Can Minneapolis Dismantle Its Police Department?
Early in the afternoon of Sunday, June 7th, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council appeared together on a stage in Powderhorn Park, masked and socially distanced. Demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd had been unfurling for nearly two weeks, and though the police commissioner had fired all four of the officers present during his death, and though the district attorney had indicted the police officer Derek Chauvin for murder, the protests had only grown more urgent. The Powderhorn Park rally had been organized by two local activist groups, the Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, and their slogan was written on a banner at the foot of the stage: “Defund the police.” They had also been negotiating with the members of the city council, who control the budget of the Minneapolis police, to get them to commit to defunding as a policy. Now the nine council members, a veto-proof majority, had come to the activists’ event to say that they wanted what the activists and the people at the protests wanted. “Our commitment,” Lisa Bender, the council’s president and a former city planner, said, “is to end policing as we know it.”
Bender’s words did not reflect as specific a program as the activists might have wanted. To “abolish” the police, as the Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison said he favored, was not exactly the same as “defunding” it, which could mean anything from a dramatic to a slight change to its budget. To “end policing as we know it” was vaguer still; it could mean significant defunding or else some pilot programs and a rebranding. Taken together, though, the council members’ words did suggest radical intent. “This is brave,” the executive director of the Black Visions Collective, Kandace Montgomery, said.
Watching the event from lockdown, streaming a bright Midwestern afternoon into a gray home office, I couldn’t help but be interested in how the Minneapolis City Council had reached this point, and what would happen next. Black Lives Matter has been the most effective protest movement in half a century, at least when it comes to shifting public opinion. Four years ago, roughly forty per cent of Americans said that they supported the movement. Now that number is close to seventy per cent, which means that hundreds of millions of Americans, many of them white and moderate or conservative, have changed their points of view. Will that consensus be diverted into itineraries of private consciousness-changing—of antiracist book clubs, and corporate awareness seminars, and conversations between parents and children—or will it lead to the policy change that has become the rallying cry of protesters around the country: to defund the police? This is an idea that, until recently, even the most progressive Democrats have generally dismissed. Bernie Sanders has said he does not support it. Karen Bass, the progressive congresswoman from California who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, has said, of “defund the police,” “that’s probably one of the worst slogans ever.” In Minneapolis, here were nine people willing to edge a bit further along the diving board, and to promise a specific change. It raised some obvious questions. Why them? And what did this commitment actually mean?
Minneapolis has long had a reputation for liberalism, but over the past decade it has become one of the most left-leaning constituencies in the country. “People think of Minneapolis as flyover country, but I’ve lived all over, including in the Bay Area, and this is the most progressive city in the country,” Phillipe Cunningham, the councilman for the Fourth Ward, told me. It is, at least, represented by perhaps the country’s most obviously progressive city council: Cunningham, a former special-education teacher, and Andrea Jenkins, a former city council policy aide and now its vice-president, are two of the first transgender people to hold public office. Jeremiah Ellison, the son of the Minnesota attorney general, Keith Ellison, and a prominent local activist, first came to public attention after a photo showed a police officer pointing a grenade launcher at him at a Black Lives Matter protest. Alondra Cano, who represents the Ninth Ward and chairs the public-safety committee, is the daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants and campaigned as an immigrants’-rights activist. These politicians, I was told repeatedly, were elected by a new-left coalition that has largely displaced the ward politics of the past, consisting of the growing Latino and East African immigrant communities, a young Black population that was organized by the Black Lives Matter movement, and white liberals increasingly willing to back certain progressive causes. “They didn’t come up the traditional way—they didn’t serve on school boards and so on,” Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, said, of the new council members. “It’s a city council of activists.”
This made the council a bit more likely to see the police as activists do. From the perspective of many of the activists, and some academic allies, the essential position of the police has not changed in modern American history. As Montgomery, who has been perhaps the most influential activist in Minneapolis in the months after Floyd’s death, put it to me, “What I know as a Black person whose family is from the South is that police started off as slave patrols, to capture and utilize people in my family who were seeking freedom, and police continue to do the exact same thing.” If well-intentioned efforts to reform the police keep seeming to fail, this camp believed, then maybe that was because policing was fundamentally illiberal, in a way that did not have much to do with who the cops were as individuals or how they had been trained. You could take a group of Buddhist monks, organize them into military-style squads, arm and outfit them like soldiers, tell them that they were heading into dangerous neighborhoods filled with criminals and hidden guns, and ask them to intervene in human dramas (mental illness, infidelity, rivalry), and things would inevitably go awry. As Alex Vitale, a sociologist at CUNY and a leading academic advocate of police abolition, put it to me, “The problem is the mission.”
But, from another perspective, one that until recently was dominant among mayors and city councils, the character of the police has changed many times. Some of these changes were broad and generational. In the nineteen-eighties, as the number of inner-city murders spiked, police departments grew far larger, and patrols grew more frequent and militaristic. In the nineties, politicians began to press the leaders of these suddenly massive departments to adopt the friendlier posture of community policing, which eventually became the default way that police chiefs spoke about their jobs, at least in public. In the two-thousands, the focus was on precision policing: more tactical gear, leftover from the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yes, but more precise targets, too, in hotspot programs built from Boston and New York’s COMPSTAT model. Police would pinpoint not just the west side of town but six particular corners, and not all young men who lived there but those with prior gun arrests, a focus which led to some reductions in crime, as in Baltimore, but also excessive policies like New York’s Stop, Question, and Frisk, which, before it became a byword for constant harassment, was a program for taking guns off the street. The era of precision policing reflected a confidence, among politicians, that new policies could change the police. If a city wanted a more progressive police department, it could hire a new chief and new consultants, retrain its officers, and implement less permissive use-of-force policies. Crime was by that point so thoroughly measured that the public could see the effect of new policies, neatly laid out on a graph and displayed on a municipal Web site. Change—which is to say control of the police—was possible.