Watching the Police

Minneapolis Defunds Its Police. Organizers Made It Happen.

The votes are in, the money is moving—and none of it would have been possible without grassroots activism.

“Watching the Police” is a new GEN column about the movement to rethink policing in America. Malaika Jabali will examine how plans to defund, abolish, or otherwise reform the police are playing out in cities and police departments across the country.

Shortly after midnight on December 10, the Minneapolis City Council voted to shift about $8 million in police funding to expand social services. It was, as far as the Minneapolis Police Department goes, a relatively innocuous monetary tweak: The overall police budget is still a staggering $179 million, and Minneapolis still ranks near the top of all major U.S. cities in per-capita police spending.

Yet for activists in the city, there was no downplaying what happened. “I think it’s a wonderful step in the right direction,” said Anwulika Okafor, member of Reclaim the Block, a local grassroots group focused on divesting from the police department. Sure, the city council’s actions fell well short of the “People’s Budget” that Reclaim the Block and its sister organization, Black Visions Collective, released in early December (never mind the city council’s empty vow over the summer to disband the police force entirely). But in a city as badly in need of transformative policies as Minneapolis, this was a welcome sign of progress. And progressive activists aren’t naive — they know that even a minor victory requires a seismic push, and careful and steady language to help push the conversation to the left.

“Is this what we are aiming for as an end stop? Absolutely not,” Okafor said. “But if you had told us at the beginning of 2020 that the city would vote to take some money out of police forces and put them into departments that have expertise, I would not have told you it would happen.” That it did happen is testament to activists’ years of organizing that crystallized during this summer, after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.

For much of America, watching the video footage of Floyd’s death was their awakening to America’s enduring police violence. But Minneapolis activists had already moved on their vision to help end what’s been a recurring nightmare. Their December win to shift money from the police illustrates that transformation does not necessarily flow through tentative accommodations to a temperate center or reactionary right, but through grounded principles and old-fashioned grassroots work.

Before Americans witnessed Floyd’s death, they saw Minneapolis Police Department officers kill Jamar Clark in 2015, just as they saw Officer Jeronimo Yanez kill Philando Castile at point-blank range in 2016. Castile was seated next to his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter during a routine traffic stop outside of Saint Paul.

In 2018, the Black Visions Collective proposed a 5% cut to the police budget — about $8 million — to invest in community programs. At the time, the city was funding the Minneapolis Police Department at nearly three times the rate of its affordable housing and health services combined. The existing model meant Minneapolis officers were already required to wear body cameras. It meant over a million dollars budgeted for implicit bias training, with no evidence that it actually works. It meant a board created to review officer conduct and police leadership that ignored its rulings and recommendations. It meant seven times more use of force cases against its Black residents than white ones. It meant more Black men and women killed at the hands of police. It meant a teenager witnessing a father of five restrained on a Minneapolis sidewalk, filming his last gasp for air.

After years of Black Lives Matter protests and calls for reform in response to these state-sanctioned killings, the message Minnesota activists received was clear: Policing was itself the problem, and none of the usual reformist policies could change it. So abolitionists and activists embraced a different concept: defund the police.

It was once Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective started organizing at city council hearings and focusing on changes to the budget that the city finally started to respond. In December 2018, the council passed a budget that shifted $1.1 million to community programs. It was a far cry from the 5% divestment organizers hoped for, but it was a start.

Flash forward to 2020 and policing still comprised 12% of the city’s budget, its third-highest expenditure. Then George Floyd happened. Suddenly, the transformative vision of abolition and local defunding reforms were on the world stage. The months of protests in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing have been considered the largest in history. The movement’s rallying cry to “defund the police” appeared in opinion polls and Twitter debates, leading former President Barack Obama and other Democratic Party moderates to weigh in on the efficacy of the phrase.

But missing from the vast majority of the mainstream debate was how the defunding movement had already seen measurable political results, including that budget change in 2018. Moreover, they were helping to change their community’s idea of justice and acclimate people to alternatives for public safety. In August, for instance, 73% of Minneapolis residents in a local news poll said they were in favor of cutting the police budget to “redirect funding to social services.” And divesting appeared to be popular among nearly all of the polled demographics, including older residents, Black residents, and white residents, and both college and non-college educated.

“We knew that after 2020, we would still have the police department,” said Oluchi Omeoga, co-founder of Black Visions Collective. Omeoga also expected the backlash to their demands. “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. We saw this after the abolition of slavery and during the Reconstruction Era. But we also knew that this is a seed we needed to plant.”

“I’m happy they did the bare minimum like they should have.”

In a nearly eight-hour city council meeting in the week before the final December 10 vote, it took one hour for someone to provide support for the Council’s budget cuts. Preceding this statement of support were concerns ranging from justifiable to absurd, with one father testifying that his mixed Latino son would be subject to racially motivated attacks for looking white as a result of police department reallocations and cuts. Mayor Jacob Frey threatened to veto the Council’s budget proposal if they kept a provision that would have maintained the current number of officers on the police force, which dropped to 750 as officers resigned or retired in the heat of George Floyd-inspired protests. Frey wanted to keep the cap at 888, giving the City funds to replace them.

Organizers don’t just see pushback from the right wing. Even within movements, radical activists have had to battle resistance from more moderate forces. This includes disputes over language. The 1960s saw Black leaders publicly debating the merits of “Black Power’’ in a time of increasing impatience with civil rights demands. Though luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr. understood the sentiment of the phrase “Black Power,” they were concerned that it could undermine their efforts.

Stokely Carmichael, a King ally who popularized the term, wanted to speak to the frustrations of people who saw the promises of integration fail to bear fruit. He opted for a more radical demand. Carmichael’s move from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to the Black Panther Party signified this broader transition in the Black liberation struggle. The formation of urban ghettos, continued police violence, and the assassination of major figures, including King and Malcolm X, left many everyday Black people with the belief that demanding more than integration was indeed the most logical strategy.

These are the conditions that have spawned a modern abolitionist movement. Extreme crises have plagued Black American communities, which are felt acutely in Minnesota and other Midwestern states. Activists’ bold visions are not just rooted in care for their communities but in evidenced-based research and practical strategy. They allow room for negotiation until full demands are won, instead of starting at a floor tempered by moderate and right-wing fears. Unlike what some pundits would have you believe, defunding and abolition aren’t the starry-eyed choices. Rather, they’re the rational ones, particularly when the movement is placed within the larger historical context of Black radical organizing.

In November 2020, six months after George Floyd’s killing, activists released their “People’s Budget,” itemizing $53 million in potential cuts to the mayor’s budget away from the Minneapolis Police Department. Their proposal would have diverted $11.55 million toward violence prevention programs, including to fund street outreach teams composed of community members. The majority of their recommended budget was for housing — affordable development and preservation, and to offer relief for unsheltered residents. In the end, about 70 organizations signed on to the People’s Budget, helping to engage their own constituents in Minneapolis’s defunding efforts. “We really leaned on folks that were already doing really awesome work,” Omeoga added, citing Take Action Minnesota, the ACLU, ISAIAH, a faith-based coalition, and the Color of Change.

Community engagement in a pandemic was another hurdle to overcome, so they had to lean on digital methods. Reclaim the Block facilitated “open hours,” where people could drop in through Zoom videoconference to discuss their budget priorities. Their coalition also initiated petitions and text message drives to galvanize support for the Council’s adaptation of their plan.

Although the Minneapolis City Council passed the plan without the staffing cut, Omeoga was satisfied with the vote. “I’m happy they did the bare minimum like they should have,” Omeoga said.

For Omeoga, next year will bring another opportunity to push the conversation a little farther left. “Why when we’re responding to mental health crises do we need armed police officers rather than social workers or medical workers?” they said. “Do you actually need a police officer to come when you’re in a car accident that’s not lethal? Why are we criminalizing these behaviors, rather than helping the people that are in need?” Abolitionists in Minneapolis have already arrived at some answers to these questions. Now they want to keep helping their neighbors get there, too.

Malaika Jabali is a public policy attorney & columnist for GEN Mag & The Guardian

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