Twin Cities historian Michael Lansing on why this is happening

His tweet thread blew up, so we needed to hear more.

Protestor at a downtown rally Thursday, May 30. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

As protests began on Tuesday following the killing of George Floyd in south Minneapolis Monday, an Augsburg University historian took to Twitter to offer some context. 

Michael Lansing’s thread covers contributing factors from the city’s weak mayor system and the power of its police union to the racist history of the Minneapolis Police Department and the city’s residential land covenants. The post has since garnered over 2,000 likes and over 1,000 shares and counting.

The Reformer spoke with Lansing about the thread and its assertion that these events “will define the rest of this mayor’s tenure, this so-called liberal city’s future, and provide the city a reckoning with a profoundly racist past and present.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Let’s start from the beginning. What inspired you to write that thread?

The tragic events of Monday are part of a long history in the City of Minneapolis. It’s important for historians to step up and offer narratives that help people to understand more of the trajectory of events and to have a better sense of why things are the way they are and how we have come to this point. 

You mention in the thread itself that it’s inherently incomplete. How did you decide what the big points were that you wanted to cover?

I started with the fundamental question of why is this happening again? There are a lot of ways to answer that question and, as a historian, I can’t think about what happened on Monday without thinking about the fact that American Indian people living in Minneapolis in the late 1960s were facing such intense police harassment and brutality that they decided to form the American Indian Movement in 1968. I can’t think about what happened to George Floyd without thinking about the Plymouth Avenue uprising in 1967.

It’s about marking the structures that created this situation. This [Twitter] history provides some context for how, structurally, things have not changed but also acknowledges the work that’s been done by community organizers and leaders. That these four officers were terminated so quickly, that was a huge victory that can be attributed to all the work that has been done by people of color in Minneapolis since the 1960’s.

Michael Lansing. Augsburg University historian. Photo courtesy of Lansing.

Is there anything you wish you would have included as these events have continued to unfold?

I think one important part of the story I missed is what happened around the ascension of Charles Stenvig to the mayor’s office in 1969. 

After the Plymouth Avenue uprising, the DFL mayor at the time, Arthur Naftalin, sprang into action. He reached out to African American leaders, local businesses people, local corporate leaders, and university experts to create employment programs and tried to get young Black people in more citizen leadership positions across the city. But Naftalin decided not to run in the 1969 election and an independent, Charles Stenvig, became mayor.

Stenvig was a police lieutenant and president of the Police Officers Federation which, at the time, was not quite the union representing union officers it is today. His 1969 campaign platform pledged to “take the handcuffs off the police” and he referenced “hoodlums” ruining the city. In short, he ran on a law and order campaign. In 1971 Stenvig won re-election by a large margin over W. Harry Davis, the DLF candidate and African American civil rights leader. This matters because 1972 is when the first contract between the Police Officers Federation and the city was made, settling a long-time labor dispute between the two entities.

Your thread also mentions the city’s weak mayor system. How did this come to be?

In 19th century America, a lot of urban centers emerged and so did political machines in those cities. In the early 1900s there was a lot of pushback by reformers to undo corruption by weakening the power of mayors. They were successful here by diffusing power to the city council. This has made it easier for the Police Officers Federation to influence city politics because they can focus on individual city council races which often see low voter turnout.

Who were you envisioning as your audience when you were writing the tweets?

I was just putting it out there. I didn’t expect it to blow up the way that it did and I think that’s part of the problem. I’m a college professor and a cis, straight, white male. I think the fact that it has taken off points to deeper structural racism at the core of these events. It’s sometimes easier for people to hear from someone who looks like me, which is part of the problem. This history is not new to communities of color in Minneapolis. In some ways, I’m trying to highlight the work of communities and organizations that have been doing this work for decades. It is an imperfect thread in more ways than one. 

What should people know about living through a historic moment?

It’s important to recognize moments for what they are. The uprising (Wednesday night and into Thursday) resulted in property damage, multiple arrests, and initial reports that one person was killed. For a lot of people in the city, this has always happened somewhere else, usually on the city’s north side. If people know something about Plymouth Avenue and how city politicians tried to respond to it, if they know something about how African-Americans were organizing themselves because they weren’t getting the response they wanted from officials across the city, they can better comprehend what is at stake. It’s important to understand the ways in which a moment is special and the only way you can do that is if you have some knowledge of these earlier moments in time.