Since 46-year-old George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, people across the nation have been reminded of how the outsized power of police not only threatens communal well-being, but also can take individual lives. Now, as communities both in Minneapolis and nationwide erupt in outrage, Minneapolis-based organizers are calling on the public to join them in demanding that the city defund the police.
On Friday, the Black Visions Collective (BLVC), a Minneapolis-based grassroots organization, released a petition demanding that the Minneapolis City Council defund the police. The petition includes demands to never again vote to increase police funding, to cut $45 million from the Minneapolis Police Department budget, to protect and expand current investment in community health, and to cease police violence on current Minnesota community members as they protest in the wake of Floyd’s murder. These demands are quickly gaining traction, but they serve as extensions of work being done by Minnesota organizers long before this week.
Last fall, community members and organizers from groups like BLVC and Reclaim the Block offered testimonies to the city council on the need to divest from the police and reinvest in anti-violence programs, education, health care, and infrastructure like housing. Their advocacy was particularly crucial given that Frey’s initial budget proposal sought to raise the Minneapolis Police Department’s budget by $8.2 million and increase their capacity by hiring 14 new officers.
In the face of public opposition, Frey and the city council amended their proposal, eventually shifting the funding for new hires toward training an additional class of police cadets. Additionally, the finalized budget allocated $2.7 million to violence prevention programs like Group Violence Initiative (GVI), a program which fields calls from gang members and allows well-respected community leaders to de-escalate and resolve tensions in real time without calling upon police. GVI launched in 2017 and has shown success. Still, the budget ultimately allocates $193 million to the MPD, an amount that organizers argue is too high.
“Every penny invested in violence prevention is desperately needed in our city,” said Kandace Montgomery of BLVC and Reclaim the Block in a December press release. “But we’re tired of pennies & lip service. It’s time to move real dollars to the things that keep us safe.”
In addition to violence prevention services, Oluchi Omeoga, an organizer with BLVC, says ensuring community safety can only be achieved by those rooted within the community itself—something that is impossible with the Minneapolis Police Department, where 80% of officers do not live in the city of Minneapolis.
“What’s frustrating to me is that these are people that come from predominantly white suburban cities who are policing communities that are diverse with Black and brown folks and queer and trans folks,” said Omeoga. “And that’s the first issue: How do we actually have communities that lead safety, when we talk about community safety?”
Omeoga also cited the necessity of developing strategies to resolve conflict on an interpersonal level before situations devolve into violence. Ultimately, however, Omeoga emphasized that communities can no longer accept the system as it is simply because an alternative seems unfathomable.
“You don’t have to know the solution to know that a problem exists,” they said.
Disproportionate spending on police has long been a feature of Minneapolis’ city budgets. In 2017, the city spent $408 per capita on police. Meanwhile, for every dollar spent on police, only 42 cents were spent on infrastructure, 4 cents on workforce development programs, and 1 cent on youth violence prevention. That investment, as evidenced by findings in a Center for Popular Democracy report, has been a costly one. Between 2011 and 2014, the city has paid out $9.3 million in police misconduct lawsuits.
That sharp contrast between investment in law enforcement and the social services that community members have been calling for are visible on Minnehaha Avenue, the site of Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct that was set ablaze Thursday night.
“The Third Precinct is literally a block away from where there’s a homeless or houseless encampment of folks that are experiencing houselessness,” said Omeoga, “And that stark difference of this literal symbol that they built with taxpayer money—that also had to shut down schools while they were building—is in contrast to affordable housing, which Mayor Frey touts is his number one priority.”
Minneapolis isn’t alone in its heavy funding for police, and local organizers are joined by a growing wave of calls to defund police departments across the country. Those calls can come into sharper focus during flashpoint moments of police brutality, as organizers recognize that the problem lies not with just individual bad actors but within the system of policing as a whole, and accordingly seek to shrink the power of law enforcement.
According to the 2017 report from the Center for Popular Democracy, the U.S. spends $100 billion annually on policing, and police spending comprises the majority of some city and county budgets. This year, new budget proposals in New York City and Los Angeles garnered widespread criticism as officials disproportionately slashed funding for social service programs while making only minimal cuts to money allocated to the police. New York’s proposal reduced the city’s education budget by over $640 million while allocating $5.6 billion to the NYPD, reducing police spending by only $23 million. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed $47 million in additional funds for LAPD overtime while investments in housing and job programs were cut by over 9% and 8%, respectively.
Concerns about police spending are particularly acute right now as city and county revenues shrink due to the COVID-19 pandemic, offering community members who are continuing to call for a reduction in Minneapolis Police Department’s power a window of opportunity. While Minneapolis’ city budget was finalized last December, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought an unexpected hit to the city’s revenue with a projected shortfall of between $100 and $200 million. As such, Frey will be reassessing the city’s spending and presenting a revised budget proposal to the city council on June 12. City staff and members of the public will have an opportunity to share comments and weigh in later on in the month.
While the widespread outcry both in and around Minneapolis following Floyd’s murder will likely bring in a wave of new support for an overhaul of the police budget, organizers should anticipate pushback from some city leadership, particularly police unions. As reported by the Star Tribune, Minneapolis Police Federation President Lt. Bob Kroll signed onto a letter to city officials requesting that police and firefighters receive a substantial portion of the federal funding coming in from the CARES Act. Kroll has garnered headlines for his fervent support of Trump, his union’s highly controversial “warrior-style” police training, and recent comments that he made this week in calling on the public to not “rush to judgement and immediately condemn our officers.”
Still, Minneapolis-based organizers like Omeoga are finding seeds of hope in the fact that their messages are resonating with the public and are pushing people even beyond Minneapolis to envision communities without policing as opposed to just reform-based strategies, like only demanding that police be prosecuted.
“Knowing that the messaging that we’re having is actually very abolitionist in practice, even though people might not call themselves abolitionists—what they’re calling for are very radical changes that shift society,” said Omeoga. “Not asking for this small piece of accountability, but understanding that this small piece of accountability will not actually change anything that’s going to happen after that accountability is done. So, what can we actually do to prevent this from happening in the future?”
The authors of the Center for Popular Democracy’s report describe budgets as “moral documents” in that they serve as reflections of “what—and whom—our cities, counties, states and country deem worthy of investment.” In a press conference about Floyd’s murder on Thursday, May 28, Frey remarked that the anger and sadness that Minneapolis’ Black community has been expressing in the wake of Floyd’s death is justified.
“While not from life experience, that sadness must also be understood by our non-Black communities,” said Frey. “To ignore it, to toss it out would be to ignore the values we all claim to have that are all the more important during a time of crisis.”
In the upcoming weeks, Frey will be tasked with deciding the degree to which those purported values will be expressed or thwarted through the power of the budget.