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Report of Minneapolis mayor's purported 'gang sign' results in wave of criticism

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A photo of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges at a neighborhood voter registration event ignited a firestorm of criticism aimed at a Twin Cities TV station.

The photo was first publicized as part of a KSTP report, which you can watch below. The station says law enforcement sources claim the photo shows Hodges "flashing a known gang sign," with a man who has been convicted on drug charges and illegal possession of a firearm, and is on a stayed three-year prison sentence.

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The two were part of a group working a "get-out-the-vote" canvassing event in north Minneapolis Nov. 1. The 22-year-old was volunteering and walking the neighborhood.

The station spoke to a retired Minneapolis police officer who said Hodges is putting officers at risk by displaying the purported gang sign, and "legitimizing these people. She is legitimizing gangs who are killing our children in Minneapolis."

Police told the station there isn't evidence he belongs to a gang, but he has connections to gang members.

In a statement to BringMeTheNews, the mayor's office describes the man as "well-regarded," and a longtime organizer with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, and said the two were "pointing at one another."

#pointergate

The response to the KSTP story has been swift and overwhelmingly negative. Part of the concern for those who take issue with the report is what they describe as a lack of context.

In a "get-out-the-vote" video feature taken that day, there is behind-the-scenes footage of Hodges and the man in the photo right before it was snapped. The two try a couple of different hand gestures – first straight out, then a thumbs-up – before settling on the one seen.

Watch it here:

http://youtu.be/2V1-aUEXBu0?t=32s

In the video, the man in the photo talks about how he "made some mistakes" in life and now can't vote, but is "working on that."

The Minneapolis Police Department also tweeted a photo from the canvassing event that day in which Hodges, the man and Police Chief Janeé Harteau are all standing together. Harteau also appears briefly in the video.

Update: KSTP released the following statement just before 11:30 a.m.

"Law enforcement sources alerted KSTP-TV to a photo they believed could jeopardize public safety and put their officers at risk, especially given the recent increase in gang violence. Multiple sources from several law enforcement agencies told 5 Eyewitness News the photo had the potential for undermining the work they are doing on the streets. 5 Eyewitness News blurred the individual's face and did not name the group he was working for because police called into question only the judgment of Mayor Betsy Hodges."

The hashtag #pointergate became a top trending topic on Twitter late Thursday and early Friday, with many social media users posting photos of themselves making similar hand gestures – some with other local politicians or candidates.

Is race a factor?

Other users have said that – intentional or not – there is a clear racial bias on display in the report.

Maybe the most prominent voice comes from Nekima Levy-Pounds, an active community leader and professor of law at the University of St. Thomas Law School, who in a Star Tribune blog post expresses concern about the way race is portrayed in the media.

Levy-Pounds' concern, she writes, is the "constant portrayal of young black men as gangsters, thugs, and criminals" on the television, and how that can influence people who may not see or interact with young black men otherwise.

"I had the privilege of meeting the young man in the photo several months ago at a community meeting. I learned that he has worked hard to reintegrate back into the community by being employed as a canvasser at Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) for the past two years. This young man personally knocked on thousands of doors during the election season to help get out the vote and educate community residents about the impacts of felon disenfranchisement in Minnesota."

She also says she thinks about "the tens of thousands of white Minnesotans who tuned into the news and were served a steady diet of racial stereotypes, innuendos, and a false narrative about the Mayor and the young African American man standing beside her in the photo."

Hodges has put a focus on community and police relations in recent weeks, saying she wants to increase the number of non-white officers on the force, increase officer accountability, and revamp the current standards of conduct.

The Minneapolis Police Department has crossed paths with the man before. At a September signature gathering event with NOC, the organizations says an officer used excessive force against the 22-year-old, tackling and handcuffing him, the Star Tribune reported. Some people at the scene also said the officer – the subject of two lawsuits regarding similar incidents – threatened to shoot witnesses, the paper reports.

That incident was caught on video and uploaded to YouTube.

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