Civil rights attorney and former Minneapolis NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds has risen to national prominence after taking part in protests following several police shootings in Minnesota. She is currently running as a candidate for Mayor of Minneapolis as a member of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, a socially liberal party allied with the Democratic Party that counts Senators Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, and Representative Keith Ellison among its members.
I spoke with Nekima about her life, her work, and plans for the future. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When did you first become interested in political activism?
“I've been working to address issues that impact communities of color and poor people for a very long time. My street level activism began in the spring of 2014 when I worked with young people to lead a march and rally against the school-to-prison pipeline. That November, I travelled to Ferguson as a legal observer through the National Lawyers Guild. When I came back to the Twin Cities, I was approached by the young people starting Black Lives Matter Minneapolis who asked if I would work with them. I had no idea what kind of help I could provide because I still just saw myself as a law professor. But I showed up when they had demonstrations, participated in the shutdown of the I-35 freeway and the Mall of America demonstration. By the spring of the following year I became the president of the Minneapolis NAACP, and continued engaging in activism through that organization.”
What was the response from Minneapolis NAACP members and national leadership to your direct action in Minnesota?
“There was a lot of support from the local branch in electing someone who had a legal and activist background as their president. On a national level, at times it was challenging to engage in activism, but we did our best to notify the national office as things were unfolding. One of the key times that happened was in November 2015, after the shooting death of Jamar Clark. The Minneapolis NAACP was the first on the scene. We reached out to BLM Minneapolis and asked them to hold a march and a rally, because by then there were over a hundred people in the streets. There was a lot of energy, and I wanted to make sure it was channeled in a productive way.
We had to let the national office know that we were in the midst of what became an 18 day occupation. Within a few days I got a call from the national president's office asking if we needed assistance. He was willing to fly to Minnesota along with the head of the youth and collegiate division, so they came and worked with us to hold a candlelight vigil and meet with government authorities. So I would say they were supportive. Sometimes we would receive questions about the level of activism we planned to engage in, but I would say for the most part we were able to manage it.”
Let's talk about the Mall of America protest. How did that idea come about, and what were you hoping to achieve?
“That idea came from the young people who were involved in BLM. As everything was unfolding we received a lot of negative comments and fear about what was happening at the mall, so the young people asked me to speak to the media on their behalf because of my background in civil rights. So I did, and tried to explain that the protest was a form of civil disobedience, that it would be peaceful, but it was connected to our history of challenging systems and institutions that are oppressing people. So I participated in the demonstrations, along with 3000 people from the community.”
You were charged for that protest. If convicted, you could've gone to jail. Were you prepared for that?
“I was. Obviously I wouldn't have wanted to spend any time in jail for engaging in a nonviolent peaceful demonstration. But I know that sometimes government authorities respond with a heavy hand when they think people are disrupting the system and disrupting the status quo, and when you become engaged in the process of advocating and organizing, sometimes you do face some type of punishment under the law. You saw it with Dr. King, who was arrested dozens of times for his work, and Rosa Parks, being arrested when she refused to give up her seat. So knowing that history I understood that comes with the territory, but as a mother, I wouldn't have wanted to spend any time away from my children.
Even though I wasn't an organizer of the demonstration, I was charged as one and maybe a month later eleven of us were charged as alleged organizers. I was one of two people who had the most charges. I was charged with eight misdemeanors. I knew that was an attempt to silence my voice. We had to assemble a very strong legal team, we had lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild who volunteered, and I was also my own attorney. We fought the case for 10 months, and in November 2015, all of our charges were dismissed.”
There have been several police shootings in Minnesota in the wake of Jamar Clark, most notably those of Philando Castile and Justine Damond. Do you feel Minneapolis has done enough to address this issue, and what do you feel they should be doing?
“No, I don’t feel that Minneapolis has done enough to address police violence, the need for accountability and to reform the current system. My perspective on those issues played a huge role in my decision to run for mayor. One of the major responsibilities of the mayor is to provide oversight of the police department. In 2014, I was one of the people who challenged the current mayor publicly in the media about doing more to address allegations of harassment and the use of excessive force against poor people of color by police. She took some steps, but it wasn't enough. One of the things that happened recently was Minneapolis was selected to take part in a three year initiative offering support to transform police departments. Change takes time, but it's important to have a leader who understands these issues and is willing to do the heavy lifting to help change the culture of a police department and to push for a community policing model.”
Do you think Justine Damond’s death will have more repercussions than the others?
“Many of us called for the firing of Chief Janeé Harteau after Jamar Clark was killed and that call fell on deaf ears. After Justine was killed, I issued a call on Facebook for her to be fired, bringing up what happened to Jamar Clark and Terence Franklin who was killed in 2013, and how the chief stood by those officers in the media. We compared her statements when white male officers have shot and killed people to her statements after Justine's death, when a Somali officer was involved. I called that out, and ultimately the city council member representing the ward where Justine was killed advocated for the chief to step down.
When Justine was killed the officer’s body camera wasn’t activated. So the city implemented a policy that officers must have their cameras on when going out to a call. But that could have been in place from day one, if they had listened to the people when we made the request.”
You're a Black woman running on a progressive ticket in an area seen as traditionally white and liberal. Has that presented any problems in your campaign?
“Absolutely. We've only had one other person of color as mayor, and she was also the first woman. It definitely makes it challenging when people are not used to seeing a woman of color in a position of leadership in the city. We currently have no African-American women or men on the city council, so the African-American community has no representation in our city government. I've gotten questions like, ‘We've seen this before, how are you different from Sharon [Sayles Belton, a previous mayor] ?’, when every other mayor has been a white man, and we've obviously seen that before. And under that leadership, what we've seen is disparities grow worse in the city. Minneapolis is currently the second worst city in the nation for racial disparities across key indicators of quality of life. So we have a desperate need for new leadership who is willing to shift the paradigm for how we do business.
As a Black woman, you encounter questions like, ‘It's a big job, can you handle it?’ And this is with me having taught law for 14 years and being a civil rights attorney for longer than that. But the mayor two mayors ago [R.T. Rybak Jr.] had been a journalist at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. No one questioned whether he could go from being a journalist to a mayor, and he was mayor for three terms.
Some of the questions are grounded in ignorance but I do my best to share the facts about my background, my leadership skills and my experience that make me more than qualified for this position.”
There’s a conversation taking place among activists about the use of inside power and outside power. In the past year, several people with roots in social justice movements have moved into mainstream politics. What do you feel are some of the challenges of transitioning from confronting the power structure to potentially working within it?
“Of course there are challenges when you've been on the outside pushing for change within the system, and then you decide to go inside of it. But I'm going inside with the mission to make the changes that would only be incremental by continuing to stand on the outside. I got to the point where I would say to young people, ‘Listen, it's not enough to keep knocking on the doors of the powers that be, begging them to do the right thing. It's time for us to become the powers that be.’”
You’re raising six children. How do you feel about their future in a country where the devaluation of Black & Brown lives is being reinforced by national policy, especially after the last presidential election?
“I think we have many reasons to be concerned about what type of legacy we pass along to our children, especially as America becomes browner than it’s ever been. Although I share many of those concerns, I’m also optimistic about the future. I’m doing my part and I’m urging others of my generation to do the same and not just sit on the sidelines and hand over power to those who don't have the best interests of the people in mind, but to stand up, rise up, seize the power that we need to have, and to protect it.
And also to be sure we're thinking about environmental issues. We need to think about the impacts of global warming and climate change and how that will affect our children. We’re seeing the effects right now, and we have to do everything in our power to slow the process of climate change to ensure we're leaving this world in a better condition than how we inherited it.”
Torraine Walker is a writer, independent journalist, and content creator for digital media. His work has appeared in publications including the Huffington Post, Fusion, Abernathy, and Brain Mill Press. In 2015, his blog SUMCity won WordPress' Freshly Pressed Award for best new blogs.