A police officer recently shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. This happened just miles away from where police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd almost a year ago. The fight against police violence has been intense in Minnesota. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Johnathon McClellan, president of the Minnesota Justice Coalition, a group that has been pressing for police reform in the state. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: As Black men, this isn’t just political, it’s personal. Where were you when you heard that Daunte Wright was shot? And how did it hit you, given the other work that you’ve been doing in the state for so long?
Johnathon McClellan: I was attending a vigil for another man that was brutally beaten and thrown in the dumpster, a Black man, by the St. Paul Police Department. I was at his birthday anniversary when we found out that there was another police shooting. Everybody was in disbelief. Nobody wanted to believe that it happened again. And as the facts started coming out, we decided that we had to leave that event and go over to that location.
And are you at liberty to say the name of the man who was beaten by the St. Paul police and thrown in the dumpster?
Yeah. His name was Justin Teigen. It happened in 2009.
The officer who killed Daunte Wright is Kim Potter. She’s a 26-year veteran of the force. She has since resigned. So has her boss, Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon. But not before he tried to explain her actions during a press conference.
Gannon said, “As you can hear, the officer, while struggling with Mr. Wright, shouts, ‘Taser, Taser,’ several times. That is part of the officer’s training prior to deploying a Taser, which is a less lethal device. That is done to make her partners aware, as well as the subject, that a Taser deployment will be imminent during this encounter, however, the officer drew their handgun instead of their Taser.”
This idea that a 26-year veteran, someone who’s a part of the police union, couldn’t tell a damn difference between her Taser and her gun. How did you respond when you heard that?
There’s no way that you couldn’t tell from a firearm, which has a different weight, a different feel—and it was cold outside, so that firearm would be cold—and a piece of plastic that’s yellow, that you hold up in front of your face and say, “Taser, Taser, Taser.” I mean, logically you’d have to say, “So you were just pulling out something and shooting it indiscriminately?” Is that how our police departments work?
So, Johnathon, most of us were watching this press conference from our homes, on our phones, on our laptops. Were you actually there?
I was there. And it was a pretty chaotic situation. When we got there, during that press conference, the police chief was defiant. The attitude of the chief of police in those moments, in the moments before that, were completely disrespectful. And right after, the mayor announcing that he supported dismissing the officer because of the mistake she made is not a mistake that should be tolerated, especially with her years of service and experience. The police chief of Brooklyn Center walked out of the room. And when that happened, everybody in the room was shocked. Where did the police chief go? Why is he not here? The city is hurting now. And he turned his back on the people.
This is something else that, I think, is what outsiders are concerned with when we see this news from, sort of, 5,000 feet away. A lot of us are thinking about Philando Castile, the fact that he had been stopped 49 times by the police for minor traffic issues over and over and over again. Here we have Daunte Wright stopped by the police for minor traffic issues. Have there been any actual policy or training changes for the Minneapolis area police departments from Philando Castile to now? Or, is this basically an extension of the same level of harassment?
This is the same level of, or extension of, harassment from the police to our communities of color. And we’ve been pushing for policy changes, and the [Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association] and the Sheriffs’ Association have been lobbying at the Capitol, trying to keep the status quo.
I want to follow up on that because that’s just such a key thing, that you have an organization of sheriffs and police. What are they saying? What are they telling state senators and state representatives is the rationale behind these kinds of stops for petty fines that, oftentimes, end up being harassment and leading to other forms of violence and harassment, rather than actually anything getting accomplished, anyone getting arrested?
That they’re just doing their jobs. Their argument is that, “We wake up in the morning and we put on our uniforms and our badge and all we want to do is go home.” Well, community members and, especially children, they want to go home too. And fathers, they want to go home too. Mothers, they want to go home too.
So the arguments that they’re putting forward are not well thought out and they’re almost elementary in nature with no support backing anything that they’re saying about our communities. As a matter of fact, according to Keith Ellison, our attorney general, there’s only 5 percent of violent crime in the state of Minnesota. That means 95 percent of the crime in the state of Minnesota is nonviolent. But the police come with their guns a-blazing, almost in a cowboy-ish way. And we need to change that.
Daunte Wright was killed in the midst of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd almost a year ago. Here’s some of what Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo said while testifying against him.
Arradondo said, “Once there was no longer any resistance and clearly, when Mr. Floyd was no longer responsive and even motionless, to continue to apply that level of force to a person proned out, handcuffed behind their back, that, in no way shape or form is anything that is by policy, it is not part of our training and it is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”
A lot of people saw this kind of testimony in the trial, and they’re like, “See, the system works. One police officer can hold another officer accountable.” How do you feel about the fact that, in this trial, so many officers have come forth to basically criticize or question the behavior of Derek Chauvin?
I think the general sentiment around the community is that this is how the police should act when these incidents happen. And because of the outpouring of community and activists and protests, they’re in essence breaking their code to pacify people in the community. This isn’t a common thing for police officers to do, but because this case has such a high profile, they’re trying to play that game. And that’s how it’s been received in the community. The police officers need to do this more often and they need to show that they’re committed to doing that. And until they reconcile and acknowledge their misdeeds and continue to come forward, I don’t think that it’s credible.
Editor’s Note: In the full audio of this episode, we misstated that Daunte Wright has a daughter. He has a son.