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In Minneapolis this month, there was another video—a video of a young Black man, 22-year-old Amir Locke, being killed by police. It’s only 10 seconds long, and it’s really sad.
Jeremiah Ellison, he had to watch it. “When I watched the video for the first time, it was worse than I thought it would be. I mean … he’s a kid,” said Ellison, who’s a City Council member in Minneapolis, representing Ward 5, just a few blocks away from where the shooting took place.
It was early on a Wednesday morning when police officers stormed the apartment where Amir Locke was staying. They charged up to a couch, kicked it, and then opened fire. If you pause the bodycam footage, you can just see that Amir Locke—who was not wanted for anything—had a gun in his hands. During previous shootings, Ellison would have been texting with the mayor and constituents and getting information, but that didn’t happen this time. “It was incredibly different,” he said. “The political landscape in Minneapolis is really weird right now.”
This weird political landscape is part of the reason I wanted to talk to Jeremiah Ellison. He was elected, in part, to address police violence. After George Floyd’s murder, he pushed for aggressive reform, things like replacing the police department with a department of public safety. But voters have rejected these kinds of ideas so far. Ellison himself nearly got voted out of office back in November.
And now here he is, watching another video that is impossible to explain. “If George Floyd wasn’t inherently a turning point for our city, then every single change is going to have to be as brutally hard fought as anything else know,” he said.
On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Ellison about what his next move is, after yet another police killing in Minneapolis. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: For Jeremiah Ellison, the shooting of Amir Locke gives him an awful sense of déjà vu. He was elected after the police shooting of a Black man named Jamar Clark. And when George Floyd was murdered, he really dug in on police reform. You may remember this moment from after Floyd’s death, when a bunch of City Council members got up at a rally and announced they’d defund the police. It seemed like major reform was about to happen—a veto-proof majority of the had City Council signed on to all this. Jeremiah said he was committed to “dismantling” the police.
But none of that happened. The city’s charter hemmed them in. So back in November, reformers tried another tack—asking the citizens of Minneapolis themselves to vote on converting the police department into a “department of public safety.” But that initiative failed, too. The thing is, Jeremiah Ellison doesn’t see it that way.
Jeremiah Ellison: Look, 45 percent of voters in Minneapolis walked into the voting booth and decided that they no longer wanted the Minneapolis Police Department to be a part of their day-to-day lives. That’s not an insignificant number of people, and that’s not an insignificant declaration to make with your vote.
At the same time the city voted against remaking the police department, they did something else: They voted in favor of increasing the mayor’s power, making him the “chief executive” of the city. Now all city agencies work the way the police department does—without direct oversight from council members.
The Minneapolis City Council has never had any legislative authority over the police department.
You tried to change that as early as 2019.
We tried to change it in 2019. We tried to change it in 2020. And then we finally got it on the ballot in 2021 and it lost. One of the reasons that we wanted to do that is because the council has a built-in transparent platform to pass policy. We have to give notice of introduction, then we have to do it in a formal reading and referral to its proper committee. Then, we have to draft the policy and put it out for public review and take public comment. Then we have to have a public hearing, sometimes two public hearings.
How does the policymaking for the police work now instead?
The mayor and the chief draft the policy. No vetting, no public hearing. And you could have one mayor and one chief with their set of policies, and you could have a new mayor and a new chief just toss those policies aside. It is completely a behind-closed-doors process, and it is completely subject to the whims and impulses of whoever the current chief and mayor happen to be.
And with Amir Locke’s death, you can see the problems with that because Mayor Jacob Frey campaigned as having banned no-knock warrants. But it appears that whatever policy existed wasn’t strong enough to prevent what happened.
Sometimes, in Minneapolis, we get into this habit of outsmarting ourselves. We want to do something, but we don’t really want to do it. And so we play a bit of a semantic game so that we’ve technically done a thing that we haven’t really earnestly done. And I’m not saying that that’s anyone’s intention here, but I feel like it’s ultimately what happened.
There was probably some concern about banning no-knock warrants in earnest. But it was a popular reform that the mayor wanted to campaign on. And so the policy ends up being this thing that is maybe technically what he wanted but not exactly what he wanted to do.
That’s some of the problems when you don’t have a transparent process. Look, there are members of the public who are going to catch on to any sort of semantic games that you’re trying to play. They’re going to call you out for loopholes that you didn’t really take into account. I’ve experienced that even with some of the renters’ rights that I’ve tried to pass. And ultimately, it strengthens your policy.
The pushback on what you’re saying, which is “Open everything up to public comment,” is that it’ll be a mess. Everyone’s going to be there picking at this thing. We’ll never have a policy. It’ll take a long time. It’s not efficient.
The only department in the city of Minneapolis that functions this way, with this nontransparent policy creation model, is the Minneapolis Police Department. And it’s also the only department that has a long notable list of failures.
We think that it’s efficiency and we need speed when it comes to creating this policy. And yet speed and efficiency with a lack of transparency have consistently created chaos in our city when it comes to policing. So maybe we could just try the opposite.
Before being elected to City Council, Jeremiah Ellison was an artist. He did these big, public murals. But he was always political. He was born into politics. His dad is Keith Ellison, the former Minnesota congressman who is now attorney general for the state. It was after the shooting of a young Black man named Jamar Clark that Jeremiah Ellison started thinking about going into politics himself. This was back in 2015.
The reason I ended up running is that Jamar Clark was somebody who was from north Minneapolis. His older sister used to braid my younger sister’s hair. It’s a tightknit community. I didn’t personally know Jamar, but you instantly start finding out that you’ve got all these connections. And he was killed four, five blocks from where I grew up. So I was out on the streets and I had a lot of my neighbors saying, “We need different representation here on the north side.”
I read that during everything that happened around Jamar Clark’s death, you ended up at a City Council meeting where you stood up, you kept your back to the lectern as you spoke, and you said, “Politicians will shake your hand and kiss your baby and slit your throat at the same time.” Your dad’s a politician, and now you are.
There are thousands of people holding elected office at any given time. I don’t think that was a statement on every single person holding elected office period. It was a statement on how people placate instead of trying to solve a problem and that that’s the issue. People become maybe obsessed with holding their office more than doing the work of their office, and that’s a problem.
Now that you hold this office, have you ever had those moments, where you’re like, “I need to just say the nice words here”?
I’ve never done that, but I’m painfully aware—maybe overly aware—of the various reasons that electeds don’t say bold things, don’t make bold moves, don’t hold strong on their stances on what they believe. I’m painfully aware that no one is immune to that.
In the last election, I was in a tight election. I was saying things about public safety that I still believe are true and that I think time will just further prove are true—about policing in America, about the way that we have chosen, very ineffectively, to keep people safe in our country. Saying some very unpopular things about how we should expand that system beyond the police-only model that we have.
And a lot of my colleagues lost their elections, and I almost lost mine. The calculus that I made is that if I had to lose an election standing up for what I believe in and asserting what I know to be true, then I could live with that forever. But that if I had to soften the truth or tell people what they wanted to hear, regardless of whether it was true, in order to win that would be the very kind of activity that would make me no longer fit to hold the position.
Some would say your job is to do what the people want, though.
There’s a balance there. If what the people want is based on a well-financed, fairly sophisticated smear campaign, and you know that part of what they’re asking you to do is not the right thing, then you owe it to them to do the political education, to have the hard conversation. And you might not win them over in that moment, and you might not win their vote in that moment.
But there was also this ideological divide in your own district. There has been a lawsuit filed by eight Minneapolis residents, people who live in the district you represent—they wanted to make sure that the police were fully staffed, which is something that’s part of the city charter. And so they went to court and said, “You need to not defund the police because it says right here we’re supposed to have this many people working the streets,” and they won.
These people aren’t just random community actors. These folks are part of a political class. They get billed in this way that makes them seem just apolitical and concerned.
But I do think that there is a divide—and I come to this as a New Yorker—between older city residents and younger ones, where there’s a conception that police keep you safe and they are there to keep you safe. Maybe they do bad things, but if they’re gone, things might get worse. And in a city like Minneapolis, I think there might be a feeling that what happened when police officers left was that crime got worse. Do you not see that as a generational thing?
Yes and no. Especially here in Minneapolis, Black residents in particular, I’m seeing that generational divide. But we tend to think of things as two-sided, but it’s almost always at least three-sided, which is to say that the vast majority of Black people in Minneapolis who can vote don’t vote at all. They have lost so much faith in the system’s ability to manage any of these problems.
And so to me, to place so much emphasis on the people who are in it and disagreeing to the point that you don’t even see the people who are on the outside of the conversation and they don’t even know what we’re really talking about, that’s a really big missed opportunity.
Two years in to the push to defund the police, I wonder if you’re more or less optimistic about the kind of changes you want to make.
Is there a neither option? I’m not a pessimist at all. I think things are possible. I think impossible things are possible. But to say that I’m hopeful feels like an overstatement. I would say that I’m convinced that with the proper amount of thought and the proper amount of due diligence, I can get things done. And if I can’t reach that threshold, then I can’t get those things done.
Did you think it would be this hard?
I knew that politics was something that I was always going to be maybe naturally disinterested in. I saw my dad in Congress, and I remember being 16 and being like, “Man, this sucks.” Like, having people spray-paint the side of our house because he’s the first Muslim congressman sucks.
What does all of this mean about what you do now, because it seems to me like you’re in a really tough spot? You just had an election where a bunch of the more progressive members of the council lost their jobs. More power was given to the mayor, not less. You’ve had this awful police shooting, which has revealed that some of the policies that people may have assumed were in place are weaker than they should be or than maybe even they were intended to be. So what do you do now?
When I heard the news of Amir Locke’s killing, there was a part of me—not the part of me that I’m the most proud of—that was like, “Hey, people just voted for me to not have a voice in these conversations.” So I’m going to keep working on tenants’ rights, and I’m going to keep working on rent control, and I’m going to keep working on these other policies. I just fought for two years to have some legislative authority in this realm and the people said no, and I’ve got to respect that. And I was going to … obviously attend rallies and do that kind of thing, but I wasn’t really going to make too much of my opinion known.
Because it felt like my opinion had just been rejected in November. And then I watched the video and it was just the cruelest reminder that I don’t get to take a break from this conversation. Even if I’m frustrated with election results or whatever, I’ve got to find a way to assert my voice in this conversation.
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This content was originally published here.