Keith Ellison, right. Will Minnesota's Attorney General practise what he protests? Credit: Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via Getty Images

June 12, 2020   4 mins

A bitterly cold day in the city of Minneapolis. We parked as close as we could to the broken door of a makeshift office in a run-down shopping mall on one of those endless listless roads that lead out of almost all American cities: gas stations, Dunkin Donuts, McDonalds, pound stores.

It was toasty inside though — and anything but listless. Keith Ellison was the man we had come to see. It was 2006: few back then had heard of Barack Obama. But change was coming, via Mr Ellison. He was assured of winning his congressional seat in the November elections and becoming America’s first Muslim congressman, a black man, a convert to Islam.

I remember, in particular, the enthusiasm of the supporters — young white people mixed with first- and second-generation Somali immigrants, all of them based locally and fired up. Then there was the bustling energy of Mr Ellison himself. It was all very inspiring, and hopey and changey, and I wrote an enthusiastic piece for Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent singing the praises of America’s melting-pot genius.

Mr Ellison went on to swear his oath in Congress on a copy of the Qur’an, and to serve for several terms. He became well-known nationally when he predicted on TV — amid scenes of hilarity from so-called experts — that Donald Trump might win in 2016.

He is now the Attorney General of the whole state of Minnesota — a hugely important position.

He is a Democrat with power. He stands at the top of Minnesota’s political tree, next to the Governor, who is also a Democrat. The Lieutenant Governor: a Democrat. The Minnesota Secretary of State: ditto. So, too, the State Auditor (sounds boring but American state budgets are huge). Oh, and let us not forget Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, who may well become Joe Biden’s vice-presidential choice.

Folks, when people say of the police killing of George Floyd, “this must lead to change”, which of America’s political parties needs to put its hand up and say, “we’ll take that on”?

The answer, of course, is both. But the fuss about President Trump’s stoking of racial tension in the wake of the killing has served to hide the uncomfortable fact that the Democrats are themselves joint custodians of ‘the establishment’. In Minnesota, where Mr Floyd died, they are as in charge as it is possible to be. They literally run the place.

Local people know this. Which is why the mayor of Minneapolis — yet another Democrat — had a hard time recently when he attended a Black Lives Matter protest. The crowd demanded that Mayor Jacob Frey join them in calling for the defunding of the local police. Mr Frey declined and had to walk away, booed by people who had almost certainly voted for him.

Democratic party managers are kept awake at night by the thought that black and ethnic minority voters — in particular young ones — just won’t bother turning out in November. They will be told endlessly by the Trump campaign that long before they were born (1994 to be precise), Joe Biden supported a Clinton crime bill that put large numbers of black men in jail. At the time, Mr Biden said of the National Association of Police Officers president Joe Scotto, “You guys sat at that conference table of mine for a six-month period, and you wrote the bill.” It led to a huge amount of funding for the police and for prisons. For the avoidance of doubt, Mr Biden is a funder of the American police, not a defunder. That is his record.

It gets even trickier. Senator Klobuchar, his potential running mate, has been accused of taking a very back-seat approach to a local Minneapolis issue when she was the local prosecutor. What was this issue? Police violence. During her time in the job, according to the local campaigning journalists at APM Reports, millions of dollars were paid in compensation to victims of the local police, while:

“Klobuchar, however, chose not to criminally charge any fatalities involving law enforcement. Instead she routinely put the decision to a grand jury, a process widely criticized for its secrecy and for mostly allowing the police version of events. Klobuchar also didn’t take on any of the misconduct claims.”

What does the party do? When I talked recently to Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic Committee, he seemed convinced that the answer was relatively easy and came in the shape of Donald Trump. This man had asked black Americans, “what have you got to lose” by voting for him, and now it is obvious, Mr Perez says: everything. They (those who voted Republican or stayed home) would not be fooled again.

This is the course of action that the Democratic party establishment is set on: safety first. Steady as you go into an election that Donald Trump will lose quite handily without any outside help.

But how on earth is the party going to capture and bottle and use the enthusiasm of the young protesters, of all colours and creeds, if it is seen, on race, to be roughly where it always was? Can Joe Biden — the historical funder of the police — seriously keep a lid on the ferment in his own party between now and election day in November?

It would seem not. Nancy Pelosi — the leader of the party in the House of Representatives — has now joined the fight and done so very clearly on the side of the radicals: she wants Confederate era statues removed from the Capitol building. Those same statues she has lived with for decades. Donald Trump will love that. Joe Biden will not.

As for Keith Ellison: the man I met before he got to Congress is now effectively in charge of the prosecution of the officers accused of murdering George Floyd. When he ran for Attorney General, his campaign slogan was that he was going to be “the people’s lawyer”. Across the USA, the people will be watching Mr Ellison and his party, to see what that slogan actually means.

Justin Webb was the BBC’s North America Editor and presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four.