Kimberly Wooster gazed sadly into the fire she tended across the street from where police killed George Floyd, processing the reality that voters had rejected a proposal aimed at replacing the city's Police Department.

"I had hope," she said quietly. "I really did."

Hours before, the activists who had helped turn the intersection into an epicenter for the police reform movement warmed burritos in the fire. They discussed how the past 527 days had changed the dialogue on public safety as they awaited results from the polls.

But their hopes quickly faded into the darkness, as early returns showed a divided city voting against the change. The site of thunderous protests was dead quiet and Wooster sat alone by the flames.

She found herself nursing "bitter disappointment" a year and a half after Floyd's death ignited civil unrest across the nation and inspired her to become a medic there, at 38th and Chicago.

The defeat of question 2 at the polls was anticlimactic, Wooster acknowledged.

But she vowed to keep fighting. This was human nature, she said: People are hard-wired to fear change, with the other side conjuring fear.

"My grandmother used to say, 'Change takes courage,' " she said. "We've spent 250 years in this country teaching people that the unknown is worse than the known, and it's like we all forgot if it doesn't work, you can try something else."

Minnesotans had kept a close eye on election returns Tuesday night for the public safety question that was expected to have national consequences for the future of policing.

Opponents found the ballot measure vaguely worded and feared its success would embolden criminals amid already surging violence and a reduced police force.

"In the Black community they just want justice so bad for George Floyd and Daunte Wright, they're just looking over the consequences of what they're voting on," said community leader John Martin, who is Black and voted no. He added: "It was something pulled together real quick and people don't quite understand it."

But proponents of the measure had praised it as a holistic fix to a broken system.

"It's not just a policing question — it's a public safety question," said Kandace Montgomery, a founder of the progressive nonprofit Black Visions Collective, which organized voters to support question 2. "Police will still exist within the Department of Public Safety. A department of public safety is not less but much, much more."

Although Tuesday's ballot had plenty more on it — a mayoral and City Council elections, a question about the structure of city government and a question about rent control — it was clear that among most voters, the most important question was on the future of Minneapolis police.

In the Harrison neighborhood just west of downtown Minneapolis, two progressive organizers from Black Visions Collective arrived at a polling location at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and then, with cans of Red Bull in their coat pockets, started knocking on doors.

Jacob Potter, 25, of St. Paul, and Lexi Collins, 24, of Minneapolis, trudged down the sidewalk, aiming to knock on a couple hundred doors.

"I've had to clarify that this is about expanding public safety, not taking away safety from your neighborhood," Potter said. "Opponents use the phrase 'defund police.' We're not defunding community safety. We're adding more to it. And no matter win or lose, the work for us doesn't stop."

Collins walked up a steep flight of stairs. A white woman answered the door: Dee Straub, 48. Straub said she had already voted against Question 2 and feared increasing crime in her neighborhood. She was disgusted at past tragedies at the hands of Minneapolis police: Justine Damond and Floyd. And she said the police union needs to go away because it protects bad cops.

But ultimately, police make her feel safer.

"Why would you take a sledgehammer to something you can take and fix with a scalpel?" she said. "It doesn't make any sense. Why blow up the whole house when you need to make repairs?"

It was a feeling echoed by many in Twin Cities law enforcement.

Jai Hanson, a Bloomington police officer running for Hennepin County sheriff, believed Minneapolis was being used for a national experiment on policing.

"If you're going to have a guinea pig, you need to have it laid out what the alternative is going to be — and nobody has done that," Hanson said. With the ballot question's failure, he said: "People need to exhale. We dodged a bullet, literally, here. We need to get back to what the idea of reform looks like and how we can do that. We can make some strong changes when it comes to reform."

For Lisa Clemons, founder and director of the violence prevention organization A Mother's Love and a former Minneapolis police sergeant, the vote felt personal: She graduated from high school on the north side, and she patrolled the area as a cop. She opposed the ballot measure because she didn't believe it would help decrease homicides in that part of town.

"If they were listening to young Black people, especially those who are actually in the streets, running from bullets, they would hear a whole different story," she said about question 2 supporters. "Because that group of people, though they cannot stand the police, they are not naïve enough to say we don't need them."

But for those who most fervently believe Minneapolis policing is beyond repair, the relationship between police and citizens has frayed to the point that it is irreconcilable.

Many voters described feeling perplexed about how to decide.

"It's still a debate in my mind, and I don't think it's ready for the ballot," Courteney Ross, who was Floyd's girlfriend, said hours before the polls opened. "I've talked to many people who are back and forth on this."

Did she think the ballot measure, if enacted, could prevent another police killing like Floyd's?

"If I could say yes to that I would say vote yes, but I don't know," said Ross.

By the time the Associated Press had called the race at about 9 p.m., Marcia Howard, one of the main activists at George Floyd Square, had already decamped to her home a block away. She was not happy about the results.

She believes fundamental changes are needed, not patches to a broken system. Still, she put the vote in a larger historical perspective:

"We can't believe that everything hinges on this singular vote," she said. "The closeness of the vote is signaling to the powers that be that the city is on the cusp of the change that's going to be necessary to change the idea of policing in this city. … This one vote is simply that — one vote."

Staff writer Christina Saint Louis contributed to this report.