— Showing Leadership in Crisis
By Joe Bartuah
“But I want to say that our hearts are aching right now. We are in pain right now, and we recognize that this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. We recognize that this is happening at a time when our community when all of America; indeed, all of the world is watching our community. That we are all collectively devastated. And we have been for over a year now, by the killing of George Floyd. And that we continue to be distressed as we go through the Derek Chauvin trial. So having a police-involved shooting happen in our community and killing a young man is heartbreaking and just unfathomable.”
As passionately empathetic, humane and unequivocally people-centric as the foregoing quoted words are, they were not uttered by advocates or any community activists. Those statements were an integral part of the initial reaction of Mr. Mike Elliott, the first elected black mayor of Brooklyn Center, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota when he spoke at a nationally televised media conference on April 12, 2021, in response to a police killing of a 20-year-old young man, Mr. Daunte Wright.
As I watched the youthful mayor on my television screen on April 12th, I was stunned by his incisive candor and deep sense of humanity, exemplary traits of leadership that seem to be rare in many aspects of public discourse nowadays. As he spoke, I could see the intense mental anguish, grief and genuine frustration radiating his face.
Out of yet another heart-wrenching tragedy as a result of police action in Minnesota, a precocious leadership which is actually connected to the residents, has suddenly been thrust into the national and probably international limelight. Since the killing of Daunte Wright on April 11, 2021, the mayor’s pivotal voice has been an unambiguous voice of reasoning aimed at honestly squaring with his constituents, attempting to mitigate a vexing, highly emotional situation and at the same time, exerting efforts in ensuring that the understandably overwhelming anger of the people doesn’t morph into chaos, or opportunistic troublemakers would not hijack and exploit the tragic situation for their own ends.
“It’s been very difficult for myself, for the community, to deal with the pain and agony that come from watching a young man be killed before our eyes”, Mayor Elliott later told reporters. At 37, the mayor could easily relate to the traumatic anguish of the victim’s family, because a 20-year-old falls within the contemporary category of a younger brother’s or cousin’s age.
Besides that, Mr. Elliott, a Liberian-born immigrant who resettled in the U.S. when he was just 11 years old, knows a little bit about the trauma of such tragedy, having left his native land 26 years ago during the height of the killings and pillaging which devastated that West African nation for 14 consecutive years until 2003 when a restive calm was restored with help from fellow West African countries and the international community. He’s certainly one of the emerging African-American community leaders who are eagerly gazing at a brighter political horizon, because there seems to be a lot ahead.
So far, Elliott has been treading a slippery path some local as well as national politicians have dared not to tread for obvious political expediency, even risking his own life, by going out in the night to directly speak to protesters, telling them he genuinely shares their grief, their pains, hoping to instill a calming influence in their approach to protests. “I could feel their pain; I could feel their anger. I could feel their fear” the mayor reiterated on April 13th.
Unlike many professional politicians who would timidly equivocate for fear of losing their job during the next electoral cycle, Mayor Elliott has been very clear in emphasizing that the safety and security of the people must be the bedrock of policing as well as every administrative decision-making process within Brooklyn Center. How many politicians are really keen on emphasizing and insisting on the over-all well-being of their people in the wake of police aggression?
Isn’t it a sort of relief and somehow consolatory that we are not hearing the autocratic, un-empathetic trite — “law and order” — at the expense of innocent lives lost?
When some county police officers resorted to tear-gassing some protesters last Wednesday, the mayor said, “We have to approach policing in a different way, in a more humane way”, adding, “Gassing, in my opinion, is not a humane way of policing. Our police department and our officers are not involved in gassing.”
From all indications, Mayor Elliott is proving to be a resolute and decisive leader whose goal is to restore serenity to his city and at the same time, ensure justice for the victim’s family. In the wake of Daunte’s killing, the mayor has intensely leveraged his influence in readjusting the clumsy administrative setup of the Brooklyn Center city government, whereby the city manager, rather than the elected mayor, was in charge of the police department.
The city council swiftly voted to vest ultimate authority over the police in the mayor’s office. As a result, City Manager Curt Boganey, who displayed insensitivity to the victim’s family grief by emphasizing “due process” before any disciplinary action could be taken against the officer who had killed the young man, was removed, while Police Chief Tim Gannon resigned, along with Kimberly Potter, 48, the 26-year veteran female officer who had fired the fatal. Potter had since been arrested and charged with second degree manslaughter.
Even as the black mayor was raging in anger during the April 11th media conference, Boganey, the white city manager had said, “This employee [Kimberly Potter] will receive due process and that’s really all I can say today”, without showing any empathy for the victim’s family. Chief Gannon had also reasoned during the initial media conference that former officer Potter had apparently mistaken her pistol for a Taser and right after he made that comment, Chief Gannon, who is also white, stormed out of the initial media conference.
On live television, Mayor Elliott then demanded that the police chief immediately return in order to answer some journalists’ questions, which he grudgingly did.
As the first elected black mayor in Brooklyn Center’s 167-year history, or in its 52-year-history as an incorporated city, the young Liberian-American politician is already on the right side of history. With a population of 31,000 residents, Brooklyn Center is one of the racially, ethnically diverse communities in the country. While the State of Minnesota is 63 percent white, Brooklyn Center on the other hand, is 45 percent white; 29 percent of the city’s residents are black or African-Americans and 23 percent of the black residents there are foreign-born.
The vast diversity of the city was not lost on Elliott when he was campaigning for the job and after his election in 2018. He had enthusiastically billed his trailblazing election as “an opportunity for the great diversity of the city to have a voice at the table” at the time. One can certainly surmise that when the young politician made that comment some three years ago, little did he know that that pivotal “voice at the table” would be a resolute and calming voice of mitigation in a crisis situation.
Now what many analysts basically hear Mayor Elliot saying is that not every 911 call to police, or not every black person’s encounter with police across the country must have a tragic end, such as the unfortunate fates that befell George Floyd on May 25th last year and Daunte Wright on April 11th this year and many more.
As I see it, he’s making a clarion call for de-escalation, pleading with everyone for humanistic policing. For the first-term politician, his sense of honesty and candor is politically risky, because some cynical opponents might seize it and, in some instances, mischaracterize it for egregious purposes. But potential political risk notwithstanding, Mayor Elliott seems determined to make a positive difference by effecting needed reforms within his city.
Mayor Elliott, a 2010 Hamline University graduate in Saint Paul, Minnesota, holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Management and Political Science. He’s also the founder of Fastforward Education, a non-profit mentorship program aimed at improving high school students’ academic performance at Brooklyn Center High School, which he organized in 2002, and a small business owner.
Joe Bartuah is the Chief Editorial Officer LIB-Variety, a website published by Consolidated Media, Incorporated, a blogging and free media advocacy non-governmental organization. He had studied English & Professional Writing (BA), Political Science (BA) and Conflict Resolution, Public Policy and International Relations (MSc.) at the University of Massachusetts Boston and its McCormack Graduate School of Public Policy and Global Studies. Bartuah is also the author of, AN AGENDA FOR A BETTER LIBERIA–A Common Sense Approach to Nation-Building. He can be reached @ Joebartuah@libvariety.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.