Minneapolis protest leader shakes up civil rights politics

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Posted: Nov 21, 2015 11:19 AM
Minneapolis protest leader shakes up civil rights politics

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — As days of protests unfolded following last weekend's shooting death of a black man by Minneapolis police, one prominent leader was a woman who had already been shaking up racial politics in the city.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, 39, who led a youthful takeover of the Minneapolis NAACP this spring, has emerged as a leading face of the local Black Lives Matter movement and been at the forefront of demonstrations alleging excessive police force against African-Americans across the country, but most recently Jamar Clark in Minneapolis on Nov. 15.

"I don't mind being an outside agitator," the University of St. Thomas law professor, who grew up poor in Mississippi and Los Angeles, said Friday with a voice hoarse from so many speeches in the past week.

Her approach, more reminiscent of the 1960s than the quieter strategy recently preferred by older civil rights leaders, is lauded by many in the community, though she has her detractors. The Rev. Jerry McAfee, a veteran local civil rights leader who preceded Levy-Pounds as head of the Minneapolis NAACP, called her a "glory-seeker." But she doesn't mind that she's not always invited to the table with more established leaders.

Levy-Pounds has been a frequent presence outside a Minneapolis police station since protesters began an "occupation" there last Sunday to protest Clark's death. When the crowd suddenly decided to block a nearby freeway, she joined them — and got arrested — just days after charges were dismissed against her and other organizers of a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mall of America last December.

Levy-Pounds, who is also a preacher, said the roots of her activism go back to her childhood amid the poverty of south-central Los Angeles, where she decided to become a lawyer. Her future became even clearer in 1991 after a black friend, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, was shot and killed by a grocer who witnesses said accused the girl of trying to shoplift a bottle of orange juice. It happened shortly after the videotaped police beating of Rodney King, and it upset Levy-Pounds that the shopkeeper only got probation.

She said those incidents of "undervaluing of black lives" were a defining moment.

"She got news of that, how the store owner got off with a slap on the wrist. That really just hit home for her," said her mother, Vera Davis. "She felt there was no justice in the situation."

Levy-Pounds was a natural authority figure as the oldest of five sisters, said 35-year-old sister Antoinette Davis.

"We would call her Reverend, even Oprah a lot," Davis recalled.

Dane Smith, president of Growth and Justice, a research group that advocates for reducing economic and racial inequality, invited Levy-Pounds to join his board because he considers her Minnesota's leading voice for racial equity.

He thinks she's headed for national prominence.

"It struck me that she had this rare combination of passion and intellect. When she spoke, people really responded. And I really liked most of all the pushiness," Smith said.

But McAfee, the former Minneapolis NAACP leader, said that if Levy-Pounds really believes all black lives matter, she should be speaking out against the about 50 homicides recorded in the Twin Cities this year, many of which involved black-on-black violence.

"She's a fake, caught up in her own personal persona," he said.

To Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, both Levy-Pounds and McAfee play vital, important roles.

"When you're passionate, you believe in things and you're not compromising on those conditions, you're bound to ruffle feathers," Ellison said.

Levy-Pounds said she doesn't need the old guard's approval, adding she believes they're afraid of how the young people of Black Lives Matter have been able to unite community members across racial, ethnic, religious and socio-economic lines.

"I know I'm doing the work of God. And I know I'm doing it the way he wants me to do it. And I can sleep at night because of the way I do things," she said. "My back is completely straight because I know who I am."

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Associated Press writer Doug Glass contributed to this report. Follow Steve Karnowski on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/skarnowski