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‘You Can Only Demean People So Much.’ Minneapolis Activists Aren’t Surprised a National Movement Started There

9 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Longtime activist Sandra Richardson was on a walk with her husband last Monday evening through the Minneapolis neighborhood where she grew up. What she didn’t realize until the next morning was that during her walk, just blocks away, a black man named George Floyd was dying as a police officer knelt on his neck and onlookers pleaded with the officer to get off him.

Richardson later watched the video in horror, like millions of others since, as Floyd had his life taken away from him by an officer with a “very nonchalant attitude” not far from her home. She wasn’t surprised when the city erupted in mass protest soon after. “If you talk to enough people in Minneapolis, it wasn’t if this was going to happen. It was when,” Richardson, who has worked against inequality in the city for years with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an anti-racist community organization, says. “You can only demean people so much until they respond.”

For activists like Richardson, it’s no surprise to find Minneapolis at the center of the national uprising underway. The city, they say, has a long record of police brutality that is symptomatic of broader racial injustice issues that go back generations. For years, Minneapolis’ large network of activists and organizers have been fighting for reforms to help close the poverty gap for the black community, and demanding the city stop increasing the budget of the police department, which they say targets members of their communities. They’ve held press conferences. They’ve gone to city council meetings. They’ve lobbied the state legislature. And they’ve cautioned what could happen if officials don’t tackle the twin crises of economic disparity and what they say is an overly aggressive police force.

“The reality is that our city and Minneapolis and elected officials were warned several years ago that this was likely to happen if they did not rein in the Minneapolis police department and also address the economic inequality that African-Americans here face,” says Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and founder of the Racial Justice Network. “They failed to take action and so this is really the outcome of that.”

When the Black Lives Matter movement took hold nationally after Eric Garner and Michael Brown died at the hands of police in 2014, solidarity protests also broke out in Minnesota. Demonstrators occupied the Mall of America, a major regional attraction, and shut down major highways. The next year, protests erupted again after police shot and killed Jamar Clark, an unarmed black man, in North Minneapolis, and in 2016, after a police officer shot and killed Philando Castile, whose girlfriend live streamed part of the incident in a Minneapolis suburb. In both cases, there was no police conviction.

The men’s deaths led to a groundswell of local organizing. Protesters held an 18-day encampment in Minneapolis’s Fourth Police Precinct for Clark and a weeks-long occupation of the governor’s mansion for Castile. Local groups and projects sprouted up, like the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar and MPD150, a loose collection of local activists that support dismantling the police force and who created a people’s history of the Minneapolis Police Department that coincided with its 150th anniversary. “We’ve been doing anti-police brutality organizing in Minneapolis pretty much straight since Jamar Clark’s killing in 2015,” says Tony Williams, an MPD150 contributor and member of Reclaim the Block, a group that focuses on policy organizing. “That was the point at which we realized that this place could be a flashpoint in the same way as anywhere else.”

Since Floyd’s death, Minneapolis’ activist network has swung into action again, organizing demonstrations, providing training and collecting and distributing supplies. Many of the organizers, like Richardson, live in the neighborhood where Floyd was killed. But as the city nears a full week of consecutive protest, something about this moment feels different, activists say. Several point to the city’s Third Precinct burning last week as the moment they realized that they were in uncharted territory. In addition to the horrors of police brutality, there are bigger national issues at play, like a President with a penchant for making racist and threatening remarks and a pandemic disproportionately affecting black communities, that have exacerbated the situation.

“People are already trapped in poverty. You combine COVID-19 with something like this and people are going to react,” says Marjaan Sirdar, a local activist on police violence who has collaborated with Reclaim the Block and other organizations in the city. “They don’t have anything to lose.”

‘The perfect storm’

Minnesota is often touted as one of the best places to live in the U.S., cloaked with a reputation of ‘Midwest Nice’. But the state has one of the largest poverty gaps between white and black residents in the country, according to research by the Star Tribune newspaper, a disparity that was recently compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Minnesota Department of Health has reported 24,850 confirmed positive cases as of May 31. Though black or African American residents make up just under 7% of Minnesota’s population, the number of cases affecting reporting black patients was 5,569, or at least 22% of the total cases. Like other states, Minnesota has also been hit hard by job losses during the pandemic.

“It was almost like the perfect storm, because here we are in the middle of this COVID crisis which is facilitating this economic crisis, this unemployment crisis, but in some sense people of color have always been in a crisis,” says Taiyon Coleman, an associate professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN, who has studied inequality in the area. “It all just came together and (Floyd’s) death, which I don’t want to devalue, was that spark that lit everything up.”

Though some of the groups that originally led much of the 2014 protests against police brutality, like the Black Liberation Project and Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, have since been disbanded, they’ve been replaced by others, such as Black Visions Collective, and many individual activists who were part of the first wave have been consistently involved.

“There is a lot of overlap of black organizers who have been responding to the violence and trauma of the Minneapolis Police Department for years and decades, continuing to come together in this moment,” says Kandace Montgomery, an organizer with Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective. “I think what is really amazing is the ways that our community has built infrastructure in the last few years, to be able to be more coordinated and to bring in new folks, younger people to be able to really effectively organize.”

While they work in tandem on fighting police brutality in the state, the groups have different goals and tactics. Racial Justice Network, for instance, places emphasis on challenging leadership. A couple of months ago, when Democratic Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was running for President, Racial Justice Network was part of organizing a protest that led to shutting down a campaign event over Klobuchar’s criminal justice record. The Twin Cities Coalition for Justice 4 Jamar supports families of victims of police violence and focuses on accountability. Communities United Against Police Brutality focuses on a consistent response by local volunteers to police brutality in the twin cities. Minneapolis NAACP, the local chapter of the national civil rights organization, regularly partners with these groups, and though Black Lives Matter Minneapolis is defunct, other chapters, like Black Lives Twin Cities and Black Lives Matter Minnesota, are still active.

Other groups working in the city believe that reducing the police department budget – or getting rid of it all together – is the only way to protect members of the community. Reclaim the Block advocates for a significant amount of the municipal funds going to the police to be redirected to community-led initiatives, as does Black Visions Collective. MPD150 touts a police-free Minneapolis.

Since Floyd’s death, some groups have been calling on the city council to sign a petition that states they won’t increase police funding and to make a $45 million cut from the police budget to invest in the community. Last December, the department budget was increased by $8.2 million. “We want to see (the city council) never increase the police budget again,” says Miski Noor, an activist and member of Black Visions Collective. “Our city can be safe. We can build this city up if we invest in our community and in community-led infrastructure instead of racist policing.”

The more immediate issue that goes hand in hand with defunding the police is increasing the accountability of police officers when they kill unarmed black men and women. Nationally, according to the Mapping Police Violence database, 99% of all police officers involved in killings between 2013 and 2019 did not face charges. The same data revealed that black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than a white person. In 2019, black people made up 24% of those killed by police, while making up just 13% of the population.

“Unless you change the accountability of the police department then nothing is going to happen,” said William Green, a history professor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis who has studied the history of race and civil rights in the city. “I hope that policymakers can man up or woman up and make those hard decisions to commit themselves to sustained efforts to change.”

Correction, June 3

The original version of this story misstated the name of a database that was cited. It is Mapping Police Violence, not Mapping Gun Violence.

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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com and Lissandra Villa at lissandra.villa@time.com