Early in the afternoon of Sunday, June 7th, nine members of the Minneapolis City Council appeared together on a stage in Powderhorn Park, masked and socially distanced. Demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd had been unfurling for nearly two weeks, and though the police commissioner had fired all four of the officers present during his death, and though the district attorney had indicted the police officer Derek Chauvin for murder, the protests had only grown more urgent. The Powderhorn Park rally had been organized by two local activist groups, the Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block, and their slogan was written on a banner at the foot of the stage: “Defund the police.” They had also been negotiating with the members of the city council, who control the budget of the Minneapolis police, to get them to commit to defunding as a policy. Now the nine council members, a veto-proof majority, had come to the activists’ event to say that they wanted what the activists and the people at the protests wanted. “Our commitment,” Lisa Bender, the council’s president and a former city planner, said, “is to end policing as we know it.”
Bender’s words did not reflect as specific a program as the activists might have wanted. To “abolish” the police, as the Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison said he favored, was not exactly the same as “defunding” it, which could mean anything from a dramatic to a slight change to its budget. To “end policing as we know it” was vaguer still; it could mean significant defunding or else some pilot programs and a rebranding. Taken together, though, the council members’ words did suggest radical intent. “This is brave,” the executive director of the Black Visions Collective, Kandace Montgomery, said.
Watching the event from lockdown, streaming a bright Midwestern afternoon into a gray home office, I couldn’t help but be interested in how the Minneapolis City Council had reached this point, and what would happen next. Black Lives Matter has been the most effective protest movement in half a century, at least when it comes to shifting public opinion. Four years ago, roughly forty per cent of Americans said that they supported the movement. Now that number is close to seventy per cent, which means that hundreds of millions of Americans, many of them white and moderate or conservative, have changed their points of view. Will that consensus be diverted into itineraries of private consciousness-changing—of antiracist book clubs, and corporate awareness seminars, and conversations between parents and children—or will it lead to the policy change that has become the rallying cry of protesters around the country: to defund the police? This is an idea that, until recently, even the most progressive Democrats have generally dismissed. Bernie Sanders has said he does not support it. Karen Bass, the progressive congresswoman from California who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, has said, of “defund the police,” “that’s probably one of the worst slogans ever.” In Minneapolis, here were nine people willing to edge a bit further along the diving board, and to promise a specific change. It raised some obvious questions. Why them? And what did this commitment actually mean? [Continue reading…]