Posted on September 28, 2020

How a Pledge to Dismantle the Minneapolis Police Collapsed

Astead W. Herndon, New York Times, September 26, 2020

Over three months ago, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to defund the city’s police department, making a powerful statement that reverberated across the country. It shook up Capitol Hill and the presidential race, shocked residents, delighted activists and changed the trajectory of efforts to overhaul the police during a crucial window of tumult and political opportunity.

Now some council members would like a do-over.

Councilor Andrew Johnson, one of the nine members who supported the pledge in June, said in an interview that he meant the words “in spirit,” not by the letter. Another councilor, Phillipe Cunningham, said that the language in the pledge was “up for interpretation” and that even among council members soon after the promise was made, “it was very clear that most of us had interpreted that language differently.” Lisa Bender, the council president, paused for 16 seconds when asked if the council’s statement had led to uncertainty at a pivotal moment for the city.

“I think our pledge created confusion in the community and in our wards,” she said.

The regrets formalize a retreat that has quietly played out in Minneapolis in the months since George Floyd was killed by the police and the ensuing national uproar over the treatment of Black Americans by law enforcement and the country at large. After a summer that challenged society’s commitment to racial equality and raised the prospect of sweeping political change, a cool autumn reality is settling in.


In interviews this month, about two dozen elected officials, protesters and community leaders described how the City Council members’ pledge to “end policing as we know it” — a mantra to meet the city’s pain — became a case study in how quickly political winds can shift, and what happens when idealistic efforts at structural change meet the legislative process and public opposition.

The pledge is now no closer to becoming policy, with fewer vocal champions than ever. {snip}


Linea Palmisano, a relatively moderate City Council member who was one of three councilors who did not take the pledge, castigated her colleagues: They “have gotten used to these kinds of progressive purity tests,” she said.

In a sign of the intensity of the debate, multiple people on both sides who spoke to The New York Times described their opponents as having “blood on their hands.”

“What kind of violence are we going to experience over the next year?” said Miski Noor, an organizer with Black Visions Collective, a leading activist group in the city seeking to defund and abolish the police department. {snip}

Though some activists said the pledge was to be taken literally — a commitment to working toward complete police abolition — elected officials said there was widespread disagreement about its meaning. Some believed that “defund the police” meant redirecting some money in the police budget to social programs. Others thought it was a vague endorsement of a police-free future.


In lieu of larger policing changes, Minneapolis has moved to ban chokeholds, put in place new de-escalation requirements, and changed reporting measures for the use of force since Mr. Floyd’s killing.

Hanging over the debate was a surge in gun violence in Minneapolis this summer, with some community groups in Black neighborhoods worried that urgent needs for change had been crowded out by the big-picture focus on police funding and oversight.


{snip} As the world watched Minneapolis, with thousands of protesters marching daily and occasional riots breaking out at night, Black Visions and Reclaim the Block returned to the councilors with their strongest demand yet: a pledge that would acknowledge that the police could not be reformed, and that would commit the city to working toward completely dismantling the department and rethinking public safety through follow-up community conversations.

The pledge was written, negotiated and circulated with the help of councilors like the younger Mr. Ellison, Mr. Cunningham and Alondra Cano. Ms. Cano and several other city councilors did not respond or follow up to requests to be interviewed.


Ms. Bender, the council president {snip} had immediate concerns about the pledge. Unlike previous policy demands, which made specific requests during a public debate around budget negotiations or police oversight structure, the pledge was an embrace of a police-free ideal — with no transition plan.

She and others tried to negotiate changes, they said. When activists stood their ground, councilors were left with two options: embrace a forceful but vague call to dismantle the police department, or oppose activists in a time of civic chaos, possibly risking their progressive reputations.


In the end, on June 7, nine councilors stood with activists at Powderhorn Park during an event that was neither ambiguous nor done in spirit. The stage was adorned with “Defund the Police” lettering and, after the pledge was read, the crowd cheered the councilors with chants of “Defund M-P-D.”

But what looked like a united political front would soon be exposed as fractured. On a policy level, the councilors did not have the unilateral power to end the city’s police department — as some residents believed. Politically, some of the elected officials were taken aback by the national attention their message attracted.


The City Council pressed forward to make good on its pledge. Just weeks after the Powderhorn Park rally, it passed a provision that would ask voters to remove the police department from the city’s charter and place public safety duties under a new department with unspecified structure and aims. It was publicly proposed on a Wednesday and passed unanimously on a Friday. Councilors voted to expedite the process. There were no public hearings.


Mr. Bicking, whose activist group was not among those pushing the pledge, said the councilors were trying to pass the buck of responsibility. His group supports a smaller police force with more limited responsibilities.

“I think the City Council and the people they work with pretty much knew that this was a nonstarter,” he said of the charter amendment. “But it would get them off the hook and give them some time until things blow over.”

Their decision thrust the Minneapolis Charter Commission, a relatively obscure group of city volunteers, into the spotlight. The commission, whose members are appointed by the chief district judge and are not elected by voters, considers legal and technical questions to charter amendments before they go to residents for approval.

Commissioners had some concerns about the councilors’ proposal, saying it did not meet several guidelines, including legal provisions and necessary public input. But the optics did not help: a largely white, unelected board versus a diverse slate of city councilors supported by vocal progressive activists.

Andrea Rubenstein, a charter commission member and former civil rights lawyer, said she was inundated with emails saying: Pass the charter amendment — or else. Barry Clegg, the commission’s president, said on one morning he woke up to expletive-laden graffiti outside his house. His home was also egged.


As the commission weighed its options, evidence mounted that the public wanted police reform, but did not support the actions of councilors or share the aims of influential activists. A poll from The Minneapolis Star-Tribune found that a plurality of residents, including 50 percent of Black people, opposed reducing the size of the police department. Councilors said they repeatedly heard criticism from business owners and residents in more affluent areas of their wards who feared for their safety, as misinformation spread that the end of the police department was imminent.


Last month, in a 10-to-5 vote, the charter commission chose not to pass the councilors’ amendment and called for further study, killing the chances that it would appear on the ballot in November.

In 2021, when the mayor and City Council members must all run for re-election, there is a chance the amendment to remove the police department from the city’s charter could go in front of voters. For now, it is an exercise in finger-pointing, as Minneapolis’s relationship with its police department looks largely identical to the way it was before Mr. Floyd’s death.

Some who had supported the pledge said that the white liberalism that has long defined Minneapolis politics — and the larger Democratic Party — was often more about aesthetic embraces of racial justice than facing and fighting for its reality.

“I‘m embarrassed that we were not able to effect the kind of change I think people deserve,” Mr. Ellison said.