For Minneapolis City Council President Lisa Bender, every day is now a high-stakes juggling act.
When she and her colleagues took the stage at Powderhorn Park and promised to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department following George Floyd’s death, they captured the world’s attention.
Now, nearly three months later, some people are waiting for council members to fulfill their promise of ending a department that disproportionately uses force on Black residents. Others are urging them to keep police during an especially violent summer. This, on top of a homelessness crisis spurring encampments, and yet another night of unrest last week that highlighted the fragility of the city’s relationship with residents.
“I think we need to proceed with enormous humility as people who are in office at a time of extraordinary pain in our community,” Bender said. “We’re balancing that with the need to respond in a way that meets the moment.”
To succeed, they’ll need to win over residents and activists who say they’ve heard promises for change too many times in the past — only to see them fail.
Inside her ward, people’s views on policing and the council vary, and they’re often nuanced.
John Meegan, who owns Top Shelf, which creates custom suits and shirts, said he wants the Police Department to change and racial profiling to end. He also wants violent crime to stop rising. Customers have told him they’re scared to come to the city.
“I don’t know what the city can do about it,” he said, “but, again, I’ve seen no action, no activity and no addressing of issues like that.”
Nothing has been the same since Memorial Day, when Minneapolis police killed Floyd, prompting protests around the world.
Bender was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with her two children and learned about his death in a text message and a voice mail from other city officials.
When fires and looting began in Minneapolis, she and her children paddled frantically against the wind for a full day, she recalled. They made it back four days after Floyd’s death, and the days that followed were a flurry of activity.
When they slowed slightly, Bender and eight of her colleagues gathered in Powderhorn Park and made a bold promise to end the Minneapolis Police Department. While they acknowledged they didn’t have all the answers about what a “police-free future” would look like, they promised to spend a year getting feedback. Their pledge was at odds with the policies backed by Mayor Jacob Frey, who favors changing the department instead of abolishing it.
While their stances differ, Frey said he has appreciated his relationship with Bender and their constant communication.
Looking back, Bender also describes the Powderhorn Park pledge, for her, as a compromise. Bender said she has had a long relationship with Reclaim the Block and the Black Visions Collective, which hosted the event. She said she declined to commit to cutting a specific amount from the police budget but agreed with the final pledge.
“Part of the thing that was difficult for me was having been out of town in those early days, I wasn’t here ... wasn’t doing the things I would normally do,” she said, adding: “I think we were all working to respond to the moment, and the pain and anger in our community.”
Shortly afterward, Bender appeared on CNN. She said the department wasn’t working for everyone, and that defaulting to relying on police for emergencies “comes from a place of privilege.”
“Of course, I wish I had said it differently now,” Bender said. “But in Minneapolis, it is a privilege to feel like you can call 911, and it shouldn’t be. Everyone should feel safe.”
Since Floyd’s death, she has spoken repeatedly about privilege and the need for white residents like her to work to end racism.
When people questioned the city’s decision to release video of a man’s suicide on Nicollet Mall this week, Bender tried to strike a middle ground. She sympathized with the desire to quell unrest amid false rumors that the man, a homicide suspect, was killed by police. But she said she supported the decision to remove the video from the city’s social media channels, noting that watching a man kill himself could also be traumatic.
‘We all need to do more’
A couple weeks after the announcement in the park, five council members unveiled a plan that would allow the city to replace the Minneapolis Police Department. Instead, it would have a new community safety department, in which police would be optional.
Bender joined as an author, saying she wanted to “signal my support” for her colleagues’ work and that getting it quickly through procedural hurdles “would need leadership.”
The council had just under two months to get its plan on the November ballot. Some praised it for quickly working to fulfill the pledge, while others accused it of violating the promise to spend a year talking to residents.
Bender’s office was flooded with messages from people living both inside and outside of her ward, which includes the neighborhoods of East Harriet, ECCO, Lowry Hill East, South Uptown and Whittier.
Bender said she prioritized calls from her constituents while trusting her colleagues to represent their wards.
“I was elected by Ward 10,” she said. “I wasn’t elected by the city.”
Nekima Levy Armstrong, founder of the Racial Justice Network, said she didn’t feel Bender had done enough after previous police killings. Instead, she feels Bender placed a greater priority on bike lanes and “issues geared toward white people.”
“It hasn’t been the area of focus and so, for her as a white woman to stand in Powderhorn Park and make the declaration that she’s going to disband the police without any real engagement with the Black community or the broader group of folks across the community, it’s just unacceptable and unconscionable, and it is very poor leadership.”
Bender said she has tried to push for equity in housing and transportation, top issues raised by her constituents. She said she hopes the city will boost its outreach efforts as police reform discussions continue.
“We all need to do more to make sure that our Police Department is functioning in a manner that keeps our community safe and doesn’t continue to cause harm,” she said. “We should have done more to prevent George Floyd’s death, all of us, every single person at City Hall and, frankly, our whole Minneapolis community. We need to move forward in a way that acknowledges that we can’t go back to normal.”
Danny Schwartzman, who owns the Common Roots Café, said he appreciates Bender’s willingness to “confront the issues in a constructive way.” Changing the Police Department is a complicated issue, he said, and some of the solutions also require work from other government entities.
“I think, for me, just because we don’t have a plan that’s ready to roll out doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be making progress,” Schwartzman said. “The status quo isn’t working.”
Bender and other council members promised to keep working on police issues, aiming to get a question on the 2021 ballot. As the months pass, many will watch to see if the council’s views shift.
In a letter to the Charter Commission this month, Bender and some of her colleagues said they “envision a public safety system that includes law enforcement.”
Bender said she still envisions a future without police but doesn’t see that happening quickly.
“To me that isn’t by May or June, and I never meant that it was,” Bender said. “And I never said that it was.”