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Jane Ahlin, Published January 21 2012

Ahlin: Former Fargo police chief uses ignorance as defense

Maybe it’s the cold weather. But my hackles were raised this past week when I read about former Fargo Police Chief Chris Magnus and the lawsuit against him in his current position as police chief for Richmond, Calif. – a lawsuit that’s been around several years and finally is going to trial.

Filed in 2007 by seven black police officers, the suit claims Magnus (and his deputy chief at the time) made racially insensitive remarks and failed to promote black officers because of their race.

Just to be clear, what made me bristle had nothing to do with the merits of the suit. Instead it was a remark by Magnus in defense of the one (and only) offensive statement he admits to making. You see, Fargo was his excuse. Here’s Magnus’ offensive statement: “So what’s Juneteenth? Is that a holiday for shooting people?”

Now for his excuse (which, I admit is a liberally paraphrased version of a paraphrase from a news article): “Hey, I came to Richmond from Fargo. Whadya expect?”

It brings to mind a North Dakotan I know who was driving alone in his car during rush hour in Minneapolis and got picked up for using the carpool lane. The guy told the police officer, “I’m sorry. We don’t have carpool lanes in North Dakota, so I didn’t know what it was.”

The officer gave him a ticket.

Ah, yes, out here in the boonies, we’re removed from the rest of the world. No reason for us to know about the holiday Juneteenth, established to celebrate the abolition of slavery. After all, North Dakota isn’t one of the 39 states to have passed legislation for its observance. Yes, we have a larger black population today than ever before, but mostly it’s made up of African refugees and their children who have arrived in the U.S. during the past few decades, not the people descended from Southern slaves whose families have been in this country longer than the families of most of us Midwestern white folk.

Minnesota, on the other hand, is one of the 39 states. In fact, the Twin Cities first commemorated Juneteenth in 1968 after the Poor People’s Campaign march against poverty in Washington, D.C., in June following the April assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For the past 26 years, Juneteenth has been an annual Minnesota celebration. Given the proximity of Minnesota to Fargo, we might say to Magnus – as the police officer said to the North Dakota driver – that not knowing is no excuse. But let’s be generous. Maybe the chief was so devoted to Fargo that he didn’t notice Moorhead. (What if he didn’t realize there were bridges and thought he had to ford the Red River to get across?)

No matter. The disingenuousness of Magnus’ excuse is laid bare by his own resume. Before he came to Fargo, Magnus spent 18 years on the police force in Lansing, Mich., where blacks make up about 25 percent of the population. Guess what? For the last six years he spent there, Lansing held Juneteenth celebrations. We know that because this year’s commemoration is advertised as Lansing’s “19th Annual Juneteenth Celebration.”

In other words, with his “Fargo” excuse, Magnus was trying to obscure his really bad Juneteenth remark with a silly cheap shot. And therein lies a lesson for us all. In fact, let’s expand the teachable moment to Bison and Sioux supporters trying to out-offend one another and to Republican presidential hopefuls trying to gin up the radical right with racially coded language. You may get the response you want today, but cheap shots rarely turn out to be cheap.

Interestingly, having looked up the news reports on the lawsuit, the evidence against Magnus looks weak at best. Were I a betting person, I’d bet he wins.

The more I think about it, it’s good the Richmond officers suing Magnus weren’t Norwegian. No way could he claim to be ignorant of Syttende Mai.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.