Navell Gordon spent last week knocking on doors and encouraging residents to vote. As one of the top canvassers on voting rights for Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, 22-year-old Gordon was selected to show Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and the city’s chief of police how his canvassing works. At some point in their canvassing, they stopped to pose for the above photo as portrayed by local news station KSTP.
Take a minute to look at the photo. See anything odd? What if you knew that Gordon had been convicted of a drug crime before? Does that change anything?
KTSP found a problem that merited its own segment, citing several law enforcement sources. “Mayor Flashes Gang Sign with Convicted Felon,” their headline blared. The report asserts that law enforcement sources are “fuming” and “want to know why the mayor would take a picture with a convicted criminal while he and the mayor flash gang signs.” Retired police officer Michael Quinn claims the two are “flashing gang signs back and forth at each other showing solidarity with the gangs.” He infers from there that Hodges is “legitimizing these people that are killing our children in Minneapolis.” Minneapolis Police Federation President John DelMonico said Hodges should “know better” and that the photo could “incite gang violence in the city.”
Hodges’ office had another explanation for those cryptic hand signals: they were just pointing at one another. A spokesman for the mayor added: “The more supportive that we all can be of people who are making better choices now, the better off we will be in the future.”
The segment provides detail about Gordon’s conviction on a drug charge, but doesn’t mention that Gordon was posing with Hodges because he was working with local nonprofit Neighborhoods Organizing for Change to educate voters and increase voter turnout.
Commentators and tweeters immediately blasted KTSP’s coverage. “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,” wrote law professor Nekima Levy-Pounds for the Minnesota Star-Tribune.
And as Minnesota Public Radio reported, the hashtag #PointerGate emerged with the following commentary:
— Gary Cunningham (@Khaaliss2) November 7, 2014
— TMZ Politics (@TMZ_Politics) November 7, 2014
Novell does indeed have a criminal record. In fact, he’ll be the first to tell you, at the young age of 22, that “I made some mistakes in life” and that he can’t vote as a consequence. He was canvassing on the very issue of voting rights for those with a conviction on their record.
“We think it’s really ironic, all the work he’s put into expanding the right to vote, and now he’s being targeted for that very issue,” Neighborhoods Organizing For Change President Anthony Newby told ThinkProgress. He added, “We hire lots of folks here to do community work that have criminal backgrounds. They end up being the most talented organizers in our crew and on our staff.”
In fact, he said, one of the reasons NOC invited the police chief to join them for an afternoon of canvassing is because canvassers have frequently been stopped and frisked by the police while holding their clipboards. Gordon has been among those stopped by police.
In September, he was allegedly arrested for conducting political canvassing, and his fellow workers captured video just after the arrest in which witnesses recount that officers pinned Gordon to the ground and threatened to shoot unarmed bystanders.
Here’s some other context. Minneapolis has some of the deepest racial disparities in the country. That is reflected in housing and poverty. It’s also reflected in a deep and troubling record of policing that disproportionately impacts African Americans. An American Civil Liberties Union report out just last month found that black juveniles were more than 16.3 times more likely to be arrested for truancy and curfew charges than white juveniles between 2004 and 2012. African Americans are also 11.5 times more likely to be arrested for pot possession, and 8 times more likely to be arrested for the catch-all offense known as “disorderly conduct.”
Hodges, who just took office in January, has made bridging deep racial inequality a centerpiece of her platform. “What we’ve gotten is growth that is thwarted by the biggest disparities in the country between white people and people of color,” she said in April.
For Gordon, the future is in organizations like NOC. He told ThinkProgress the organization changed his life. “I never was a talking person at all when I first came to NOC,” he said. “It got my speeching game up more than 100 percent.”
Now, he said, his three-year probation is slotted to end in June, and he hasn’t had a single violation. “I have members hitting me up like, I’m so proud of you,” he said.