The emotional driver of the 2021 Minneapolis election will be disgust, I confidently predicted a year ago. Disgust with cruelly flawed policing. Disgust with stubborn racial bias. Disgust with a city government that seems to be good at just one thing — infighting.
Well, maybe two things. City Hall has also become awfully good at paying large financial settlements to victims of police abuse.
Today, I still think that disgust is astir in voters' hearts. But what has overtaken that sentiment for many voters is more politically potent. Fear of crime has spiked in 2021, and may be peaking just as voters cast their ballots.
The Truck Park bar shooting in St. Paul on Oct. 10 was a gut punch that sharpened a pain in the electorate that has been swelling all year. From a carjacking spree last winter to "bloody summer" headlines in June to the heartbreaking bystander deaths of children as summer waned, Minneapolitans have had ample reason to see crime not as someone else's problem, but their own.
Don't take a journalist's word for it, though. Hear the assessment of a former three-term City Council member and two-term Minneapolis mayor:
"Fear of crime is the biggest issue," Sharon Sayles Belton told me recently. "People are thinking, 'Shall I stay in the city? Shall I try to grow my business in the city? Can I rely on the Police Department to provide me with quality services, and to treat people without bias?' The way you answer those questions will dictate how you vote this year."
With City Question 2, voters will decide the future of the city's Police Department. The proposed charter amendment would replace the current department with a new Department of Public Safety.
But public safety and policing might as well be on every other line on the ballot. The issue has been that dominant in campaigns for city offices.
Sayles Belton knows well how fear of crime can distort city politics. She remembers how her supposedly liberal city fell for the mayoral candidacy of reactionary Police Federation leader Charlie Stenvig, not once but three times, after racial unrest jarred the city in 1966-68.
(The good-hearted progressive candidate who lost badly to Stenvig in 1971 was my book-writing partner W. Harry Davis. He often told a story about his election-night encouragement to tearful young campaign volunteer Sharon Sayles. Sayles Belton remembers his words, "Maybe someday you'll run for mayor," but says he spoke them to her earlier, when they met at her 1969 graduation from Central High School.)
Compare 1971 and 2021, and similarities in Americans' thinking about crime and policing aren't hard to see. Sayles Belton recalls "a divided nation" 50 years ago, as white backlash to the civil-rights gains of the 1960s gained steam. Get-tough policing of Black people "was condoned by a lot of people who were opposed to civil rights and integration. Law enforcement was seen as speaking on behalf of people on that side of the debate."
But Sayles Belton advised me not to take the half-century parallel too far — especially not in Minneapolis.
"Things are different now," she said. "The people advocating for the police are not coalesced around denying civil rights. Their position is more nuanced than that."
Take her own position on Question 2. Sayles Belton takes a back seat to no one in understanding that policing needs to change in her hometown. She was the mayor who led Minneapolis out of the "Murderapolis" years of the mid-1990s. She promoted a variety of strategies for community-based policing, which is the stated goal of many proponents of Question 2. Her initiatives showed good results before being undone by budget cuts and an insurgent policing ideology that "the community is a threat."
Yet she says she will vote no on Question 2.
"The people who put Question 2 on the ballot have a vision, but they don't have a plan," she explained. "If you want something to be effective, you sit down and work through the details about how you expect it to work."
That task involves creating new agreements with other law enforcement and social service agencies. It involves training and retraining a legion of first responders. It involves a huge component of public education, "so that the community knows what to call the police for." It involves a great deal of conversation about how to build bias-free multiracial communities.
Imposing a new governance structure on policing before that work is done risks adding chaos to an already fraught situation, she argues. The harm that would do would be felt most keenly by the city's Black community.
She has a message for the city's non-Black voters: "If you're voting for Question 2 because you think a community that's been marginalized by the police will be satisfied if you do, please think again. It's more important to the Black community in particular not just that we have police, but that we have good policing. I'm talking about police that know our community, that have connections to our institutions and our youth."
Fear of crime — and fear that a diminution of police strength will make crime worse — could well drive up "no" votes on Question 2 in this week's election. If the question fails, knee-jerk analysts are sure to claim that crime-rattled voters vindicated the cops.
But as Sayles Belton makes clear, plenty of "no" votes will be cast with the hope that the city's leaders hear and heed a more nuanced message:
"We want to solve crimes in our neighborhoods," she said. "But until we get back to having good relationships between law enforcement and the community, we're not going to solve these crimes. We can only do that if we get back to building trust."
No matter the outcome of Tuesday's election, she said, "it's crucial for the citizens of this city to be in dialogue with each other about the real problems that we face."