Two Minneapolis police officers have been placed on leave after decorating a Christmas tree in a majority-black community with pieces of trash in what city leaders decried as a racist display by a police force already struggling to rebuild community trust after a 2015 shooting of an unarmed black man sparked more than two weeks of protests.
The tree, erected last week in the Minneapolis Police Department 4th Precinct in the Near North neighborhood, was ornamented by a crumpled can of Steel Reserve malt liquor, empty bags of Takis and Funyuns, a cup from Popeyes, a pack of Newport cigarettes, and a single strip of yellow crime-scene tape.
After a photo of the tree circulated around the community and on the internet last week, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey condemned the tree as “racist, despicable, and … well beneath the standards of any person who serves the city of Minneapolis,” according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Local civil rights and community leaders led a call for racial sensitivity training for the local police in response, and they called for the two officers responsible to be fired. After Frey pledged on Friday to have the two officers immediately fired, he sent out another statement saying the process takes time, and according to the Star-Tribune, the two officers were placed on paid leave.
City Councilman Phillipe Cunningham, who represents the Near North neighborhood, said on Facebook that a police officer is assigned every year to decorate a tree and that the officers who were handed the task this year decorated it “as a prank.” According to Cunningham, the police will undergo a cultural sensitivity training and hold a community outreach event.
“When we see something like what we saw with the Christmas tree at the 4th Precinct, it is so much more than a racist prank by a single officer. What we see is the ugly racist culture that has been brewing in Minneapolis Police Department throughout its 150-year history,” he wrote in a subsequent post. “I am still a Black man myself and these outrageous reminders only further my own feeling generally unsafe around police officers.”
He praised the police chief and expressed hope for better police-community relations in the future but emphasized that the incident was another blow to the community’s trust in police. “These pieces of trash were deliberately chosen to represent how certain officers feel about the community they serve: that Black people are a stereotype to be mocked and the lives of those they serve may as well be reduced to trash in the gutter,” he wrote.
In 2015, police shot 24-year-old Jamar Clark after a call for an alleged domestic dispute between Clark and his girlfriend. According to police, Clark began “disrupting [the paramedics’] ability to render aid” to Clark’s girlfriend. After a struggle with the police, an officer fired his gun, hitting Clark in his head, just above his left eye. According to police, Clark had managed to grab the officer’s gun. Many witnesses at the scene said Clark had been handcuffed and therefore posed no real threat, but experts later said that none of Clark’s DNA was on the handcuffs, and an autopsy found no cuff marks on his wrists. Neither of the two officers involved was indicted, and community organizers held 18 days of protest outside the 4th Precinct station.