Inside the push to transform the department that killed George Floyd
By Eamon Whalen
Late one night in 2008, Max Graves, Jr. was walking through a crowded stretch in downtown Minneapolis when he was approached by two Minneapolis police officers who accused him of being involved in a fight. Without warning, Officers Mark Lanasa and Michael Meath began to punch and kick Graves, then placed him in a chokehold until he lost consciousness. When Graves awoke, he was hogtied. He was then tased several times and thrown in the back of a police van, according to the complaint his lawyer later filed. The assault left Graves with a “traumatic head injury, subconjunctival hematoma on both eyes and soft tissue swelling on the right side of his face,” the complaint said. Afterward, the officers wrote in their police report that Graves had assaulted a woman and resisted arrest.
Graves sued the Minneapolis Police Department and won. But that didn’t make policing in Minneapolis any safer, especially for Black men like Graves. The department did not enact measures of accountability or reform to prevent similar or worse incidents from happening again, even by the very same officers who attacked Graves. In 2013, Officer Meath fired the fatal gunshots that killed a twenty-two-year-old Black man named Terrance Franklin –– a case that has undergone renewed scrutiny and could now be reopened.
Thirteen years later, Graves hasn’t forgotten what it felt like to be on the receiving end of violence by the MPD. And he’s been working this fall as part of a campaign to restructure the Minneapolis Police Department with the hope to redefine public safety in Minneapolis.
On November 2, election day in Minneapolis, residents will vote on a ballot measure that would amend the city’s charter, removing the mandate for a police department. If the amendment passes, the city will begin the process of establishing a new department of public safety that would replace the police department and “employ a comprehensive public health approach” to the question of safety, including police officers. The measure has been in the works since last summer, when George Floyd was murdered by a member of the MPD, sparking a widespread movement against police violence.
If the ballot measure passes, it will not end policing in Minneapolis. But it will end the Minneapolis Police Department as it’s currently constituted, and what proponents call a “police-only” model of public safety. There would be armed law-enforcement officers in the new department (state law requires such to respond to certain crimes), but those officers would be joined by social workers, mediators trained in de-escalation, mental health professionals, violence interrupters, and other specialists who can respond to emergency calls. It also would give oversight of the new public safety department to the city council, as opposed to the current police department overseen by the mayor only. Most notably, the amendment removes the minimum staffing requirements for police that were instituted into the charter in 1961 at the behest of the police federation. The removal of this arbitrary requirement allows both police abolitionists and pro-MPD factions to see the initiative as one –– albeit narrow and technical –– step toward a police-free horizon.
Graves is now a field organizer for the New Justice Project, a worker center and organizing hub recently formed to support the Black working class across Minneapolis. The organization is part of the pro-charter amendment campaign Yes 4 Minneapolis, a coalition of faith groups, non-profit organizations, labor unions and other community groups. Earlier this month, I joined Graves and fellow organizers Tiara Jones and Phillip Holmes on a gloomy Saturday as they door knocked in support of the public safety charter amendment and another supporting rent control in the neighborhood around North High School.
The second door we knocked, a middle-aged white woman told us there had been a shootout across from the school the day before. “I don’t want to abolish, and I don’t feel great about the public safety initiative either. I don’t know what to do, but I don’t feel like I have any recourse to deal with this lawlessness,” she said. Just that morning, her next-door neighbors, a couple, were fighting each other with metal folding chairs. When she called 911, the police arrived thirty minutes later than she would’ve hoped, and then they didn’t even leave their car (the nearest police station is less than half a mile away).
“It’s a very challenging situation at this point,” Graves said. “…A lot of them are retaliating towards the city by not showing up.” He then brought the conversation back to the types of calls that police are most often tasked with. “If a kid is fighting at school, or if someone is drunk and disorderly, or if it’s a domestic situation like your neighbors, or someone like George Floyd trying to pass a twenty-dollar bill…”
“That’s when a mediator would show up,” cut in Jones.
Suddenly, things seemed to click. “Yes! You can’t be sending the police into every situation,” the woman at the door said. “I don’t mean to go off on you like this, you just happened to knock on my door today.”
On June 7, 2020, nine members of the Minneapolis city council stood on a stage emblazoned with a large sign that read “Defund MPD” and announced they would begin the process to “end policing as we know it.” In the intervening year and a half, the campaign has faced political fallout, bureaucratic roadblocks, and attempts of sabotage. Councilmembers reversed their stances; two chose not to seek re-election. An unelected commission that oversees the city charter blocked the council from amending it themselves. When a citizen petition drive secured a place for the amendment on the ballot in November, former council member Don Samuels filed a series of lawsuits that required the Minnesota Supreme Court to step in to ensure the amendment would even appear on the ballot.
Yes 4 Minneapolis continues to face substantial opposition, including a misinformation campaign by opponents like the political action committee All of MPLS, which states that if the public safety charter amendment passes, it “would remove the police department 30 days after the election with no timeline or plan for its replacement.” (This is false. That deadline refers to when the transition process must begin, and until the new department is fully staffed, Minneapolis police officers would continue to fulfill their responsibilities.)
Don Samuels, the former councilmember for Ward 5 on the city’s Northside, who has become the most public face of opposition to the amendment through his lawsuits and media appearances, went as far as to say in an interview former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, that the rise in gun violence is considered by the local “activist community,” as “necessary collateral damage for progress.” Samuels also argues that the disproportionately Black and working class people in the Minneapolis neighborhoods who live with the daily reality of gun violence and police brutality don’t support the amendment.
The evidence cited by Samuels for his latter claim is a poll on the issue published by the Star Tribune that asked eight hundred respondents a series of questions about public safety. It shows support for the charter amendment among the general public in Minneapolis to be slightly higher than among the Black population, with a significant enough “undecided” to flip it one way or the other. But the poll also asked, “Do you think Minneapolis should or should not reduce the size of its police force?” seventy-five percent of Black respondents answered “no,” that Minneapolis should not reduce the size of the police force.
“The Star Tribune is muddying the waters,” said Mel Reeves, a north Minneapolis resident, longtime activist and the Community Editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, the state’s oldest Black newspaper. Reeves thinks the poll asked those questions together to purposely conflate the charter amendment with a numerical reduction in police officers. “The charter amendment says nothing about defunding the police or reducing the police force. It does say it will take some of the police’s duties and responsibilities away,” he said. “They want to throw red meat to some of my neighbors and a bunch of white folks to say, ‘see, they’re trying to take the police away.’”
It’s notable that the Star Tribune poll emphasized state expenditures that would be taken away but didn’t mention what a new public safety department could add. The latter is at the heart of arguments by those who support reallocating resources away from policing toward community investment. “Police abolition work is not about snapping our fingers and instantly defunding every department in the world,” writes the local police abolitionist group MPD-150 on its website’s FAQ. “Rather, we’re talking about a process of strategically reallocating resources, funding, and responsibility away from police and toward community-based models of safety, support, and prevention.”
Alex Vitale, the sociologist and author of The End of Policing, recently told Mother Jones that pollsters’ focus on terms like “defund” or “abolish” misses the nuance of how communities relate to the police. “What we’re asking people is, should we hire counselors instead of school police? Should we have public health strategies to deal with drug problems?” he said. “It turns out that when we ask people those questions, there’s broad public support for it.”
“If you ask my neighbors, ‘Hey, do you want police called on a person having a mental health crisis?’ My neighbors would probably say they want an expert to handle that,” Reeves told me. “They would have a common-sense approach to it.’” Over the course of two afternoons observing conversations about the amendment in north Minneapolis, I saw over and over that once it was established the amendment wouldn’t immediately get rid of the police, and that it would provide additional services like mental health professionals, there was broad support for it.
In November 2020, University of Minnesota sociology professor Michelle Phelps published a research study on North Minneapolis residents’ attitudes towards policing. “What people would say is that they felt trapped between violence in the community and the threat of police suspicion,” Phelps told me. “At the same time that they felt that their every move was criminalized, they felt like police weren’t really preventing the high rates of homicide and interpersonal crime in the community,” she said—a phenomenon Phelps and other social scientists call “Overpoliced and Underprotected.”
This doesn’t mean that everyone in North Minneapolis is ready for the police to pack up and leave, but it also doesn’t mean the solution needs to involve more police officers. “This idea that when crime goes up it’s the police’s fault, and when crime goes down it’s because the police have done something—I think that’s fundamentally flawed,” said Phelps. “These are problems that are related to deeper systemic inequalities and therefore the redress to that has to be about understanding how we remediate those conditions,” she said.
In fact, a reduction in policing has already begun. Since May 25, 2020, three hundred officers have left the MPD. A recent investigative report in Reuters found that during that time policing in Minneapolis has been significantly slower, and at times nearly absent. “Police sometimes deliberately take a longer route than necessary to respond to calls—mostly in the hope that whatever the problem was, it will be resolved by the time they arrive,” the report states, quoting an anonymous officer. And just this week, video surfaced of an officer describing a deliberate work stoppage. Some would say this is what the charter amendment proponents are pushing for. That would be true, if those officers weren’t still being paid out of the pockets of Minneapolis taxpayers.
On that October canvassing weekend, as the overcast sky turned into a downpour toward the end of our route, Jones, Graves, and I passed a tree on a boulevard surrounded by flowers and candles––a memorial for a victim of gun violence—and approached a group of Black men in their twenties and thirties hanging out on a stoop. They invited us to take cover from the rain on their porch, and we all got to talking about police. “Every time they pull me over, they say, ‘where are the guns and the weed at?’” One of the men said. “And every time, they already have their hand on their gun.”
The man on the porch spoke perhaps even more passionately of the need for resources for the young men in the neighborhood who would otherwise be pulled into street life. “Where’s the community center where we can go to find a job? To figure out how to write a resume or how to fill out a job application? That’s what we need but we don’t have the type of stuff here. They don’t give a fuck about us,” he said. Graves explained that, in addition to campaigning for the public safety charter amendment in this election cycle, their work at The New Justice Project was aiming to help people sustain for the long term. “What we do is try to get brothers like yourself vocational training and job training, so you can take care of your community,” he said.
Contrary to what Graves refers to as “propaganda” or “bullshit” coming from those opposed to the amendment, he says most of the people in neighborhoods like the ones he’s been canvassing are amenable to new models of public safety—even moreso than he was expecting when he started canvassing. But it’s about how you explain it, he said, emphasizing presence instead of absence, to paraphrase the abolitionist theorist Ruth Wilson Gillmore. Even so, the opposition’s misinformation campaign, and the city council’s ill-conceived policy roll-out last June, has put advocates of the amendment, like Graves, on the defensive when they speak to potential voters—first having to explain what it doesn’t do before explaining what it could do. And, in doing so, it’s made the work of reshaping public safety in Minneapolis that much harder.
The next weekend, The New Justice Project organizers were grilling free hot dogs for passers-by in the corner of a strip mall parking lot on one of North Minneapolis’s main thoroughfares. At one point, a nearby performing arts center led a community bike ride down the street. A few minutes later came a parade calling for peace in the community, led by members of the New Black Panther Party and a youth marching band chanting “Guns Down, So Kids Can Play.”
Phillip Holmes was flipping hot dogs on the grill and topping them with his homemade barbecue sauce. “When the media highlights these crime statistics, it’s based on fear,” he told a pair of men who had stopped to chat. “We’re socialized to think that the cops are here to help us. But it’s really joblessness and hopelessness that leads to this.” In his teenage years, in the late 1960s, Holmes was involved with the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, and wears a Huey Newton button when he goes out doorknocking. “I don’t tell people we’re going to defund the police,” He said. I say we’re going to put other components there, to expand public safety.”
The ballot initiative could be one meaningful step in that direction, though charting the course of the new department and ensuring it doesn’t just become a rebranded MPD will be a difficult task. “The people who have fought for big transformative change in policing will in some ways own the new department symbolically,” said Phelps. “My worry is that the new department will get six months to a year and then whatever the next tragedy is, or if murder rates continue to go up, they get blamed for it, and there is pushback saying, ‘look at what a dangerous idea this was,’” she said.
But for people like Graves, the existing police department has proved dangerous enough already. “To keep it one hundred, I think that overall, the people that are the most scared are the people least affected by policing,” said Graves. “Not everyone in Minneapolis is down for it, but the troubled communities are looking for a better solution,” he said. “Everything that I’ve seen lately, people are tired of this shit.” ■
Eamon Whalen is a writer and reporter from Minneapolis.
Cover image: Corenia Smith, Campaign Manager with Yes 4 Minneapolis, and others carry boxes of signed petitions toward the Minneapolis City Hall Rotunda onFriday, April 30, 2021. The petitions were delivered to the city clerk in order to get the public safety amendment on the November ballot. Photo by Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images.
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