2021: The “Defund Police” Election in Minneapolis

On Sunday, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council stood together on a stage with the words “Defund Police” draped across the front in giant letters. At a rally organized by Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, City Council President Lisa Bender told the crowd, “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed… Our commitment is to end our city’s toxic relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, to end policing as we know it.”

While this amounts to a veto-proof majority of the council, the nine haven’t yet developed or agreed to a specific plan to “Defund Police.” But the police murder of George Floyd has convinced them once and for all that MPD doesn’t actually make everyone safer — and is so broken that it can’t be reformed. The nine council members have committed to a year-long engagement process to determine how to replace the city’s broken system of public safety. This timeline puts the issue square in the middle of a city election year.

Council Member Alondra Cano called for a “truth and reconciliation summer” in Minneapolis. She declared, “I am no longer a reformist.”

In the debate about public safety, the phrase “police reform” is being replaced with words like “defund, dismantle, disinvest, disband, abolish.” The city council just has to decide how to put those words into practice — and define them for the public before the ideas are oversimplified into a punchline.

As the movement to re-imagine public safety gains steam, the rapid pace of potential change is producing both excitement and anxiety. A day after appearing on stage behind a giant “Defund Police” banner, Council Member Andrew Johnson wrote to constituents: “The language some use around this makes me uncomfortable, and I know it makes some of you uncomfortable or scared: disband, defund, dismantle, abolish. Some in the media seized on those terms to sensationalize or even mischaracterize the effort.”

Linea Palmisano, who was not on stage and represents the whitest and wealthiest part of the city, wrote to constituents: “A lot of promises are being made. Whether in the pledge of my colleagues or during interviews, there are provocative words like dismantle, defund and abolish. These words mean different things to different people in this city, and I’ve received hundreds of messages from you about them.”

Council Member Andrea Jenkins told the Star Tribune she felt conflicted about signing on to the pledge, but that “It’s possible to be conflicted and know what the right thing to do is.”

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham has long supported shifting scarce resources away from traditional policing towards a public health approach. Under such a system, a call to 911 might bring professionals trained to respond to mental health, addiction, and family violence — instead of a cop with a gun. He calls it “An opportunity that many of us didn’t think would come for decades.”

It’s an opportunity that wouldn’t have been possible without the recent progressive shift on the City Council. In 2017, Cunningham defeated the pro-police Council President Barb Johnson (who once famously performed a finger-gun reenactment of a drive-by shooting during a council meeting and said that legalizing garage apartments would encourage prostitution).

Another key figure in that political shift is Jeremiah Ellison. As an activist in 2015, in the wake of protests over the killing of Jamar Clark by Minneapolis Police, Ellison defiantly turned his back on the City Council. As a member of the Council on Sunday, Ellison told a cheering crowd, “This city council is going to dismantle this police department.”

In a more reflective moment during last Friday’s City Council meeting, Ellison said, despite the apparent momentum for change, “I fear that this is another opportunity for us to fail.”

Also at Friday’s meeting, Council Member Steve Fletcher tried to tamp down on the fear and excitement he was seeing in his email inbox:

“There were some people who thought that we were going to disband the police today. I just wanted to say to everybody, whether that was something you were hoping for… or something you were panicked about and really worried we were going to do today. We are so committed to a much, much deeper community process… We are beginning a set of work that is going to mean deep structural change.”

What about the elected official granted absolute authority over the Minneapolis Police? The day before the “Defund Police” event in Powderhorn Park, Mayor Frey’s refusal to take the pledge resulted in some very painful video.

Two of the three council members missing from Sunday’s stage published written statements that were vague and supportive enough that you could almost imagine their words being spoken at a Defund Police rally. Kevin Reich said “all potential avenues are on the table.” He acknowledged the failed approach that got us here: “This tragic event occurred despite years of reform work.” Palmisano said she attended the rally “in support of much of the outrage,” but not in support of the pledge she watched her colleagues deliver. She added, ” I agree that our efforts at incremental change have failed.”

The third missing council member, Lisa Goodman, took a swipe at empty slogans (in an email to a constituent), saying that “real real change” requires “a plan for it” and “not just talking points.” (Goodman has come to be known over her six terms on the council for outspoken opposition to plans for real real change.)

(If you’re wondering about the missing 13th seat on the Minneapolis City Council: the Ward 6 seat is currently vacant and will be filled at an August 11th special election.)

With so many professed values in common, and no actual plan to agree or disagree on, what separates the nine from the three? If someone asked you to pick three council members who’d opt out of big, scary change — on any topic — you’d probably have guessed those three. To put it another way: the choice of whether to appear on that stage shows who they feel they’re accountable to in next year’s election.