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Minneapolis may become next Baltimore in Black Lives Matter struggle

ACLU report says black Americans nearly nine times as likely as whites to be arrested on low-level charges

Minneapolis may soon see “uprisings” like the ones that ripped through Ferguson and Baltimore if local authorities don’t overhaul the way communities of color are policed in the city, an activist and lawyer from the Black Lives Matter movement told Al Jazeera on Thursday.

The warning came hours after the ACLU released a new report showing that black Minneapolis residents are nearly nine times as likely as white people in the city to be arrested for low-level crimes such as small-scale theft and reckless driving.

“I hope things don’t rise to the level of uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore. But we’re not far from that,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor who advises the local Black Lives Matter movement and president of the Minneapolis NAACP.

The Black Lives Matter movement started in response to the Aug. 9, 2014 death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown at the hands of Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The killing shed light on racial inequality in policing across the country and drove people to the streets in Ferguson and major cities throughout the United States. The killing of Freddie Gray on April 12 in Baltimore was one of a series of subsequent killings of black Americans that prompted a wave of angry protests and occasional clashes between citizens and police. Some fear this could happen next in Minneapolis. 

“We are in a danger zone right now,” Levy-Pounds said. “If you look at the big picture, African-Americans and Native Americans in Minneapolis experience oppression in every key indicator of quality of life. When you couple that with police brutality, it leads to uprisings like we see across the country.”

Levy-Pounds and other Black Lives Matter activists have been pushing to overturn city ordinances against "lurking" and spitting, which they say are often used as a pretext to arrest black men. The Minneapolis City Council is set to vote June 5 in a ballot that will follow two public hearings on whether to overturn the measures.

Black people in Minneapolis are 8.7 as likely as white residents to be arrested for low-level crimes, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report. Low-level crimes are defined as those punishable by a fine of less than $3,000, or by a year or less in jail. Native Americans were 8.6 times as likely as their white counterparts to be detained on low-level charges. 

The study was based on records from more than 96,000 arrests made by the Minneapolis Police Department between January 2012 and September 2014. Teresa Nelson, legal director for ACLU Minnesota, said the organization compiled the records after a June 2013 national ACLU report on marijuana possession arrests revealed that black people were 11.5 times as likely to be arrested for possession than white people.

ACLU figures from a June 2013 report show that black and white people use marijuana at similar rates. In 2010, 14 percent and 12 percent, respectively, reported having used it in the past year.

“What we’ve seen in past years is we have some of the worst racial disparities in law enforcement in the country” in Minneapolis, Nelson said.

The report gives the police department some suggestions, including the bolstering of an existing program implemented by Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau to give officers implicit bias training to help reinforce an existing ban on profiling. Nelson said the ACLU is in "open dialogue" with the police to integrate those lessons into academy training so that they become a part of police culture there at the onset. 

The city is "fortunate to have communities engaged in the public safety discussion," Minneapolis Police Department spokesman Scott Seroka told Al Jazeera in an email. Seroka offered no further comment on the details of the ACLU report. 

Black Lives Matter's Levy Pounds commended the ACLU's report and said she has "some hope that a dialogue with the police will improve conditions for her community. But she added that “a more radical approach will need to be in order.” That could include more demonstrations by Black Lives Matter advocates, Levy-Pounds said.

"Officials need to respond. There's a lot of denial now and excuses being made as to why racial profiling is happening on a regular basis. There's no evidence that African-Americans commit offenses at higher rates than whites," she said.

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