Article was originally published on Counter Punch
In November, Minneapolis voters may get to decide whether to dismantle the city’s police department, setting up a dramatic battle for public opinion in the epicenter of the national uprising. This presents a huge opportunity for the movement to substantially weaken the repressive powers of the police, and to win new investments addressing the deep structural inequalities in our communities. But if the movement simply echoes the vague radical rhetoric of our City Council, rather than uniting around clear policy demands, right-wing and establishment forces could win the popular vote.
On June 26th the Minneapolis City Council unanimously voted to place an amendment to the city charter before voters in November. It would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new “Department of Community Safety and Crime Prevention.” While the amendment has limited policy or budget provisions, the vote could either provide a popular mandate for real change or a defense of the status quo.
The amendment removes a provision in the current city charter requiring the council to “fund a police force of at least 0.0017 employees per resident,” amounting to roughly 730 cops (currently Minneapolis has 892). Several bureaucratic obstacles could still block the proposal from the November ballot, but all sides are already preparing for a major fight.
The council vote was heralded as a “historic win” by Black Visions (BLV), a Black queer and trans-led-led abolitionist group that emerged as a leading voice in the Minneapolis uprising. Their executive director, Kandace Montgomery, correctly warned: “we need our city leaders to do everything they can to make sure [police and establishment forces] don’t hijack our new safety infrastructure from the beginning.”
“Plowing ahead with a dramatic shift”
The more immediate challenge is winning the popular vote to amend the charter. Despite the dramatic rise in support for the Black Lives Matter movement, it is far from automatic that Minneapolis voters will be convinced to replace the MPD. City council’s radical-sounding rhetoric is stoking fears among conservatives while their failure to champion the concrete demands of the movement could leave the left disarmed as the debate deepens into working class communities.
A Minneapolis Police Federation statement said the proposal “fails to clarify questions about what replaces the police department, how it will work, and what actual steps will be done to address and prevent crime.” Mainstream media coverage has emphasized a recent spike in gun violence to whip up fears over disbanding or defunding the police.
Mayor Jacob Frey echoed these criticisms, while also gaslighting the movement with promises for “deep structural” change following “a yearlong process of community engagement” with “black and brown communities, centering them at the very middle of the conversation.” The mayor characterized the city council vote as “presupposing an outcome right now and plowing ahead with a dramatic shift of the structure of the new department.”
Public attitudes toward defunding the police–the movement’s central demand–has shifted significantly since Goerge Floyd’s murder sparked a national uprising, but most national polls still show roughly 60% oppose cutting police budgets. At the same time, decisions around demands and messaging by our movement organizations can have a major impact on public attitudes. For example, one recent poll by research firm PerryUndem found that if asked more specific questions about police budget priorities, most people are open to change. As a Vox.com analysis pointed out:
“The poll also asked Americans if they would support an option short of full defunding, in which “police could focus on crimes like burglary and murder, and other service providers could focus on emergency calls about addiction, mental illness, and homelessness.” A full 61 percent of respondents supported this option, and just 16 percent opposed it (22 percent said they were unsure).”
That’s why it’s vital for our movement to democratically unite behind concrete demands to publicly frame an all-out campaign to win the vote in November. A good start could be the petition put out by Black Visions and others in late May calling on City Council to immediately reallocate $45 million of the $193 million MPD budget, to “expand investment in community-led health and safety strategies.”
Others in the movement have gone further, demanding half the police budget be reallocated to public safety alternatives. We think this call should be combined with a wider program to address the deep structural inequalities in housing, healthcare, jobs, and education, funded by increased taxes on big business. The fight to win the charter amendment will also be stronger if our movement calls for demilitarizing the police, banning chemical weapons, firing all cops with repeated abuse complaints, and creating an elected oversight board with full powers over the new department.
We Can’t Let City Council Lead This Fight
If the wider movement fails to independently unite around our own demands, there is a danger the ballot fight could become a de facto vote of confidence in City Council. The lack of concrete policy proposals from leading city council members means that passing the charter amendment will be seen as a vague open mandate to press forward with their June 12th non-binding council resolution to initiate “a year long process of community engagement, research, and structural change to create a transformative new model for cultivating safety in our city.”
Nobody disagrees with more community engagement, but we can’t accept year-long delay on real change as the police destroy more Black lives. While our movement remains strong and mobilized, we must push for more immediate action.
A referendum on City Council’s process plans, rather than a clear policy fight, is a weak political basis to wage a public debate with the influential array of voices opposed to dismantling the MPD. The situation isn’t helped by the contradictory messages from city council members who have at times pandered to protesters with radical language, while at other times appearing to back a far more limited set of changes.
On June 7th, when the nine Minneapolis council members first made national headlines with their calls to “dismantle” the MPD, they stood before thousands of protesters with a huge sign reading “DEFUND THE POLICE” spanning the stage. Reading their prepared statement together just seven blocks from where police murdered George Floyd, the nine council members said: “Decades of police reform efforts have proved that the Minneapolis Police Department cannot be reformed and will never be accountable for its actions.”
The unanimous June 12th council resolution even quotes Angela Davis, the famed Black socialist and among the founding mothers of the modern-day abolitionist movement. In subsequent interviews, however, council members made clear that their intention to replace the current police force with a “new model” remains very far away from what Angela Davis means when she calls for a “police-free future.” In fact, the city’s proposed charter amendment includes a provision for an unspecified number of armed “licensed peace officers.”
Council president Lisa Bender, speaking on CNN, explained that “I think we look to cities like Camden, New Jersey, that completely restructured their police department.” While some of Camden’s reforms would be welcome in Minneapolis, critics point out that restructuring actually increased the number of cops and failed to address the underlying roots of police racism.
Completely ignored by both Camden’s reforms and the Minneapolis council’s resolution is the deep structural racism and class inequalities embedded into American capitalism, which is the wellspring of racism and repression in the criminal justice system.
Don’t Invoke Angela Davis Unless You Mean it
In a June 12th interview on Democracy Now, the same day Minneapolis City Council passed their resolution quoting her, Angela Davis explained that “abolition is really about rethinking the kind of future we want, the social future, the economic future, the political future. It’s about revolution.” Davis went on to say:
“I think it’s a mistake to assume that we can combat racism by leaving capitalism in place… I am convinced that the ultimate eradication of racism is going to require us to move toward a more socialist organization of our economies, of our other institutions. I think we have a long way to go before we can begin to talk about an economic system that is not based on exploitation and on the super-exploitation of Black people, Latinx people and other racialized populations.”
This is not to minimize what’s achievable right now. With all eyes on Minneapolis, the epicenter of the national uprising, our movement has the potential to win the most far-reaching changes to policing in modern history. Already we’ve won a number of important victories–including severing police ties with our public schools and the University of MN–that seemed out of reach before the uprising. While our movement should fight for every reform possible within the framework of capitalism, this should not come at the expense of the urgent calls for fundamental change.
We need to push back against every attempt to narrowly define the problem–and therefore the solutions–as limited police reform. It’s positive that politicians and mainstream media now regularly acknowledge Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation racial disparities in healthcare, housing, education, wealth, and other indicators. But in lacking an anti-capitalist analysis, they fail to propose policies big enough to overcome these disparities.
The problem with a narrow focus on police reform is sharply apparent in Minneapolis neighborhoods devastated by arson following the police riot in the week after Floyd’s murder. The developer-driven plans to rebuild these neighborhoods threaten to further displace black and brown residents, the poor, and small businesses. We can’t trust our political leaders and private developers to equitably and democratically rebuild these neighborhoods. Instead, we need a community-led rebuilding plan coupled with expanding the social safety net. This must be paid for by taxes on the corporations who perpetually extract wealth and exploit labor in Black, Brown, and working class communities.
Legal scholar Michelle Alexander reaches a similar conclusion in her seminal 2012 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” She highlights how the dramatic expansion of police and prisons was the political establishment’s answer to neoliberalism, which deepened class and racial inequalities and shredded the social safety net.
We should be deeply skeptical, therefore, of promises to root out police racism when not paired with a fighting strategy to end these deeper structural inequities. City council promises a “holistic approach to community safety” in their new department. But even with new training and protocols, the culture of any new force will come to reflect the racist structures they enforce.
White supremacy was not artificially imported into police departments, nor is it simply an institutional culture inherited from previous eras. Racist violence is the necessary and inevitable byproduct of the most basic function police perform: Keeping a tight lid on the explosive injustices of an economic system “based on exploitation and on the super-exploitation” of “racialized populations,” to use Angela Davis’s words.
Linking Today’s Fight to Our Vision for Tomorrow
Our movement’s central goal must be to win over a majority of the multi-racial working class to a vision for ending the deep structural racism and class inequalities of capitalism, including a future without police. To achieve this, we must be cognizant of how we message police abolition when canvassing working class Minneapolis voters to support the charter amendment.
Even in Black and Brown communities, views on defunding the police, much less abolition, remain very mixed. In Minneapolis, many respected Black community and religious leaders are vocally opposed to defunding or dismantling the MPD.
Most working people, including most Black people, will learn far more through the actual experience of fighting for improvements in their lives–including experiencing the limits of reforms–than through radical slogans. In this context, the immediate challenge of the Black left and socialists in Minneapolis is to organize the broadest possible numbers into action to win this ballot referendum, even as we engage our activated communities in an ongoing dialogue around our broader goals.
By orienting our movement behind a serious citywide outreach campaign, we can win a clear majority behind a bold agenda of curtailing the repressive powers of the police, redirecting police funds into public-health strategies for safety, and taxing big business to fund programs of social uplift.
Winning the November charter amendment vote on this popular platform would dramatically boost the confidence, class unity, and power of our multi-racial movement. This will, in turn, create a larger organized base who can fight for revolutionary social transformation and a police-free-future.
About the Authors
Robin Wonsley is a labor organizer with Education Minnesota, a Black socialist, and plays a leading role in Twin Cities DSA. She was previously a staff organizer with 15 Now Minnesota and helped organize the fight to make Minneapolis the first midwest city to win a $15/hour minimum wage.
Ty Moore is a long-time community organizer who narrowly lost his campaign for Minneapolis City Council in 2013, running as a socialist. He was the National Organizer of 15 Now from 2014-2015 and helped lead the successful campaign to win a $15/hour minimum wage in Minneapolis. He now lives in Seattle and is active with DSA.