State Rep. John Thompson (DFL-St. Paul) speaks at a rally for Dolal Idd, a 23-year-old Somali American man killed by Minneapolis police in December 2020. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Asma Mohammed wasn’t sure what to think about the domestic violence allegations against Representative John Thompson. But she knew they made her feel uncomfortable.

“I believe survivors every single time,” she said. “And I also know Black men are being held to a different standard. And I think John Thompson is being held to a standard we would not expect of anyone else.”

As the advocacy director for Muslim women at Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment, a Minnesota nonprofit, Mohammed is close to the movement for racial justice. She’s also a sexual violence survivor and advocate. Since she’s currently on maternity leave, she hasn’t been following the news as closely as usual.

And the news story about Thompson had grown harder to follow by the day. Thompson (DFL–St. Paul), who is Black, was pulled over on July 4 for a missing front license plate. He accused the police officer of racially profiling him. The officer discovered that Thompson’s driving privileges were suspended in Minnesota for allegedly failing to pay child support—and that although he is a Minnesota state representative, he carried a Wisconsin driver’s license, last renewed in November 2020. 

A flurry of news reports followed, questioning Thompson’s residency and eligibility for office in his St. Paul district. His supporters called the police stop racist and condemned the media and political circus that followed it.

Then, in the search for more information about the residency question, Fox 9 surfaced five police reports detailing domestic violence allegations against him between 2003 and 2011.

Within a day, Republicans and top Democrats, including Governor Tim Walz, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, and Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, called for Thompson’s resignation.

Just as the news cycle seemed to be winding down, on Wednesday a jury found Thompson guilty of obstructing the legal process, a misdemeanor, during a 2019 altercation with police at a Robbinsdale hospital.

Mohammed had heard that the police reports describing domestic violence might have been doctored, an allegation that came from Thompson’s lawyer, Jordan Kushner. It troubled her to think so, but it seemed plausible: Police seemed to have had it in for Thompson since he made inflammatory remarks at a protest last August at the home of Bob Kroll, then president of the Minneapolis Police Federation, she said.

“It all makes me, and probably makes everyone, really uncomfortable, because nobody knows what to say,” she said. “If this was a white politician, I don’t know what the situation would be. I know the police probably wouldn’t go after them the way they are going after John Thompson.  And he probably would not have been pulled over, which sparked all this.”

But the more she read about the allegations, the more credible they seemed. She started to see his denials as a classic abuser tactic. She felt less muddled, and felt ashamed for her earlier confusion.

“The most skilled abusers know how to rally people to their side,” she said in a text message hours after an earlier phone interview.

Many other observers and activists have also been experiencing mixed and evolving feelings. The Thompson allegations presented a tangled mess for racial and gender justice advocates. Since the #MeToo movement tore through workplaces across the country in 2017, including the Minnesota Capitol, progressive activists and elected Democrats have pushed for a zero tolerance policy regarding gender-based violence. 

But at the same time, many worried that as a Black man, Thompson seemed to face higher levels of scrutiny than white men accused of similar offenses. And the way the scandal unfolded—escalating from a front-page minor traffic stop, which many saw as both racially biased and sensationalized in the media, to a series of domestic violence allegations—left many people feeling uneasy.

Progressive politicians seem to be struggling with how to respond—although that’s a guess. None of the 21 members of the POCI Caucus contacted by Sahan Journal offered any comment on how they were processing the allegations. 

“I believe survivors every single time. And I also know Black men are being held to a different standard. And I think John Thompson is being held to a standard we would not expect of anyone else.”

Asma Mohammed

Among Thompson supporters, more no comments: Nekima Levy Armstrong, founder of the Racial Justice Network, who spoke at a press conference on Thompson’s behalf before the domestic violence allegations emerged, also declined to comment.

Nelsie Yang, the St. Paul city council member whose ward overlaps with Thompson’s district—and one of Thompson’s earliest endorsers—said she didn’t want to make a statement until she heard more from Thompson’s family.

“I would really love to hear their truth and for them to have their space to talk about it,” Yang said. But, she added, the narrative pushed about Thompson to the national media came from “the people who are perpetuating white supremacy and racism in our communities, and police brutality as well.”

Processing the domestic violence charges

For some community members, the domestic violence charges against Thompson came as a shock. The five police reports, drawn from police departments in Eagan and St. Paul as well as Superior, Wisconsin, span 70 pages and detail witness statements of alleged abuse. The reports describe incidents in which Thompson allegedly punched and choked a woman and exposed himself, all with children present. In another report, his girlfriend’s 15-year-old daughter told police he had grabbed her shirt and shoved her. 

Thompson was never convicted of any domestic assault charges, though in three cases he pled guilty to the lesser charge of disorderly conduct.

Reached by phone Thursday, Thompson declined an interview request. “I just need time. My wife needs time to breathe for a second,” he said. “I just want to take her out to have a steak.”

He added that he would make a statement soon.

Sophia Rashid, a Muslim community activist and domestic violence survivor, broke down in tears over the allegations, and cried for an hour and a half. Two years ago, she said, she’d fought a lengthy and consuming legal battle against the man who abused her. 

“The only thing that gets you to keep fighting is there’s a light at the end of this tunnel,” she said. “Somewhere there has to be some accountability. There has to be some line. There has to be some end to this.”

But the Thompson allegations made her feel like that wasn’t true. The acts described in the police reports struck her as egregious. According to the reports, sexual abuse took place in front of children, she noted.

“To see a sitting active elected official with these levels of allegations, I don’t know if there is a light at the end of that tunnel,” she said.

It was difficult for Rashid to concentrate on legal paperwork in the aftermath of domestic abuse. She’d suffered multiple concussions, which made it impossible to look at a piece of paper or a computer screen for more than a few seconds. Her mental and emotional strain didn’t help.

But despite what she described as overwhelming evidence in her own case, and the financial and family support she had to fight it, her abuser ultimately pleaded to a violation of a restraining order—not the assault charges she’d been hoping for.

It’s nearly impossible to get a criminal conviction for domestic violence, Rashid said.

The acts described in the police reports struck Sophia Rashid as egregious. According to the reports, sexual abuse took place in front of children, she noted. “To see a sitting active elected official with these levels of allegations, I don’t know if there is a light at the end of that tunnel,” Rashid said.

Thompson and his lawyer, Kushner, have denied the allegations in a variety of ways, including pointing out that he was never convicted of any domestic violence charges; stating that his wife, who is named as the victim in some of the police reports, now categorically denies the allegations; asserting that the police reports were doctored; and accusing police of circulating the reports.

These denials did not convince Rashid. 

She expressed concern about the denial from Thompson’s wife, too. “Believe survivors” became a common refrain during the #MeToo movement; in this case, the alleged survivor has gone on to deny the charges. But it’s not fair to put pressure on someone who may be in a domestic violence situation, she said. 

Mohammed agreed.

“What happened to me, I didn’t want another man of color to go to jail,” Mohammed said. That outcome wouldn’t lead to her healing, she said. And perhaps Thompson’s wife felt the same way.

Categorizing abusers

Dr. Oliver Williams, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work and former executive director of the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community, said there is no typical profile of someone who perpetrates domestic abuse.

“It could be a minister, it could be a policeman,” he said. “Basically, there are people who have controlling behavior. When they look at conflict, they don’t know how to handle the conflict very well, and they may use violence and abuse as a way to deal with it.” They may have experienced violence or bullying as a child, he added. 

Some men who abuse women do so their whole lives; others become less violent as they get older, Williams said. But in his experience, it often takes the loss of a valued relationship for men to realize they need to change. 

If a politician in Williams’s district faced similar allegations, he said he would look for evidence of change.

“Has he done things to encourage men to take a look at their behavior?” he asked. “Has he done things to be supportive of victims of abuse? And also, I’d want to know what she has to say about it.”

Double standard?

D.A. Bullock, a filmmaker and police abolition activist, thought the traffic stop headlines were “much ado about nothing.” He’s known plenty of people who moved from Chicago and didn’t change their driver’s license address right away—and it’s particularly common for renters, he said. He agreed with Thompson’s claims of racial profiling during the traffic stop.

But he found the domestic violence charges “disheartening, and really sort of crushing.” He felt disappointed in Thompson, whom Bullock has run into Black Lives Matter protests. Thompson’s constituents had the right to call for his resignation, Bullock said.

Still, the pile-on from top Democrats calling for Thompson’s resignation, especially Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan, seemed cynical and opportunistic to Bullock.

“Black folks, especially Black folks in politics and who are activists, know that whenever there’s an opportunity to throw us under the bus, we get thrown under the bus,” Bullock said.

Bullock observed a double standard at play. He pointed to a 2005 report in the Rochester Post Bulletin describing criminal charges filed against Steve Drazkowski, a candidate for state Senate, for allegedly assaulting his daughter, then 14. Drazkowski (R–Mazeppa), denied the allegations. He lost that election, but won a special election to the state House the following year, and has held the office since. (Drazkowski did not respond to a Sahan Journal request for comment.)

Thompson should resign, Bullock said. But he wasn’t the only one who should. “I think all abusers should recognize their past,” he said. “And if they’re not making amends for their past, and that past comes to light, I think the responsible thing for them to do is to resign.” 

‘Are we doing due diligence only against Black legislators?’

Jaylani Hussein, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations–Minnesota, also expressed frustration with a perceived double standard.

“We have zero tolerance for sexual assaults and any misconduct,” he said. “However, it seems that there has been a vendetta against John Thompson from the beginning from both political parties. And it appears to be a political lynching of some sort.”

If there is a public interest in the past misbehavior of elected officials, we should scrutinize their records, as well, Jaylani said. For example, he observed, Governor Walz was jailed on suspicion of speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol in 1995. (Walz’s 2006 Congressional campaign manager told the Rochester Post Bulletin that he was not drunk, but that his deafness contributed to a misunderstanding with the patrol officer; the deafness has since been surgically corrected. Contacted by Sahan Journal, a spokesperson for Walz declined to comment on the record about Walz’s arrest and claims of a double standard.)

“We have zero tolerance for sexual assaults and any misconduct. However, it seems that there has been a vendetta against John Thompson from the beginning from both political parties.”

jaylani hussein

And earlier this year, six Republican state legislators stood with protesters at the Minnesota Capitol for a “Stop the Steal” rally, perpetuating former president Donald Trump’s lie that he won the 2020 election (he did not). The Minnesota rally took place in solidarity with the gathering in Washington, D.C., which turned into an insurrection that left five dead.

“They didn’t just violate their oath to defend the Constitution,” Jaylani said. “They also played into a national effort to literally usurp our democracy.” Yet there are no widespread calls for their resignation, he observed.

“Where is the ethics line drawn for public officials?” he asked. “Are we doing due diligence only against Black legislators who are outspoken?”

He stood with Thompson, he said, and would wait for Thompson’s family to share the rest of the story.

Words without action

Sophia Rashid saw a different kind of double standard. The forceful condemnation from politicians upset her, too. Both parties have failed at creating policies that would help people leave violent relationships, like access to affordable childcare and paid family and medical leave, she said. In her view, Democrats have failed to provide the necessary leadership to pass these policies, while Republicans have blocked them.

Yet both parties were willing to champion the cause of domestic violence when it was politically convenient, she observed.

“Regardless of party, those who are elected into spaces of power, whose job is to represent us and take care of all of our best interests, have completely fallen short,” she said. 

So, how does all this end?

If Thompson does not resign, Republicans have vowed to bring ethics complaints against him. Melissa Hortman (DFL–Brooklyn Park), the Speaker of the House, announced Wednesday she would wait until legal processes to conclude before taking action.

The House has the power to expel a member with a two-thirds vote. But it has never happened before.

For a more likely scenario, we can look to the case of Rep. Matt Grossell (R–Clearbrook).

In 2019, three months after his drunken arrest, Hortman stripped Grossell of assignments on the judiciary and public safety committees. She determined he had abused his office with an implied threat to law enforcement. After his arrest, he told an officer he was a state representative, and his detention would mean “hell to pay.” 

Grossell’s arrest was not met with widespread calls for his resignation, or the kind of media attention Thompson’s traffic stop received.

Grossell was reelected in 2020, and sworn in for a new term this January. He currently serves on the same committees he was previously removed from: judiciary and public safety.

If he runs for a second term, Thompson will come up for reelection in 2022.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, help is available.

You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text START to 88788, 24 hours a day.

In Minnesota, you can contact Cornerstone’s Day One Crisis Line at (866) 223.1111 or text (612) 399-9995, 24 hours a day. You can also call (952) 884-0330 for help finding safe housing, to learn about protective orders and tips on creating a safety plan.

For help in either English or Spanish, you can call Casa de Esperanza’s 24/7 bilingual crisis line at (651) 772-1611.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year that Steve Drazkowski first won election to the legislature (2007) and the office he holds; he serves in the state House, not the state Senate.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...