BY DAVID TILSEN
Let me tell you a little about Clyde Bellecourt. Clyde has spent his life in service to our community in Minneapolis. He started the American Indian Movement 40 years ago in Minneapolis in response to the Minneapolis police’s abusive activities in the American Indian community. The AIM patrol, a group of courageous men and women who were available to document, intervene and correct the activities of the police, played a vital role in improving the lives of many people in our community.
I first met Clyde back in the early ‘70s. There was the campaign to stop the wet T-shirt contests which were resulting in the rape and abuse of Indian women in the bars on Franklin Avenue. Later many of the worst Franklin Avenue bars and liquor stores were replaced by other businesses, including the American Indian Center. Through the years, he stood in the street with people to get a stoplight on Cedar Avenue to stop the deaths of Indian youth, when then-Mayor Stenvig set dogs on children and others who were trying to speak truth to power.
He was instrumental in starting the Legal Rights Center, to provide lawyers and legal representation to people arrested, a place where a young lawyer named Keith Ellison cut his teeth. He started Heart of the Earth Survival School and American Indian OIC; helped to start Migizi Communications; led the effort to save the housing project that became Little Earth of United Tribes, the first and oldest community-controlled HUD housing project in the country. He chaired the Police Community Relations Council in Minneapolis for five years. He was criticized for being window dressing for the city, and now he says that it was a waste of his time, but he felt that he should try to do what he could to improve the behavior of the police and bring understanding to the community. More than a few police and community members were educated for the better owing to his efforts. I am not sure I agree that it was a waste of his time, but he does have high standards for himself.
He has done so much more than I could enumerate here, from his work at Wounded Knee, to his efforts to change the way Native people are portrayed in the media and as sports mascots. I only talk about what I have seen—and what I have seen over the last 40 years makes him one of the many people whom I admire, respect and, yes, love.
He is now getting old, into his late 70s, as will happen to all of us who survive the years. He deserves to lie in the sun and rest and be respected and listened to as one of the wise elders in our city.
On Christmas Eve day, he went to the Crystal Court in Minneapolis to watch some of his relatives dance and sing in a “round dance” that was part of a national effort to bring attention to an effort in Canada to preserve treaty rights. Chief Theresa Spence is in the second week of a hunger strike, and her situation is extremely serious. The young people call their effort “Idle No More,” and it is sweeping Canada and the United States. Clyde is not an organizer of the local event or the international effort, but he is supportive and wanted to show up and see what they were doing. He was not alone, dozens of others went to witness, and many of the shoppers stopped to watch and enjoy. From what I was told, none of them were inconvenienced or prevented from doing anything they wanted to do.
Clyde arrived late and moves slow these days, with a cane, as he is recovering from knee replacements, and he has diabetes and heart disease. He sat on one of the benches with other shoppers to observe the activities. He says that a police officer approached him and asked him to get the dancers to stop performing and leave. He explained to the police that he was not an organizer of the event and was not the person to ask. The officer then said that since he was their “Chief” he could get them to stop. He responded that, yes, he was, but he did not work for the Minneapolis police, and if they wanted them to stop they should ask them. At this point the officer then ordered Clyde to leave. Clyde got up and went to a nearby Starbucks and purchased a coffee. He told me he thought his blood sugar needed a boost. He then sat down at another bench. As the dancers were finishing up and leaving, the officer then again asked Clyde to leave. He grabbed Clyde’s arm and his coffee went all over both of them. The officer also picked up the cane which Clyde uses to stand up and walk. When Clyde explained that he could not get off the bench without the cane, the officer then told him he was under arrest. At this point some of the dancers had returned and were yelling support. The police pushed him to the ground, bent his arms around his back, presumably to handcuff him and caused significant pain. “That’s my uncle … ” “Leave him alone … ” was heard by witnesses. The officers called paramedics and instructed them to transport Clyde to jail. Clyde reports that the paramedics were very good and gentle. They asked him if they could put him on a stretcher, which he agreed was a good idea. He gave his car keys to one of the supporters and asked them to call a lawyer.
The lawyer, Larry Leventhal, had difficulty finding a judge on Christmas Eve to open his courtroom to get Clyde out of jail. Using the venerable name Clyde Bellecourt helped I am sure, and Larry can be persistent. A judge was persuaded to order the city attorney to release Clyde, and about five hours later, Clyde, bruised, sore, and more than a little angry I am sure, was released from custody.
When I talked to Clyde, I apologized to him. I did so because the city so far has not, and as a citizen of Minneapolis I was, and am, embarrassed and ashamed of the treatment we gave to this elder, this statesman, this friend who has given so much so that this city might be better.
I have put in calls to the chief of police, the mayor, and several City Council members. I have not received calls back from Lisa Goodman, in whose ward City Center is located, or Robert Lilligren, the only Native American City Council member who represents the area where most of the Native American community lives in South Minneapolis. Barbara Johnson, the president of the City Council, did return my call. She said that she understood the police chief was going to give Clyde a call. She said she was told that Clyde was participating in a demonstration on private property and was trespassing. I tried to explain to her that this wasn’t consistent with witnesses, but she said that future trials will determine what happened. I also received calls back from Elizabeth Glidden and Larry Leventhal.
Larry said that one condition of Clyde’s release was that he not return to the IDS center until his trial. He said that this was at the request of the city attorney. Larry said that often the police arrest people they don’t like on the eve of holidays to make them spend several days in jail, and that it seemed to him that this happened here. He said that fortunately he was able to find Judge Norris still in the building, who ordered Clyde released. Larry said that when he went to the jail with the order, the sheriff said that he would not do it that way, and that the judge needed to contact records or something. Larry went back to Judge Norris, who then opened up his courtroom, found an assistant city attorney and released Clyde without bail. Even with this it took several hours more before the sheriff got around to releasing him.
City Council Member Cam Gordon posted on a politics discussion blog that the police told him that IDS management requested that Clyde leave. Cam reported that they said he was handing out flyers. Clyde did not mention any flyers to me, but someone else speculated that the flyers might have been for his annual sobriety New Year’s Eve powwow that is coming up. No one that I have talked to has seen any flyers or has a sample of any flyer that Clyde was handing out.
Clyde did mention that there was not a single white person in the jail on Christmas Eve. It was full of mostly black people.
Clyde also told me that the police took his medication and would not allow him to take his insulin, which he requires.
I believe that the city should treat people better than this. I think the community deserves to know why Clyde was arrested, and we ought to think about how we should treat our elders.
We have a new police chief, one who has made some effort to let us know about her Native and affectional preferences. I think that many of us are willing to give her some good will, and I was told by Council Member Johnson that she intends to give Clyde a phone call. I don’t know what she will say in this phone call, but although the insult was primarily to Clyde, it was also symbolic. The symbolism is how we all are treated. It was an insult to all of us who are old, those of us who are not white, or those of us who point out things that the police or the powers that be would rather remain hidden.
We should also have some clarity about the use of public/private spaces like the IDS crystal court, the skyways, Peavy Plaza, the Government Center plaza, the street during the Holidazzle parade and even athletic arenas. All of these are public/private spaces that are used by commerce but also by people whose business is more than commerce. The public square is important to our democracy, not just to our economy. The Minnesota winter climate has brought us to use precious tax dollars to create indoor spaces for our city, and it seems to me that they are more than the personal property of whatever corporate entity currently holds title to them.
Note: this article was first published in Southside Pride in January 2013