The year in 2020: Bad cops, housing crises and a butter scoop

By: - December 30, 2020 5:28 am

Minneapolis Parks Police pulled a man out of a tent and arrested him for refusing to leave a homeless encampment, which was ordered closed because of safety concerns. 21 activists and residents were arrested while most people moved to other parks voluntarily. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to help launch this new publication in a year that’s been catastrophic in so many ways, including for journalism. The need for hard-hitting, local journalism has only increased, even as the pandemic led to thousands of journalists losing their jobs across the country, including many in Minnesota.

The Reformer has been a small bright spot in that sense. I’m proud of the work we’ve done in our first year, and heading into 2021, I’m confident we’ll continue to grow and publish stories from our staff and freelancers that hold power accountable and help you understand your state better.

For me, this past year has been one of incredible growth. I published 181 stories, by far most I’ve ever written in a year. I covered labor unions, homeless encampments, evictions, protests, riots, policing, marijuana politics and even butter. I also became the deputy editor of the Reformer, helping edit stories, plan coverage and write the newsletter (sign up here).

Here are a few stories I’m most proud of:

The Bad Cops: How Minneapolis protects its worst police officers until it’s too late 

Illustration by Rob Dobi for Minnesota Reformer.

Following the police killing of George Floyd in May, we needed to understand what was wrong with the Minneapolis Police Department and who was responsible. It’s a story that has inspired remarkable reporting across the country, which has in turn helped shape important police reforms.

Our unique contribution is “The Bad Cops,” based on some 3,300 pages of disciplinary files that no other media outlet has. We obtained them from my co-author, contributor Tony Webster, who sued the city of Minneapolis for the disciplinary files of every single officer on the force as of fall 2019 (when he initially requested the documents).

The city still has not turned over hundreds of files and the case is ongoing, but the 195 cases we reviewed provide insight into the department’s remarkably inept disciplinary process. The Minneapolis Police Department takes 539 days on average to resolve a complaint that results in discipline. Supervisors are unaware of their subordinates’ wrongdoing and will promote them in the interim. And many rank-and-file officers and supervisors uphold the blue wall of silence, while the department maintains its staunch resistance to outside oversight.

This kind of story is incredibly difficult to finish in a tiny newsroom like the Reformer’s, which can’t spare a reporter for weeks on end. Yet we managed by taking a little longer and with each member of the team stepping up. It was truly a team effort.

Land O’Lakes quietly gets rid of iconic Indian maiden mascot 

Land O’Lakes released new packaging without an Indian maiden for the first time in nearly a century in February 2020. Photo courtesy of Land O’Lakes.

I thought this story would be popular, but I didn’t expect it to take over the internet for days. It was a scoop hiding in plain sight. My friend, independent radio producer Melissa Olson, shared a picture on Facebook in April of the new Land O’Lakes packaging without the Indian maiden mascot. I couldn’t find any news stories about it, so I put in a call to the company. A Land O’Lakes spokeswoman declined to make anyone available to comment, but instead pointed me to a two-month-old news release about the company’s rebranding to focus on farmers. I rounded out the story by speaking to a Native cultural studies professor and the son of the man who designed the logo, well-known Ojibwe artist Patrick DesJarlait.

The story got picked up everywhere —including The Onion! — but Land O’Lakes still has not addressed the change head-on, at least to my knowledge. And the company has maintained its silence even as other massive brands like the Washington Football Team and Cleveland Indians have very publicly retired their Indian mascots.

Housing and homelessness through COVID-19 and riots 

Outreach worker Jase Roe joined more than a dozen others to reclaim the site of a former encampment in Minnesota for people experiencing homelessness. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Housing is a central focus of mine, and I’ve watched how Minnesota’s affordable housing shortage evolved and worsened over the year. Housing was already too expensive for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans before the COVID-19 pandemic destroyed mostly low-wage jobs. When the virus arrived in Minnesota, I examined how homeless shelters were especially vulnerable to becoming hotspots. I then reported on Hennepin County’s efforts to move people into hotels, and then governments clearing encampments against guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Following the police killing of George Floyd, the homelessness crisis started getting attention from activists like I hadn’t seen in my years of covering the issue here. Activists commandeered a hotel amid the rioting and arson this summer, which gave rise to a new Sanctuary Movement in Minneapolis. I tracked that experiment, which collapsed under the weight of the need for mental health care and other supportive services in addition to beds to sleep in, which volunteers couldn’t provide to so many. The effort then moved to the city’s parks, whose elected managers initially made a sanctuary for people experiencing homelessness. That effort, too, collapsed, and park police cleared encampments through the early winter. Frustrated with the continued sweeps, even social workers took a stand and reclaimed the so-called Wall of Forgotten Natives, though that too was cleared and now has cement barricades blocking people from returning.

There are some bright spots. New shelters are opening, including a first-of-its-kind indoor tiny house village (latest details here). Hennepin County has also used some federal coronavirus relief aid to buy a motel and former treatment center, which will provide rooms for people transitioning out of homelessness for years to come. Of course, government funding for affordable housing is ripe to be exploited, too, as I reported on with the Fort Snelling “Upper Post Flats” project.

In 2021, I will be monitoring what happens when the eviction moratorium is lifted, which I’ve reported is mostly working. I’ll also continue reporting on how the housing shortage affects people in Minnesota and efforts to address the state’s worsening homelessness problem.

If you have tips, story ideas or suggestions on housing, labor or policing, please send them my way: [email protected]

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.

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