When St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter was growing up, he thought being a police officer was like being a superhero.
It may have been an unlikely point of view for a black boy growing up in a big city, but Carter had a good reason – his father was one of St. Paul’s first African Americans on the police force.
“He became a police officer in the early ’70s after a lawsuit required the desegregation of the St. Paul police department. And so he was a part of a class of African American officers who came in and they have stories that weren’t always complimentary,” Carter recalled.
At first, Carter said, some of his father’s white colleagues on the force bluntly told him they would not back him up, “no matter what happened,” because he was black.
Some four decades later, Carter broke his own racial barrier, becoming St. Paul’s first African American mayor in 2018 – a distinction that now comes with an even greater and more complex responsibility as the Twin Cities are erupting in pain and anger in the wake of George Floyd’s death after a white police officer pressed his knee on his neck. Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer, is charged with second-degree murder, and three other officers on the scene are charged with aiding and abetting.
“Our challenge to folks is to be peaceful, but never be patient. We’re not asking people to sit aside and wait while we slowly and incrementally stem the tide of unarmed black men and women killed by law enforcement. Let’s fight for change right now, for big and structural change right now,” Carter told CNN in a virtual interview from City Hall.
Perspective as a black man racially profiled countless times
The 38-year-old black mayor’s life experience with law enforcement is hardly limited to one as the son of a police officer. He said he was pulled over and stopped by police countless times, just because of the color of his skin.
“I had a broken tail light and I had put the little red tape on top of it. And the officer pulled me over and explained to me that right in the corner of the red tape you could see a little speck of white and that was why he pulled me over,” Carter recalled.
“Even as a city council member there were times when I would get pulled over. And people would say like, ‘Why didn’t you tell them who you were?’ And my response is, if I have to be a city council member, if I have to be a mayor, if I have to be the son of a police officer to just be treated with basic human dignity and to not be stopped when I’m obeying all laws, maybe that’s the problem in the first place,” he added.
“You start to feel like this isn’t random. This is something very specific to who I am and what I look like. It can very easily create a wide gap between me as a resident, as a young black man growing up in this community and the officers who I rely on to help keep me safe.”
When his home was burglarized a few years ago, his first call was to the police.
“I came home and found out that some stranger had been in my bedroom. That some stranger had been in my home, some stranger had gone through my things and taken very personal items from my home. And in that moment we called the police and that’s the paradox is that we need those officers, we need them as much as anybody does. We need officers who recognize our humanity, who understand our communities, who will show up and help. And the paradox is that in as much as I need a good police officer, a good police department that I can trust,” Carter said.
His own family’s pain in St. Paul runs deep
Carter, who won his mayoral race in a crowded 2017 field, is a proud fourth-generation resident of St. Paul, but his family has endured a lot of pain there because of the color of their skin.
“When I say that I love this city. It’s not like a newlywed sort of love where I have starry eyes and think everything is perfect. It’s more of that I know what your morning breath smells like kind of love that can be built over time,” Carter said.
His grandparents owned more than half a dozen commercial properties in what was known as the Rondo neighborhood, which was completely uprooted to make room for the freeway there.
“Our community members were given pennies on the dollar for their properties, they were kicked out of those properties, those properties were bulldozed,” Carter explained.
African Americans in St. Paul were hardly the only community this happened to – freeways were built over black neighborhoods in cities across the country, from Detroit to Oakland.
“In our family’s story, the house was burned down as a training exercise by the fire department,” Carter said.
“When we see people like George Floyd, who lose their life in the gruesome, hauntingly casual manner that we saw in that video, when my father can remember their family being moved off of old Rondo and can remember the fire department burning down his mother’s home as a training exercise. When we have this incredible wealth as a nation that is undeniably centered and rooted in that evil historic institution of slavery, that was my ancestors’ work, but we have very limited access to those same riches that that institution created,” he added.
His 12-year-old daughter’s heartbreaking remark
Carter said he struggles with what to say to his six children. But his 12-year-old daughter came to him with her own sober perspective of what happened to Floyd.
“She said that she didn’t think anybody should be surprised by what’s happened over the past week,” Carter emotionally recalled, admitting that it broke his heart.
“It does. How could it not? And I asked her, ‘Why would you say that?’ And she said, ‘Because if we see ourselves being killed over and over and over again in these videos and it seems each one gets worse,’ she said, ‘people have to do something.’”
He said he took the opportunity to say to his daughter what he is trying to say to all the city residents he was elected to serve.
“We just had a conversation about this concept that we’ve been sharing with folks; peace but never patience. To say, ‘Yeah, you’re right, we have to do something’ and it’s really understandable that people are as angry as they are, that people are as traumatized as they are and that people are as impatient as they are with these systems,” Carter said.
Carter explained the importance of channeling frustration and anger into stemming systemic racism, inequality and racial disparities that exist.
“And we had a conversation about the fact that we have the opportunity to channel this energy, this frustration, this rage into destroying not our neighborhood institutions, but into destroying systemic racism, all the inequities and disparities that we talk about ad nauseum. And certainly all of the barriers that are written into our laws, into our court precedents, and certainly into police union contracts that make it so difficult to hold someone accountable when a black life is wrongfully taken.” he said.
‘We literally all are George’
Carter’s grandfather – the first Melvin Carter – was a Navy veteran who spent much of his life as a porter on the railroad. But people didn’t call him Melvin or Mr. Carter, they called him George. That’s what all black men were called.
“As a Pullman porter, it didn’t really matter what your name was or how much experience you had or what your rank was. Everyone was named George,” Carter said.
There was a 2002 movie, “10,000 Black Men Named George,” that chronicled this degrading phenomenon.
He said in many ways little has changed for black men.
“I was reflecting today on the fact that the killing, the murder of George Floyd, I think it’s so painful for us and so personal because for every black man in America, whether you’re a lawyer or an architect or an accountant or a mayor, we know that there’s no amount of credentials. There’s no amount of accomplishments. There’s no amount of money that can change the fact that we literally all are George,” Carter said.