Understanding Keith Ellison

Keith Ellison is Minnesota’s Fifth District Congressman and the Democratic Party’s deputy chairman. We’ve followed his rise since he won the DFL nomination to run for the Fifth District seat in 2006 in “Louis Farrakhan’s first congressman” (October 9, 2006), in the companion Power Line post “Keith Ellison for dummies,” and in “The Ellison elision” (February 3, 2014).

Most recently, I revisited this history in the context of Ellison’s national ambitions in “The trouble with Keith Ellison” (November 21, 2016) and in the Power Line post “Keith Ellison’s back pages” (February 8,2017). The 2017 Power Line post includes a video of Ellison as a third-year University of Minnesota Law School student appearing in February 1990 under his Nation of Islam pseudonym Keith Hakim. (His first Nation of Islam pseudonym, I should say.)

Ellison welcomed Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) to speak in the law school’s Room 25 on the topic “Zionism: Racism, Imperialism or Both?” Ellison’s introduction of Ture is clipped, but we are able to see him recalling the time he welcomed “Minister Farrakhan” to the University of Minnesota. Ellison was already deep into his Nation of Islam phase.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Ellison is back in the news this week with his photographic endorsement of the fascist Antifa movement. John wrote about it here.

I would like only to add a little more context to Ellison’s enthusiasm for Antifa with another look back at his career and associations as he climbed the greasy pole in the Twin Cities. In February 2000 Ellison spoke to a local National Lawyers Guild group raising money for former Symbionese Liberation Army member Kathleen Soliah/Sara Jane Olson. The National Lawyers Guild is of course the old Communist front group, though it has survived the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, I spoke in defense of the PATRIOT Act on a panel at its October 2003 national convention in Minneapolis.

At the time of the fundraiser, Soliah/Olson had been a fugitive from justice for 25 years, avoiding prosecution on charges related to the attempted pipe bombing of Los Angeles police officers in 1975. Soliah/Olson had been apprehended on the Los Angeles charges at her home in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul in 1999.

In October 2001, Soliah/Olson pleaded guilty to two counts of possessing explosives with intent to commit murder in the long-pending Los Angeles case. In January 2002 Soliah/Olson and four other SLA members were charged with the murder of Myrna Opsahl in Sacaramento in the Crocker National Bank case. Soliah/Olson’s participation in the SLA’s Crocker National Bank robbery/murder had long been a matter of public record. Soliah/Olson pleaded guilty to the murder charge in November 2002.

Following her apprehension, support for Soliah/Olson became a cause of the hardcore radical left. Ellison’s support for Soliah/Olson was notable, as was his demagogic denunciation of law enforcement authorities seeking justice for vicious crimes. Yet Minnesota media have remained singularly uninterested in serious exploration of Ellison’s indefensible public associations and statements.

In 2006 Greg Lang dug up Ellison’s National Lawyers Guild speech and posted on his site devoted to all matters SLA. Greg emailed us the text of Ellison’s speech at the time he posted it on his now dead site. I posted it on Power Line for archival purposes as part 8 of my seemingly endless 2006 series “Who is Keith Ellison?”

The full text of Ellison’s National Lawyers Guild speech shows that Ellison’s support of Soliah/Olson isn’t even half the story. Here it is, as edited under Ellison’s supervision:

Good evening, thanks for inviting me. Let me say that I think there’s an idea that young people are not attuned to the 60’s. And, that the 60’s and 70’s are ancient history. That they’ve passed and they’re gone. I want to submit to you that I can’t accept that as reality. I want to submit to you that the 90’s and 80’s are nothing but part 2 of the 60’s and the 70’s. And, I suggest that to you because of the few things that we can observe.

Don’t you remember Quibilah [sic] Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, was prosecuted in retribution against Minister Farrakhan – this game that was played out? Jijaga Pratt recently released. Ruben Carter recently released. Mumia Abu Jamal. For the people who want to incarcerate Sara Jane Olson, ain’t nothing changed.

As a matter of fact, they want to settle scores with Sara Jane Olson and others who were fighting for freedom in the 60’s and 70’s. What I’m saying to you is that, really, the 60’s and the 70’s were only a blip in the data in the minds of the people who govern this society that we live in. To the powerful,they were an aberration. They were a time when people came together: people coming out of World War II; black people needing to have some rights in the country after having 400 years of oppression, slavery, and segregation; white people coming to a realization that it’s better to be a part of humanity than over humanity.

This was a confluence of a time when people came together and DID beat back the things that America was always based on. In the minds of the people who want to prosecute Sara Jane Olson, these people feel that the gains that we made have got to be beat back, and the very idea of, say for instance, black people having civil rights, has got to be obliterated with (obviously) the criminal justice system and incarceration. Think about what it means to a whole population when a significant number – 1/3 of all the men-are going to one time be incarcerated – what impact does it have on the 2/3’s that aren’t? [reference to Bernardine Dohrn’s citation that 1 in 3 black males born today will spend at least some portion of their life in prison.]

It’s like an anchor on a very small boat. You understand what I’m saying? The idea that the people who want to prosecute Sara Jane Olson have, well,they have a “June Cleaver” concept of what women are supposed to be about. They have a “June Cleaver” idea that Sara Jane Olson, women in general, were supposed to be in the kitchen cooking -SOMETHING. Right? And are NOT supposed to be engaged in political protest, laying out political thought, and certainly not breaking out of some concrete stereotype or image that they had. In the 60’s, when we fought for public housing: housing for people to live in, not shanty shacks or sugar ditches, and ghettos in Detroit, Chicago, so on.

When we fought for public housing and extended housing for poor people, this is offensive to the type, to the mentality that would prosecute Sara Jane Olson, which is why, when the 14 pastors over there in North Minneapolis stood in front of the bulldozers, they had to be prosecuted. You understand what I’m saying?

So what I’m submitting to you is that this is just a later chapter. We should not let them put the 60’s in some sort of historical time warp. And that it’s clear that whatever we may make of the 60’s and 70’s, that the people who want to prosecute Sara Jane Olson have not forgot about anything. Bernardine made the point better than anyone so far. This is not about justice. This is not about accountability, this is not about public safety. THIS is about SYMBOLISM. This is about MAKING A POINT. This is about saying to you and to me that we are going to get you if you ever try to stand against what we’re about. WE’RE GOING TO GET YOU. And we’re going to lock you up and we don’t care how long it takes, we’re going to get you. There might be people who get book deals, or there might be private revenge, there might be all these things, but no prosecution like this would really float unless it had a very important, symbolic meaning that tied it together for the people involved in it. And it is the idea that the people who fought for social justice and to elevate humanity in the 60’s and 70’s were WRONG! They were wrong and we’re going to prove it because we’re going TO LOCK HER UP. That’s what it’s about.

You know, I was asked to speak about white crime hysteria and black gangs. I’m a trial lawyer. I tried five cases since October, and I can tell you this, there are some startling similarities between my client and Sara Jane Olson. Let’s start with being a member of a stigmatized and vilified group, so stigmatized, so vilified, that if you even mention their name in association with this particular defendant, then conviction is all but guaranteed. This person is a Blood, they’re a Vice Lord, they’re a Gangster Disciple, they are a 4-corner hustler, whatever, and unless you’re willing to dig in there and seriously get down there with this case you might as well start talking about, “Well, the sentencing guidelines say that if you plead guilty to this…[Laughter]….you know…we might be able to shave off a few months here or there.” Do you understand what I’m saying?

My point is that I remember the SLA. [I was 12-years-old when it hit the news in 1974]. I remember the name, I remember the made-for-TV movie with Patty Hearst who was “taken away by the SLA” and by this black guy named Cinque, who strutted around and was real scary. And clearly these people were “bad to the bone.” And as I began to read about the SLA, they were talking about rights for poor people… I mean I’m not trying to say the SLA is – I don’t even know enough about the SLA to tell you about the SLA, but I can tell you what they stated what they were in FAVOR OF: it had to do with fighting poverty and fighting racism and stuff like that. I’m not even here to tell you how they did it because I don’t know. But I can tell you what they (the government) claim they have stood for, has not even met the light of day in this whole conversation. What are they FOR? What are they about? It’s the same way with MY clients, the groups they’re involved in. Nobody ever knows what it means to BE a Blood, because they’ve already said this is “just evil.” That’s ALL you need to know. “They’re bad.” And same with the SLA. The SLA has been completely vilified and we know nothing about it. Absolutely NOTHING. They don’t tell us ANYTHING about these organizations; just the label is good enough.

The expense my clients go through, now you would think if you watch television (which is the worst place to get information about anything) you would really be under the impression that all black gang members have a “big gangster knot of cash” in their pockets derived from massive sales of drugs. The last two years that I have been in private practice, I can tell you that I am living proof that they ain’t got any money! These folks scrimp and save, and you know who shows up at their trial? Their mama.

Who said mama? You are dead on. Mama. Maybe baby’s mama. But never the crew. They’re not there. My clients have their parents borrow money, scrimp, save, do exactly what you’re doing – have fund raisers, maybe sell plates of BBQ chicken so Junior can get an attorney. And like many of my clients, Sara Jane Olson has a public defender. Do you understand what I’m saying? Because she cannot afford to pay for her defense all by herself. Do you understand what I’m saying? I mean the reality is, Sara Jane Olson, basically – is a black gang member – as far as I can see. [much applause]

On my way over here, those of you from the Twin Cities know that certain parts of town mean this, and certain parts of town mean that. Well, I’m from North Minneapolis and you’re you all know what that’s supposed to mean if you’re from Minneapolis, and I had a hard time finding my way over here because I don’t get over here that much, but you know, what I found as I got over here…that the barriers that we build between each other are really barriers of the mind and ones we create, because in a lot of the cases that I’ve represented people in, I’ve seen people like Marv Davidov [long-time local activist] there, and the defense committee for the person, and other folks in this room and I think, just like the people who want to come together and lock up Sara, WE need to come together and free Sara. And all the Sara’s because she’s not the only one. I am praying that Castro does not get to the point where he has to really barter with these guys over here because they’re going to get Assata Shakur, they’re going to get a whole lot of other people, they just want to get them so badly. They just want to throw them away. And so, I hope the Cuban people can stick to it because the freedom of some good decent people depends on it.

We do live in a society of cynical “personal responsibility-type” lingo. You’ve heard people say “personal responsibility.” That’s what everyone is into. They don’t mean them. They mean YOU. They mean OTHER PEOPLE need to take responsibility. Do you understand what I mean? They mean other people. And it might be because they’re overworked and underpaid – there?s probably good reasons for it…Part of this idea is that people are actually upset with women because they are out in the work force. And people don’t know that most men and women would like to be home with their families and are forced out there because of the corporate culture that we live in, because it takes two to earn a wage for a family these days.

We live in a society of blame, we live in a society where most people want to point their finger at you or at me, or make me or you are personally responsible, [when] really [they] need to point to the government and the corporate culture we live in and make them responsible.

So I’m going to sit down now, but I’m going to ask you to understand and remember that the fight that we’re engaged in to support Sara Jane Olson is a worthy one, that’s it’s worth your time and it’s worth your money and that, while TV and the popular media is pushing the aesthetics of the 1960?s and 70’s, that “70’s SHOW,” you know, haven’t you seen the imagery all over? They don’t want to push the POLITICS.

We need to pull the politics into the equation, because I’m telling you, believe me when I tell you, one reason they’re incarcerating all these young black men, because they know it was all these young black men who sat down. Right? In the 60’s, you know? It was young black men and women who freed Nelson Mandela in South Africa. They know that it was young black men with young white men, Native American; all of us who created the movement that literally changed the entire society that we live in. And it’s going to take us all to create a culture of freedom. And so, I just want to welcome you for your contribution to the struggle and thank those of you who have been maintaining the struggle over the years, and say, “Hey, free Sara!”

There is much that could be said about Ellison’s speech. For the moment I want to confine myself to two notes.

First, in his memoir, Ellison recounts his conversion to Islam as a 19-year-old undergraduate at Detroit’s Wayne State University. By the time Ellison graduated from law school at the University of Minnesota, however, he spoke from inside the Nation of Islam.

When Ellison first ran for public office in Minneapolis in 1998, he was a self-identified member of the Nation of Islam going under the name Keith Ellison-Muhammad. Ellison was still talking up “Minister Farrakhan” at the National Lawyers Guild fundraiser for Soliah/Olson in 2000.

By 2002, however, when Ellison was first elected to the Minnesota legislature, and 2006, when he sought the DFL endorsement to succeed Minnesota Fifth District Rep. Matin Sabo in Congress, Ellison had abandoned the Nation of Islam and returned to the fold of Islam. So far as I know, Ellison is the only convert to Islam for whom Islam has served as a way station to the Nation of Islam.

How did that work? We still don’t know. In any event, however, Ellison’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Ellison’s commitment to the hate cult of “Minister Farrakhan” was a long-time affair of the heart.

Second, Ellison talked up a couple of cop killers in this speech. Rumor has it that Ellison is exploring a run for Minnesota Attorney General this year. If there is anyone who can break the DFL’s death grip on the office, it might — I say might — be Ellison.

Joanne Chesimard/Assata Shakur is one of the cop killers on Ellison’s mind in this speech. Lest we forget, Chesimard was a member and leader of the cop-killing Black Liberation Army. In 1973 she participated in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike in which Trooper Werner Foerster was murdered and Trooper James Harper seriously injured. In 1977, she was convicted of the first-degree murder of Foerster and of seven other felonies related to the shootout.

Chesimard escaped from prison in New Jersey and has been on the lam since 1979. She is believed to be holed up in Havana, in the sheltering arms of the Communists who run the asylum. Bryan Burrough reconstructed the shootout and escape in his invaluable Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence (2015).

The FBI has now named Chesimard a Most Wanted Terrorist. That’s quite an accomplishment. She is the first woman to be named to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. The FBI is offering a reward of up to $1,000,000 for information directly leading to her apprehension.

The association of this speech with the National Lawyers Guild along with its expression of support for Olson/Soliah and Joanne Chesimard, for the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Black Liberation Army, as well as the respect for “Minister Farrakhan” and the prayer for Castro, give us, more or less, the whole package on Keith Ellison.