‘What We Did Was Nothing To Sneeze At.’ Activists in Minneapolis Look Ahead After ‘Defund’ Vote Fails

It wasn’t a huge shock to racial justice organizers in Minneapolis when the votes were counted. During the city’s elections on Nov. 2, 56% of voters voted down “Question 2,” a ballot initiative offering the opportunity to replace the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) with a new, community-oriented public safety model.

“I was sad and disappointed in many ways,” Kandace Montgomery, co-director of Black Visions Collective, a Minneapolis-based community organization, tells TIME. “I think what we did was nothing to sneeze at—turning out over 60,00 people to vote on transformation like this—but it was a hard fight.”

It is not easy to be a community organizer. They are determined to continue their work in the community and call for changes in the MPD.
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“We need to sit with people and talk to them about what a real vision for safety in Minneapolis could be,” Montgomery says. “We need to ensure that the incoming council and our mayor are being held accountable to the promises they made during the campaign trail.”

Minneapolis mayoral race was tight. Jacob Frey won his re-election bid on a ranked ballot, receiving 56%. Frey urged unity for reform of the police force in his victory speech. Prior to joining the police reform team, Frey worked alongside community organizations in order for violence interruption projects across the entire city.

“All of the work around safety and accountability is complex. None of it you can fix with a hashtag or a slogan or a simplistic answer,” Frey, who opposed Question 2, said. “I’m hopeful that we will be able to dig in… in a united fashion.”

While there had been a lot of community-led work to transform policing already, it was kicked into high gear almost 17 months ago by George Floyd being killed in an MPD officer’s hands during a May 2020 arrest. The movement was revived to reform all police departments in the country and make officers accountable for their actions.

An investigation into the MPD’s practices by the Department of Justice is also underway.

But when the “defund the police” slogan was birthed out of that movement, it quickly became divisive. There has been much consternation across the U.S. with regard to reforms for troubled police departments, as well as concerns over what those changes would—or could—entail. This subject has been a source of moral panic in many situations. And in Minneapolis, the “defund” vote and surrounding conversations have served to crystalize many of the issues at hand.

Learn more Police Killings Happen Far More Often Than What’s Widely Reported

The ballot question asked voters if they would like to replace the police department with a “Department of Public Safety.” And even the road to the ballot was a tough one—it took over 20,000 signatures from Minneapolis residents.

But according to activists, the question was presented in the same way the “defund” movement is often framed by those who oppose it: as about simply getting rid of police officers, without offering adequate or community-focused alternatives. Minneapolis did not have such an offer.

“The charter change did not explicitly defund anything,” says Minister JaNae Bates, director of communications for Yes 4 Minneapolis. “We were very clear that we wanted to expand public safety.”

The idea, according to the activists, was to look at 911 data across the city and match the safety needs of specific neighborhoods with more resources to address them—so it would not necessarily be the case that armed police officers respond to all 911 calls, for example, but trained social and health workers.

City residents filed a suit against the question, contending that it was not well-written and didn’t provide the necessary information for voters to make an informed choice. The council approved an “incomplete and misleading ballot question,” the lawsuit charged, that lacked “any plan for replacing that department’s critical public safety functions.” Still, the question’s language was officially approved by the Minneapolis city council in September, and later by a State Supreme Court Judge, overruling the judgment of a lower Minnesota court that had ruled against the council’s language.

(Following Nov. 6, elections, the majority of council members will now be people of colour for the first ever time.

“We knew we were we’re fighting an uphill battle. Our opposition said that our vision for expanded public safety was radical and wrong,” Bates says. “Our opposition used a lot of fear-based tactics and just a lot of disinformation to dissuade people from voting on this measure.”

An argument commonly deployed by opponents to “defund” initiatives is that a reduction in police officers and police oversight will directly, and quickly, lead to rising crime rates. The fact that crime and homicides have steadily increased in the past 18 month has led to critics of the “defund” movement to quickly frame these numbers as evidence for that, while also raising concerns about the possibility of worsening the situation.

However, in this time period, the budgets of police departments have not increased and police departments have not had to defund in any substantial way. A rise in crime isn’t necessarily linked with the movement to defund.

The public has been misinformed about the movement’s goals and the movement at large, both locally and nationally. As Bates puts it, its nuances are often lost on people when they hear the word “defund” alone. “It tends to mischaracterize the substance of what these policies actually do,” she says. “It doesn’t name all the ways in which real investment has to be made.” Speaking with the Washington PostNovember 4, 2005 – Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said that, “allowing this moniker, ‘defund the police,’ to ever get out there was not a good thing.”

Montgomery said that it took just a few minutes to explain the initiative and get most people to comprehend the plans. The activists feel that education in any capacity is valuable.

Learn more Why The Term ‘Defund the Police’ Has Become Divisive

They point to 44% support of the plan from voters as proof that it has made an impact on public safety. Frey—who will in his new term have more oversight over all city agencies, including the police department—has been vocal about his support of hiring mental health workers to respond to calls, for example, and to reduce the number of low-level police stops.

Activists intend to hold him to his word, as well as continue to push the conversation forward and advance further on the work they’ve done.

“Transformative change takes time, so we’re very hopeful that this will be a long fight for change,” Montgomery says.


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