I’m still working my way through Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s just-published memoir Break the Wheel: Ending the Cycle of Police Violence. I hope to write a formal book review that administers justice to the book. In the meantime, I want to post a series of notes on the book.
This is Ellison’s second memoir and it shares certain traits in common with the first, My Country, Tis of Thee: My Faith, My Family, Our Future. Though the themes differ, they are both campaign manifestos staking Ellison’s claim to an office higher than the one he currently holds. In 2014, when his first memoir was published, he represented Minnesota’s Fifth District in Congress. He is now Minnesota Attorney General with an eye on the office of Minnesota governor and beyond.
Like Ellison himself, both books reek of concealment and dishonesty. He is abetted by the willful ignorance and blind support of the mainstream media. I documented both of these components of his career in “Keith Ellison for dummies.”
Someone should be paying attention. In this case, I am afraid, c’est moi. I have been beating my head against the wall since June 2006.
Break the Wheel opens with Ellison waking up on May 26, 2020 to the world-famous video of George Floyd dying under the weight of Derek Chauvin et al. the day before. Ellison recounts his perception that he “was watching a murder” and comments: “There was a time when I would have jumped out of bed and run out into the streets with my neighbors to protest the injustice and yell ‘No justice, no peace!” Ellison leaves this allusion to his past at that, but it warrants some explanation.
The death of George Floyd and its aftermath represent the lowest days in the history of Minneapolis. Before that came the murder of Minneapolis police officer Jerry Haaf. In September 1992 Officer Haaf was murdered execution-style, shot in the back as he took a coffee break at a restaurant in south Minneapolis. Police later determined that Haaf’s murder was a gang hit performed by four members of the city’s Vice Lords gang. The leader of the Vice Lords was Sharif Willis, a convicted murderer who had been released from prison and who sought respectability as a responsible gang leader from gullible municipal authorities while operating a gang front called United for Peace.
The four Vice Lords members who murdered Haaf met and planned the murder at Willis’s house. Despite the fact that two witnesses implicated Willis in the planning he was never charged because law enforcement authorities said they lacked sufficient evidence to convict him.
At the time, Ellison was a Minneapolis attorney in private practice. Within a month of Haaf’s murder, Ellison appeared with Willis supporting the United for Peace gang front. In October 1992, Ellison helped organize a demonstration against Minneapolis police that included United for Peace. “The main point of our rally is to support United for Peace [in its fight against] the campaign of slander the police federation has been waging,” said Ellison.
Willis was the last speaker at the demonstration. According to a contemporaneous report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Willis told the crowd that Minneapolis police were experiencing the same fear from young black men that blacks had felt from police for many years. “If the police have some fear, I understand that fear,” Willis said. “We seem to have an overabundance of bad police. . . . [W]e’re going to get rid of them,” Willis said. “They’ve got to go.” The Pioneer Press account concludes with Ellison’s contribution to the demonstration: “Ellison told the crowd that the police union is systematically frightening whites in order to get more police officers hired. That way, Ellison said, the union can increase its power base.”
Ellison publicly supported the Haaf murder defendants. In February 1993, he spoke at a demonstration for one of them during his trial. Ellison led the crowd assembled at the courthouse in a chant that was ominous in the context of Haaf’s cold-blooded murder: “We don’t get no justice, you don’t get no peace.” Ellison’s working relationship with Sharif Willis finally came to an end in February 1995, when Willis was convicted in federal court on several counts of drug and gun-related crimes and sent back to prison for 20 years.
This is the case behind Ellison’s vague allusion to his days as a lowlife agitator against law enforcement in Break the Wheel. It supplies the context necessary to understand Ellison’s vague allusion to his past as well as the anti-police theme of his new memoir.