Break the Wheel with Attorney General Keith Ellison | Crooked Media
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May 23, 2023
America Dissected
Break the Wheel with Attorney General Keith Ellison

In This Episode

The murder of George Floyd three years ago set off an uprising at the very core of who we are as a country over the treatment of Black folks, particularly at the hands of the police. Abdul reflects on the legacy of that uprising two years on. Then he sits down with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, the man responsible for bringing Floyd’s murderers to justice and author of a new book about the trial and police violence.




[AD BREAK] [music break]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, narrating: A debt ceiling crisis looms with foundational implications for health. The World Meteorological Organization says that heat waves will climb to record highs in the next five years. Across the U.S., drug shortages are near an all time high. This is America Dissected. I’m your host, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. [music break] Do you remember where you were when you saw that horrific video that felt like it would never end? The one of a man choking the life out of another man with his knee on his neck? I’ll never forget the video that showed the world the brutal death of George Floyd. I was holed up at my in-laws house. It was the first two months of the pandemic. I hadn’t been out in months. I remember the gush of competing emotions, the sadness at the loss of an innocent life. The rage at knowing that had George Floyd not been Black and poor, he would never have had to suffer that. The anger at the inhumanity that Derek Chauvin and the three other officers showed as Floyd called for his mama between gasps. The dissonance and knowing that these men had sworn to quote, “protect and serve,” but rather than seeing George Floyd as someone who they were to protect and serve, they saw him as someone from whom they were supposed to protect other people. I remember watching as throngs of people took to the streets in a nationwide show of indignation. The Black Lives Matter movement took on a new life, as by some estimates, literally 10% of Americans, 35 million people took part in a Black Lives Matter demonstration. That didn’t stop the then president, a man who came to power by driving white supremacy to the fore in our public debate, from using the movement as a means to stoke the very flames that had created the situation where thousands of Black folks have to live with the indignity of violence at the hands of people sworn to protect them. But it did force so many people who could have otherwise ignored the reality that Black folks have lived every day to for just a moment, stop and pay attention. The same corporations who discriminate against Black employees, Black shoppers, or Black communities now commercialized the Black fist. Hiring DEI coordinators, the same politicians whose policies created untenable poverty for predominantly Black communities now stood in quote, “solidarity.” Social media went all black. Then everyone moved on. Three years on, it’s hard to fully identify the tangible impact of that moment. Those DEI coordinators, so many of them, have either been marginalized into just a symbol or were fired completely. Those politicians, passing the same discriminatory policies. All of us, we’re talking about other things. But you know who didn’t forget? The white supremacists. Donald Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president after all. We’ve watched everything from book bans on books like How to Be an Anti-Racist and attacks on Black studies programs, including a ban against the AP course in African-American history in the entire state of Florida. But our guest today didn’t forget either. After the murder of George Floyd, the responsibility to hold his murderers accountable fell on the shoulders of Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison. He was ready. He’d been working against police violence his entire career. Also, a five term congressman and the first ever Muslim-American elected to that body, he was ready for the political firestorm he was stepping into too. And it took absolutely every lesson he’d earned about the law, about politics, about racial justice to get it done. And he did. Derek Chauvin was convicted of second degree murder and is currently serving out a sentence in a federal penitentiary in Arizona. Now, you’d think that the guy who put the guy who murdered George Floyd behind bars would be rewarded at the ballot box for his efforts. But Keith Ellison has run for office nine times. And his 2022 reelection campaign, the one after he put Chauvin behind bars, was his tightest yet. Winning by less than 21,000 votes, less than 1% of the overall vote count. That’s right. There are folks in the state of Minnesota who watched Ellison step up to hold George Floyd’s murder accountable and decided to vote against him for it. And that’s because the white supremacists haven’t forgotten. And why it’s so absolutely important that all of us remember too. To help us, Attorney General Ellison has written a book about the trial and about the abiding challenges of police violence and structural racism more generally. It’s called Break The Wheel, and he joined me to talk about it. Here’s my conversation with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: All right. Can you introduce yourself for the tape? 


Keith Ellison: My name is Keith Ellison. I’m the Attorney General of Minnesota and a good friend of Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I got to say, uh the first time I met you uh, Mr. AG was um back in 2007. And you were a candidate for uh Congress. You were the first uh Muslim candidate for any political office I ever met. And uh, you know, back then, I had no inkling that I’d ever run for office, nor was interested in politics. I was uh in in medical school at the time. And I remember um sitting down with you and thinking, man, it would be awesome if uh if this gentleman broke that faith barrier, became the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. And, you know, I got to I got to watch that happen and then uh got to watch um several more Muslim folks get elected. Uh. And, you know, I had to say, when the subject of the book today, um when it came to pass that George Floyd was murdered and um and that was in Minnesota, and I said uh the folks in that state and frankly, all of us in the United States are really quite blessed that Keith Ellison is Attorney General, because I know that that man– 


Keith Ellison: [?]. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –uh when he puts his mind to doing something, uh he’s going to do it. So, you know, thank you for your leadership and for the example that you’ve set for so many of us. 


Keith Ellison: Well, can I just say this? I think you were the first serious statewide Muslim candidate for governor. Nobody had ever done it before. You broke new ground historically, and you and I don’t know who will be the first Muslim governor, but guess what? They all are going to have to go back, look at your campaign and and receive inspiration from it. So thank you for breaking barriers, brother, and thank you for all that you do. And also, like just so many things you do in terms of the health care and in public health of the community. Um. You know, it’s it’s it’s really so essential. So keep setting that great example and doing these good things, too. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, I appreciate it. We stand on the shoulders of giants. I uh you know, I want to I want to jump in. You wrote an extremely compelling book about the vantage point on that that awful day, um that awful moment in American history, frankly, from the perspective of somebody upon whose shoulders it fell to seek justice for what happened. But this wasn’t the first time you worked on on police violence at all. 


Keith Ellison: [?]. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Can you walk us through uh your your history working on this issue? You know take us back to that first case you worked. 


Keith Ellison: Well, I mean, when I was even before I was even out of school, I mean, when I was a student, I was organizing people to try to raise awareness on the issue. But my first case uh is interesting because it took place and it wasn’t even my first case. My first case was like a year when I got out of law school involving a kid named Tycel Nelson. And he was a 17 year old, shot in the back by a police officer in North Minneapolis, caused tremendous um anxiety, stress. Uh. I ran into his family just this last weekend and uh he is well remembered, his son now uh is a young man uh who never met his father. Uh. And his uh Tycel Nelson’s mother is now an older woman now uh slowed down quite a lot. Uh. But there the memory of of their son being taken away from them is something that will never, ever leave them. But then in the nineties, another case that I had that I was thinking about recently is that there’s a guy named Lawrence Miles. Lawrence Miles lived and is alive today. He was shot 100% in the back, two blocks south of where George Floyd was murdered. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Wow. 


Keith Ellison: And uh so but Geor– but but Lawrence Miles was shot in the back and uh he had a BB gun with him, but he was shot in the back. He wasn’t brandishing it at anyone. He was playing with his friends. He was 15 years old. Uh. Somebody saw something that looked like a gun. They call the police, the police showed up and shot him in the back like that. Uh. And uh we took that case to court, sued the city of Minneapolis. And, you know, Dr. El-Sayed, let me just tell you, we lost that case. The jury came back with a zero verdict uh and for the defense and uh which helped me understand very early on, these cases are very hard. Uh. Jurors tend to resolve all doubts in favor of the police, uh and it’s just very difficult to bring any accountability. I thought well, I thought to myself well the kid was shot in the back. He couldn’t have been pointing it at anyone. Well, we still lost. So when that when with dealing with uh you know, the George Floyd case, which had been I’ve been working on this issue for literally decades. Um. You know, I had a number of cases that didn’t go the right way for the victim. And uh all walked into the to that to the Floyd case with with those cases in mind. But, yeah, I mean, I’ll tell you, right after I got elected Attorney General, me and the commissioner of Public Safety, a fellow named John Harrington, uh we co-chaired a statewide working group to reduce deadly force encounters with police. He, uh John Harrington is a police officer. He was a police officer in Chicago. He was the chief of police in Saint Paul. Chief of the Metro Police, Metro Metro Transit Police. Uh. So this guy’s a cop all the way, bleeds blue. But he and I agreed that we needed to come together to reduce deadly force encounters and not only stops, you know, citizens and residents from being shot and killed, but also do some stuff for police and officer wellness so that when they show up for the job, that they’re not so stressed out and that, you know, they’re not really ready to deal with a member of the public who may be experiencing the worst day of their lives. So, uh yeah, I bring a lot to this thing. I’ve been working on it for literally decades. Policy issues, legislative issues, litigation issues, civil rights, criminal cases. Um. I didn’t show up uh in May 2020, new to this matter. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mmm. I want to you know ask you, because I think for a lot of folks who’ve watched your career, it was surprising when you decided to leave Congress and run for an Attorney for Attorney General. A lot of folks, I think, don’t understand what an attorney general does. So– 


Keith Ellison: I think you’re right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –can you walk us through your day to day? What does your job entail? How do you how do you think about it? What’s your mindset as you pursue your work every day? 


Keith Ellison: Well, the reason I left the Congress is because although I think it’s a very important job and I certainly would recommend that folks who care about good, good law, good policy run for Congress. For me, uh the ability to make the changes that I wanted to see were just coming too slow, quite honestly. Um. And you got to have a lot of patience to be in Congress. I mean, right now as we speak, uh they’re debating over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. Well, wait a minute, this is money we already spent. And the highest achievement that any Democratic member of Congress can be able to count on this month is not letting the the the economy go into freefall. That’s the highest the noblest aspiration you can dream of is to not let the economy tumble because people who are threatening it. And so, you know, and I just I just got to the point where as Attorney General, you can just simply do more. So, for example, when I was um in Congress, a woman walked up to me and she said she said, I need to talk to you. I said, okay, what is it? She said, my son uh was 26 years old, aged off the Affordable Care Act. And uh he started to he didn’t want to tell me that he didn’t have the money. He started rationing his insulin and his body went into ketoacidosis and he died, and my son died. I said I said, Ma’am, your son didn’t die from type one diabetes. Your son died because he couldn’t afford his insulin. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. 


Keith Ellison: He died because he couldn’t afford to live. He couldn’t afford his life. And–


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: He died of the American health care system. 


Keith Ellison: Right. And so and so and so she said, you know, what are you going to do about it? And as a member of Congress, I you know, I knew that I could try to do do do all I could to lower drug prices. And you and I worked together on, you know, trying to fix the American health care system. But as Attorney General, I started suing insulin manufacturers right away when you know, when when when when I helped contribute to passing an emergency insulin bill. Big Pharma sued to try to have the deal struck down. We sued. We stood up in court and fought for that bill and protected and defended it. And so, you know, and just whether it’s wages or whether it’s so many things, as attorney general it’s my job to be the people’s lawyer, to sue on behalf of the people of my state uh and to sue, represent the uh in, the laws of the state of Minnesota and all of the over 100 um agencies and boards and commissions. So uh we sue uh a lot of time for, you know, for the air. We sued ExxonMobil because, you know, they they knew that their product was causing climate change and then they lied about it. We sued them because of the deception. We just got through finishing Juul, the Vaping Company. And I know as a public health medical professional, you, you know about the dangers of vaping and the vaping companies try to act like, oh, well it’s safe. It’s not safe. It might be safer than a cigarette, but it’s not safe. You know, so we sued them and were able to get a good settlement out of them. So and we we sued uh we’re we’re pursuing uh these auto manufacturers who don’t put engine mobilizers in their car and make them very easy to steal. Folks like Kia and Hyundai, we’re investigating them. And so there’s just many, we just get to bring the, hold these folks accountable. Now, the the limitation is that we can only sue based on laws that have already passed. So but but in in Congress, you can make new law, which is great. But uh I just thought that for me and my personality, my where I stood in my life at this time, it would be better to be the Attorney General. Another thing we do um uh is we are the uh we’re the let the we’re the prosecutors of last resort in criminal cases. So in the state of Minnesota, if a county attorney’s for one reason or another uh can’t prosecute the case or or or don’t feel that their uh have the capability or the resources, the Attorney General’s office is the criminal prosecutor for the state of Minnesota. We’re the last line of defense when it comes to criminal prosecution. Uh. And the head of Hennepin County turned to our office and we worked with them and uh I led the prosecution in that case because uh we have our county attorney’s back. And uh in the Floyd case and any other case. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I think people think about Attorneys General as being, you know, the state’s top law enforcement officer. But people forget that the law is bigger than criminal law. It’s all the– 


Keith Ellison: Right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –public health law that gets passed. 


Keith Ellison: Right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: But too often, too many corporations can ignore it because nobody’s willing to enforce it and when you have an Attorney General– 


Keith Ellison: That’s right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –who recognizes that that office can be uh leveraged to build toward the public’s health, you can do things um that really do force these corporations to be accountable. 


Keith Ellison: That’s right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And in this case, you know, there this was a case of monumental importance when it comes to accountability for uh the police. I want to ask you, and you write about it very movingly in your book, but tell us what goes through your mind the minute you see that video and where were you, what went through your mind and how did you think about what evolved? Because I think the that video kicked off what was a national uprising around racial injustice in this country, particularly at the hands of the police. Walk us through your mindset as you watch that video. What goes through your mind? And then you know were you surprised by what erupted because of it? 


Keith Ellison: Well, you know, I got to be honest, uh although I’ve seen this stuff a lot, I still was surprised. I still was shocked, you know, and I prayed that I’d never I never get so jaded that I’m not shocked at massive injustice. All of us have to maintain our ability to be shocked because otherwise we just get cynical and accept the injustice. But it was uh I guess, you know, I’m a guy who gets up around, you know, depending on the time of year, you know, before before the sun’s up. Uh. And, you know why, you know, had something called Fajr prayer. So we get up and I think around this time it was about 4:45 and um and I looked on the face of my iPhone, what messages came over the night? And I saw that around 2:46 in the morning or 1:46 in the morning, uh my uh staff member, who was a young fellow, 26 year old guy named Keon, had sent me this video and said, you must see this, open this first. I’m like, Oh boy, what is this? So I click on it and I just hearing this voice yelling momma, I can’t breathe. I’m like, what is this? SoI look at it. And then I put my glasses on, and I can hardly believe what I’m seeing. And I’m recognizing that’s the Minneapolis police uniform, that’s the Minneapolis police cruiser. That’s 38th and Chicago Avenue. I know this place. Oh, my God. And then I’m like, it’s going on and it’s going on. And you can hear the people yell. And I’m watching this. And I got to be honest, Abdul. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it. I mean, I just remember seeing a tear splash on the phone. I didn’t even realize that I was having an emotional reaction to this video until I felt the warmth tear on my cheek there. And and I got to be honest, I remember when I was a little kid and we lived on outer drive, near outer drive. And I remember it was the sixties and I remember there were the riots were going on and I didn’t know what a riot was or why it was or what was going on, just know that my mom and dad were very nervous, and I remember standing on my tiptoes looking out the window, and me and my brother saw what we knew to be Army guys going by in trucks in green Army trucks. We didn’t know why they were there, what they were doing there. But what I learned growing up is that those guys were probably leaving the Eight Mile Armory, going to Davidson and twelfth and over there where the where the civil unrest was going on and um I remem– my mind drifted back to things like that. My mind drifted back to, you know uh, Rodney King and watching the video of him just getting beaten like that. So, I mean, I, I even I went to my wife and I said, honey, you got to see this. She said, what is it? I said this is the most incredible case of violence I’ve ever seen. I mean, it’s and I’m not even sure it’s the worst I’ve ever seen, but it was stunning in that how long it went on and how unnecessary it was. And she said to me, I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see that. My wife’s from Colombia and she knows what state sponsored violence looks like. She said, I don’t want to see that. And I don’t know if she’s seen it to this day. But I knew that this video. If I if I was shocked by it, others would be shocked by it. So, you know, I went in, I got dressed, I said to everybody, look, we got to talk. We had a meeting, started figuring out what we all knew, and uh we had no idea that the governor would eventually ask me to do this case. But we knew that we would have a role to play. And uh and so that’s how it all started. But I gotta I mean, some people say, oh, I wasn’t shocked or I wasn’t surprised, I was. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. 


Keith Ellison: And not because I hadn’t seen it before, but because I something in me keeps on hoping that we don’t ever have to see it again. But we keep on having to see it again. I mean, Tyre Nichols, just a few weeks ago I mean you know, it’s a that’s why the book is entitled Break the Wheel. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. 


Keith Ellison: I believe that there is I believe that this police violence issue is something that we can stop. And I think there’s a lot of police officers who want to see it stop. And I know that when you look at all the payouts, all the, the price of civil unrest, it’s just a policy change we we’ve got to pursue. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You know, it’s what’s so damning about that video. Not just on Chauvin and the other police officers who just stood by but on our society frankly, is every second is a moment that they could have reversed course. 


Keith Ellison: I think– 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I think in a lot of circumstances of police violence, it’s a split second call that you can’t take back. 


Keith Ellison: Right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Not to justify it at all, but– 


Keith Ellison: Right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –to say that you can at least, at least recognize that in the second the instant that a bad decision was made, that somebody could have tried to pull it back. But in this case, you just had this man kneeling. 


Keith Ellison: Yep. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: For what felt like ever. 


Keith Ellison: Yup. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And every second you have to deal with the last seconds in humanity. You’re like didn’t you hear him call for his mom? There’s something about the loss, not just of of life, but the willingness to take someone’s dignity. For nearly ten, 12 minutes. And–


Keith Ellison: –callous disregard, man. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It’s just. It is is it is breathtaking in how inhuman it is and the unwillingness for him or any of the other three to just you just keep waiting for someone to step in, someone do something, and it just never happens. And the the– 


Keith Ellison: Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It tells us so much more about all of those split seconds in which other decisions are made to shoot someone in the back or uh to shoot first instead of instead of de-escalating. It’s like there’s something there’s something rotten at the core here. You you talk about the fact that you had to prove that Chauvin and the three other officers, they knew they were violating police procedure. 


Keith Ellison: Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: What what about what you saw that day and what you learned in the course of the investigation was the key to establishing that? 


Keith Ellison: Well, there comes a point when uh Floyd’s voice gets slower and it gets thicker and it gets more labored. And then after asking for 20 some more times that to breathe, I can’t breathe. He just goes unresponsive. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mm hmm. 


Keith Ellison: And at that moment, after about 5 minutes, they still don’t get off. They check his pulse. They can’t find one. They still don’t get off. We prove, you are trained in CPR. You are trained in emergency uh first aid. You are trained in all these things. You are trained that if you put somebody in the prone position of arms behind their back, that their lungs will not be able to have the bellowing effect to breathe in, breathe out, take in oxygen. You know that there is positional asphyxia. You’ve heard of the term. You know what it is. And so we had, you know, so that when we had trainers coming on testifying that nope they took courses in CPR, nope they took courses in positional asphyxia. Yeah. They know what was going on. They knew better and they still didn’t do better. That is how we proved that, um that that they knew what the policies were and they just ignored them. So that was one of the themes uh that, you know, if they do better, they just didn’t do better. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. 


Keith Ellison: Uh they knew better they just didn’t do better. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: We’ll be back with more with Attorney General Keith Ellison after this break. [music break]. 




Dr. Abdul El-Sayed:  One of the conclusions that’s overwhelming in the book and frankly, is it hits you the moment you you watch that video is that there’s something about the will of one group of people to arrogate themselves so far over someone else that they they disregard the humanity of that other person. 


Keith Ellison: Mm yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And you you talk about this this culture inside the way that we police in this country. And I’d love to hear you talk that through with us. What is it about the culture of policing? And can it can it can it be taken out? 


Keith Ellison: Well, absolutely it can be. And uh let me just tell you, in 2019, 2020. You know, the city of Newark, New Jersey, and even in Camden, New Jersey, both of them had either none or one officer involved shooting. Um. And and so these are that you, it can be done. That’s the thing. That’s one of the messages of the book, is that we this is not an inevitable thing that has is just going to happen no matter what. We can do something about it. Um. But uh I can tell you that uh, you know, the culture is really what happened, because they we proved during the course of the case they had every class you could have. They had every course you could take. They passed those courses. We they took courses on uh racial sensitivity, cultural bias. But you know, what they really needed is another kind of instruction, which is in humanity. Right. Um. And one of the reasons we put on a nine year old girl to testify about what happened is we wanted to show the jury that if a nine year old kid knows that what these guys are doing, these officers are doing to George Floyd is wrong, then those officers knew it, too, and they knew that what they should not be doing. If you notice in the Tyre Nichols case, you see them on video getting literally getting their stories together. Oh, he was really strong. He was hard to get, wasn’t he? And so in the Floyd case, you know, it really is a cultural thing. There are some people who don’t who simply don’t need to be in policing. And how do you change the culture? One thing you have to do is you have to prosecute criminal conduct, whether whether that person has a badge or not. And you have to uh use administrative remedies to fire people who violate rules. If you do those things, prosecute criminal conduct and fire people who don’t supposed to, who violate the rules, then you can get into a conversation about training. The problem with training is you’ve got to have people who think that the training is a good thing to take advantage of. You’ve got to have people who don’t scoff and and and sit in the back in the classroom, cracking jokes during the training. You need people who think that the training is valuable, helpful, and is going to make them better at what they do. And uh that is how and you so you put some so you put some some basic markers down. You do this. That’s a crime. You do this. That’s an administrative violation. You’re going to be held accountable for that then, but I’m going to tell you how you stay out of trouble. Listen to this training. Your average person is going to say, okay, I get it. But think about this. Derek Chauvin was the field training officer for J. Alexander Kueng. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mm hmm. 


Keith Ellison: J. Alexander Kueng, the African-American. He was the mixed race guy who identified as Black. He was the the pupil of Derek Chauvin. Now, that doesn’t let him off the hook, right? He can’t just say, oh, my boss was doing it, so that’s why I did it. You were you were in the academy more recently than him. You know what the rules are. But they’re being told two sets of rules. Academy rules. Departmental rules. And then and then what Chauvin says oh that’s, I mean, he says it by his actions. That’s all stuff for another. That’s all other stuff. You really want to know how policing is done. This is how we do it. And then that is more of the law of the jungle, quite honestly. Uh. And um so that’s so that’s that that’s the culture. We need to get rid of that militaristic law of the jungle, might makes right attitude, and and reintroduce professional policing, which I think uh professional constitutional humane policing, uh which which which by the way, I will say there are circumstances with that kind of policing where deadly force will be used, but it will, but the frequency of their use will go way, way down. And it will be apparent to any fair minded person that it was absolutely necessary, as opposed to a voluntary option, uh where the where the perpetrator knows they’re never going to be held accountable. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So there are a bunch of pieces here that I really uh want to dig into it, which I appreciate you sharing. I work day to day with law enforcement officers and to a to a to a person. I believe that they come to work with a good faith goal to take care of the community that they, quote, “protect and serve.” The thing about culture– 


Keith Ellison: Yeah I agree with that.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Is that culture is not about individual actions. Culture is about what emerges from a collective shared set of norms. And the thing about it is you can have cultural emergent phenomena that are deeply inconsistent with individual goals that every single individual will certify and validate. And I think when it comes to policing, what tends to happen is that that innate human will to create an us versus them and then to create conflict across us versus them, and then to adhere to a tribal assessment that trumps any idea of right or wrong. 


Keith Ellison: Yep. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Becomes so much more caustic when you carry the badge that says that I am the manifestation of state power. And I wonder how do we address that? Because the worry that I have is that when I when I sit down with law enforcement officers, I think there’s no way like that that you don’t have the best intentions at heart. But then we see what happens oftentimes, as you called it, the law of the jungle. And I say, how did how did how did that go from there to there? And I think what happens in society, there’s there’s this sort of unwillingness to appreciate that that that group actions and group behavior is fundamentally different from individual behavior. And the question that I have is when you try to hold a group accountable for what comes out around what individuals do as a function of a behavior that only comes out in groups, you start to get some weird dynamics, right? You’ve got, you know, police unions that oftentimes will, you know, go above and beyond to defend even the most ridiculous things that their worst members will perpetrate. 


Keith Ellison: Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And it’s almost like they say, yeah, we disagree with what they did, but they’re one of us, so or–


Keith Ellison: [laughing] That’s exactly what they say. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You know, there’s that– 


Keith Ellison: Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That that unsaid rule about you never sort of report when one of your colleagues does something that you know is wrong. And I want to ask you, how do you uproot that? Right? Because, you know, as someone who has been really quite critical of law enforcement, but who’s also worked alongside the law enforcement. I’ve asked this to a number of law enforcement officers. And the hard part is that the answer that I almost always get is, well, that’s really hard. And I’m like, so what do you do because in the moment where, you know, your partner did something wrong, but there’s all kinds of mis-incentives to quote, “snitching” about something you know, your partner did wrong. What do you do? Right? What do you do? And they can’t I oftentimes, I don’t get the answer that that would make me feel okay, like we’re moving in the right direction. So as someone who is the chief law enforcement officer of your state, you know, has has both is is by definition based on on on your position part of law enforcement, but also has held law enforcement accountable. What does it take for us to really uproot that culture, that collective outcome that continues to protect this kind of behavior or this kind of idea, even when individuals themselves know it’s wrong? 


Keith Ellison: I think you need basically two things and you do need them both. You need a peer group, or at least one peer to say that we’ve, I’m not doing that. And that takes tremendous courage, huge backbone and buckets of integrity. Particularly when the group’s doing otherwise and then you need people at the top to reinforce the value system of the peer who’s demonstrating integrity. If you don’t have both. You will not be able to change the culture in a positive direction because what will happen to the peer who says, I’m going to tell the truth, I’m not going to tolerate that is you’re going to get what happened to Serpico. For those who’d never heard of Frank Serpico, here’s a guy who refused to be part of police corruption in New York back in the sixties. He ends up getting killed. [correction: Serpico is still alive, he is 87] There’s a movie made about him, I think. I think uh, you know, Al Pacino played played uh Frank Serpico. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mm hmm. 


Keith Ellison: And so that so that’s a story. So that’s when that’s when the righteous individual says no to the to the bad culture. But if you have a person who’s if you can get some folks to take a chance on you, on on, you know, with their friendship relations and marry it with integrity from the top, it’s going to hell hold folks accountable. Then what you do is you literally change their culture. I mean, the thing is, is that every police department that’s ever had a problem and again, I will say without a doubt, police departments vary from city to city to place to place. They’re not all the same. They’re as unique as individuals. But when you get the big, when you get the classic big city police department problem, you know, uh and there’s all kind of cities that are under federal DOJ uh investigation. You could there’s tons of them you could pick from. You get that problem. You’ve got to have a chief who says, we’re just not going to have it. And but we are going to reinforce the positive conduct within the ranks and we’re going to hold people accountable for the negative conduct. And you do that over a sustained period. You’re going to arrive at a point where you’ve got a department where the doing the right thing is going to be rewarded. And doing the wrong thing is going to be sanctioned. But you’ve got to stick with it. And if you. But like I said, Newark and um and Camden both have made these turns. And I and I’m a tell you, you’re going to have people say, well, there’s Newark and Camden still got problems. I’ll say, absolutely. And everywhere does. But there are a far sight better than they used to be. But, you know, you want to see real change in Baltimore, Minneapolis, Dallas. You want to see real change in L.A.? You want to see real change in, you know, places like that. You’re going to have to have achieved this, like when just not going to tolerate that kind of conduct. And you’re going to have to have some folks in the rank and file who say, you know what, the chief said that if I don’t report what you just did, that I’m going to be in trouble, too, and I need this job. So you can don’t even if you don’t want to. If you don’t want to be in trouble, don’t do it around me. We’ve got to have people who are willing to say that. And then we got to. And then the other thing is, we’ve got to, training is important. You’ve got to be able to train a junior officer to say, you know what? You know what? I know you’re an O.G., you’ve been around here a long time. I know you’re a veteran. But. But. But we don’t train that. You can’t. You know, the guy’s down, he’s not breathing. He’s unresponsive. You’ve got to get off him. And even if you don’t pull your fellow officer off him, you at least yourself get up physically, which is going to make that officer get off his neck, you hope. And so, you know, you don’t you stop participating. And now they all got to worry, is he about to tell on us. Now, you might not get invited to the picnic. You might find yourself a little bit isolated. But if you do it and you get support from leadership, you can change police culture. One of the first witnesses that we had, Abdul, is a woman by the name Jena Scurry. And she was not a police officer. She was a 911 dispatcher. She was watching the video of this through a camera that was at the intersection. And she says to and she she it went on so long, she ends up calling the sergeant in charge there and says, uh I don’t want to be a snitch, but uh there’s a problem with what I just saw. And so she does that. She is the she is the individual with integrity who says something, who does something. Then you have a chief, Medaria Arradondo who says, absolutely I’m not standing next to that. Fires them quickly. Then you have the longest serving officer in the Minneapolis Police Department, a guy named Rick Zimmerman. He says, we don’t train that. That’s wrong. I cannot stand with that. So we’re hoping that we have enough folks who want to stand up for a constitutional, humane culture so that the ones who don’t want to do that quit. Good riddance. Goodbye. We’re going to hire people who want to do humane policing. And then slowly, one day, you arrive at a at a department where uh doing illegal actions, getting elec–, and a little extra punch in the mouth or or whatever, you know that you know, you know that that’s just–


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. 


Keith Ellison: That’s not the culture we have anymore. We don’t do it. We don’t tolerate it. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. I think the other part of it is that we have asked police and empowered police and police have asked to be empowered to answer calls that police are not well equipped to answer. 


Keith Ellison: It’s often true. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And I think we’ve we’ve dealt with the consequences of a kind of poverty that our society inflicts on people, by punishing it and criminalizing it. And then what tends to happen is because our societal scripts tend to look down on poverty, we, in effect, empower these folks who can use state force and state power to inflict a certain kind of punishment against the kind of poverty that we caused. And, you know, I think that part of the challenge that I I often have with the discussion that we have about policing and law enforcement is on the one hand, we ignore the fact that there is so much more investment that we need to make on all of the causes of poverty that tend to lead certain communities to be overpoliced, their bodies to be to be violated, uh and us to, you know, to continue to justify all the ways we do that. And on the other, we tend to forget that a lot of times the people who tend to be victimized furthest and fastest in communities tend to be poor, whether that’s by a neighbor or by the state itself. 


Keith Ellison: Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And, you know, it’s the disinvestment in those problems that I think become such a part of the challenge. But here’s the thing about it. You have been a an extremely successful politician in Minnesota and you just won your last race by the slimmest margin of your political career. 


Keith Ellison: It’s true. [laughing]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And you’re the guy who put Derek Chauvin behind bars. 


Keith Ellison: Yep. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: What does that tell us about the cultural script that we say we want versus the one that voters tend to vote for? 


Keith Ellison: Interesting question. Well, let me talk about, you made one point, which I would like to take up, which is we ask police to do a lot of things, some of which we don’t train them for, much of which we don’t pay them for. Hey look, you know, we don’t want to house everybody. So we got a lot of homeless people living in tents in the richest country in the world. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mm hmm. 


Keith Ellison: And then what we do is we ask the police, hey, run them out of there. Chase chase, shut that tent city down, move them out. Like, wait a minute. Is that policing? Is that policing? Uh. We don’t want to spend enough money on mental health. You know, we don’t want to fund institutions that would help people get mentally well. And so we yeah I don’t know, we leave them on a street, you know, whatever we do. And then when there’s a problem, we send the police to deal with it. Uh. So, I mean, there’s a few professions in our society; police, teachers and a few others who we don’t really want to deal with the problem ourselves as nice middle class people. So we just create a couple of professions. There’s like, let them deal with the folks in our society who we don’t deem there to be a place for. And I think that it’s not fair to the police, quite honestly. And I think that uh if you do, if you dump it on them like that, there’s no question that there are going to be problems. And so I think that you we could reduce a lot of problems if we just housed people, paid people. Remember, George Floyd was dis-employed because of COVID. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mm hmm. 


Keith Ellison: Uh. And he was uh making very minimal money. Uh. And uh and he he died because he was allegedly trying to pass a fake twenty and to this moment, there’s no evidence that he even knew the twenty was fake. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Mm hmm. 


Keith Ellison: And so there’s that. Now, speaking speaking and speaking now to your to your ultimate question, which was like, is it you know can you prosecute a police officer? Um. In 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, and survive your election. What I would like to say I’d tell people is, yeah, but it might be hard. [laughing] You could survive it, but uh they’re going to give you a run for your money. I mean, they, they were running ads on me like I was a friend of the criminal. They had me in the grainy, dark photographs. They had a video of a carjacking that did not even happen in Minnesota. It happened in Miami, of all places. And tried to blame me for it. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Hmm did it have palm trees in the background? [laughing]. 


Keith Ellison: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Right, right. [laughing] And they and they tried to blame me for it. I mean, it was really they had a fake they had a fake telephone call, [makes old timey phone ring sound] this is a call from a Minnesota correctional facility. Hey, how you doing? All of us inmates are voting for Keith Ellison because he’s afraid of the cops. He hates cops like we do. And this is [?] this is being blasted out to millions of Minnesotans for three, for two to three months straight. Um. And um I mean, and for those old enough to remember the Willie Horton ads. I mean, they were just they I’ll put like it this. 67 members of the clergy called these racis– these ads racist. And this was a multi racial faith coalition, multi religious faith coalition that denounced these ads as racially biased and untrue. And so you don’t have to take it from me. [laugh] You know, they said it. So I mean, uh but but the answer is you can win, right? I mean, that’s the thing we got to remember, it was a slim margin, 20,000 votes, but we did win. And whether you win by 20,000 votes or 20 million votes, uh at the end of the day, I’m still Attorney General Keith Ellison and my opponent is not. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah. 


Keith Ellison: Um. And so I say I’ll thank God for it. You know uh, you know, nothing but praise, you know, to the most high because uh, you know, it could have gone in another direction. And I wasn’t worried about me, Abdul, I just just to say this real quickly. Because I know that Keith, Keith Ellison is going to be fine. I’m an attorney. I’ve been in Congress. I bet as Attorney General, I could figure out how to earn a living. Right? But uh I didn’t want I earnestly I was fighting and clawing and working as hard as I could to win because I did not want the next prosecutor across America to say, I don’t know if I’m going to prosecute this case, even though it should be prosecuted, because if I do, there’s a political risk to be uh run. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And that’s exactly it. I mean, you’re the guy who held the most obviously [laughter] inhumane cop accountable and it– 


Keith Ellison: Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: —cost you votes. I mean, what– 


Keith Ellison: Oh yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –does that say about us as a society? I mean. You held the bad cop accountable. Like there’s no question to anybody that– 


Keith Ellison: Right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –what Derek Chauvin did is wrong. I’ve literally yet to see anybody anybody come out and be like, yeah, that guy was fine. He was perfectly justifiable. I mean, I think there’s been some attempt to revise history about who George Floyd was, but– 


Keith Ellison: Right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –nobody comes out and says, yeah, Derek Chauvin was fine. So [laughter] you put this guy behind bars and you would think that you would get a hero’s welcome. Hey, look, we’ve got this guy who courageously stood up. He prosecuted a case that could have cost him. We are going to celebrate that and we are going to make this a landslide. But no, there are literally people who watched you prosecute a super inhumane cop, right. Who used his power to kill a man for 12 minutes and it cost you votes, they thought there and said, you know what, I don’t think I wanna vote for that Ellison guy because he threw that obviously terrible cop behind bars. What? I mean this is the thing that that that to me [laughter] is so frustrating is that we we we everybody will come out and say it. But when it comes down to the choice they made in the ballot box. They said, you know what, I’m not I’m not going to vote for Keith Ellison. So what they’re basically saying is, you know what, I’d rather have a world of Derek Chauvin’s than Keith Ellison’s. And those are folks in in in your state. I mean, look, I’ve faced the voters before, and it– 


Keith Ellison: Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –can be a pretty painful thing. 


Keith Ellison: Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Right? 


Keith Ellison: Yeah. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: But you’ve been elected to public office, served honorably, did the hard thing, and it cost you votes. I mean I, how do you respond to that? Like, how do, in the end, I can imagine it was a pretty bittersweet win. Right? Because you kind of have to face that reality of being like, yo, like, [laughter] you know, you look around and be like, wait, did you vote against me because I put Derek Chauvin behind bars? [laughter] How about you? How about you over there? 


Keith Ellison: Well, uh I’ll say it was more sweet than bitter. And um, you know, here’s the thing. Uh. There’s a price to be paid. Even for doing what is right, [laugh] you know. And the the if you uh and I and you know, the thing is uh, Abdul, I know you and you’re the guy who will pay the price for doing what’s right. And so you understand why I did what I did, you know? But uh you’re right. What can I say? Some people um would rather would rather things have gone the different direction. But most people but it by my thing is, God bless those 20,000 folks who showed up, because sometimes it’s like, you know what I was worried about is people thinking, oh, well Keith’s going to win, you know, you know, he’s he won that case. He’s going to be a landslide guy. No, I mean, in some ways it was good that the the press was saying, oh, this is a tight race. This is a really tight race, um because um they got people out who otherwise would have just stayed home. But yeah, I uh, I will I will simply say that uh, you know, you can you can stand up for what’s right and you can still win your election. And you should and you should stand up for what’s right no matter what. And I and I can I tell you this one thing, Abdul? There’s this, that I had a lot of good friends, not a lot, but three or four good friends who told me during the week of May 20, you know, the week the last week in May 2020, when it was kind of rumbling around that the govern– governor might appoint me for this case. They said, do not take this case because if you win, the cops are going to hate you. And if you lose, the people are going to hate you. So you shouldn’t do this. Uh. You know, we have wanted to see we want to see you do this job or that job or some big shot thing in politics. And if you do this, it’s going to hurt you because there’s no way you can come out winning. And you know what? Those people proved themselves to be wiser than I gave them credit for at the time, but I still wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’m still glad I did what I did. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Sometimes uh. Sometimes uh the heart is smarter than the mind. And [laughter] 


Keith Ellison: That’s right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –I can tell you, you know– 


Keith Ellison: That’s right. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –one of the things we don’t appreciate–


Keith Ellison: Very true. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: The point that you made, I just want to put an exclamation point on. [pause] The fact that you took the case, the fact that Chauvin is behind bars today. The fact that you demonstrated that you can run again and win. I think it changes the circumstance for millions of people you’re never going to see, in Minnesota and outside Minnesota. And the thing about it that we don’t really appreciate is that there is a profound cost to feeling helpless at the hands of the state. 


Keith Ellison: Mmm. Mmm.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And the recognition that your body can be violated at any time by someone you’ve never met, who is going to have the power of the government you pay taxes to behind them. It is stays with you in times when the question of violence shouldn’t even be on your mind. And I think the courage to take– 


Keith Ellison: True. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –the case, to win the case and to run again. Says to a lot of those folks that actually there can be justice in the world, even though– 


Keith Ellison: There can be. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –there are voters out in Minnesota who wanted to prove it wrong. [laugh] So I think that that stress, that toxic stress. And of course, the fact that people die, routinely die. Thousands of people die at the hands of law enforcement in unjustified ways. I think those costs, they they they need and deserve and beckon a level of justice and in doing what you did, you brought that. And I I just want to thank you for doing that. And also thank you for writing about it. I think, you know, the book is an important uh reflection and meditation on both police violence, but what it’s actually like to stand up and fight it. I think a lot of us think of ourselves as the kind of people who would show up, even when it’s hard, I think the the world has demonstrated that actually, that’s a very rare thing. And you did that. So I appreciate you writing about it. I think it is absolutely necessary reading for anyone who wants to understand the nitty gritty of taking on both police violence but also racial injustice, injustice of any kind in the systems of power uh in our society. And um not only did you quote, “live to live and tell the tale,” but I think you wrote a fantastic observation that I think anybody who does this work uh will benefit from and and needs to read. So I really, really appreciate you– 


Keith Ellison: Thank you brother. 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: –doing what you did and joining us today to talk about it. 


Keith Ellison: Thank you. Thank you. And uh I’m so honored to be on with you. So honored to just kick it with you a little bit longer. You and me, we don’t talk enough, my brother, but I’ll I’ll see you next time, man. Alright?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: When you come home. You know, because here’s the thing, Minnesota, if you’re listening, uh those of you who who voted against Keith Ellison, go ahead and turn this podcast off. For the rest of you all, [laugh] uh Keith Ellison is still ours. All right? He’s a [laughter] Detroiter at heart, so I just want to put that out there. So, Keith, when you come home, all right and uh and you have the better pizza, right? And and the better food. Right? And the same weather, to be fair, [laughter] you come and vist. Okay? 


Keith Ellison: All right, my man. Hey, man, love you, man. You’re awesome. And uh we’ll see you soon. Okay? 


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Love you back. Appreciate you being uh being on the show. 


Keith Ellison: Oh, yeah. Buh bye now. [music break]


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Rather than my usual update on a number of stories, I want to dig into one really important one today. Republicans are about to force the U.S. into a full on default situation, all because of this weird accident of governance history called the debt ceiling. If you listen to this podcast, you’re probably well aware of the debt ceiling. But let me give you a little quick and dirty. Governments aren’t like you and I. They control a currency. Think about it. The U.S. dollar is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States of America. That full faith and credit is also exactly what Republicans are playing fast and loose with. And that’s critical because the U.S. itself borrows against that full faith and credit all the time in the form of government bonds it sells to everyone from banks, foreign governments and everyday folks. It’s largely how the U.S. government continues to fund budgets that well exceed its income. Every year, Government negotiates a budget for itself, and that budget is usually larger than the money government brings in through taxes and revenues. But here’s the thing, whenever the GOP holds an arm of Congress, the House or Senate, but not the presidency, they make a big deal about government spending. In comes the debt ceiling. You’d think the place to make hay about government spending would be during budget negotiations. But because of the weird way our government handles its debts, there’s another place to and that’s the debt ceiling. See, government doesn’t just have to agree to what the budget is, but they also have to agree to how much debt the government can have in the first place. But Abdul, if the government is already agreeing to take on debt? Aren’t they implicitly agreeing that they have to pay that debt down? Well, yeah, which is why the debt ceiling is so absolutely ridiculous. It just creates another opportunity for cynical politicians to hold the government hostage. And that’s exactly what they’re doing, because Republicans raised the debt ceiling without issue three times during Trump’s presidency, even while they increased debt dramatically by giving useless tax cuts to rich people, and now they’re making a stink in the middle of an inflation crisis because they can. But here’s why we’re covering this on this podcast focused on health and society, because the economy is one of the most important determinants of health, like really important. If we default on the debt, it’ll pitch us into a recession, the likes of which we have literally never seen. Those government bonds are like the bedrock of the way we built this economy. It’s well-documented that health declines during recessions as families lose jobs and tighten belts. The consequences for health are broad and deep. Losing a home, the foundation of a life destroys families. Spending on things like healthy foods or exercise declines. Mental health takes a huge hit. Risk to death to drug overdose and suicide, two causes of death that are already skyrocketing right now. Well, they climb. People lose their health care, forcing them to delay doctor’s visits or ration their medications. Look, I’m not saying that we’re going to default on the debt, but even the concessions that the GOP wants to raise the ceiling will hurt people. One of the biggest demands they’re making is to impose work requirements for federal safety nets like SNAP and Medicaid. They want to extend work requirements that already exist for people age 20 to 40, to those aged 55. On its face, the idea that before government helps you, you should quote, “help yourself” sounds enticing, but it completely misses the reality of poverty. It characterizes poor folks as if poverty is simply a choice. But poverty is structural. See, contrary to what we’re taught, that we are the land of opportunity where anyone with a dollar and a dream can make it. In fact, too few people have that first dollar. Economic data shows us that if you want to achieve the American dream, well, you should move to Canada because it’s twice as likely there. Here, where you start predicts where you end. And the problem is that we don’t do enough to invest in the means of income here. Programs like Medicaid, SNAP, or TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, they’re government social safety net programs that are the bare minimum. And imposing work requirements, it’s not just about making sure people are working. It’s about making sure people are doing paperwork to prove that they’re working. And when you impose endless reams of paperwork, it’s not like poor folks can hire accountants or lawyers to do it for them. And what happens is people just don’t take advantage of the programs that exist. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that raising the age for work requirements will take food assistance away from upwards of a million older folks in this country, and not whether or not you can afford basic fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, that’s an obvious public health issue. So, yeah, whenever you hear, quote, “debt limit,” I want you to remember that the entire issue hinges on the fact that Republicans want to hold the full faith and credit of the United States of America hostage to pulling basic food and poverty benefits away from people. Your money or your life, as our friend and former guest and Anat Shenker-Osorio put it. There’s a lot more happening in the world of health, but I wanted to take a second to explain this one. Oh, and last week we talked about the explosion of online ketamine. And our guest, Chris Hamby, mentioned a particularly problematic purveyor of online ketamine, a family medicine doctor in South Carolina who’d prescribed online ketamine to literally thousands of people. After that episode, one of his former patients reached out to share their experience of debilitating side effects, resulting from unsupervised treatment. They also shared last week that the DEA had suspended that doctor’s license. That’s it for today. On your way out don’t forget to rate and review the show. It really goes a long way. Also, if you love the show and want to rep us, please drop by the Crooked Store for some America Dissected merch. [music break] America Dissected is a product of Crooked Media. Our producer is Austin Fisher. Our associate producers are Tara Terpstra and Emma Ilick-Frank, Vasilis Fotopoulos mixes and masters the show. Production Support from Ari Schwartz. Our theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura. Our executive producers are Leo Duran, Sarah Geismer, Michael Martinez and me, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. Your host. Thanks for listening. [music break] This show is for general information and entertainment purposes only. It’s not intended to provide specific health care or medical advice and should not be construed as providing health care or medical advice. Please consult your physician with any questions related to your own health. The views expressed in this podcast reflect those of the host and his guests and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Wayne County, Michigan, or its Department of Health, Human and Veterans Services.