The political fight over whether to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new agency has opened up a rift in the Black community, with many longtime neighborhood activists saying their work has been hijacked by a "defund" movement driven by progressive organizations not rooted in the community.
A recent forum on public safety hosted by the Racial Justice Network, a grassroots civil rights organization, laid bare that rift, as well as the distaste among some participants for airing those disputes publicly.
Proponents of the charter amendment contend that this is their one shot at addressing policing issues in the city and getting rid of a racist police system. Opponents argue dismantling the police department with no clear plan is too much of a risk for the Black community that is already dealing with high levels of violent crime.
"[We] have never led one protest where we talked about defunding or abolishing the police," said Mel Reeves, a longtime civil rights activist and an editor for the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder newspaper. "We have always demanded that police be prosecuted and we demanded that they be held accountable."
D.A. Bullock of Reclaim the Block, a group that has pushed to cut police funding, objected to claims that their movement is not Black-led.
"Black people are not a monolith," said Bullock, who's Black. "I reject those people who try to split us apart based on differences of political opinion. We all care about our families and our safety, and we all want to try to find the best way to get there. We might disagree about the best way to get there."
In June 2020, amid a nationwide outcry for racial justice after George Floyd's murder by a white Minneapolis police officer, nine City Council members vowed to "end" the Police Department at a rally in Powderhorn Park. The event was hosted by Black Visions Collective, a Black-led racial justice nonprofit, and Reclaim the Block.
Many Black residents and longtime Minneapolis activists who oppose the amendment say those groups and the City Council rushed the process and failed to include communities of color who are the most affected by police violence. They also say that the rise in crime is partly a reaction to calls to defund and abolish the police.
"The civil rights movement lasted for about 13 years, and it was a marathon and not a sprint, and many of us have been patient, we've been consistent in fighting for these changes," said Nekima Levy Armstrong, civil rights attorney and founder of the Racial Justice Network, the forum host.
Levy Armstrong recently announced her opposition to Question 2 in a live Facebook video after hosting numerous public safety forums. She said she wanted to remain neutral for the sake of those debates in the community, but she said she's concerned about the uncertainty surrounding the charter amendment and its lack of research and community engagement.
A recent Star Tribune/KARE 11/MPR News/FRONTLINE poll found that 75% of likely Minneapolis Black voters oppose reducing the police force, compared with 51% of white voters. Meanwhile, half of white voters said they supported replacing the Police Department compared with 42% of Black voters.
During the three-hour-long virtual forum, supporters of the charter amendment said meaningful police reform would be achieved only with a charter change, urging the community to solve some of the violent crimes in their neighborhoods instead of relying on police who have historically overpoliced and underprotected communities of color.
"We have to be honest with ourselves and say we know for a fact that this current system is not supplying us with proper protection," said Bullock, a North Side resident, filmmaker and community organizer. "They have not kept us safe at high levels of staffing, at low levels of staffing, any levels in between."
Reeves said he believes some kind of urgent reform is needed and likes the idea of moving some duties away from armed officers to unarmed civilians but is nervous and skeptical about the proposed charter amendment.
"The ballot proposal as it stands does not quite address how exactly we're going to hold the police accountable when they misbehave, and they surely are going to misbehave more often than not," said Reeves, who is undecided but is "more of a yes than a no."
Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, who was one of eight activists who sued the city over its low police staffing, said the amendment doesn't address accountability and transparency issues and could cause more harm than good in Black communities that are grappling with a spike in gun violence.
Samuels was also part of a trio that sued the city, arguing an earlier version of the public safety ballot question was misleading.
"I'm not defending police officers. I'm not defending the nastiness that happens," said Samuels, who is against the charter change. "Right now for me is not the time to experiment because what I fear is that this is going to pass, and we're going to see so many Black people killed and shot because this answering yes does nothing for that."
But others say both choices are bad.
"I feel like I'm between a rock and a hard place because I think that both choices are horrible," said Titilayo Bediako of the Racial Justice Network, who came to the forum undecided but has recently decided to vote against the amendment. "I look at the history of the Minneapolis Police Department in relationship to Black people and it is appalling in terms of their murdering of Black boys and men, particularly. At the same time, you have a proposal by the City Council that is not well conceived."
Although the public safety question has driven a wedge into a community that has been both a target of police violence and other violent crimes, Black activists and leaders said they must find ways to reconcile and work together for racial equity on all fronts, including education, housing and public safety.
"If it ends up passing, we got work to do. If it does not pass we got work to do," said Teto Wilson, a north Minneapolis resident and a small-business owner who has appeared in campaign ads arguing against the police amendment. "The work should not stop; the work is not going to stop regardless of if it doesn't pass or pass."