Moorhead Mayor Johnathan Judd had slept little for days when he addressed the community from the heart Sunday morning. He applauded the thousands of Fargo-Moorhead marchers who came together Saturday to honor the memory of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man killed by a police officer while three colleagues stood by. He praised local and area peace officers who rose to Fargo’s — and Moorhead’s — defense that night, when a day of peaceful protest turned ugly.
He told marchers, “You obviously wanted to be heard, and we heard you.” It’s a message of change that the first-time mayor of Moorhead is, perhaps uniquely, qualified to understand and implement.
He’s been thinking about it ever since.
As the first black man to hold elected office in the city of Moorhead or its neighboring communities, he concedes his position today is distinctly different from his fellow mayors’. “Is it awkward? Well, yes and no,” he says. “I grew up completely differently from the others in leadership here. We were desperately poor. I didn’t have both parents in the household. I am the first in my family to be a college graduate.” He adds, “I have experienced the same things the protesters have.”
He tells of growing up with a scant few people who looked like him in visible public roles: “There weren’t a lot of people of color in our institutions for us to see,” he explains.
“If people can’t see themselves reflected in the institutions around them, they don’t necessarily trust those institutions to take care of them. It’s the same concept with women, though it’s manifested differently. There’s a disconnect.”
Now, J.J. finds himself standing in front of those same people on what might seem the other side of the divide. “As a black man and an elected official, I represent everybody. I have to listen to a broad, diverse community and not show preference for any group among them. Both sides have rights. Our job is to listen to what all of them want and need to say, and then work toward the best outcome for everyone.”
Judd worked for a time in Minneapolis between completing law school at the University of North Dakota in 1991 and returning to Moorhead 11 years later to become Concordia College’s director of multicultural studies. He went on to work with the Clay County public defender’s office and the county prosecutor and establish his own private practice. Last year he joined M State as director of equity and inclusion.
In the aftermath of the Floyd killing, he watched as Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey — elected in 2018, as Judd was in Moorhead — recognize protesters’ anger and strive to listen. “Everybody has his own style,” Judd reflects. “His wouldn’t necessarily go over as well here, but it works in the Twin Cities, and that’s cool. For our community, I think my style works better.” How would he describe that? “I’m more contemplative, I think. I want to mull it over before I speak.”
His widely applauded comments Sunday reflected that. Coming as they did after a long, hot night — the likes of which were entirely foreign to most of the Fargo-Moorhead community — he stood in a phalanx of white male officials reporting on the unprecedented violence in downtown Fargo. Standing like a dark block of granite between his taller, older fellow leaders, he stepped forward with only a scrap of paper reminding him to thank the Minnesota law enforcement officers from throughout Clay, Becker, Ottertail and Wilkin counties for the help they’d offered Moorhead that night.
He spoke to his community without notes: “The conversations that came out of my talking with the crowd yesterday, along with Tim Mahoney and Chief Todd, were the ones I grew up with myself: ‘Why don’t we see more people of color in these institutions? Why don’t we see more police officers of color? Why do we not see more individuals in leadership in our community?
“I grew up in this same manner. When you don’t see yourself represented in the institutions that work for you, to care for you and support you, you’re going to have a feeling of distrust. I have lived with that reality.”
On Saturday, after talking with and especially listening to so many angry and grief-stricken people of color, he rode home at about 6:30 p.m. with his wife Tammy. “We didn’t say a single word the whole way,” he describes. “I spent the evening talking with a friend, just trying to process everything.” Then the mayor got a heads up: The tone of the lingering protest on Broadway was growing darker.
His first impulse was to go back to Fargo and try to prevent the escalation. “I was going to go downtown and try to stop it. Chief (Shannon) Monroe strongly advised me not to go there. So did my wife,” he says. “The chief said he couldn’t guarantee my safety.”
Instead, he gathered with Moorhead and Minnesota officials in the Joint Law Enforcement Center to assess the situation, then recorded a somber video message. “I’m asking a personal appeal for calm and for people to please resolve your differences in a constructive manner. Looting, rioting, causing disturbances to the peace are not acceptable. We can come through this all together, bring these voices to the table and resolve these issues in a community discussion that will bring positivity to the whole region.”
From 10 p.m. until 1:30 a.m., he stood at the bridges between the cities among police and sheriff’s deputies to prevent the violence from overflowing to his side of the river. “I had to be sure that if anybody came across, we were going to talk about resolving issues rather than causing damage to the businesses Moorhead is working so hard to support … businesses that are already struggling to get back after three months of being closed. This was the very last thing on earth our city needed.
“My goal was to intervene however I had to,” he says now. “Thank God we didn’t have to.”
He praises a number of activists who’d taken part in the march earlier for their attempts earlier that night — among them Cani Adan of the Moorhead Human Rights Commission; Hukun Dabar, director of the Afro-American Development Association; and Ezzat Alhaidar, coordinator of the New American Consortium for Wellness and Empowerment — for trying to calm the crowd. “They were trying to talk to these young cats and tell them, ‘Don’t do it.’” he says.
The issues that propelled the majority of the day’s marchers are, Judd says, “thing we talk about in Moorhead all the time. This is the way our community operates. You can come to the Human Rights Commission or to city council meetings or reach out to city officials and staff without fear. It’s part of why I love this community.”
He continues, “We’re working on it … but maybe we needed a nudge.”
Thousands of F-M residents marched Saturday. (Estimates range from two to as high as four.) He has a message for them: “Taking part in a march doesn’t mean the work is done. It’s just beginning.
“We need to listen to each other’s stories. We need to get our shared humanity back.
“I know we’re all juggling a lot, some more than others — not only inequality in education, in earning, in access to health care. There’s a lot going on in our society, what with losing family members from the pandemic, losing jobs, losing businesses we’ve spent our lives building … it affects us all. Over the last three months, people have been pushed to the tipping point.
“We need to find answers, and the first step is stopping this us-against-them mentality. You can say ‘no” to injustice but still say ‘yes’ to law enforcement. Instead of trying to talk louder than the next guy, we need to listen. Listen!”