Before he was a top state prosecutor and the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, he was a student who fought for the rights of Black people.
In 1989, Keith Ellison, as a college student, was part of a campaign seeking justice for an elderly Black couple, which was killed in a botched-up police raid.
He helped organise rallies and spoke at press conferences to pressure the then Minnesota attorney general to investigate the police officers who threw the stun grenade in an apartment while young Black people pinned to the ground outside shouted that there were old people inside.
No police officer was ever charged for that incident.
Now he’s Minnesota’s attorney general and responsible for prosecuting the policemen charged with killing George Floyd, an African American man, last month.
As a top lawyer in the state, he’s in the spotlight as the United States has been roiled by protests against police brutality targeted at the Black community.
The trial can be a challenge for Ellison, 56, who is detested by the far-right for being too liberal and looked up to by his own supporters as someone who can deliver justice.
Over the years, his identity has shifted - in high school he was part of a band called The Deviants, in university he defended the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) charismatic but controversial leader Louis Farrakhan.
Shaped by experience
Ellison was always involved in social issues since his college days. In 1984, while pursuing a bachelor's degree at Wayne State University, he wrote an article on Bernhard Goetz, the white vigilante who shot and wounded four African American men on a New York subway train that same year.
In the article he questioned the widespread sympathy for the shooter.
“Well, I’ll tell you. Because black men under 25 years old are all thieves, hoodlums and dope dealers in the eyes of the general public.”
Later in the article, which was published in a university paper, he said: “And when the general public and the media condone the shooting for four young black men based on a paranoid man’s fear, it won’t be long before police officers, old ladies, weekend survival gamers, and everyone else considers it open season on the brothers.”
Around that time, he converted to Islam and started attending a mosque.
After enrolling at the University of Minnesota Law School, his political beliefs really started to take shape. He is known to have taken up the cause of Black nationalism during those years when heading the Black Law Student Association.
In an interview at the time, speaking about the Black couple which was killed in the police raid, he said: “If you think that just getting some African American people on the police force is going to change it, you deny the fact that this is a systemic problem and not random, individualised "cowboyism" on the behalf of the police. The police force Is designed to suppress the communities of color and working class European communities.”
In 1990, he helped launch a newsletter, the Coalition for Police Accountability which reported on police abuse.
The call to politics
After university, Ellison worked for a few years for a non-profit that provided legal aid to minority communities including African Americans. He later practiced law as a criminal defense lawyer.
Propelled by his activism, he ran for the seat of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in the House of Represenatives, and won in 2006, becoming the first Muslim to enter Congress.
Ellison, a Democrat, is credited for several popular legislations during his time as a lawmaker, which ran till 2019, including provisions to protect credit card holders from abusive practices.
While his activism has helped add to his popularity, it has also been used by his opponents to smear him.
In 2016, during his bid for the Democratic National Committee chair, his articles from his university years when he used the name Keith E. Hakim started to do the rounds.
One of the articles was in defence of Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, who is accused of making antisemtic remarks.
Ellison had indeed been part of a group which helped organise NOI’s rallies but he had parted ways from the organisation years ago, citing the lack of direction of its leadership.
But he’s uneasy about his past associations - he cancelled a New York Times interview when he was told that it will include questions about Farrakhan.
The NOI has called him a “hypocrite.”
A new fight
Last January, Ellison was sworn in as the Minnesota attorney general. The Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District continues to keep its place as one of the most liberal constituencies in the US - his successor is Ilhan Omar.
But another controversy became ammunition for Ellison’s Republican opponents and bogged him down during his bid for the attorney general’s office when his ex-girlfriend accused him of mistreating her.
As the top public lawyer in Minnesota, Ellison has challenged President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant stance and taken up cases, which likely would have been ignored by the others.
The Star Tribune wrote in December that Ellison was one of the most activist attorney generals in Minnesota in decades, shuffling between tasks such as a lawsuit against a vaping company Juul Labs and hearing about deadly police encounters in community meetings.
His detractors ,like Republican Doug Wardlow, who Ellison defeated in the Minnesota attorney general race, accuse him of being a lawyer of “far-left special interests.”
In response Ellison says, “People elected me, they know that I have politics and that’s going to influence it. But that is different from me discharging my responsibility to defend the state.”