Growing up as one of the few black people in rural Maine, Kandace Montgomery longed to escape.

Kids picked on her. She had no black teachers and learned little of African-American history. She struggled with whether to try to fit in or hide. She felt angry, even suicidal.

"People honestly, literally, had almost never seen a black person before in their life," Montgomery recalled. "I was like, 'Let me get out of here.' "

So she did — moving after college to Minneapolis, where she joined other young black organizers who have spent years protesting police brutality and calling for the defunding of the Police Department.

The 29-year-old Montgomery drew national exposure when she asked Mayor Jacob Frey whether he supported abolishing the police. The video of Frey saying no to Montgomery, and her dismissive response, went viral the day before a City Council majority backed defunding.

But Montgomery and her allies had long pushed those issues, well before the killing of George Floyd ignited public demands for reforming police here and around the country.

"People are seeing leaders who have been on the ground working and organizing and speaking for years," said Molly Glasgow, a member of MPD150, a group that advocates for defunding police.

As outrage swept the country over the 2014 police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Montgomery and other activists launched the Minneapolis chapter of Black Lives Matter. They led a large protest against police brutality that shut down part of the Mall of America, leading to the arrest of her and other activists.

A year later, they confronted police brutality on their own turf when police shot and killed 24-year-old Jamar Clark in north Minneapolis. Montgomery and other Black Lives Matter supporters led 18 days of protests outside Fourth Precinct police headquarters until authorities asked them to leave.

Within weeks, they shut down the megamall again with a massive demonstration. Clark's shooting, she said, showed "this violence and terror is real, this systemic racism and inequity is real, this economic inequity is real."

Montgomery later joined the Black Lives Matter Global Network as an organizer. From there, she was influenced by the mandate of activist Mary Hooks for black people to "be willing to be transformed in the service of the work." She learned, too, that it was OK to be unapologetically black.

Community solutions

Montgomery found a way out of the racial alienation of her childhood when someone stopped at her dorm room at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and told her about a class on grassroots community organizing.

"For the first time in college, there was this alternative to how I could live my life and how I could see my people," she said.

Montgomery became the first person in her family to graduate from college, with a degree in public health. TakeAction Minnesota, a liberal advocacy organization, hired her as an organizer and she fell in love with Minneapolis, especially its queer communities of color.

Montgomery and her allies formed Black Visions Collective in 2017 after the local Black Lives Matter chapter disbanded, with the goal of increasing the power of black people over the long term. It became clear to them that mere policing reforms would not be enough.

So the collective, which has 50 members, worked with Reclaim the Block to lobby the City Council to divert $1.1 million from the Police Department to community programs and a new Office of Violence Prevention in 2018. They faced a setback in December when Frey approved $8.2 million more for the police budget.

Advocates for defunding the police want the city to stop adding to the $193 million police budget and start shifting that money to social workers, public health specialists and other professionals who can handle public calls related to mental health, addiction and other social issues.

"There's just a little bit of fear of the unknown, and we have a responsibility to educate folks in our community ... that when we say abolish the police, what we are actually saying is find community-funded solutions that actually keep us safe," Montgomery said. "Fund life-affirming institutions and health and education and housing that actually mitigate the need for any type of harm to be inflicted."

Some have questioned how such an approach would guarantee public safety in cases of homicide, armed robbery and life-threatening crimes. Montgomery and other defunding advocates maintain their strategy will lead to a decrease in violent crime in the long run as more people's needs are met. And she said that having police does nothing to lower crime.

MPD150 said there may still be a need for a smaller group of public safety workers to focus on serious crimes. Asked if she agreed, Montgomery said: "We want community-led solutions to be able to respond with people who have professional skills and cultural competency to address all kinds of harm."

'Go home, Jacob!'

It's less likely that such views would have received serious consideration from the City Council if not for the international outcry that followed the video of officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck while two other cops held him down and another stood at the scene.

"Folks in a very decentralized way are mobilizing to the streets to demand justice," Montgomery said, comparing the Floyd response to the protests in the early days of Black Lives Matter. "Organizers have been clear on this forever, but the general public is more clear that we need to eradicate systemic racism and abolish the police, and that is what feels different now."

On June 6, nearly two weeks after Floyd's death, the Black Visions Collective led a march to Frey's northeast Minneapolis apartment. Montgomery had seen Frey voice empathy for African-Americans protesting injustice and footage of him sobbing at Floyd's memorial. Yet she was skeptical.

"We don't want no more police — is that clear?" she said to the crowd from a stage at the rally, while Frey stood on the ground below. "We don't want people with guns toting around in our community, shooting us down. Do you have an answer?" She asked Frey if he would commit to defunding the city police, yes or no.

Montgomery expected Frey to answer in the affirmative, since he had walked into a rally promoting their cause. When he responded that he wouldn't support abolishing the department, she retorted, "Get the f — out of here!" as the crowd erupted and demonstrators chanted "Go home, Jacob, go home!"

Some found the moment divisive. "I thought it was unfortunate," said City Council Member Andrea Jenkins. "I think we all have to come together as a community and think about how to solve our public safety [issues], and nobody is expendable. We can't throw people under the bus."

Jenkins said she's hearing from constituents worried that defunding police will make them less safe. But people recognize, she said, that the city needs to find another way to address some of the social issues that police deal with so they can focus on serious crime.

Montgomery said she's angry that Frey seems to prioritize developers and the city's wealthy and upper middle class over the poor and people of color. "I was channeling a righteous rage from those folks in the crowd who are sick and fed up of him thinking he can come up to us with his sob story about how he's feeling when people are literally mourning another death by the hands of the police," she said.

The day after her exchange with Frey, Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block hosted a rally in Powderhorn Park at which nine City Council Members pledged to "begin the process of ending" the Police Department. On stage, Montgomery acknowledged the human toll behind the movement.

"It shouldn't have taken so much death," she said, "to get us here."

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210