To outsiders, the stunning move may have seemed spurred by the moment. But it was the climax of decades of outrage against discrimination and police brutality rooted in the history of the force, said Yohuru Williams, history professor and founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at Minnesota’s University of St. Thomas.
Outcry over racist policing in the region dates back more than a century. In 1920, the lynching of three Black men in nearby Duluth — killed by a white mob as officers holstered their guns — sparked national headlines. As Black Americans moved north from the Jim Crow South, they faced police harassment and brutality that by 1967 boiled over into a citywide uprising, one of a series of riots against racial injustice across the U.S. that summer. The anti-Black racism of the 20th century built on an even-longer legacy of anti-Indigenous violence in the state; by 1975, the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said the department had “declared war on Blacks and Indians in Minneapolis.”
Throughout, reform was promised but never came, Williams said, in part because of resistance from the powerful police union.
“We have had a consistent, concerted effort led primarily by Black folks to make policing better in the city of Minneapolis,” said Justin Terrell, a community leader and director of a non-profit seeking justice system changes. “Every step of the way, we have always been met with denial, resistance, backlash, and violence.”
Floyd’s police killing was far from the only recent case to spark mass protest; according to the Star Tribune, 225 people have been killed in police interactions across the state since 2000. After Jamar Clark, an unarmed Black man, was shot dead by police, protesters staged an 18-day occupation outside the local precinct. No cop was charged in his death. One year later, Philando Castile was shot dead in nearby St. Anthony during a traffic stop spurred by a broken tail light; the officer who killed him was acquitted of manslaughter.
Today, Black people in Minneapolis — like those in Toronto — are stopped, searched, subjected to force and killed at a rate higher than white people, according to a blistering government report released last April that uncovered widespread discriminatory policing ranging from disproportionate rates of traffic stops for Black drivers to “consistent” use of racist language, including the N-word.
By the time Chauvin murdered Floyd, decades of outcry hit a crescendo. Demonstrators confronted Mayor Jacob Frey outside his home, chanting “Shame!” when he said he wouldn’t abolish the cops. But his stance didn’t matter; with a pledge from the majority of council came, seemingly, the promise of action.
In an interview, Bullock, who is Black, described how certain cops became notorious for abusing their power and using excessive force, yet never seemed to be disciplined.
In one incident, officers at the local precinct decorated a Christmas tree in racist tropes, including a fried chicken container and crime scene tape. The then-police chief, a Black officer who’d previously sued the department for discrimination, fired the cops, but an arbitrator partially overturned the chief’s decision.
A community activist with an abolitionist racial justice group, Bullock wants to see the kind of investments regularly poured into the Minneapolis Police Department directed instead at prevention, initiatives such as youth programming or unarmed emergency responders — approaches that have never been tried at anywhere close to the scale of the city’s police.
“Give them $200 million for 10 years, the way you give to the police department, and let’s see the results,” he said.
It was a sentiment held by many of those pushing for a new public safety system in Minneapolis, but by the end of 2020, progress was slowing at city hall. Some lawmakers who’d signed the pledge to end the police department faced backlash; three hired private security. An effort by council members to ask the city — via a vote — if they wanted to replace the police department with a department of community safety failed. In December, seven months after Floyd’s murder, the city diverted $8 million from the police budget to fund alternatives. That included a boost to the violence prevention office, which started running “interrupter” programs, sending large groups of community members — donning bright orange T-shirts — to crime hot spots to prevent shootings and curb retaliation. But it was less than five per cent of the department’s $179 million budget.
Simply slashing the number of cops wasn’t an option. Legally, Minneapolis had to maintain a minimum number of officers, a count tied to the city’s population that was written into the charter in the 1960s.
But in the months after Floyd’s murder, the force started shrinking on its own.
Blaming tanking morale and abandonment by city leaders, cops left in droves. The department declined from roughly 850 officers in early 2020 to 550 late last year, a drop of about a third and part of a national trend that saw cops leave forces en masse. Some retired or transferred. Many left on disability, claiming they’d acquired post-traumatic stress disorder from the uprising, creating another policing expense: the city paid $26 million to 155 officers for workers’ compensation settlements after Floyd’s murder.
Amid the exodus, Samuels and seven North Minneapolis neighbours launched a defund counteroffensive. Represented by a right-leaning law firm, the so-called “Minneapolis 8” sued the city for lack of police protection. Reform was necessary, the group said, but the city needed cops. The lawsuit claimed staffing had dropped to dangerous levels and already, it alleged, Minneapolis was seeing the consequences.
K.G. Wilson’s cell often buzzed after fatal shootings in Minneapolis, calls that sent the community advocate to comfort grieving relatives. On this May 2021 day, after he finished his shift as a security guard, the sheer number of missed calls told him this time was different. A text from his daughter confirmed it: Aniya had been shot.
This content was originally published here.