African American Mayor Mike Elliott poses in a dark gray suit

Brooklyn Center mayor on Chauvin trial: Black people can no longer tolerate ‘a state of terror’

Mayor Mike Elliott talks to Marco Werman about how his childhood in Liberia prepared him for this leadership moment — as his city grapples with the killing of Daunte Wright, and braces for the verdict in the case of George Floyd's death.

The World

The country and observers from around the world are on edge as closing arguments wrap up in the case of Derek Chauvin, the white police officer charged in the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in May last year. 

The 12 jurors deliberating the case against Chauvin will have three counts to consider. He's been charged with second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Related: Prosecutor: Chauvin 'had to know' George Floyd's life was in danger

Meanwhile, some 10 miles north of Minneapolis, protesters gathered again on Sunday outside a police station in the suburb of Brooklyn Center, where another white police officer shot and killed another Black man, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, just over a week ago.

Wright’s killing has presented a major challenge to Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott.

Elliott, who emigrated from Liberia to the United States when he was 11, says his childhood experiences in Liberia helped inform his leadership style his and response, in particular, to recent protests against the killings of Floyd and Wright at the hands of the police. 

Minnesota is home to the largest Liberian community in the US — about 30,000 people — many of whom have settled in Brooklyn Center and neighboring Brooklyn Park.

During his swearing-in as mayor in January 2019, Elliott thanked his grandmother for showing selflessness during the First Liberian Civil War, forgoing meals to feed her grandchildren. 

Related: Why is policing in the US so deadly?

The World's Marco Werman spoke with Mayor Elliott, who says his city is bracing for the verdict in the Chauvin trial.

"People are reckoning with what's happened and we're ... seeing people who are nervous about what may happen if the verdict goes one way or the other, people are on edge anticipating what the jury's going to come back with."

Mayor Mike Elliot, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota

"People are reckoning with what's happened and we're ... seeing people who are nervous about what may happen if the verdict goes one way or the other, people are on edge anticipating what the jury's going to come back with. We hope that it is a result that speaks to justice for George Floyd, and for his daughter, and for his family and for all of us," Elliot said. 

Marco Werman: Can you tell me a bit about your city? I do know that Brooklyn Center has evolved over the years demographically, and today it's a pretty diverse place. What is it like today?

Mike Elliott: We are the most diverse city in Minnesota. We have large populations from Africa: Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana. We also have folks from East Africa: Somalia and Kenya. And then we have a rather sizable Asian population, as well, mainly from people who are Hmong, or Vietnamese. And then we also have people who originally built their homes in Brooklyn Center and still live there. So, we have this wonderful mix of people living side-by-side. There are no areas of Brooklyn Center that are segregated. We have, on any given block, a very good mix of people from those backgrounds that I mentioned.

I mean, Mayor Elliott, it does stand in contrast to how Brooklyn Center began, originally founded by a man who went on to be a key player in the Minnesota Ku Klux Klan. How are residents today reflecting on that history? I mean, is that fact even well-known? Is it something that people in Brooklyn Center are thinking about today and maybe even grappling with?

Well, let's see, some several months ago, the Brooklyn Center City Council took a vote to rename the landmarks that are named after [klansman] Sheriff Earle Brown, and we're grappling with that in real-time. I think we're finding our way through that history. He's always been someone who had previously really been celebrated throughout the community. The name of our annual parade had been named after him. The elementary school was named after him until recently when the school district, school board took a vote to change the name of the school. It's essential — if we're all going to move together into the future — that we address that rather ugly past.

You came to the US with your family when you were 11, you fled violence in Liberia. Is there anything from that time in your life that has impacted how you're thinking about what Brooklyn Center is facing today, or how you're thinking about change as mayor?

Experiencing conflict in the form of civil war, watching government break down, watching a democracy break down and watching people who felt not heard take up arms and come against the government ... because I have seen that, I have experienced that turmoil, that what happens when certain groups of people are locked out of government or feel as though their voices aren't heard.

You know, I take the approach during this current crisis that law enforcement who are responding to protesters and rioters, and of course, Dr. King said, a riot is the voice of the unheard. And, I'm paraphrasing, I take the approach that we need to address protesters in a way that allows them a channel to make their voices heard. That is, I think, critically important to maintaining a democracy and maintaining stability, in fact.

And so we have taken the stance that protesters need to be treated humanely. In fact, recently during the protests, even though I issued a curfew, law enforcement decided not to enforce the curfew, not to go out and do mass arrests, and allowed people who were protesting peacefully to continue the protest. And we ended the night with zero arrests, no, you know, rubber bullets, no tear gas. It wasn't necessary.

And so, my experience in Liberia growing up, running from place to place during the civil war, trying to find food, trying to find shelter, puts me in touch spiritually with the people who are experiencing trauma at the hands of state violence, really. Even me, as a Black man, even though I'm an elected official, you know, I still have that terror whenever I'm driving and I see law enforcement and I can't tell you how many Black people in the United States feel that way. It's a troubling feeling and it's one that's not shared by many other people except for Black people. And that state of terror is something that we cannot, and we should not, any longer tolerate.

At your inauguration in 2019, you thank your grandmother for what she did for you in Liberia during those times of strife there. What did she do for you? What can you tell us about her?

My grandmother, when she heard that the civil war was ensuing in Liberia, came to our home in Monrovia [the capital], and took me and my older cousin with her back to our village, because she figured we'd be safest there. And so, during that entire time, she served as a guide and a protector. I remember so many nights we went without eating. And whenever we got food, I remember my grandmother taking one or two bites of the food and taking a piece of cloth — in Liberia, it's called the lappa. The women wear it around their waist, but she would tie her stomach tight to keep the hunger pains away, while she gave my cousin and [me] the food to eat. You know, she's just such an amazing woman. We would walk through the forest at night with all the gunfire and the missiles flying above head. So, you know, I've seen conflict, I've seen turmoil and I've experienced it. And, you know, I want to make sure I keep my community safe and intact. And I want to do it in a way that allows those unheard voices to be heard. Because if we don't do that, I know what happens. You know, those voices find other means of being heard. And it isn't always what we would like to see.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report. 

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