ThreeSixty Focus on… Nekima Levy-Pounds

The Minneapolis NAACP president, civil rights attorney, activist and law professor talks Jamar Clark, racial tension and how youth can create change

Mina Yuan headshot

THIRTY MINUTES AFTER our interview is scheduled to start, Nekima Levy-Pounds finally walks in, the apology on her lips oddly juxtaposed with the joy in her eyes.

She sincerely apologizes over and over for being late. But it is clear that the cause of her delayed arrival, a press conference that resulted in the removal of barricades outside the Fourth Precinct police station in North Minneapolis on this early December day, also has made her very happy.

Levy-Pounds during her community justice project clinic on Sept. 16, 2015, at the University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis. (Photo courtesy of University of St. Thomas)

The 39-year-old Minneapolis NAACP president, Black Lives Matter activist, University of St. Thomas law professor, civil rights attorney and mother of five cannot hold back her passion and energy throughout the interview. She clutches her hands
 to demonstrate a human bridge, she pounds the table as she criticizes racial prejudice, and when a stranger knocks on the window, raising a fist to show solidarity, Levy-Pounds’ face breaks into a radiant grin.

Since the age of 9, Levy-Pounds knew she wanted to create positive change in her South Central Los Angeles community, like the lawyers she saw on television. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in African- American Studies — the first in her family with a bachelor’s degree — and eventually went on to become a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, where she teaches strategies for carrying out social justice in poor communities.

Since the shooting death of unarmed 24-year-old Jamar Clark by Minneapolis police on Nov. 15, 2015, Levy-Pounds has been busy leading marches, blocking I-94, occupying the Fourth Precinct and demanding police tapes of the shooting, all while balancing her roles as law professor and mother.

Mina: To start off, I know you grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Could you tell me a little about what challenges you faced as a teenager trying to contribute to or create change?

Nekima: Well, one of the things that impacted me most as a kid in South Central was the fact that one of my classmates was killed.

So when I was 14, I got a scholarship to attend a boarding school
in North Andover, Massachusetts, called the Brooks School. And I was there at this affluent boarding school, and then … right before spring break, my mom called me, and she told me that one of my classmates by the name of Latasha Harlins was killed. She was shot in the back of the head by a store owner.

Levy-Pounds explains how, in 1991, Harlins was accused by the store owner of stealing orange juice — she wasn’t stealing, Levy-Pounds says — got into a physical altercation with the owner, and was later shot in the head and killed by the owner. Tupac Shakur, an influential hip-hop artist, has dedicated songs to Harlins, Levy-Pounds says.

My mom called me and told me about it, and it impacted me in a significant way, because I felt that it could have been me. You know, I was friends with Latasha. She was just a normal teenage girl, and there was no reason that she should have been dead over a bottle of orange juice. …

What happened to her was symbolic of the unreconciled racial issues in America that we’ve not resolved, the racial issues that, time has gone on, and somehow we pretend that things have gotten better when we’ve never really dealt with the root causes of racism, segregation and discrimination that Dr. (Martin Luther) King talked about. In fact, after he was assassinated on April 4 of 1968, the movement really went underground, and some would argue that it dissipated altogether.

So as a kid, seeing that happen to Latasha, it impacted me in a significant way, because the person who killed her never served any jail time. She received five years probation and community service. And around the same time, a man kicked a dog, and he got 45 days in jail in the LA area. And it led to comparisons between the lives of black people being worth less than a dog. So as a kid, it just — it impacted me.

This was around the time of the Rodney King beating. And it just gave me a sense of purpose in terms of knowing that I had to use my gifts and talents to begin to address these issues. And so, I remember going home on spring break, I went to view Latasha’s body, and I thought, “That could have been me.” Because the store wasn’t that far away from the house where I grew up.

And I had just hung out with Latasha in the summer before I went off to boarding school. I got the opportunity to go off to boarding school to receive an elite education. Latasha was left in South Central LA. And she experienced the wrath of what happens when you don’t address root-level causes of racial issues. So I had felt a burden since then of continuing in the fight for justice and demanding that we treat people with respect and dignity, even if they’re poor, even if they’re a person of color. And that is what has fueled my fire for justice all this time.

M: I’ve been talking to some teenagers lately about their own involvement with politics, and a lot of them have been saying that yes, they care a lot about these issues in society, they want to make change, but sometimes adults don’t take them seriously. So did you ever experience anything like that?

N: Absolutely. For some reason, adults, older adults, tend to discount the voices of young people. It’s as though they feel that if you’re not
 at a certain age or have reached a certain stature, that your contributions are not valid, or you don’t know what you’re talking about. And I take issue with that. Especially because at 9 years old, I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer, and that’s the path that I took. And that’s the path that I’ve been able to utilize in order to affect change.

So think about how many kids see something wrong with the issues that are happening in society, and who aren’t given an opportunity to express their perspectives, to stand up for justice and to speak truth to power. I think that adults need to open the doors for young people to be able to use their voices, to use their skills, to advance the cause of justice.

And this isn’t the first time that this has happened. During the 1960s, there was something called the Children’s Movement that happened in Alabama, where as people began to grow weary during the Civil Rights Movement, because it was a long period of time — I mean the Civil Rights Movement essentially started on Dec. 1 of 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. It lasted all the way to April 4 of 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated. That’s a very long period of time, you know, close to 13 years.

So during that period of time, people began to grow weary. And one of the things that happened was, adults had to get back to work. They couldn’t be as active on the front lines. So Dr. King and some of the leaders who worked with him realized that children could play a role in the movement. So they went into the schools, and they gathered children, and they called children to the front lines. So children actually began marching, protesting, braving police, dogs and fire hoses, and things like that. And they got arrested. So kids as young as 8 years old would call their parents and say, “Don’t pick me up from jail. I’m standing up for a cause that I believe in.”

(A stranger knocks at the window.)

That’s a stranger showing solidarity, which is amazing. I don’t even know that person. Yeah, they recognized me, knocked on the window, and did this (holds up fist). That’s incredible. But, that kind of stuff happens on a regular basis.

But kids were front-line soldiers in the movement for civil rights and social justice. I mean, to think about kids … I mean, I have kids. I can’t imagine my 10-year-old calling me, saying, “Mom, don’t pick me up. I am fighting for our civil rights.” I just, I could not imagine a kid being, you know, in the place of an adult in terms of that level of maturity and resolve, to keep standing for what they believe in at the detriment of their own health, their own wellness, their own physical essence, but that’s what they did. …

M: So a couple times now, you’ve mentioned the roles of youth in changing their communities, and how we’ve got this undercurrent of racial injustice that isn’t really brought to light these days. So what can youth do to change this today?

N: The first thing youth need to do, is to know their history. They need to recognize that in schools, they’re not going to learn the truth of what has happened historically. I recommend a book by Howard Zinn called “A People’s History of the United States.” That book really awakened me and showed me the truth of what happened throughout our history, it showed me the truth about Christopher Columbus, the exploitation of Native American peoples, of how slaves were really treated in this country, how they were really thought about, the dehumanization and brutalization that they had to endure. And I was saddened by these things, but it also empowered me to know that I could use truth as a weapon to fight back for justice. And so,
I think knowing your history is one tool that young people can be armed with when they face folks in society who simply want to maintain the status quo.

Beyond that, I think that young people can recognize that they have a place on the front lines. So recently what we’ve seen happen is young people walk out of their classes and go out and march and use their voices. I think that’s vitally important. So often, we think that learning only happens in the classroom, and I take issue with that. Even with my law students, I tell them, “Listen, you’re going to learn some things from me in a classroom in a formal setting, but I will give you credit if you go out to different events and activities, and you intermingle with the community, you ask questions, and you learn the truth about what people are experiencing. That is going to enhance your education, and it’s going to prepare you to be able to not only deal with all types of people, but to be comfortable in a multicultural environment.”

So I think we need to begin to articulate those messages to people so that they understand that learning is not only something you do in a classroom in a formal setting. And it also empowers people who have not received a bachelor’s degree or some type of master’s degree or advanced degree, to realize that they have valuable knowledge to contribute to society. …

M: It’s funny that you’re talking about Howard Zinn, because we just read from his book in my history class, but we were also kind of comparing some of the past history with more recent events, like the Jamar Clark shooting. Can you tell me what your reaction was when you first heard about Jamar Clark?

Levy-Pounds begins by describing how she felt called to travel to Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, the day after the grand jury’s decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Although leaving meant missing Thanksgiving with her family, Levy-Pounds flew to Ferguson as a legal observer. After being tear-gassed by law enforcement her first night there, Levy-Pounds said she realized she was not truly an activist until that moment.

N: And so right after I got back from Ferguson, I was approached by young people who were part of Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, and they asked me if I’d be willing to help them. And in all honesty, I had no idea how I could assist them, because I had seen Black Lives Matter activism unfold in other parts of the country, and I really didn’t know what role there was for me to play as a law professor, as a civil rights attorney, because it was definitely a lot of youth activism and engagement, and I wasn’t sure about that.

But I said I was open, and so a few days after I said I was open, their first official action was to shut down the I-35W freeway. And before Ferguson, I probably would have said, “No. I’m not helping you guys shut down a freeway.” But after Ferguson, being tear-gassed, witnessing young people continuing to show up night after night, including on Thanksgiving night, to stand up for what they believed in, it was a no-brainer. And so I was part of that initial 35W shutdown. And right after we exited 35W, we actually marched to (Minneapolis) City Hall, and we demanded that City Council leaders stand up for equity. Because at that time, there were several City Council members who were planning to cut equity from the budget. There were several initiatives that they were just going to cut out of the budget. And we were saying, “How is this possible? This is a city that has double-digit unemployment, that has some of the worst racial disparities in the country, so at a time like this, how can you justify cutting equity programs from the budget, cutting positions and things like that?” We just thought it was unconscionable. So we descended upon City Hall, we made some requests and demands of them, and then we showed up
a week later at the budget hearing, and we demanded that they put the money back in the budget, and that’s what happened. Most of the money was put back in the budget.

Levy-Pounds kneels on I-94 and raises her hands in the air while protestors block the freeway. (Photo courtesy of Chris Juhn)

And a few weeks later, we had the Mall of America demonstration, which I was a part 
of. I was one of 11 people who was criminally prosecuted in that situation. I was not an organizer at the time, I was a simple adviser to the young people and a media spokesperson, but
 I was charged with eight misdemeanors. And 
I knew that it was unfair and unjust, because 
I saw the list of people who were charged, and I said, “First of all, this is a random collection of people. All these people were not organizers and agitators of Black Lives Matter.” I just,
 I knew that it was a fallacy, so I said, you know, “We will be vindicated, because this is unfair of the law.” And … maybe now it’s almost a month ago, all of our charges were dismissed, including all eight of my misdemeanor charges.

Levy-Pounds says that a few days later, on
 Nov. 15, Jamar Clark was shot by police. Clark, whom authorities have said was a suspect in an alleged assault that police responded to on Nov. 15, later died in a hospital. Some witnesses and authorities have given conflicting accounts of the events leading up to the shooting. The shooting is under investigation.

I got a call from someone in law enforcement, a high-ranking official, at 4 a.m., telling me that he had been killed. And I said, “This has got to be bad, for them to wake me up at 4 o’clock in the morning to tell me about this officer-involved shooting, this has to be bad.”

And so I could not sleep the rest of the night. By 9:30 that morning, I called on some of the NAACP leaders, and I said, “Let’s go to the site where this happened. Let’s talk to witnesses and figure out what went on.”

Within an hour of hearing from them, I said we’d need to hold a press conference, and we’d need to call attention to this issue. And that’s essentially what happened. We went out, we interviewed people, we held a press conference, we called on Black Lives Matter Minneapolis to hold a rally and a march because that’s what the people said that they wanted.

We encountered a hurting community.
… There were dozens of witnesses, some
who lived in the apartment building outside
 of where it happened, but others who were coming out of what was called the Elks Lodge at the same time, and they felt that he had been executed, that he was unarmed, that he was restrained, that it shouldn’t have happened.

And it touched something in my soul, because I thought, “Jamar Clark could have been my son.” And I was just so outraged that it had happened, because I had gone to the Minneapolis City Council, I had gone to the mayor of Minneapolis, I had gone to the FBI, I had gone to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and I had spoken to the Hennepin County Attorney about the fact that we could become the next Ferguson, that we are essentially one incident away from becoming the next Ferguson, and they didn’t listen to me. …

So when the Jamar Clark shooting happened, it set off a firestorm. People were like, “We’re not going to take this anymore,” including myself. The day after he was killed, not only 
had I been marching and rallying and protesting with people, but I got arrested on the I-94 freeway. And the reality is, all I could think about was, “Jamar Clark could have been my son. How is it possible that in a civilized society, a man could be shot in the head, and we could find ways to try to excuse that behavior on the part of those who are supposed to protect and serve?” I just thought that was totally unacceptable. So I was willing to be arrested that night.

This was my first time ever being arrested. And I remember looking at my son, who was with me on the 94 (freeway), 10 years old, I looked at him and said, “It’s possible I will be arrested tonight. Are you OK with that?”

Levy-Pounds being arrested with an officer on each side of her
Levy-Pounds was one of more than 50 people arrested after blocking I-94 in Minneapolis on Nov. 16. (Photo courtesy of Chris Juhn)

And my son said, “Yes, but mom, I want to stay with you.” He wanted to get arrested with me. And I didn’t allow him because I didn’t know what would happen to him in the juvenile system, I didn’t know how long I would be kept and I just didn’t want him, you know, in jeopardy in any situation, so I told him, “No.” So I sent him home with some friends and ultimately his godmother.

But as a mom, as an advocate, as a civil rights attorney, I felt that it was my duty to stand up for justice and to defy what I felt were unjust laws, and I would do it all over again. Because he shouldn’t have been killed.

He was an unarmed man. It just doesn’t make sense that police cannot find ways to de-escalate situations instead of escalating them to the point of human life being lost. …

M: At this point, you’ve talked a lot about different communities coming together for Jamar Clark. So from what you’ve seen, what would you say about communities in this area coming together or dividing over this issue?

N: Well, I think that it was incredible to see 
so many people from our community come together in the wake of the shooting and death of Jamar Clark at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department.

First of all, the occupation was organic. There wasn’t any plan to occupy the Fourth Precinct. What happened on the first night was, as we were marching, we said, “We’re going to stop at the Fourth Precinct.” We stood outside the Fourth Precinct, we chanted, you know, we talked about what happened, we had speeches, we advocated, we agitated. And then at one point, several of us, including me, marched into the vestibule of the Fourth Precinct.

Levy-Pounds says she and other community members banged on the doors of the Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis to be let in, but they weren’t. She says young Black Lives Matter activists then spontaneously started the occupation, bringing sleeping bags and blankets to the precinct. She goes on to describe a system of occupation in which people rotated staying at the Fourth Precinct and others brought food and donations.

This touches my heart to even talk about this, because there were folks who had never stepped foot on the north side of Minneapolis, showing up, bringing home-cooked meals, bringing gloves, bringing hats, bringing scarves for people to, you know, have access to. I’m just blown away because I felt that what happened at the Fourth Precinct was a vision of God’s, of Dr. King’s beloved community, where you have folks literally from all walks of life, like African-American, Native American, Hmong, Latino, white, from different religious backgrounds, showing up and bringing the items that were needed. So no one ever went without a meal during the 18-day occupation. There was always an influx of food, water, beverages, supplies — I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

And that’s even after traveling to Ferguson and having been part of that. This was something different. It was the essence of what happened in Ferguson, in terms of resistance to oppression that was taking place, and standing up for what you believed in, and being perseverant, and showing up night after night, but this was something vastly different because of how well-organized it was, and how many folks from the community came together to show support in one way or another. …

I’ll never forget that experience, and I’m just thankful to God that I had a chance to be part of it and that some of my students were part of it. Because I just feel that it was unprecedented in terms of what happened at the Fourth Precinct.

Levy-Pounds continues, saying the police clearing of the encampment at the Fourth Precinct on Dec. 4 was a “victory.” Although police ended the occupation, Black Lives Matter activists felt that getting a response from the city was a massive step in the right direction, she said.

I took my kids out there a few days. We had Thanksgiving dinner there, which was amazing, so I had Thanksgiving in Ferguson last year, and this year I had Thanksgiving in front of the Fourth Precinct.

We had a church service out there on the night of Jamar Clark’s funeral. I asked for clergy, faith leaders, grief counselors and members of the broader community to be present, because I said, you know, in Baltimore we saw that there were riots, fires and uprisings on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, because that is the most emotional day, aside from when you find out that someone is killed. Because you can see a person in the casket. You realize, they are dead and gone, and this is real.

So we knew that for a lot of young people, they could not cope with that, the realization that their friend, their family member was gone. So we specifically put out a call to action for people to come to the occupation, who could fill those roles of prayer for people, serving as grief counselors for people, because we didn’t want riots to set off in that environment. And that’s essentially what happened. We had more young people at the occupation that night than we had had in the previous two weeks. And these were young folks.

Levy-Pounds then describes praying to calm
 the tense atmosphere that night. Close to the site of Jamar Clark’s death on the night of his funeral, she says, she and others formed a bridge between about 40 African-American young men and roughly 25 police officers, defusing a potential standoff by begging the boys to channel their energy differently. She told a person working security, “We have to stop this. Because if we don’t, someone’s going to get killed.”

We talk about the occupation, it’s like, that’s why our city didn’t burn down to the ground. We provided a container for people’s grief and their emotions and their hurt that they were feeling that they wouldn’t have had an outlet for.

There were people who came to me and showed me gasoline, where they were ready to burn down the precinct. And I’m like, “Please don’t do that. Please channel your energy differently. Don’t burn down the precinct. It’s not going to help anything.”

There were so many people we had to redirect from doing things that were out of frustration and anger and rage, from having
 to tolerate police abuse for so many years and feeling their concerns falling on deaf ears. That is why we didn’t have the riots and the uprisings that we’ve seen in other cities, because of that occupation, and because we saturated the atmosphere in prayer. Anytime something got out of hand or didn’t feel right, I’m like, “Let’s gather,” or other people of God would say, “Let’s gather,” and we would pray. We would pray our way through that situation.

Literally, even the fact that when (five) victims were shot [on Nov. 23 near the Black Lives Matter encampment at the Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis (Four men have been charged in connection with the shooting)], that no one was killed, that was by the grace of God. … The only reason they’re alive is because of the grace of God.

But it shows people the evil of racial hatred that we have to contend with. Whether it comes through law enforcement or white supremacists, it is an evil that we face. And not everybody’s willing to even face that evil or take it seriously, but that’s what we were forced to do during that occupation, to make the world aware that we are not going to allow this to happen in what is supposed to be a civilized society.

M: And you’ve been so directly involved in all of these protests, not just trying to create change from the boardroom. So why do you take this more ground-level, disruptive approach to protesting?

N: I will just say in terms of disruption that it’s necessary in order to wake people up to the truth that the protests are really about disrupting the status quo and awakening people from their day-to-day routines of just kind of going about their lives as though this doesn’t matter. And we’re saying through the disruption that this does matter, that it is important and that people’s lives are being taken as a result of our indifference toward their plights.

M: OK, so one last question. For teenagers who want to get involved with their society, whether that’s through Black Lives Matter or some other type of organization, what kind of advice would you give them?

N: Well, I would tell them to follow their consciences. So if young people feel compelled to act, that they need to act, that they should seek the advice of elders, people who have perhaps been involved in a struggle on some level … A lot of young people have the energy to carry forward this movement, even if it’s discounted by older people, sometimes who mean well but have settled into the way things are.

That they need to trust their instincts. And they need to be willing to push against the status quo. And to realize that their voices are important. And to not let anyone tell them otherwise. We’ve seen students walk out of school, we’ve seen them agitate on the front lines, we’ve seen them speak truth to power. All of those things are necessary to fight against injustice in our society. So I urge them to use the tools at their disposal to advocate and agitate peacefully and nonviolently until they see the changes they want to see.

This is an edited transcript of this interview.