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

6 minute read

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.”

The work of community organizers is never done. So, undeterred, they are now looking forward to their next steps in addressing public safety issues across the city and calling for reforms in and around the MPD.

“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.”

The Minneapolis mayoral race was a tight one, with incumbent Jacob Frey winning re-election on a ranked-choice ballot with 56% of the vote. During his victory speech, Frey called for unity in the work towards police reform. He has previously worked with community groups to implement violence interruption initiatives across the 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.”

Though much community-led work was already being done to reshape policing, the work and activism Frey referenced was kicked into a new gear nearly 17 months ago when George Floyd was killed at the hands of a then-MPD officer, Derek Chauvin, during a May 2020 arrest. A movement to reform police departments across the country, and hold officers accountable for their conduct, was reignited.

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. In many contexts, the subject has become a moral panic. And in Minneapolis, the “defund” vote and surrounding conversations have served to crystalize many of the issues at hand.

Read 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. This was not actually the proposal at hand in Minneapolis.

“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 overarching idea, according to activists, was to look at 911 data across the city and match the safety needs of specific neighborhoods with a range of 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.

A group of city residents had filed a lawsuit over the question, arguing that it was poorly phrased and fell short of providing the information voters would need to make an informed decision. 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 the Nov. 6 elections, a majority of the council members will be people of color for the first time ever.)

“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. Since crime, specifically homicides, has steadily increased over the past 18 months, critics of the defund movement have been equally quick to frame the numbers as both evidence of that and to further raise concerns that the situation could grow worse still.

But police departments have not been defunded in any significant way in that timeframe, and in some cases, police department budgets have increased. There is also no real correlation between a rise in crime and the defund movement.

This misinformation about the movement and its goals has widely spread amongst the public, and at both the local and national level. 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 Post on Nov. 4, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said that, “allowing this moniker, ‘defund the police,’ to ever get out there was not a good thing.”

To this very point, Montgomery says it often took only a minute or two in conversation with voters, explaining the initiative, for most people to understand and with the proposed plans. And every opportunity to educate in this capacity is worthwhile, activists believe.

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

Even with the hurdles, they point to the 44% of voters who did support the plan as evidence that the push for changing the way the city addresses public safety has had some effect. 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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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com