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The Start of Something

Minneapolis is moving towards historic change, but the work is just beginning.

After days of fire and rage and sorrow, it feels as though a strange sort of calm has begun to descend on the Twin Cities.The explosive fury that erupted in Minneapolis—and, to a lesser extent, St. Paul— last week has seemingly transformed itself into something sharper and more potent.  There is a sense that the uprising over the police killing of George Floyd may actually result in what has eluded—or been suppressed by—the city for decades: Real change. 

People are still angry. Storefronts are still scorched and boarded up, and it’s impossible to drive more than a few blocks without seeing some reminder that something momentous and overwhelming took place here just a few weeks earlier. Graffiti, murals, posters, and lawn signs are the scars and bandages of a city still grappling with what it’s become, and what it has yet to be. 

But that howl against the injustices that have been eating away at the city’s soul for years, feels different to me now. It’s still there, bubbling just below the Minnesota niceties that dictate everyday interactions at grocery stores and stoplights and drive-thru windows. The understanding that the city fucked up, and has been fucked up for years, isn’t going away, especially for Minneapolis’ black and immigrant communities. I can’t imagine what those communities must feel like. All I can say is that there seems to be a new sense of possibility. As the city finds new ways to demonstrate generosity and solidarity, I can’t help but get the nebulous feeling of being at the cusp of something new, just over that next hill. Just out of reach. Just a little bit further. A beginning, not a destination. But at least something more than what’s come before. 

On Sunday, we saw the inklings of what that new era might look like at a Minneapolis park just blocks from where Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. There, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council announced their commitment to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.”

Their declaration to create “a new, transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis” was met with a standing ovation from the assembled crowd, and stood in stark contrast with Mayor Jacob Frey’s humiliating ouster from a civil rights rally just one day earlier where, after refusing to support defunding the police, he was jeered off the streets with chats of “go home Jacob” and “shame.”

To be clear, what happened in Minneapolis on Sunday is a big deal. The nine counselors represent a veto-proof majority of the council’s 13 seats (one of which currently sits unoccupied.) It is, on its face, the most direct and far-reaching response from any city leadership to this month’s protests.

But if the announcement was a sign of how much change feels possible, it was also a reminder that there is a very, very long road ahead of us. We need to be clear about what actually happened on Sunday, which—in terms of concrete change—is effectively nothing. At least, not yet. Nobody “voted to disband [the Minneapolis] police department and invest in community-based public safety programs” as Forbes breathlessly reported. Instead, as the nine council members explained in a prepared statement, they would begin speaking “with every willing community member in the City of Minneapolis over the next year to identify what safety looks like for you.”

So as revolutionary as the council’s commitment might seem—it is, for now, simply words offered to a grieving, seething community desperate for action and skeptical of its own elected leadership. It’s a skepticism that’s deeply warranted.

Consider that three years ago, the then-candidates for the city council were asked whether they “believe that we could ever have a city without police?”

“It’s aspirational, but it’s way aspirational,” current council president Lisa Bender said at the time, after answering that yes, she does believe in a future Minneapolis without police. “We have a very long way to go before we would approach public safety without police.”

Describing a police-less Minneapolis as a “lofty, utopian place of peace and harmony” then-candidate Phillipe Cunningham explained that despite believing such a day may indeed come, “putting our two feet on the ground right in this moment, we need police and we need them to be better.”

Then-mayoral candidate Frey, who also answered that he believed in a Minneapolis without police, offered a similar equivocation. “While there is a hypothetical world in which police are not needed, we do not live in that world,” he explained.

That was three years ago. And until Sunday, nothing had changed.

In part, the problem is structural. According to the Minneapolis city charter: “The City Council must fund a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident.” As longtime Minneapolis journalist David Brauer calculated, that would put the legal minimum allowed at 731 people—well under the current 892 officers and 175 civilians employed by the MPD currently, but still plenty of cops on the streets.

The charter can be changed by a citywide ballot, or by unanimous decision from all thirteen members of the city council, with the mayor’s approval—a possibility made even more complicated due to the current vacancy.

Which is all to say that, although the Minneapolis City Council’s declaration of intent is indeed historic, it is not in and of itself, a solution. The road to progress is hard, and there are plenty of politicians who have announced their somber commitments to various admirable causes, only to let the issue languish once the going gets tough. When it comes to addressing systemic police violence and racism, Overton’s infamous window may have been kicked wide open over the past two weeks, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s gone through it yet. Consider the fact that while Minneapolis is grappling with the issue of abolition, just yards away across the Mississippi River, the city of St. Paul is barely talking about it. At least, for now.

As my colleague Jack Mirkinson wrote this week: “Imagine what can happen if political leaders are not allowed to hide behind the cover of reform and call it a day.” In Minneapolis, that means not simply accepting a pledge to action, and promises to spend a year speaking with “willing community member[s].” It means keeping the foot on the gas for real, seismic change—the kind that can only come from a combination of political and direct action. Without the latter, the politicians will be content to do the bare minimum and rest on their laurels. And, I fear, some in the community will be content to let them. Minneapolis is tired, and hurt, and angry. It would be all too easy for many to simply accept a new round of milquetoast police “reforms” and call it a day while patting themselves on the back for doing something without actually having done much of anything at all.

This isn’t the time for complacency. If anything, it’s an opportunity to seize the momentum, and truly push for actual change—now, while things are nebulous and malleable. This may be the only chance we get. Let’s not waste it.


“Vigil for George Floyd at Chicago Avenue & 38th Street” by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0