The spotlight fixed on Minneapolis since the end of May of last year has yet to retreat. The world watched as Minneapolis became a type of war zone overnight, and as the city council pledged to defund the police in front of a crowd of protestors, only to be followed by a whole lot of nothing. The world watched as Minnesota suffered another tragedy when a Brooklyn Park police officer murdered Daunte Wright by “accidentally” shooting her gun rather than her taser, and continued to watch throughout the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis Police Officer who killed George Floyd.
Minneapolis, its landscape, and its people, have changed significantly since Floyd’s murder, and it is quite likely that the city won’t ever return to the ways it was before May 2020.
Minneapolis Police Department’s Historic Brutality and All Its Failed Reforms
2020 was not the first time that Minneapolis saw a gross overuse of brute force against another human being by a police officer, and it was certainly not the first time that its residents have called for change.
The Minneapolis Police Department has had a long history of racist tendencies coupled with misogyny, homophobia and sexism, manifesting in gross overuse of violence in Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, overpolicing sex work, raiding gay bars and clubs, enforcing sodomy laws and so much more.
Minneapolis saw its first protest in response to police racism in the 60s, after decades of redlining, employment discrimination, and police brutality. In July of 1967, Minneapolis saw the North side go up in flames–riots arose, the National Guard was deployed and community members were mass arrested; over fifty years later nearly the same thing occurred near the third and fifth precincts.
Very little has really changed in Minneapolis when it comes to police reform: the first call for police reform occurred in the 60s, and it worked— that is until the former head of the police union became the mayor and made MPD the only ones who are able to investigate MPD– which was quickly followed by nearly 20 years of the department’s “code of silence,” whereby officers were not required to report acts of violence committed by fellow MPD officers.
MPD adopted body cameras in 2014, racial bias training was required the following year, and in 2016 a shift in guidelines emphasized “deescalation.” However, none of this was evidently useful in either reducing racial bias or police violence, and it clearly did not prevent the death of Floyd or others who fell victim to police brutality.
Since Floyd’s killing, a number of other reforms have been put in place: body cameras are to be left on during private conversations, no-knock warrants are limited, chokeholds have been banned, officers must provide a required explanation after drawing a weapon, and more. In all reality, however, none of these internal reforms have solved the issue of police brutality and, ultimately, racial bias rooted in the system of policing.
A Broken Record: Dismantling and Defunding the Police
Shortly after Floyd’s murder, the city council pledged to dismantle and defund the police, and the legislation put forth recommended “replacing the Minneapolis Police Department with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention,” but did not entirely ban a militarized police force. While it was intended to be veto-proof, this legislation was blocked by the city commissioner and did not ultimately make it to Minneapolis residents.
Instead, over six months after having pledged to defund the police, the city council proposed new legislation in January, this time requiring a police force (yes, defeating the purpose entirely).
Since Floyd’s murder, only $8 million of MPD’s $170 million budget have been redirected. However, many of those funds have gone to the Office of Violence Prevention, which has been able to expand various social programs focused on anti-violence. Most notably, perhaps, is the program “modeled after Cure Violence, a national violence-intervention initiative;” this program would consist of about 100 people (some former gang members) who would work to de-escalate disputes that otherwise might have led to violence.
However, the MPD continues to have a budget of over $100 million, allowing for an armed and militarized police force that has clearly not learnt its lesson. Even following Floyd’s murder the Department has continued to use excessive force: examples include punching a Black teenager, blaming community members for antagonizing officiers who respond with violence, disputes with a homeless encampment that led to the use of pepper spray and physical violence, and more.
If anything, Minneapolis “has quickly transformed itself into a 21st-century police state,” according to coverage by The Guardian, with the Hennepin County Government surrounded by barbed wire, chain-link fencing and concrete barriers, windows still boarded up, halted efforts at reducing the size of the police force. Sheila Nezhad, policy organizer for the group Reclaim the Block, was quoted saying, “Every morning I’m woken up by helicopters and surveillance planes that are so loud… they spent $1 million on a barbed wire fence downtown to protect empty government buildings.”
Mayor Jacob Frey continues to have a dual relationship with the words “dismantle the police”: he wants to put an end to minor traffic infractions, but asks the City Council for more officers, more money for MPD, and even went so far as to call on “state and federal governments to send troops and investigators to help police the city.”
It is obvious based on MPD’s history that reform does not do the job, despite all the tired efforts by the Mayor to push that narrative.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Minneapolis and Violent Crime
Other community-led organizations have poured their efforts into creating alternatives to armed police forces, while reiterating that completely abolishing the police is not their intention. Groups such as the citizen-led coalition Yes 4 Minneapolis look to hand off mental health interventions and minor violations to other professionals, leaving the police to take care of more violent crime.
By moving nonviolent responsibilities away from the police force, we decriminalize mental health, and make space for the police to investigate and solve violent crime (as opposed to focusing on minor traffic infractions).
However, for every pro-dismantlement Minneapolis resident, there is someone who fears the saying “defund the police.”
Many residents’ fears in response to the call for abolition of the police department is due to the rising crime rate in Minneapolis–while Minneapolis as a whole saw a 25% rise in violence crime over the past year, the areas surrounding George Floyd Square shot up 66% in the past year as a result of the pandemic, economic consequences, and anger stemming from the systemic racism found in layers throughout the city.
The intersection where George Floyd was murdered at the hands of former, and now convicted Minneapolis Police Officer, since labeled “George Floyd Square,” has seen such a bad increase in crime that food delivery workers often refuse to go there. The square is a “one-block experiment,” says P.J. Hill, leader of Worldwide Outreach for Christ, a church located at the same corner, for a world without police.
The one-block experiment, now an autonomous zone referred to as “the free state of George Floyd,” is, so far, failing: gun shootouts with children as victims of the crossfire, gang violence on the rise after a steady decline, the sounds of gunshots and helicopters are constant and the area has seen a rise in homicides, robberies, rapes and assaults,
Still, there is no conclusive evidence that over-policing leads to a decrease in violent crime, as opposed to popular belief that more cops equal more safety (thanks mostly to mass incarceration and over policing during the War on Drugs in the 1990s)
The Changing Nature of Minneapolis Street Art
Despite all the seemingly negative changes, or, rather, lack of changes, Minneapolis in many respects remains the lively city it always has been. For years, buildings’ walls have been adorned with bright paint; the most popular street mural, The Times They Are A-Changin’ by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra, covers 160 feet wide and 5 stories of a building in downtown Minneapolis and is a mix of “hypnotic kaleidoscope background” in vibrant purples, reds and blues and portraits of Bob Dylan throughout different eras of his career.
So when Minneapolis residents suddenly found their city boarded up with stark wooden paneling, it obviously felt wrong in a city that’s always been so full of color. Storefronts that initially boarded up their windows as a result of last summer’s protests have yet to be removed; instead, they’ve been turned into what seems like a now-permanent fixture of the city through communal decorations. These wooden boards quickly became pieces of artwork around the city–different representations of the ways members of the community showed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Painted images of young Black women with Maya Angelou quotes about peace and love, different ways of expressing the necessity for complete Black liberation, Floyd’s face and name, are all found throughout the city in remembrance of the life lost.
Moreover, “ACAB,” and “BLM,” alongside different ways of saying “defund MPD” are now permanently Sharpied into stop light poles, telephone poles, and street lamps. And while there was an attempt last summer to clear these spaces of those words, they’ve been written and rewritten over and over, to the point where there is no longer an attempt to rid Minneapolis of those, seemingly shared, sentiments.
There are few areas one can name where the painted wooden panels have been taken down: making what was initially understood as a temporary solution to the violence that erupted as a result of police brutality, permanent.
A mix of emotions runs through the city: a sense of frustration with the lack of change in the public safety sector, growing anger with the overt performative activism the city has witnessed in the past year, white guilt, but there is also an overarching sense of community. George Floyd Square continues to see visitors from near and far every day. The Minneapolis community has made the intersection of 38th and Chicago Avenue a place for community: a space for racial healing, a space to memorialize Floyd, and a space to pay tribute to Black lives, those lost and those still fighting for justice.
Minneapolis will be forever changed because of George Floyd, and we can only hope that the momentum that followed immediately after his death remains until actual change is enacted.