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Voters Reject Policing Overhaul in Minneapolis — But Activists Aren’t Deterred

Alternatives to policing are already being built in Minneapolis.

People celebrate the sentencing of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on June 25, 2021, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Voters rejected a ballot amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) with a broader slate of public safety services by a slim margin on Tuesday after a campaign that proponents say was marred by misinformation and fearmongering. However, a loss at the polls is not sending police reformers and racial justice activists back the drawing board.

Activists say there are still plenty of avenues for overhauling the public safety system and holding police accountable in Minneapolis, where the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020 sparked an uprising against state violence and forced the nation to face the realities of systemic racism. The police department remains under state and federal investigation for civil rights abuses, and alternatives to policing are already being built, both in the city government and through grassroots organizing.

The Black-led coalition behind the amendment spoke with tens of thousands of residents about expanding public safety ahead of the vote, and organizers say they have permanently changed the conversation. Miski Noor, co-director of Black Visions Collective, a power-building group for Black queer and trans people in Minneapolis, said rallying more than 60,000 votes for the amendment was no small feat.

“Folks are actually talking about public safety, and folks understand that public safety goes beyond policing, and that is a huge shift in consciousness from last year,” Noor said in an interview on Wednesday. “We are not starting from scratch — 60,000 people believe in a new vision of public safety, and that number is only going to grow here in Minneapolis.”

Minneapolis police would not have disappeared had the amendment passed, although supporters have consistently said this is what the opposition wanted voters to believe. Instead, the proposed amendment to the city charter would have removed a longstanding requirement that the city retain a minimum number of police officers relative to the population, while folding the embattled police department into a new Department of Public Safety offering an expanded range of services.

Activists and progressive Democrats such as Rep. Ilhan Omar say this police “quota” is a barrier to holding police accountable for violence and providing people with more options when they call for help, a crucial goal for activists in a city where trust between communities of color and police has repeatedly been broken. Reformers want staffing and funding flexibility so the city can hire a variety of public safety responders, such as mental health counselors and medics trained to treat drug overdoses, rather than relying only on cops with guns.

“It’s actually making necessary structural change in order to actually meet people’s needs and provide the level of care they require, instead of consistently criminalizing or incarcerating people or killing them when police show up,” Noor said.

The failed ballot amendment, known as Question 2, defined the race to unseat Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, who opposed Question 2 and efforts to change the governing structure so the police chief would answer to the city council rather than only the mayor. Frey clung to office but only received 43 percent of first-choice votes on a ranked-choice ballot. After tallying second-choice votes, Frey defeated Question 2 supporter Kate Knuth by a 56-44 margin, mirroring the vote on Question 2. Sheila Nezhad, a queer organizer who arose from the coalition behind the amendment, came in second to Frey in the first round of ranked-choice voting.

Minneapolis voters approved a ballot measure that will allow city lawmakers to craft rent controls, and voters in neighboring St. Paul capped rent increases at 3 percent. A victory for progressives after housing dominated the election along with public safety, the success of the ballot measures is a sign that voters recognize both issues as intertwined. In Minneapolis and beyond, organizers are pushing for investments in housing, parks, schools and other resources that promote community well-being instead of hiring more police and expanding jails.

Change-makers can still push for new investments and supports that promote public safety despite the defeat of Question 2, according to Elianne Farhat, director of the TakeAction Minnesota, a group that canvassed voters in support of the amendment. The city is also awaiting the results of dual investigations by the Department of Justice and the Minnesota Human Rights Commission into alleged abuses by the Minneapolis Police Department, and Farhat said the findings could increase pressure on city council and the mayor to pull the police “quota” from the city charter.

“We have a city budget, and it will be important to continue to make sure our city is investing in the things we know keeps people safe,” Farhat told Truthout. “We know that the MDP will continue to fail the people of Minneapolis, and we will continue to work to building alternatives to policing and building community-first public safety infrastructure, and make sure we are investing in our people.”

Those alternatives are already popping up. Thanks to efforts by Nezhad and other activists — and with support from Frey — Minneapolis established in 2018 an Office of Violence Prevention that takes a public health approach to neighborhood conflict and violence among youth in particular. Neighborhood teams of “violence interrupters” attempt to resolve conflict and interrupt cycles of violence, rather than relying on police to respond after people get hurt.

Noor pointed to a grassroots project called Relationships Evolving Possibilities (REP), a network of “dedicated abolitionists who show up to support others in moments of crisis or urgency” while respecting the dignity of people in crisis. The group is currently piloting a hotline that provides an alternative to calling police and connects people with community resources or responders trained in first aid and conflict de-escalation.

Noor said such grassroots efforts and the campaign to shift city resources into a public safety department were founded by Black people and led by Black women and queer and trans folks who have “experienced lots of violence at the hands of police.”

“These are communities that really have felt the brunt of policing and so yes, trust has been broken in so many ways, and this is part of the fight that we are inside of to create something new,” Noor said. “Folks hear that abolition is just about tearing things down, but it’s really about building things up and building new supports for one another to be able to survive and hopefully thrive as well.”

Question 2 divided the Black community in a city with a well-known history of racist and deadly policing, with some activists arguing the amendment was too vague to hold police accountable. Others feared that opening the door to a reduced police force would leave Black neighborhoods vulnerable, a sentiment that proponents say was encouraged by an opposition campaign that made it seem like big changes would be made faster than the political system would actually allow.

Noor said the campaign for and against Question 2 was about “fear vs. hope,” echoing researchers who say fearmongering about “crime” and “violence” is an age-old tactic deployed whenever the legitimacy of police is questioned. Police and their backers have defended their stranglehold on city budgets with debunked narratives tying homicides during the COVID pandemic — and on the cops’ watch — to Black Lives Matter protests and reforms that have yet to pass.

Opponents attempted to stoke fear about the prospect of moving beyond the status quo, but Noor remains hopeful about the future after mobilizing 60,000 “yes” votes and giving Mayor Frey a run for his money.

“The scariest thing is continuing to try something that is not working, which is the status quo, which is continuously murdering Black people,” Noor said.

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