POLICE REFORM

How “Defund the Police” was Blocked in Minneapolis

Undemocratic bureaucracy rejects City Council proposal

Activist Robin Wonsley (Eric Mueller Photography)

In mid-July, Counterpunch published, “Minneapolis Ballot Measure to Dismantle the Police Will Test the Strength of Our Movement,” authored by Robin Wonsley & Ty Moore. Intrigued by this article, I contacted Robin, and less than a month later, I interviewed her for my podcast. But already the proposal — which had attracted so much national attention — was dead, killed by the city’s undemocratic and bureaucratic process. Robin and I talked in depth about how this happened, including how the activist community sabotaged itself by giving away its power to the City Council.

The movement against racist policing in Minneapolis is certainly not over, but a battle was lost, and Robin’s analysis will be helpful for that movement, not just in Minneapolis, but around the whole nation. What follows is a transcript of the first portion of our conversation, edited for clarity. The full interview can be heard here.

Robin 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.

Kollibri: I noticed that there’s been some changes in what’s been happening there in Minneapolis. The article that you wrote in Counterpunch was talking about how the City Council had prepared something to go in front of the votes, but then I guess that something called the Minneapolis Charter Commission has now prevented that from happening?

Robin: Yep. So, basically, the proposal that City Council members agreed to pursue, basically dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department, was not able to move forward without having approval from the Charter Commission because it required changing the city’s constitutional amendment process. Based off our current charter, it requires a police department to exist, and to have a certain percentage of police officers there.

So, because of that constitutional bylaw, in order to move things forward, there’s this bureaucratic process to get these things changed; you have to go through the Charter Commission… All of these folks are appointed, they’re not elected and basically they get to decide whether or not amendments that should go to a public democratic vote can even make it to the public. In my experience in organizing in Minneapolis, they seem to be a city process designed to actually block transformative amendments or initiatives that are trying to get moved through the city process, especially from external groups, [such as] workers who are looking to address this city’s deep inequities. And time and time again, without fail, they constantly block those efforts be it through a charter amendment, or through a ballot petition.

So I was quite unsurprised that they basically “delayed” it. They didn’t vote down the proposal but delayed it so it wouldn’t be able to be voted on in this coming election. So that’s where we’re at right now. They delayed it for another 90 days to review. It’s likely that the city is going to move forward with their own diluted process, having a year-long study and having community conversations around what alternatives to policing or reforms to policing can look like, as a means of creating what they think is a democratic ordinance versus actually adhering to the more than 60% of Minneapolis residents who actually support a policy change. Or not even necessarily a policy change, but to vote on making policy changes around policing in our city. So they’re just bypassing the whole public vote and democratic process at this current moment.

Kollibri: I lived in Minneapolis for a little while in the ’90s and was politically involved as an activist but I never heard of this commission. It does indeed seem designed to keep the will of the people from happening. And it’s membership is really problematic too and seems like it doesn’t reflect at all the demographics or the politics of the city.

Robin: Yes. That’s absolutely accurate.

Kollibri: So all these headlines happened in June when the City Council first had their big event with the big poster, “Defund the Police,” and made headlines everywhere, made a bunch of people panic and this and that, and that was inspiring to a lot of people, especially to people who don’t live there, who are like, “Wow, we’re finally talking about these things. That’s great.” But now, it seems like, with this move from the commission, that that particular process, has — dare I say — fizzled out?

Robin: In terms of?

Kollibri: In terms of City Council and what it was trying to do.

Robin: See that’s the tricky thing, like we raised in the article. While I would like to say that my City Council member’s intentions were in the right place, I have doubts that most of them — especially those that came out quite early in support of defunding the police — actually had any intentions of actually seeing this through. They’re quite knowledgeable about the bureaucratic processes that exist to stall and delay or just completely eliminate opportunities for the public to make transformative changes.

That was one of the faults that we highlighted in that article. By allowing this process to fall into the city hands, and just trusting that these “progressive champions” would be able to move through the bureaucratic hoops and have the political willingness to do so was going to allow us to have this victory. That we were finally going to vote on defunding the police in November.

So I want to say that there was not really a political willingness to see this through from the start. Like when they came out in June with the Black Visions Collective and made that public and national declaration that they were committing to ridding our city of a racist police institution. Most of those folks have been part of blocking transformative policies. I don’t have any faith that they were wanting to see the charter do something else.

I think that was one of the fault of our movement, of seeing our leaders in City Council as being accomplices to move this forward when really we relinquished power to the city process. And we know the city process is an ineffective way to create change from start to finish: from allowing them to create the amendment versus our movement actually coming through with our own clear policy proposal and amendment, to negotiate with the city around. Like, really building our own public movement around our clear policy demands versus trusting an inherently racist and unproductive city process to make those changes for us.

I would highly doubt if all those City Council members back in June were like, “Yes, we’re so sorry we did not see this happen. We did not anticipate this happening.” After they made that public declaration about defunding the police, as soon as they started getting pushback from right-wing and conservative folks in the city — in in less than 24 hours — most of our City Council leaders, our vice president and the president of the City Council — Lisa Bender and Andrea [Jenkins] — were all saying, “No, that’s not what we meant.” Less than 24 hours after that press conference.

So I don’t think there was ever a deep political willingness to see this through and to maneuver this through the city processes, so that it could happen, so that that democratic vote could actually happen to make these changes.

Kollibri: In the article, you referred to some of the City Council rhetoric as “radical sounding” and you used that twice, as if to really stress that it was just a face, maybe, that they were putting on.

Robin: Yes. You had a moment in the country, and in Minneapolis, where all power forces were completely weakened. They didn’t know what to do. We had our governor and state leaders as well as at a municipal level with [Mayor] Jacob [Frey] and the City Council — basically, realizing they had no control over what was happening on the ground. People had called their bluff and were finally seeing them for who they are in terms of people who have a deep interest in protecting and preserving the status quo, making sure that police continuously receive millions of dollars in funding that they said was to train out the racism in this department, and yet every year we’re dealing with fatalities from them of a black or brown person. Like, something’s not adding up.

And literally in the uprising of that first week, all those folks were just completely stripped of their power. This [the “defund the police” proposal] was, in a way, our movement granting our City Council members an opportunity to save face as a political class to say, “No, we are on the side of change. We have solidarity with you. We recognize the errors of our mistakes. We now realize that reform is not the pathway forward.” It basically gave them a way to reinstate themselves as a political class that had been weakened in prior weeks.

That’s what this opportunity around the charter amendment presented to them. It wasn’t about actually completely reforming or transforming an inherently racist political and economic system as they were saying they were committed to doing in all of their interviews with national media outlets. But it was to save face and reinstate the legitimacy of our political class and their political leadership.

Kollibri: When I hear you saying this, I’m really reminded of how people talk about the Democratic Party in general as being the “graveyard of social movements.”

Robin: [Laughs] Yes. That is accurate.

Kollibri: They’ll take on whatever rhetoric they need to sound like they are the friends of the left or the progressives, but when it comes down to making any real change or real policies, they always abandon them.

Robin: Exactly. And Minneapolis is a key example of that. If you want to take it to gross manifestations, you can go six to eight hours away to Chicago. We have Minneapolis and Chicago that have been these blue cities for decades and you see the grossest racial and economic disparities exist in these cities where we’re supposed to be Democratic and committed to progressive change and issues and committed towards anti-racism and yet in every socio-economic indicator, black and brown people and indigenous people, and queer folks and trans folks, are at the bottom level of their local societies in terms of income, in terms of employment, in terms of housing. It’s a complete contradiction to what these parties are telling us. Especially now, with a presidential election coming up, you know, saying that “We’re here for change.” Basically, pandering to folks to get their votes, but at the end of the day it’s very clear who their allegiance is to. It’s to the corporate elite. It’s to the 1% folks. It’s not to us. They will say and do whatever they think is needed to placate us in a temporary time span so we don’t go burn up shit again, so that they can make the power moves they need to make in order to appease the folks that they’re actually beholden to, and it’s not us. That’s what we literally saw here in the uprising. We’re seeing our City Council now go back and consider maybe we need to support our police chief and really give him an opportunity as a black man to rid racism out of an inherently racist system that’s predicated on regulating and policing and killing black folks. This is where we’re at right now.

Trying to get momentum again for our movement, which months ago was tearing down everything, calling out everyone, to now be like, “Okay, now that this city process has failed, how do we reinvigorate the public around re-imagining policing?” It’s a hard place to be in because we gave that power to our local Democratic leaders and those who we thought were the progressive wing of the DFL party [Democratic Farmer/Labor], our local Democratic party, of our city and elected leadership — we gave that power back to them. And where we are, we’re trying to dig ourselves out of a grave now, and get back to where we were, just back in May.

Listen to the full interview here.

Writer, photographer, tree-hugger, animal-lover, dissident.

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