ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A deleted video from a forum that turned tense over racial issues demonstrates some of the political risks in Minnesota first lady Gwen Walz’s push for criminal justice reform.
Walz and staffers in the governor’s office wanted to promote an upcoming PBS documentary about rigorous college coursework for prison inmates because they want to replicate the concept in Minnesota — and to raise her profile as a leader on criminal justice issues.
But not everything went according to plan. Minnesota Public Radio reported Monday that a forum at Twin Cities Public Television one day last May that included screenings of clips from the documentary turned tense when the moderator pressed participants about race. A top aide to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz sought the next day to make sure a video of the forum didn’t circulate. The event’s hosts acknowledged deleting the video to smooth out ruffled feathers.
TPT officials defended their handling of the matter. The Walz administration initially took a similar posture, but later expressed regret for an “overreaction” on its part.
The documentary, “College Behind Bars,” set to air in November, profiles the Bard Prison Initiative, a program developed at a prison in New York state that’s aimed at tackling recidivism by steering inmates toward college courses and degrees.
The moderator of panel discussions at the forum, Toussaint Morrison, who is black, told MPR he felt compelled to ask the panelists, including Gwen Walz, who is white, about race because the clips they saw mostly showed inmates of color. He said she framed incarceration in her opening remarks as an issue of education, money and geography before “somebody from the audience said, ‘it’s a race issue.'”
Other community members in the studio chimed in as well. The panelists were taken aback, apparently unprepared to talk about the racial aspects of criminal justice. The discussion then shifted away from race until Morrison brought it back.
“I said, ‘Can we talk about prison and education without talking about race?’ And then the panel just goes silent. … Now the audience is a little razzed up because they’re not, nobody’s answering the questions,” Morrison said.
TPT President and CEO Jim Pagliarini told MPR he spoke the day after the forum with Kristin Beckmann, the governor’s deputy chief of staff.
“Because we didn’t agree to tape it and there was no plan to use it going forward, I think we all just agreed it didn’t need to be around anymore,” Beckmann told MPR.
Pagliarini denied the decision to delete the video resulted from political pressure. He said the recording was never intended for broadcast.
“I think that there is validity in their concern that our moderator, our employee, he pursued a line of questioning that made people uncomfortable,” Pagliarini said.
But Beckmann later told MPR it was a mistake to press TPT. “We made an emotional decision at that time, and we realize in hindsight that it was an overreaction,” she said in an email. “We regret the decision.”
Gwen Walz stressed that she views the conversation about race as important.
“As I say in almost every speech that I give, I’m going to acknowledge who I am: I’m a middle-aged white woman with privilege — with white privilege. And I am on a journey learning what that is about. And I need all of Minnesota to help me and help one another have this conversation,” she said.