrick, a young African American boy who was killed while a resident at Lakeside Academy, run by Sequel Youth and Family Services. Can you talk about the process of connecting what happened at Lakeside Academy in Michigan to the work you were doing in response to George Floyd’s murder? How did you all link those two things together?

We learned about Cornelius Fredrick’s death through NJJN emails and were immediately upset and disheartened by what had happened. We looked into our community contacts here and learned that at the time of Cornelius Fredrick’s placement at Lakeside Academy, there were four youth from Hennepin County who were also placed there. That information was also known by other members of our community who reached out to us to say, ‘We have to do something together in this moment.’ We see it as yet another example of a black life being taken by the system. We worked with our community partners to write a letter to demand that our county fully stops the placement of youth in correctional facilities, which has been a piece of our advocacy that we’ve been elevating for years now. With COVID-19, we elevated the same ask based on the fears that we had around youth safety in congregate care facilities, and Cornelius Fredrick’s death served as another example of why that type of placement is not safe for black and brown children.

Since our letter to the county, we held a press conference on the steps of our County administration building, and we were really happy to hear that the County ended their contract and agreed not to place any more youth in Sequel facilities. Our state department of corrections made a similar commitment. But we’re hoping not to do just piecemeal advocacy – we are committed to re-envision public safety and the youth justice system.

How do you think youth justice-focused organizations can effectively draw the connection between this work and the broader Black Lives Matter movement? How have you all been able to make those connections from a philosophical standpoint? 

I think there are a few very unique opportunities for youth justice organizations to lead in this moment. The first is looking at the way that youth justice systems – at least in Minnesota – are constructed. Youth justice is explicitly not supposed to be a punishment system; it’s supposed to be therapeutic and a means of the government getting involved when youth need help. So as we’re in this moment of reconsidering what public safety looks like and what criminal justice broadly looks like, I think youth justice can take the lead to say we’ve tried a lot of things under the guise of not having a punishment lens, and it still doesn’t respect the lives of black children and black families. We can use the youth justice system as a way of considering potential proposed reforms in the broader criminal legal system to say, “this doesn’t go far enough. We need a total reimagining of the system.”

The other connection point that we’ve been making is that a large number of folks in Minnesota who have experiences in the adult criminal legal system had their first interaction in their adolescence. We see the youth justice efforts we’re pushing as our generation’s efforts to end mass incarceration; if we can divert and reimagine the system so that folks aren’t having their first interactions at 13, 14, 15 and 16, we see that as the easiest way to push back on the current entrenched systems that they face when they are 18 or 26 or 42.

You all have also been involved in conversations around reimagining safety and the use of police in schools. What have those conversations been like?

The Legal Rights Center has been a part of a coalition working on youth justice and getting school resource officers out of school buildings for years. We’ve been advocating at the state level and with our local school boards. Although our local school boards reacted after the murder of George Floyd, there had been some ground laid by students, families, and activists.

Since our school board voted in June to end their contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, they tasked the superintendent with coming up with a new plan for school safety by August of this year. Just this week, the school district put out a job description for what they’re calling a public safety specialist, and the job description read very similar to the previous job description for school resource officers. Community members here really pushed back and were up in arms about the idea of the district hiring its own version of that same exact role. In our work, to date, we’ve been in conversations with the district leadership and community partners to really push for a more expansive view on what public safety means and making sure that youth voices are centered in the creation of these new roles.

Further, even though there will no longer be school resource officers in the buildings, that doesn’t stop someone from calling the cops to come into the building, and we are really trying to leverage our connections and our legal expertise to ask the district to put clear protocols in place for what that looks like. Who is keeping kids safe in that moment and what sort of role does community have in determining what those plans look like?  

As you’re talking about communities being centered in the conversation, what are you hearing from people around what that word “safety” even means right now?

What we’ve heard for years is that safety for most of the members of our community means being in positive, right relationship with other folks. When we’ve been called in to facilitate restorative justice or repair of harm discussions between youth and schools, even after really unfortunate incidents, more than anything, lack of relationships and a lack of trust have been the root causes of whatever situation was at play. Even if we don’t have a police officer in our school building, what is going to make our black and brown children feel safe when they are in the classroom with a white teacher? What sort of relationships need to be had between teachers and administrators with children and families so that they can feel that they’re affirmed in their identities and that they trust when something goes wrong, the response will be one of care instead of one of punishment?

Are there other issues on the horizon for Legal Rights Center to work on?

Certainly, decarceration is both our really urgent work and a long-term priority. We’re in a similar place, I’m sure, to other NJJN members in that we are both hoping to improve the current conditions of the system, while also really wanting to create something altogether different that is more rooted in community and responsive to the needs of youth and families.

Also, in the next year, we hope to build out community knowledge and support for more community-based supports for youth so that they don’t have to be placed in correctional facilities or out of the home. We’re really interested in what it will take to build out that community care network here so that we can have our kids stay at home to the best extent possible, through both reentry and proactive work. Another thing we’re really focused on is the extreme and disproportionate sentencing that happens in our youth justice system. We’ve been working for years on ending the use of juvenile life without parole as a sentence for young people. We're also looking at how youth cycle through multiple correctional placements after they have “failed” in a placement.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We’re honored to be a part of NJJN and constantly learning from the work that’s happening in other places. We hope that whatever we’re learning here in Minnesota, we can share across the network as well.  

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