South Bend vs. Minneapolis — How leadership made the difference for a community in crisis

CC Image by Ken Lund on Flickr

I’ve seen lots of people weigh in on the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, from excessive use of force by a white police officer (who had a previous history of brutality and violence) and the unrest that has followed in Minneapolis. For me (and I am sure others), it makes me think of Michael Brown and Ferguson in 2014. But it also brings up the contrast with what happened in South Bend, Indiana in June 2019 after a similar incident, or more importantly what didn’t happen.

Pete Buttigieg, then mayor of South Bend in his third and final term, was also in the middle of his upstart presidential campaign for the Democratic nomination when Eric Logan, a 53-year old black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Sergeant Ryan O’Neil, on June 16 after he stated that Logan had approached him with a knife, refusing to drop it. O’Neil had been investigating reports of a man breaking into vehicles. To make matters worse, O’Neil did not have his body camera on so there was no corroborating evidence to back his report. Buttigieg raced home upon learning the news and spent several days off the trail in South Bend, making it well known to the media and to his community, that he was determined to see a thorough and also independent investigation. However, family members and the community were still understandably angry and grieving and were not satisfied with the mayor’s response, with a family spokesperson stating they wanted “marches and riots.” Given Buttigieg’s newfound fame, the national spotlight was instantly shining on South Bend while reporters waited for the inevitable unrest that would follow as tensions grew.

It seemed those tensions would come to a boiling point at the same time as a key weekend campaign event, Representative James Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry,” was being held in South Carolina which Buttigieg had intended on attending as he had returned to the trail. A march though, was planned by residents and Black Lives Matter members for that same Friday, June 21st. The march would start at the South Bend Police Department building and end at the County-City Building where Buttigieg’s office was located. Upon learning this news, Buttigieg once again left the trail in South Carolina, skipping the Fish Fry to the detriment of his campaign, and returned to South Bend to not only be present for the march but to actually participate in it that same evening.

Looking at this gallery of pictures from the march taken by the South Bend Tribune, and looking at images from Ferguson and Minneapolis, there are several striking differences with the interactions with the protestors.

The biggest contrast? Even though the initial confrontation of the protesters occurred in front of the South Bend Police Department, the only visible police presence is that of the Chief of Police, Scott Ruszkowski.

There is no “blue line” of officers or National Guard in riot gear with tear gas and clubs at the ready, nor armored personnel carriers like we have seen in the past and now present.

Instead, there is the mayor of his city, surrounded by the crowd, with his customary white shirt and blue tie sans jacket, ready and willing to listen to the concerns, and the anger and grief of his community.

Leadership.

Buttigieg had his faults and failures, including the mishandled demotion of the city’s first African American police chief, Darryl Boykins at the beginning of his tenure as mayor and the loss of diversity on the police force afterwards, and the city had a lot of work to do to try to heal. He was there to own up to his and the city’s record and be the focal point that South Bend needed, no matter the personal nor political cost.

This is what so many got wrong about this day. Most media focused on one exchange with a woman where she stated that the mayor wasn’t going to get her vote and he uncharacteristically told her that he wasn’t “asking for her vote” without offering the context that he was there as her mayor and not as a presidential candidate. However, the fact that he was there at all was something that we have not seen in Ferguson nor Minneapolis and so many other places, as instead the police, armed with riot gear and tear gas, have been sent in as the front line.

After the protesters handed Buttigieg their list of demands, he read through them one by one via a megaphone, and offered his thoughts on each. At one point he even explained how they needed to amend language on a petition to make it valid, and that he would actually sign it to demand an independent investigation by the Department of Justice, something Buttigieg himself had supported.

Once finished the list of demands, and hearing remarks from the Chief as well as the brother of Logan, Tyree Bonds, speaking in personal support of the Chief, Buttigieg joined the crowd as they marched to the County-City Building, at one point, even marching along side and talking with Bonds.

At the end of the march, Buttigieg once again addressed the marchers, promising that a town hall would be held to hear the community’s response on how to move forward. He was giving them a venue to be heard instead of the demonstrators having to create one for themselves.

Two days later, in a packed high school auditorium, once again all eyes were on South Bend as the town hall went about as smoothly as one would expect from an angry and grieving community. After making opening remarks, Buttigieg sat on the stage for two hours, mostly stoical, along with his police chief, as one by one, city residents and activists expressed their anger, grief and fear about the police force and the racism that constantly was a presence in their lives. While criticized for not being more empathetic, once again the point is missed is that Buttigieg was there to be that focal point. Though it was mostly chaotic, there was also an actual town hall occurring on police violence and racism where the community could express their emotions and feelings together. Buttigieg also promised that he would look to add more citizen input into policing procedures, including the use of force and the use of body cameras in the days and weeks to follow.

Just days later, at the June 27th Democratic presidential debate in Miami, the mayor was also asked a direct question about his city’s record, specifically the lack of diversity on the police force, and he bluntly said “I couldn’t get it done.”

Buttigieg didn’t blame the the police, he didn’t get it done, taking ownership for not only the shortcomings of his administration, but decades of institutionalized racism and mistrust between the citizens of South Bend and its police force, something that could not and would not be completely solved during his three terms as mayor.

Leadership.

Although the mayor had unarguably suffered a political setback, one that would define the rest of his presidential campaign, South Bend was still standing intact. There were no riots, no curfews needed, no fires or destruction of property. There was no need to call in state police or mobilize the National Guard.

Instead, as Buttigieg had promised, there were multiple workshops in South Bend with members of the Board of Safety which oversaw police discipline, and members of the community who chose to attend. One such workshop focused on the use of force while another focused on the use of body cameras.

Buttigieg was also criticized for not attending the majority of these, but again considering this would be his last year as mayor, I believe he knew that the community needed to own these solutions in order for them to be accepted by all after he was gone. One important trait of good leaders is that they empower others, and that’s exactly what Buttigieg did for the residents of South Bend.

It’s ironic, because he was dogged constantly for his relationship with the African American community in South Bend during his campaign, and the media kept referencing the aftermath of the Eric Logan shooting as his lowest point on the campaign, pointing to the march and the town hall that followed after.

However, after seeing the events unfold in Minneapolis this week, as they did in Ferguson and so many other places, it should be clear that how Pete Buttigieg handled that aftermath, showing crucial leadership for his community in crisis, that it was one of his finest hours.

Leadership matters in times of crisis, and as we face not only the racism in policing and in our everyday lives that continues to threaten to tear our country apart, but a deadly virus that is isolating us all, we need leaders to act as Pete Buttigieg did. Spaces need to be created for the community to grieve, to express frustration and anger, and leaders must be there to listen directly and not send the police force in their place. When the time is right, leaders also need to empower their communities to move forward, to find solutions and act on them, taking ownership of their future.

This is how we forge an alternative path to that violence and destruction that we have seen far too often when attempts are made to admonish and silence instead of listen and empower.

This is how we will save our country.

Leadership.

Oregon Trail generation progressive, licensed professional engineer, advocate of roundabouts, transportation funding reform and member of organized labor.

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