ST. PAUL — In 2020, Minnesotans saw the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and resulting cry for justice, and a hotly contested battle for president.
In each of these storylines, state Attorney General Keith Ellison has played a main character.
Since March, Ellison has had to defend Gov. Tim Walz’s pandemic response in court and in the media. After Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Minneapolis police, Ellison made history by taking over the prosecution of former officer Derek Chauvin and the three other officers present at the May killing. And in the weeks following November’s general election, Ellison has defended Minnesota’s election processes and criticized other politicians around the country for sowing doubt into the legitimacy of the election’s results.
On a Saturday morning in mid-December, Ellison sat down, metaphorically, with Forum News Service to discuss the past year of his life and work — metaphorically, because the interview was conducted virtually due to coronavirus precautions. And Ellison was not sitting, but cooking a frittata for his wife.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Forum News Service: A lot has happened this year. Tell me about your approach to your job as attorney general over the past year or so.
Keith Ellison: My first thoughts, when (the pandemic) really started hitting in February, March, were that, this is serious. And as I looked around at China, South Korea, and then of course, Iran and Italy, all had very bad hits. And I said, ‘This is going to be rough.’ And I noticed that a lot of Americans weren't really sure how serious it was going to be. It was clear to me that the president was underestimating the threat here. But I was impressed by Gov. Walz and Jan Malcolm (commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Health), and everybody was scrambling in my own office.
Look, nobody calls us because things are going great. They call us because they're being evicted, because they’re being scammed, because they're being ripped off, taken advantage of, having their rights abused. That's why they call us. So we're always dealing with people with crises. So now, how can you help somebody who's in crisis, if you are in crisis? So we had to take a lot of time to really make sure that our staff felt supported. And so we've been working on that, no question.
And, of course, the constant madness from the president. I mean, President Trump — and I don't say this in a partisan way, I really don't — but President Trump has been traumatizing to the American people. The constant outrageousness, people are just tired and worn out with his madness, you know. And so that's sort of going on in all of this. So you put Trump, on top of COVID, on top of Floyd, and it has been a remarkable year.
FNS: Gov. Tim Walz has faced a lot of criticism for his use of executive power and orders to try to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Much of the conversation around COVID response in Minnesota and around the country has been politicized. What’s your take on that, and on your role to defend Walz’s actions?
KE: Right, so the pandemic has been hotly politicized. And a lot of people who are, in fact, truly burdened and incredibly frustrated, have felt that these political manipulators are ready to listen. And some of these good, well-intentioned folks are looking for anyone to listen. And so this has created what some people view as a political opportunity and they're trying to maximize it — go figure.
There are people politicizing the pandemic and there's no denying that and it's sad. But, you know, for them, it's not about protecting the life or health of anyone. It's about acquisition of power. And they will manipulate anything — the election, COVID, whatever — to try to demagogue this moment, which is basically saying that, 'You are a target, you're oppressed, somebody is oppressing you. It's those people over there: immigrants, Muslims, Walz, Ellison. And come to me and I'll protect you. I'm the only one who can fix it.’
That's happened and it's been happening for four years. And the issue may change, but the basic manipulative campaign is the same.
FNS: What message do you have to the politicians who have been politicizing the government’s response and public health precautions?
KE: Well, I don't know if there's anything that can be said to them. Right? I mean, look, I've been in Congress with people like Steve King. You can't talk to these people. You cannot. I need to talk to the Americans of good faith and good intentions who aren't sure what to do.
FNS: The business closures have been hard on Minnesotans, though.
KE: They've been very hard. I admit that freely. I am very sorry for these folks who are going through this. But the state Legislature just passed a $216 million package to help small businesses and that's very important. The businesses are eligible. (My office is) trying to push out to the people what kind of criteria they need to fulfill. We're trying to let people know that we care about them. We think that their livelihood is important, no question. But it's simply not the case that the executive orders are the problem. Clearly, COVID is the problem. This is because of COVID.
And by the way, the two states with the highest per capita infection rates are North and South Dakota, the two states that have essentially done nothing to protect people, followed by Iowa. Wisconsin has got restrictions in many local communities. And we're trying to, we have been doing pretty well managing this, but when you're surrounded by people who won't take any action, it's going to affect you.
FNS: State Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said on the Senate floor earlier this month that the business owners who are reopening despite the COVID orders are doing so out of desperation and that they don’t have other choices. What’s your response?
KE: Here's what I know. Let's just go based on facts: There are 10,000 restaurants in Minnesota and about 1,500 bars. (My office has) had to make calls to about 900 of them to explain what the executive orders mean, and what their obligations are. Of those, we've only had to sue about seven or eight.
So is there a great burden on people? Yes. Is it imposed by the executive orders? Not really. It's imposed by trying to protect people from COVID. And yet, the people violate the laws simply and only because they're desperate? I have no doubt that they are desperate. I have no doubt that they're burdened. But how do the other 10,000-minus-seven businesses manage to obey the law?
Now, we passed a bill to help small businesses. Congress is coming closer. I hope they get something done. And the vaccines are on the way. Of course, it's still very difficult, no question it's difficult. But if you tell me that these folks are desperate, so desperate, that they only can break the law, I understand that. You know, I come from a community where people are limited by, are constrained by the choices available to them. I'm a Black man born in Detroit, raised, grew up, lived my whole adult life in North Minneapolis. I know about people feeling desperate and feeling they don't have any options. And yet, overwhelmingly people obey the law. Some don't. And it's hard. I understand why people will be frustrated. But I also think it's a fair question to say, 'Well, then how come everybody else manages to obey the law?'
Here's the other thing: Let's say, for a moment, Tim Walz and the executive council never passed one single restriction at all. Huge numbers of people are like, 'I'm not going to a restaurant.' There's a demand problem. They have a demand problem with people. I mean, their problem is not just the (executive order). I'll tell you this: My wife is like, 'We're not going to any restaurant, Keith!'
FNS: Segueing to George Floyd and the racial justice movement: First off, can you tell me your first reaction when you heard the news and when you saw the video of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May? What was going through your head?
KE: So, I was sitting in, I was in bed. It was morning when I saw the video. And I was still shocked even though I've seen, I've been watching this kind of thing, working on this thing, for literally three decades. I still found it absolutely horrifying and shocking. Like, 'Oh my God, look at this.'
FNS: It quite literally hit close to home, right, with it happening in Minneapolis?
KE: Yeah, it does. You're right about that. And I think it was shocking, even though we've seen it, even though there's things out there. People saw (...) Ahmaud Arbery. People saw a lot of cases. I mean, Philando Castile. It still shocked me.
You know, I had no idea what role that I would play or if I should play any. I didn’t know that. I knew that to watch somebody die in front of the camera that way, it was emotionally disturbing. There's no doubt.
FNS: It’s rare for a state attorney general to lead murder and manslaughter charges against police officers. Can you reflect on the historic nature of the case and your role, not only as attorney general prosecuting the case, but as Minnesota’s first Black attorney general serving in this moment?
KE: Well, all I'll say about it is this: It's an awesome responsibility. And I am every day humbled by the weight of the responsibility and we're just going to do the best we can. We're not going to worry about the political consequences. We're just going to do the best we can and to make sure that justice prevails. I don't know, that might be too vague. I guess my point is that I take it very seriously. But on the other hand, while I take it very seriously, I surprisingly don't feel any tremendous pressure. You know, people say, 'Oh, you must feel so much pressure.' Somehow I have not felt any pressure. What I've felt is tremendous responsibility to try to make sure that no matter what the outcome of this thing is, that people feel that it was handled properly. That is what I want to do. That's where I'm coming from on this. No prosecutor can guarantee an outcome. No defense attorney can guarantee an outcome.
But I will tell you that I do feel that this case is extremely important and that we're going to give it all we got. We have been; I don't think there's one single day that we haven't been working on this. So we'll see what happens.
FNS: Given your experience in Congress (Ellison represented Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House from 2007 to 2019), do you think lawmakers at the state and federal levels have done enough to address police brutality against Black people?
KE: So a year before George Floyd, me and (Minnesota Department of Public Safety) Commissioner (John) Harrington pulled together a working group on deadly force encounters with police where we assembled law enforcement and community to try to come up with some good rules about how we might create better relations between the police department and people. So, in many ways, we were ahead of our time.
But a year before, we had a statewide process where we tried to make some progress on this issue of police community relations, understanding that people do need law enforcement. Law enforcement does play a critical role in our society. But, you know, law enforcement is endowed with so much power that unless there's some accountability, sometimes it gets abused. Not all the time, not all the time. Most of the time, the police are doing a great job and I'm grateful to them for what they do. But I also know that anybody who has wide discretionary latitude sometimes can exceed the limits of what is right and proper and legal. And so we need those checks and balances.
FNS: In his eulogy for Floyd, the Rev. Al Sharpton said he had never seen as many white people marching in solidarity for racial justice as he did in the wake of Floyd’s death. Do you think there’s something different this year and that change is coming?
KE: Well, I do think things are going to change. But let me just tell you, if you go back to the 1960s, there are a lot of white people who literally died fighting for the civil rights of African Americans. I mean, Viola Liuzzo was shot and murdered in her car. (James) Reeb from Boston went down and ended up killed. So we've always had, the coalition for human rights has always been multicultural. The anti-slavery movement had a lot of white people in it.
So there's nothing new about white people saying, ‘You know what, my destiny is linked to every other person and I'm going to stand up.’ That's not a new thing. But what I will say is that the spirit on a broad basis, without regard to the issue of who's what color, there's a lot of people who stood up to say, ‘This is just not going to work anymore.’
It's an interesting question, but I will say to you, that I think that there is a change. I don't think the change is only because white people have become aware, because so many white people have stood up for the civil rights and human rights of all people for like, literally over centuries. But I do think something has changed. I think more people are willing to listen. When you get Mitt Romney walking in a Black Lives Matter protest march, that's important. That means something.
"President Trump — and I don't say this in a partisan way, I really don't — but President Trump has been traumatizing to the American people. The constant outrageousness, people are just tired and worn out with his madness, you know. And so that's sort of going on in all of this. So you put Trump, on top of COVID, on top of (George) Floyd, and it has been a remarkable year."
— Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison
FNS: More broadly, on politics at-large: Do you think we’re more divided than ever?
KE: Yes, I do, but I think that there's some very clear reasons why this is true.
I think that up until about 1975, the very well-to-do in our country and everybody else had a basic working agreement: we will work in your factories and your mines and on the farms, and you will pay us a decent wage, and there will be some mobility for us in the middle class to move up.
Somewhere around 1980, that agreement got broken and the very well-to-do said, ‘I'm going to shut down my factory, I'm going to move into the lowest wage sector I can find in this whole wide world. Then I'm going to, with the goods that they make, I'm going to sell it back to you. And the process of deindustrialization happened. We're going to use the extra money we get to put people in Congress who are going to give us tax cuts and stop all regulation. And whenever people don't like it, we're going to get them to turn on each other by manipulating issues, and we're going to do that by use of the media, Fox News and other measures.’
Between the Great Depression and 1980, there was a basic understanding that a poor man and woman's son or daughter could rise to the full measure of their talent with a little luck and hard work. Whereas now, if you are the child of people of moderate means, you can't get an education. College education makes you undergo massive debt. With a burden, with a debt so big that you might as well get a mortgage on a house. So then you can't get a mortgage on a house because you've got massive student loan debt. So what does that do to a 27-year-old?
So yeah, absolutely, we're more divided. But it's not because people don't want to get along. It's the age-old problem of people who want to hoard wealth and control everybody.
FNS: Minnesota, itself, has a stark divide in political ideologies and lifestyles between the seven-county metro and Greater Minnesota. The state also has some of the greatest disparities in health, education and wealth outcomes between white Minnesotans and Minnesotans of color. As attorney general, how are you making sure you’re serving everyone in the state?
KE: We always reach out. We don't do anything without reaching out to our rural neighbors. Right now, we're forming a task force on women's economic empowerment. I told my staff, not without rural people, not without racial diversity. We need both.
When it came to police stuff, we insisted that we have small town and rural representatives in law enforcement to be part of it. When we did our hate crimes tour, we did it all over the state. We're always very deliberately reaching out to the entire state of Minnesota. And making sure we have geographic diversity, racial diversity, gender inclusion. You know, but you've got to be intentional about it.
FNS: In the nearly two months following the general election, we’ve seen a flurry of lawsuits filed challenging the results of the presidential election across the country, including in Minnesota, as well as statements from people in positions of power sowing doubt in our elections processes without substantive evidence. What’s your take on these lawsuits and what do you have to say to those pushing this narrative?
KE: Well, I don't think that anyone really believes that Donald Trump won the election. I think what they're trying to do is, in the short term, they're trying to fundraise and again, cast themselves as victims. And in the longer term, they're trying to delegitimize American democracy. And so this is what the play is. They're saying, ‘We believe that, how do you control a society that’s based on democracy when you only want a certain amount of people to have any control or authority?’ Well, you’ve got to divide. You’ve got to distract. You’ve got to make people lose confidence in democracy. And this is a problem happening all over the world.
So, I think with the elections, they’ve lost (the lawsuits) every time. We’ve (Minnesota) won every election fight we’ve been in. I don’t really believe that the other side believes that there’s a case here. I think that they’re just trying to show, they’re trying to make their base believe that they’re victims and that democracy doesn’t really work. It’s manipulative, it’s deceitful and it’s immoral.
Contact Sarah Mearhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-790-4992.