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A Black Doctor in Minneapolis On Watching Police Patrol the American Dream

Dr. Charles Crutchfield is an obstetrician and pillar of his community. Apparently, that's not enough.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 2: A group of clergy members pray at a memorial for George Floyd on June 2, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. All faiths were invited to join in a silent march and give prayers at the memorial. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin have spread across Minneapolis, with thousands of protestors marching and an unknown number of malefactors looting and vandalizing. The Minneapolis Police Department’s third precinct is rubble and the anger shows no sign of dissipating. If anything, tensions have increased as Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has delayed the arrest of the officers involved in Floyd’s death and called in the National Guard.

Amid the swirling chaos stand the Crutchfields, board members of the Minnesota Black Community Project and pillars of the Minneapolis community. Dr. Charles Crutchfield, Sr. is an 81-year-old retired  obstetrician and founding member of MBCP. Christopher Crutchfield, his son, is a lawyer who works alongside his father and other community members to run the MBCP, an organization that brings together black Twin Cities folks and highlights black excellence. They’ve done this through the books, through partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society, through panels and to-come documentaries. The Crutchfields are black and proud and successful and plenty of other things besides. They are also unsurprised — unsurprised by police brutality and by public indifference to the lives of black people. They are well educated and successful and black. They understand the fate of the community they’ve helped build.

 “What do they call an African-American man with a degree from Harvard, educated at Stanford, who went to Yale?” asks Christopher. It’s an old joke. One that gets passed around by black men in ties. “You call him a n*****, right?”

Much of the rhetoric, specifically from the right, on Black Lives Matter and police brutality orbits the often unspoken premise that advancement professionally, socially, or personally, protects more esteemed members of the community from police. This racist and wrongheaded thinking leaves no room for the Crutchfields.

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As troops entered Minneapolis, Fatherly spoke to Dr. and Mr. Crutchfield about their experience living, prospering, and surviving in the Twin Cities.

Talk to me about what you might be feeling right now in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests, and looking back on families and careers built in Minneapolis. What does this moment bring up in you?

Dr. Charles Crutchfield, Sr.: I am an upright citizen. I have never been jailed, or anything like that. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I don’t use drugs. I was an obstetrician. I worked for 60-plus years as a doctor and 90 percent of the time I wear a suit, I wear a tie. My dad told me to dress the part. He said, ‘If people see you as a black man, they will treat you that way. So, dress as a doctor.’

On three separate occasions, I have had to fear for my life from the police. And I have done absolutely nothing except be black. I thought one of the officers, who looked mean and evil, was looking for me to react so he could do something to me. He killed a black man about a year and a half later in St. Paul.

One time, a policeman pulled his gun on me and when I asked why all he could say was that I didn’t dim my brights soon enough. He’d seen I was a black guy and got his gun out. I had to tell him I was a physician. When he found out, he changed his whole demeanor. I started crying. 

Christopher Crutchfield: I feel like we’ve been spotlighted for so long. “Oh, he had a gun. Oh, he might have pulled the gun. Oh, he might have feared for his life.” For so long. The excuses just come out, as soon as an African-American is shot. “Oh, let’s wait until everything comes out.” That’s code for, “We’re going to try to fix this problem quietly, in the backend, and give you an excuse that you can hang onto.”

Right. It doesn’t matter who you are.

Dr. Crutchfield, Sr: Even when they killed a friend of mine, Philando Castile, three years ago, out here in Falcon Heights, the state freed Officer Jeronimo Yanez totally. He was supposed to be guilty of murder. They freed him. They always free him. And that’s what, I’m sure, they tell each other. “We’ll be free. They’re not going to charge us.” That’s what you hear – the frustration. Even in my voice, from the 81 years of police brutality that I’ve seen.

Christopher: Officer Yanez was acquitted. It was sanctioned, what he did.

Talk to me about thriving in the Twin Cities. Were you born and raised here?

Christopher Crutchfield: There are all sorts of people who came here from the south for a better life. And, many of them have succeeded and are contributing not just to the African-American community to the Twin Cities community, lifting the Twin Cities up and making this a wonderful place. 

Dr. Charles Crutchfield, Sr.: When I was a kid, in Jasper, Alabama, if we were in a group and we saw the police coming, everybody would run because they’d put you in jail for no reason. They’d shoot you if you talked back. Every year or two, growing up in Jasper, Alabama, there was a black man killed. Every year. The reason I came to Minnesota at age 15 was that my dad wanted me to get out of that bad environment. 

I came to live with my aunt and uncle in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But the original reason was that the police were killing people, and they were going to kill my uncle. 

This feels prescient, given the situation in Minneapolis.

Christopher Crutchfield: The narrative that some people have about at African-Americans will not change. We’re lifting up the city. We’re vibrant partners. That’s why it hurts so bad. 

We need our humanity looked at. We go to work. We’re teachers, professors, business professionals, doctors and lawyers. We work at the post office. We service the community just like everybody else. We have doctors. We have dentists. We’re regular citizens who pay taxes. 

Dr. Crutchfield, Sr.: I’ve delivered over 9,000 babies in St. Paul. Of those 9,000+ babies I delivered, 7,000 of those babies were white. My other son, who is a dermatologist, at least 80 percent of his patients are white. There has been no holdback of black people contributing to the Twin Cities society. The people that are out there doing bad things are not black people. There are peaceful protests that have come from all over the world because they are tired of police brutality, and witnessing police, every year, killing a black man or two. It seems that white America loves black society, but hates the black person.

Christopher: I also think it’s really important that the books [that we as an organization are publishing] deliver the narrative that African Americans in Minneapolis and St. Paul Minnesota as well as all over the Twin Cities are some wonderful, talented, incredible people doing incredible things. That’s what we want people to focus on. 

Do you think that you and fellow black Minneapolans can find justice in the system?

Dr. Crutchfield, Sr.: In Minneapolis, pathologists have been in cahoots with the city and county workers. They all work for the same team. He died from the knee on his neck. It’s obvious what he died from. It’s not a mystery. We saw it. Someone’s knee on your neck, hands cuffed behind your back, and you can’t breathe? It’s not due to heart conditions or asthma.  You died because the policeman killed you.

By the way, they knew each other. He chose to kill, or do terrible harm, to Mr. Floyd. Chauvin did. His fellow officers looked at it.

Christopher: Yet, you have four officers that killed a man, and it took them five days to charge one and they still haven’t charged the other three. That is hurtful, and it’s shocking, that the police, still, enjoy special privileges even when they do something that all over the world, we see as being atrocious, we’re giving them special treatment. We moved Mr. Chauvin to a special place for his protection. These all wouldn’t happen if this was me, or my father, or even you, had done the same thing. And that is really, just very upsetting.

What do you think people don’t realize about what’s happening in Minneapolis? 

Dr. Charles Crutchfield, Sr: Eighty percent of the people up here are peaceful protestors and are white. They don’t hone in on that at CNN. I know these people that are in these demonstrations. They’re peaceful people. Most of the havoc has been caused by those four white supremacists who are now in jail, who threw firebombs. What you see, as a nation, is people raising up against systematized police brutality.