Police Use of Force Laws: Minnesota Falls Short

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Today, a Minnesota court will hear several significant motions in the cases against Derek Chavin and the three other former Minneapolis police officers charged in the killing of George Floyd. Among the matters Judge Peter Cahill will consider in the September 11 hearing are the state’s motion for a joint trial of all defendants and the defendants’ motions to change venue from Hennepin County. Motions to dismiss charges also have been filed and remain pending. The court’s ruling on these matters will have a significant impact on how the cases proceed.

The four defendants face charges of murder and manslaughter, but the charges appear to sidestep the fact that they were committed by armed state actors. Few U.S. states have criminal statutes that specifically address the use of excessive force or other violations of law by police officers. Like Minnesota, most states use generally-applicable statutes to prosecute police misconduct, such as statutes prohibiting criminal homicide or assault.     

Attempting to fit the square peg of human rights violations by armed state actors into the round hole of general criminal statutory schemes can be challenging. Violence between civilians is qualitatively different from that experienced by civilians at the hands of the state.

International standards on police use of force address this disconnect, yet no major U.S. city follows international standards regarding police use of force.. These standards call for armed state actors to follow basic principles:

  1. In any use of force, the police and other law enforcement officials must respect the principles of necessity and proportionality.
  2. Each use of force must be justified and justifiable.
  3. Rules governing the use of force, including weapons that may lawfully be used, should be set out in national legislation and other administrative provisions.
  4. Medical assistance shall be provided to any person, including a criminal suspect, who has been injured during action by any law enforcement official.
  5. The police and other law enforcement officials shall be held accountable for their use of force.
  6. Operations shall be planned to minimize the risk of death or injury.

International standards on police use of force derive from core treaty obligations which recognize the right to life, security of the person, equal protection, and non-discrimination. International handbooks[1] and codes of conduct for law enforcement officials flesh out international legal standards. Core international treaties and documents address police misconduct, including the Universal Declaration Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, and the Convention against Torture (CAT). 

In particular, the excessive use of force by police is specifically prohibited by two major international treaties to which the United States is party: the ICCPR and the CAT.  While U.S. reservations to the treaties mean they require specific enacting legislation to create civil or criminal liability for the state actor, the rights enshrined by these treaties are no less real.

The international standards seek to counter the risks of human rights violations which attend the deployment of armed state actors. Police—who are trained to use authorized and reasonable force against civilians when they deem it necessary—must be held accountable for human rights violations when they abuse that power.

Like many U.S. states, Minnesota fails to meet these international standards regarding police use of force. The resultant accountability gap has contributed to growing impunity for extrajudicial killings and for sub-lethal human rights violations.

Earlier this year, the University of Chicago Law School International Human Rights Clinic published Deadly Discretion: The Failure of Police Use of Force Policies to Meet Fundamental International Human Rights Laws and Standards. The report scored the United States’ 20 largest cities on their compliance with international law. The authors employed four key measures in their assessment: legality, necessity, proportionality, and accountability. Its findings are sobering and help to explain the escalating demands for fundamental changes in policing.

“No city satisfied the requirement of legality because no state has a human rights compliant state law. The failure to enact legislative standards on police use of force undermines the rule of law, frustrates accountability for misuse of state power, and weakens police department policies.”

What makes for compliant state law?

  1. LEGALITY | Use of force policies must sit within a human rights compliant federal and state legislative framework that properly balances security needs with individual human rights.
  2. NECESSITY | All law and policies on police use of force must comply with the necessity requirement and only allow for force when “absolutely necessary” to save the life or prevent serious bodily harm of an officer or civilian as a “last resort” to other alternatives.
  3. PROPORTIONALITY | In addition to being necessary, the use of force must always be proportionate to the threat the officer confronts and weighed against the fundamental human rights of the individual, including the rights to life and security of person.
  4. ACCOUNTABILITY | Accountability requires an independent, external review of each use of lethal force by the police as well as departmental transparency of use of force policies and practices.

While legislation passed in Minnesota in July 2020 took a step toward bridging the accountability gap, much work remains. At the top of the list: enacting legal limits on police use of force that comply with international human rights and standards of necessity, proportionality and accountability and protect and enable individual human rights.

Learn more:

Retired attorney Duane Krohnke walks through the September 11 hearing agenda here.

You can find a detailed analysis of the law on police use of force worldwide maintained by the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria.


[1] See, for example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Handbook on Police Accountability, Oversight and Integrity (New York, 2011) and United Nations Convention Against Corruption (New York, 2004).

Criminal Charges Reflect, Reinforce Power Imbalance Between Law Enforcement and Communities

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The chest camera footage of former Minneapolis police officers Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane—two of the men involved in killing George Floyd—has been made available online. The opening minutes of video illuminate a casual brutality and violence by the police. Lane approaches the car from behind, banging on the window with his Maglite. He clearly startles Mr. Floyd, shouting at him to show his hands. Within 15 seconds, Lane draws his gun on a man suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Anyone would have panicked. Despite Lane repeatedly yelling at him to “show his fucking hands,” Mr. Floyd stays polite, looking down, calling Lane “sir” or “Mr. Officer.” Mr. Floyd is distraught. He tells Lane that he has been shot before. He begs him not to shoot. He tells him that his mother has just died. He tells them he’s just had COVID. As the minutes unfold the officers continue to escalate the man’s panicked state until Derek Chauvin pins him to the ground.

While Minnesota prosecutors have filed criminal charges against the officers, the charges available to prosecutors have raised questions.

For some abolitionists, the filing of any criminal charges—including against the officers involved in Floyd’s killing—perpetuates a fundamentally tainted system. International human rights law recognizes that victims of human rights violations have a right to a remedy and that accountability is an important tool to prevent future harms. Neither consideration necessitates nor is limited to criminal prosecution and punishment (check out our earlier blog here).

But others have questioned why Chauvin doesn’t face first-degree murder charges.

What charges do the former officers face?

Following the transfer of prosecution to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was charged with second-degree and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter, for the death of George Floyd. The three officers with Chauvin at the time of Floyd’s killing, Lane, Kueng, and Tou Thao, each have been charged with aiding and abetting second- degree murder and manslaughter.

Derek Chauvin faces three separate charges, each with different elements:

  • Second-degree unintentional murder requires that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death and Chauvin was committing or attempting to commit a felony offense (in this case, assault) at the time. The maximum sentence is 40 years in prison, with a recommended sentence of 10-15 years.
  • Third-degree murder requires Chauvin to commit an act that was “eminently dangerous to others… without regard for human life,” and the act caused Floyd’s death. The maximum sentence for third-degree murder is 25 years in prison and the recommended sentence is 10-15.
  • Manslaughter requires showing Floyd died because Chauvin deliberately committed an act that has an unreasonable risk of death. The maximum sentence for manslaughter is 10 years in prison and/or payment of a fine up to $20,000. The recommended sentence for manslaughter is 4 years in prison.

Aiding and abetting charges require that the other officers intentionally aided, advised, counseled, or conspired with Chauvin to commit the acts that caused Floyd’s death. This charge does not require Chauvin be convicted for either murder or manslaughter. A conviction for aiding and abetting carries the same penalties as for the crimes of murder or manslaughter faced by Chauvin.  

Why not first-degree murder?

Although prosecutors have announced their intent to seek stiff sentences, The officers involved in the killing of George Floyd have not been charged with first-degree murder. Under Minnesota law, first-degree murder charges can be brought only when there is evidence of an intentional killing after premeditation, or that the killing took place in the course of specifically enumerated situations. Amongst those situations, Minnesota statute 609.185 defines first degree murder as intentionally causing the death of a peace officer, prosecuting attorney, judge, or a guard employed at a Minnesota state or local correctional facility while the person is engaged in the performance of official duties.

Minnesota is not out of step with other states. A 2016 survey by the Anti-Defamation League shows that all 50 states provide harsher penalties when a law enforcement officer is the victim. For example, in Michigan, obstructing a police officer, even if no injury results, is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison, while an officer’s assault upon a civilian would result in a maximum penalty of 93 days. If a civilian injures a police officer with a firearm in Pennsylvania, they face a sentence of up to 40 years–similar to the sentence Chauvin faces for second-degree murder in Minnesota.

The United States is not alone. Canada’s Criminal Code provides an automatic upgrade to first-degree murder where the victim is a police officer. In Chile, an “attack against authority” may be separately charged with a penalty that includes imprisonment and a substantial fine. The United Kingdom and Albania provide mandatory statutory sentencing of at least 30 years for individuals who murder police officers. In Armenia and Norway, violence against an officer is a separate offense with its own prison sentence. Some countries have taken a different approach. Germany rejects the idea that police officers require more protection than civilians, recognizing that the police have unique training, legal authority, and special equipment. Similarly, Spain and Liechtenstein do not enhance penalties for murder when the victim is a police officer. South Africa rejected a proposal to provide harsher sentencing for violence against police officers after multiple police killings occurred. 

The rationale for aggravated charges or enhanced penalties for crimes against police typically involves deterrence. Proponents of deterrence argue that, when the state asks an individual to put themselves in harm’s way, the state should take measures to prevent them from being injured or killed. But it also involves the idea of retribution, suggesting that police officers are either more valuable or more vulnerable that civilians.

Different standards: who needs protection from whom?

Meanwhile, there are no corresponding enhanced penalties or elevated charges for crimes committed by police. This asymmetrical approach, which treats crimes against police more severely than crimes by police, reinforces the power imbalance between the police and the policed. While many jurisdictions have statutes that criminalize abuse of official authority, if a police officer assaults or kills someone, they face the same charges as anyone else. Law enforcement officials may also benefit from specific defenses and from qualified immunity, which protects them from claims of civil rights violations. (The Supreme Court decided earlier this summer to let an expansive interpretation of this judicial doctrine stand. For a deeper dive into how qualified immunity has undermined accountability for crimes by police read our June 15 blog).

Police officers undoubtedly take on additional—often significant—personal risk in the course of their duties. But they also assume an elevated duty of public trust as people who are armed, trained to use sub-lethal and deadly force, and vested with authority to pursue, arrest, and detain people. Many international human rights standards exist precisely to limit abuses of this power by armed state actors.

International policing standards recognize that when police violate this public trust, both the directly harmed individual and society suffer. But a recent study by the University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic found that police forces in the United States’ 20 largest cities fail to meet basic international standards regarding use of force.

One important place to begin is eliminating laws which perpetuate the imbalances and racial disparities that allow extrajudicial killings to occur. Differential treatment where police officers are the victims weakens accountability.[1] Policies that enhance punishment for crimes committed against law enforcement officers, while failing to hold law enforcement officers responsible for crimes committed by them ensures the continued power imbalance between citizens and police officers. This power imbalance is exacerbated by the resources, training, and power police officers wield. Calls for police reform recognize that an important step is balancing these power dynamics by utilizing resources and funding for prevention and alternative forms of policing. And, States have recognized these issues in some areas, such as providing specific penalties and charges for sexual conduct by police officers or correction officers. States must also reflect the enhanced duty of care police officers owe to citizens by virtue of these dynamics.

And while criminal charges may be important steps towards justice, they fail to address the deep layers of harm which extrajudicial killings inflict on the targeted communities. Limiting criminal accountability to the four individuals involved sidesteps the systemic betrayal which occurs when power given to armed state actors tasked with keeping the “community” safe is used for repression and violence.


[1] See, also, MN Stat.609.2231: subd. 1: physical assault of a police officer is 4th degree assault (a gross misdemeanor, raising the penalty from 90 days for other assaults to 365 days); an assault inflicting demonstrable (observable) bodily harm or throwing bodily fluids is a 3-year felony (would be a misdemeanor upon a civilian).

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Armed and Unaccountable, Federal Forces Use Tactics Honed at the Border against Protestors

The deployment of anonymous armed federal agents, now identified as part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in Portland has yielded shocking reports of arbitrary arrests, detention without charge, and short-term disappearances, in addition to injuries to protesters resulting from use of sub-lethal force and chemical agents. Garnering less attention, but no less troubling, on July 8, the Department of Justice launched Operation Legend and deployed federal forces under the guise of addressing “violent crime” in Kansas City, Missouri. Plans for more operations in other cities have been reported.

What explains the federal government’s apparently newfound zeal to engage in garden-variety policing of the kind usually reserved to local and state law enforcement?

Widespread protests around the United States, sparked by the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, provided the administration with a pretext to flex its paramilitary muscle. In June, the president’s desire to “dominate” protestors and the attorney general’s promise to deploy “even greater law enforcement resources” in Washington made news.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported a chilling statement by acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf that his agency “will not allow anarchists, disrupters and opportunists to exploit the ongoing civil unrest to loot and destroy our communities. While the department respects every American’s right to protest peacefully, violence and civil unrest will not be tolerated. We will control the situation and protect the American people and the homeland at any cost.” [emphasis added]

International human rights standards explicitly forbid defense of public safety “at any cost.” Certain human rights – including freedom from arbitrary detention or unacknowledged detentions and freedom of opinion – can never be waived, no matter how severe the state of emergency.

As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie asks, “How can this be a job for Homeland Security?

The DHS Rapid Deployment Teams followed an executive order directing federal agencies to send personnel to protect monuments, statues, and federal property during continuing protests against systemic racism and police brutality. The RDTs are reportedly “made up of officers from Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard and Immigration and Customs Enforcement who back up the Federal Protective Service, which is already responsible for protecting federal property.”

By deploying DHS forces in Portland, the country is witness to abusive tactics long used against immigrants, border communities, and communities of color. While federal courts occasionally have reminded the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that the border is not a “rights-free zone” (read Judge Donovan Frank’s 2018 opinion in a case brought by our colleagues at the ACLU), their effective jurisdiction has spread to operate freely within 100 miles of US land and water borders where approximately 63 percent of the US population resides. And even the extrajudicial execution of a teenager who was standing in Mexico at the time he was shot by a Border Patrol agent has been found to be acceptable. (DOJ investigators declined to prosecute after finding the agent did not violate CBP policy and the Supreme Court allowed the killer to evade civil liability through its overbroad qualified immunity doctrine).

Since its inception, DHS has run this rapidly expanding agency (CBP boasts more than 60,000 employees)  with a dangerous mix of extraordinary power and little accountability. The agency operates with virtually no transparency, making it chronically difficult to get answers from CBP officials about policies, procedures, or practices. A 2014 report examining 809 complaints filed between January 2009 and January 2012 found:

“For years it has been reported that U.S. Border Patrol agents routinely ignore the constitutional and other legal rights of both immigrants and U.S. citizens. More precisely, agents of the Border Patrol are known for regularly overstepping the boundaries of their authority by using excessive force, engaging in unlawful searches and seizures, making racially motivated arrests, detaining people under inhumane conditions, and removing people from the United States through the use of coercion and misinformation.”

American Immigration Council, “No Action Taken: Lack of CBP Accountability in Responding to Complaints of Abuse,” 2014.

CBP’s powers are extraordinary. What other federal agency sets up checkpoints for document inspection, engages in race-based traffic stops under color of law, insinuates themselves into routine law enforcement encounters as “interpreters,” and boards buses and trains demanding identity documents? These tactics are tailor-made for repression.

So it’s not surprising that Acting DHS Secretary Wolf said in a Fox News interview on July 21 that DHS agents are “having to go out and proactively arrest individuals.” After all, arresting people without probable cause is business-as-usual for his agency. (It is also unconstitutional. Harvard law professor Andrew Crespo breaks it down in a fabulous Twitter thread).

Perhaps most disturbing, however, is the recasting of ICE and CBP as “intelligence” rather than “law enforcement” agencies. Reported in February, the move threatens to make these forces even more impervious to accountability.

Human rights violations, like human rights themselves, are interconnected and interdependent. Our outrage needs to be too.

The same tactics refined at the border are now being deployed to “control anarchists,” according to Acting DHS Secretary Wolf (whose @DHS_Wolf twitter feed uses “anarchist” so frequently you would think he stopped reading his nativist history book at 1920). This is a potent example of how human rights abuses, when allowed to continue unchecked, create space for further repression affecting ever greater numbers of people, geographies, and issues.

Activists warning of the impact of criminalization and mass incarceration will see another tool in the toolbox of repression being used to hammer protestors in Portland: protecting private property from graffiti. That’s right. Graffiti. DHS has attempted to justify the tactics in Portland by pointing to dozens of episodes, including the defacement of federal property with graffiti. Proponents of the toxic “broken windows” policing strategy have long cast graffiti in the same terms reserved for gang affiliation and drug crime, justifying use of absurdly draconian felony charges against Black and brown communities. (For a powerful deep dive into graffiti and the impact of criminalization of urban artists check out the Scared Straight episode of the California Love podcast).

Not surprisingly, this deep-seated commitment to prioritize the protection of inanimate objects over the protection of people (especially Black and brown people) comes alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights’” pronouncement that the founding fathers sought to protect private property above nearly everything but religious freedom (for Christians). Check out The Advocates’ blog post on the “Commission” here.

What’s unfolding in Portland has rightfully horrified many people as an extraordinary crackdown on First Amendment protected activity and a terrifying disregard for Fourth Amendment guarantees against unlawful search and seizure. Moms decked out in protective goggles and dads armed with leaf blowers have turned out in the streets.

But let’s be honest. Border communities have faced daily human rights violations committed by an unaccountable and armed paramilitary force patrolling a militarized border. Black artists have faced serious jail time for engaging in artistic expression without the protection of a studio or gallery.

Human rights violations, like human rights themselves, are interconnected and interdependent. When the headlines of federal forces in our communities shift away from the Portland protests, remember that BIPOC communities will remain directly and deliberately in the crosshairs. Our outrage needs to follow.

How can we take action?

Demand accountability and disinvestment. CBP’s annual budget is more than $18 billion, with an additional $10.4 billion for ICE, nearly doubling since 2014. (Meanwhile, CBP recently was found to have misappropriated emergency funds earmarked for “consumables and medical care” to address deplorable detention conditions,” spending the money on ATVs, boats, motorcycles, and other unrelated expenses.)

Document and report abuses. In addition to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions each have special procedures for investigating human rights violations.

Stand in solidarity. Calls to #DefundPolice and #AbolishICE are more than hashtags. They represent insightful community-led movements to envision and achieve a new vision of safety at our border and in our communities that values the human rights of us all.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director and Director of the Research, Education, and Advocacy team at The Advocates for Human Rights.

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My Dad Is A “Buddhist Dictator”?

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As a child, author Rosalyn Park was also told to “go back” to where she came from. 

When President Trump recently tweeted that Rep. Ilhan Omar (my representative) and three other congresswomen of color should “go back” to where they came from, empowering others to parrot him, I felt that hate personally. Those are words that I, and so many others, hear because we’re “different.” It reminded me of the racism my dad faced when he first came here and reinforced that, even though discrimination is illegal, it’s up to each of us to respect and make that a reality.

My dad immigrated to the United States more than 50 years ago from South Korea. He came for the “American Dream.” Carrying a suitcase containing his beloved judo uniform, he hoped for a good education and a new life – not unlike many of the immigrants who come to the U.S. today. He arrived with little resources: just $20 and an alarm clock in his pocket. My dad was fortunate that the university kindly let him stay in a basement office of the Dairy Science Building. He didn’t have any blankets, so he used his judo uniform as a blanket. For six months, all he could afford to eat was peanut butter sandwiches.

Dad Pic 2

 

A fellow student approached my dad with a request. He was going to serve in Vietnam and wanted to hire my dad for judo lessons. As poor as my dad was, he refused payment. My dad told him, “This country welcomed me in, and I want to give back for what the United States has done for me.” He agreed to teach the classes for free and open it up to interested students.

 

 

Three days before my dad’s first judo class, the local news ran a story about a woman with a judo black belt who fended off three attackers. The story received a lot of attention. When my dad arrived at the gym, he found 200 students waiting to learn judo. He didn’t turn any of them away. Instead, he divided them into two classes a night and taught six nights a week on top of his full-time student schedule. He was so tired some nights, he would get nosebleeds or come close to fainting. Still, he refused to take any money and continued teaching.

The local paper found out about his judo classes and ran a story about my dad. But it wasn’t to recognize him for volunteering his time and skills. Instead, they called him the “Buddhist Dictator” and accused him of using judo to convert students to Buddhism (my dad is Catholic, by the way). It was classic racism – uninformed, prejudiced, and intolerant of those who are “different.”

Dad judo

My dad’s experience happened a long time ago in the 1960s. But racism does not end with time. When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, other kids told me to “go back to where I came from.” This confused and crushed me. I was born in Minnesota. The only language I spoke was English. This was my country. Where was I supposed to go? What really hurt was how I was treated differently from our classmate, “Christine.” Like me, “Christine’s” parents immigrated to the U.S, but from Western Europe. She never got called names like “chink” or was told to “go home.” The only difference I could see between us was that she had brown hair and blue eyes. I am Asian.

My dad earned his Ph.D., worked 27 years at the same company, and became a U.S. citizen. But racism doesn’t go away with degrees, a job, or citizenship. And my own personal experience tells me racism doesn’t go away with years or generations. Racism lives because people are fearful or ignorant about who or what is different from them. And to me and others who are “different,” that translates into hatred.

Time does not defeat racism. People do. It’s 2019. And it’s time for each of us to stand up against racism and stand up for human rights.

To learn more about The Advocates for Human Rights’ work or to volunteer, visit: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/volunteer

By Rosalyn Park, Director of The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program.

 

Using the UN to Stand Up Against Racism in the U.S.

 

The Advocates for Human Rights has Special Consultative status with the United Nations, allowing us to bring matters of concern to the attention of the UN human rights mechanisms. Volunteer Veronica Clark presented The Advocates for Human Rights’ statement on racism in the United States at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on March 20, 2017.

Mr. Vice President:

The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about the rise in hate crimes and incidents of bias targeting racial, ethnic, and religious minorities in the United State. Hate crimes are recognized and prosecuted in the U.S.under federal and state laws. Yet 5,850 criminal incidents and 6,885 related bias offenses were reported in 2015. Fifty-nine percent of victims were targeted because of a race/ethnicity/ancestry bias.

Further, policies and practices at the federal, state, and local levels continue to disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities. Racial and national origin bias pervades the U.S. criminal justice system, including widespread use of racial profiling and stark racial disparities in arrests, convictions, and sentencing.

The Advocates for Human Rights encourages Member States, including the U.S., to take concrete action to:

  • Adopt at local, state and national levels comprehensive legislation prohibiting racial profiling;
  • Collect and publish statistics about police stops, searches, and abuse, to monitor trends regarding racial profiling and treatment of minorities by law enforcement;
  • Establish independent oversight bodies within police agencies, with real authority to conduct impartial investigations of all complaints of human rights violations;
  • Provide adequate resources to train law enforcement officials;
  • Assess the disproportionate impact of mandatory minimum sentences on racial and ethnic minorities; and
  • Create a national commission to examine police tactics nationwide, including the use of excessive force, militarization of local police forces and policing of protests.

Thank you.

Related post Hate groups, incidents proliferating in U.S., The Advocates tells UN Human Rights Council

Welcome Home Blog Series: Karen refugees in Minnesota have a critical ally

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Pictured: The Advocates for Human Rights’ Madeline Lohman & Karen Organization of Minnesota’s Hta Thi Yu Moom facilitating a meeting to strengthen community between Karen diaspora members and other residents of Roseville, Minnesota.

 

Minnesota has seen an influx of Karen refugees from Burma over the past decade, the majority settling in St. Paul. The transition to life here can be bumpy as they struggle to learn English, find jobs, navigate government bureaucracy, and sometimes deal with family upheavals.

But the new residents have a critical ally: the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM), the nation’s first Karen-led nonprofit. “You can come here any time as long as the office is open,” says Eh Tah Khu, KOM’s co-executive director, “and we’ll make sure you get the help you need.”

The Karen (pronounced Ka-REN) are an ethnic minority group from the mountainous border regions of Burma and Thailand who have been fighting for independence for many years. Subject to ethnic cleansing, forced labor, killings, and other human rights abuses by the former military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar), many fled to refugee camps in Thailand before resettlement in the United States. (Burma moved to a civilian-led government last year.)

KOM says about 12,000 Karen now live in Minnesota, some drawn from other states because of the high quality of refugee services here. Minnesotans should be aware that many Karen have “been through trauma,” Eh Tah Khu says, and “have never been able to raise their voice for any reason.”

Eh Tah Khu arrived here from Thailand in 2010 with his wife and son and joined KOM as youth development coordinator in 2011. He became co-executive director last year, sharing duties with Alexis Walstad.

KOM — with money from state and federal grants, foundations, and the Greater Twin Cities United Way — offers a wide range of services to Karen and other Burmese refugees. They include job training, English classes, youth programs, weaving, public transit orientation, and community health services.

The organization evolved from the Karen Community of Minnesota, a volunteer group that Karen leaders started in 2003 in St. Paul. They set up KOM as a separate organization with 501(c)(3) status in 2008. Based in Roseville, it now has 25 paid staff members, including two at an office in Marshall; three AmeriCorps members, and about 80 volunteers. It serves more than 1,500 clients a year.

But KOM is at a turning point. Some of its government grants pay specifically for services to new arrivals. But the United States has stopped resettling refugees from Burma, so Eh Tah Khu worries those grants won’t be renewed as his group focuses more on long-term services.

He is frank about other challenges facing the organization. Because KOM is so accessible, he says, “we are overloaded with walk-in clients.” They need help with everything from paying speeding tickets to enrolling in MNsure to filing divorce paperwork.

More mental-health services are badly needed, he added, noting that there are no Karen-speaking therapists, psychiatrists, or psychologists in the area. The community is also grappling with problems like drug use by young people, parents feeling they have lost authority over their children, domestic violence, and divorce (which is rare in Burma).

But Eh Tah Khu says KOM’s strength lies in the partnerships it has forged with a long list of service providers and educational, government, religious, legal and other groups over the years (you can see them here). “We know that without community support,” he says, “we can’t do our work here.”

Karen Organization of Minnesota
Website: www.mnkaren.org
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mnkarenorg/
Volunteer opportunities: KOM needs short-term and long-term volunteers to help with activities including youth mentoring, interpretation/translation, data entry, public transit training, and driving. Apply here or contact Rebekah Jacobson at rjacobson@mnkaren.org.
Learn more: KOM holds presentations on Karen culture and history on Friday afternoons every other month. The next session takes place on June 16.

By Suzanne Perry, volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights. This is the first of the “Welcome Home” blog series featuring articles about groups that represent diaspora communities in Minnesota.