Then, in February 1997, Ellison appeared as a local spokesman for the Nation of Islam with the last name "Muhammad." He spoke at a public hearing in connection with a controversy involving Joanne Jackson of the Minnesota Initiative Against Racism (MIAR). Jackson was alleged to have said, "Jews are among the most racist white people I know." Jackson denied making the statement or insisted that it had been taken out of context. Ellison appeared before the MIAR on behalf of the Nation of Islam in defense of Jackson's alleged statement. According to the Star Tribune and the full text of the statement published in the Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder, Elli son said:
We stand by the truth contained in the remarks attributed to [Ms. Jackson], and by her right to express her views without sanction. Here is why we support Ms. Jackson: She is correct about Minister Farrakhan. He is not a racist. He is also not an anti-Semite. Minister Farrakhan is a tireless public servant of Black people, who constantly teaches self-reliance and self-examination to the Black community. . . . Also, it is absolutely true that merchants in Black areas generally treat Black customers badly.
The last sentence alluded to another of Jackson's alleged statements, providing a personal basis for characterizing Jews as "the most racist white people" she knew. Ellison's May 28 letter acknowledges only that others supported Jackson's alleged statement in that controversy while falsely denying that he himself did so.
Ellison first emerged as a candidate for public office in 1998, when he ran for the DFL nomination for state representative as "Keith Ellison-Muhammad." In a contemporaneous article on his candidacy in the Insight News, Ellison is reported still defending Louis Farrakhan:
Anticipating possible criticism for his NOI affiliation, Ellison-Muhammad says he is aware that not everyone appreciates what the Nation does and feels there is a propaganda war being launched against its leader, Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Ellison says now that he broke with the Nation of Islam when "it became clear to me that their message of empowerment intertwined with more negative messages." However, Ellison himself was the purveyor of the Nation of Islam's noxious party line in his every public utterance touching on related issues over the course of a decade. Moreover, Ellison's unsavory associations were not limited to the Nation of Islam.
Perhaps the lowest moment in Minneapolis's history was the September 1992 execution-style murder of police officer Jerry Haaf. Haaf was shot in the back as he took a coffee break at a restaurant in south Minneapolis. The murder was a gang hit performed by four members of the city's Vice Lords gang. The leader of the Vice Lords was Sharif Willis, a convicted murderer who had been released from prison and who sought respectability as a responsible gang leader from gullible municipal authorities while operating a gang front called United for Peace.
The four Vice Lords members who murdered Haaf met and planned the murder at Willis's house. Two witnesses at the trial of one of the men convicted of Haaf's murder implicated Willis in the planning. Willis was never charged; law enforcement authorities said they lacked sufficient evidence to convict him.
Within a month of Haaf's murder, Ellison appeared with Willis supporting the United for Peace gang front. In October 1992, Ellison helped organize a demonstration against Minneapolis police that included United for Peace. "The main point of our rally is to support United for Peace [in its fight against] the campaign of slander the police federation has been waging," said Ellison.
Willis was the last speaker at the demonstration. According to a contemporaneous report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Willis told the crowd that Minneapolis police were experiencing the same fear from young black men that blacks had felt from police for many years. "If the police have some fear, I understand that fear," Willis said. "We seem to have an overabundance of bad police. . . . [W]e're going to get rid of them," Willis said. "They've got to go." The Pioneer Press account concludes with Ellison's contribution to the demonstration: "Ellison told the crowd that the police union is systematically frightening whites in order to get more police officers hired. That way, Ellison said, the union can increase its power base."