A seemingly innocuous photo of the mayor of Minneapolis and a community volunteer has sparked nationwide conversations about racism, the criminal justice system, and responsible journalism. The controversy has a name, as all controversies do in this digital age: #Pointergate. And it's been called the "most racist news story of 2014." Here is a brief guide to the scandal.
What is #Pointergate?
#Pointergate refers to a controversy that started with a picture of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and a man named Navell Gordon, a volunteer from the nonprofit Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.
The two posed for many pictures, but this one (there are a few like it that were snapped) of Hodges pointing at Gordon is the one that's relevant to #Pointergate:
KSTP-TV, an ABC news affiliate, ran a story last Thursday claiming that the mayor was flashing a "gang sign" with a convicted felon:
"She is legitimizing these people. She is legitimizing gangs who are killing our children in Minneapolis, and I just can't believe it. It hurts," a retired police officer named Michael Quinn told KSTP. "She can't be that naive. I cannot imagine."
Wait. How did we get from a photo op with a community volunteer to gang violence and child murders?
Let's take this one step at a time. Video from the day of the "gang sign" photo shoot shows just how awkward the whole thing was, with Hodges trying poses that ranged from a thumbs up to a finger point.
Hodges's office has said that she was merely pointing, which is what the above clip suggests. Pointing is a thing that Hodges does in photos, as evidenced by this photo taken last week before the #pointergate news story broke…
Mayor Hodges like to point:
There's also a long, and troubling history of erroneous news reports of black men and women doing things with their hands that are construed as "gang signs" or something even more nefarious:
- August 20, 2014: During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, state highway patrol captain Ron Johnson was, according to a CNN iReport, flashing gang signs. In actuality, he was using the greeting of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.
- August 2014: While the nation watched the protests in Ferguson, reports on conservative sites insinuated without evidence that Michael Brown was a Blood. The Daily Beast reported that Brown had no criminal record, and that the "evidence" consisted of Brown doing things with his hands, like flipping the bird. Daily Kos reported that one of the pictures has Brown flashing a peace sign.
- April 2014: Weasel Zippers, a conservative site, reports that Malia Obama is flashing gang signs with her sister.
- February 2013: Beyoncé flashes a symbol to represent her hometown of Houston, and MTV called it a gang sign.
- March 2012: Leading up to George Zimmerman's murder trial, conservative sites began circulating a picture of a black teen flipping the bird with two hands, and said it was the deceased Trayvon Martin flashing gang signs. The picture turned out not to be Martin at all (and the middle finger isn't usually considered a gang sign when a white person does it).
- June 2008: A Fox News anchor speculates that Barack Obama's fist bump could be a "terrorist fist jab."
With all of these facts in mind, why, then, did the journalists at KSTP decide to run with the "gang sign" story? Why didn't someone stop and ask whether or not this story had any bones of truth? And why was no one interviewed to give an alternative perspective?
Why would the police feed KSTP a false story?
Hodges has been a vocal critic of Minneapolis Police. In October, she spoke out about how important it was that her administration restore trust and faith in the department.
"Some officers abuse the trust that is afforded to them and take advantage of their roles to do harm rather than prevent it," Hodges wrote to Minneapolis residents. That letter was released on the same day that the US Justice Department released results of a yearlong police review that the Minneapolis Police Department needed to weed out bad police officers, the Star Tribune reported.
Some have argued that Hodges's on-the-record position of the department is the reason why she's been targeted. Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School, explained this theory in the Star Tribune last week:
I posit, another reason the Mayor was targeted in the story is the fact that she has demonstrated courage by speaking publicly about much-needed reforms within the Minneapolis Police Department, including the body-cam pilot project that is being rolled out today. Resistance to change comes in many forms, and sadly this is one of the worst examples of such resistance. The young man in the photo was merely a convenient scapegoat for a larger agenda.
Is Gordon a murderer?
That's what you might think if you tuned in on television and listened to retired officer Michael Quinn's on-air comments: "She is legitimizing gangs who are killing our children in Minneapolis, and I just can't believe it," he said.
But the answer is no.
Gordon, according to KSTP, is on probation for drug selling, possession, and illegal possession of a firearm. He is serving probation on a non-violent felony, not killing "children in Minneapolis." And he hasn't violated the terms of his probation.
Instead of focusing on Gordon's community work and his attempt to reintegrate back into society or acknowledging how he's trying to learn from his mistakes from his past, KSTP branded him as a convicted felon.
"I made some mistakes in life," Gordon said in a Neighborhoods Organizing for Change video posted on the same day as KSTP's report. "I'm not ashamed to say that. But I'm working on fixing that right now, so I can be able to vote for my next president."
Neighborhoods Organizing for Change sent out a release on Monday, explaining KSTP's unfair depiction of Gordon.
"Navell has been working as an organizer with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change for two years. This year, he was a leader in our civic engagement work, part of a team that knocked on over 55,000 doors," the organization wrote, explaining Gordon's achievements.
"In a year where voter turnout was down 5.5 percent across Minnesota, in our neighborhood in north Minneapolis, the number of voters increased by 13 percent — and Navell played a key role in that," NOC added.
NOC also explained how Gordon has been racially profiled in the past. And how he has been a victim of a police force that seems to target black people:
Navell is also a 22-year-old black man who has been consistently targeted for racial profiling … this summer, police accosted Navell and handcuffed him right outside the office, ostensibly for spitting on the sidewalk. When NOC board members came out of the office to film the incident, the police let him go…
In the face of some tense moments, our canvass team invited Mayor Hodges and Police Chief Harteau to join our doorknock efforts in solidarity. The photo was snapped while Mayor Hodges and Navell were doing voter outreach work together.
Is #Pointergate racist?
Making that intellectual jump from harmless pointing to gang sign relies a lot on stereotypes of black people and violence. But there are other elements of this story that are troubling, too.
The main target of #Pointergate seems to be Mayor Hodges, not Gordon. But the "gang sign" smear is directly connected to her association with Gordon. The story, and the cops quoted, reduce his entire life to his transgression, leaving out vital parts of his rehabilitation and his history.
"The constant portrayal of young black men as gangsters, thugs, and criminals can be seen nearly every night on the news or in newspapers in Minnesota and around the country," Levy-Pounds wrote in her column. "The daily replaying of the narrative of blackness as evil, dangerous, and in the case of Mayor Hodges, contagious, has a cumulative effect on the American psyche and permanently warps our perceptions of the 'other.'"
And it makes you wonder how police officers — retired and current — in the city view criminals, specifically non-white criminals. Based on the comments made to KSTP, it seems that the officers don't believe in rehabilitation or that Gordon is capable of turning his life around. Mike Spangenburg, a Minnapolis writer who authors the Question the Premise blog, explained why this is disconcerting, not just for Gordon, but for any black person in the city:
All Jay Kolls, Michael Quinn, and John Delmonico think you need to know about Navell Gordon is that he's a "convicted felon" with a black face. To them, that's all he is. And to them, he's scary and inherently suspect. So posing with him is poor judgment
This is what's so terrifying. All three of those men, two of whom are or were Minneapolis cops, seem to take it as a given that we should see Navell Gordon as a bad guy. And this is the mentality they operate under when policing our city.
Is #Pointergate part of a bigger, national problem?
As Levy-Pounds explained, there's a problem in the way the media portrays black men in this country. In the past couple of years, we've seen the stories about the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Dunn, and Michael Brown — and a common thread in those stories is the color of their skin, and the assumption that they were criminals.
There's also the fact that our criminal justice system is plagued by racism:
What's being done now?
In the wake of #Pointergate, people have spoken out on Twitter and have highlighted the flaws in KSTP's report by posting pictures of themselves pointing.
There's also an online petition from NOC for an apology from KSTP. And Gordon recently appeared on MSNBC to speak with Melissa Harris-Perry about the incident:
"I was pointing at the mayor," Gordon told Harris-Perry. "It was a blessing to meet the mayor.… I wanted everyone to see the progress I'm making out here," he added, explaining his participation in the organization and why he posed with Mayor Hodges.
KSTP and Jay Kolls, the reporter who filed the story, have neither apologized nor admitted any wrongdoing.
What has Mayor Hodges said?
On Thursday, Mayor Hodges took to her website and directly addressed the controversy — which has gone national — for the first time.
"Frankly, if I did know that someone had a criminal past, it wouldn't prevent me from talking with that person," Mayor Hodges wrote. "It certainly wouldn't prevent me from working on a Get Out The Vote drive with that person. That's the kind of mayor Minneapolis chose."
She explained that she feels as though she has been targeted because she has been a vocal critic of the police department. Hodges goes on to say that this incident isn't going to stop her work in holding the department accountable.
"If that is the case, he [the head of the police union] has failed," she wrote. "I am undaunted in my desire to support and develop police officers who serve respectfully and collaboratively every day to keep people safe and make all our neighborhoods stronger. I am undaunted in my plans to increase accountability for consistent bad actors in the police department."
Hodges closes the statement by writing that she will continue to hold police officers who have a "standing habit of mistreatment and poor judgment when relating to the public, particularly people of color," and that she fully expects more stories like #Pointergate to be fed to the media. Hodges swears that this won't deter her:
My commitment to this work means that the head of the police union or other detractors will pitch more stories that attempt to defame that work and its leaders to various media outlets. So be it. I know the charge that I have been given by the people of Minneapolis and by my own conscience. I will continue to follow that charge.
Update: I added Hodges's statement on her website to this explainer.